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Most Influential Female Musicians: 30 Trailblazing Women
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Most Influential Female Musicians: 30 Trailblazing Women

From searingly honest songwriters to rock icons that put men in their place, the most influential female musicians opened doors for change.

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Throughout music history, many talented women have written, sung or danced their way to fame. Blazing trails for others to follow, these artists have established powerful legacies that secure their places among the most influential female musicians of all time.

Often heralded as the “Queen” of their respective genres, these 30 women have changed the face of music forever.

Most Influential Female Musicians: 30 Trailblazing Women

30: Judee Sill (1944-1979)

Judee Sill’s career was tragically cut short by a drug overdose, but she managed to create truly out-of-this-world music while she was on Earth. Influenced heavily by Bach, her sound was an eclectic mix of classical, country, gospel, and folk music. The two albums she released during her lifetime, Judee Sill and Heart Food, both tackled Christian themes of rapture and redemption, but Sill blended them with ideas of romantic love and nature, as on Down Where The Valleys Are Low. A unique proposition in the music industry, Sill’s music is truly unlike anything heard before or since. When you listen to her albums, you’re listening to the record of a turbulent life that was almost saved by art.

Must hear: Down Where The Valleys Are Low

29: Nancy Wilson (1954-)

As one of the best guitarists in the industry, Heart’s Nancy Wilson helped pave the way for female rockers in the mainstream, showing the world that shredding isn’t only for men. An accomplished rhythm guitarist who can switch to lead when she needs to, Wilson successfully expanded her career beyond Heart and has composed soundtracks for an array of movies, including Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire. In return, Heart received a shout-out in the 2019 big-screen adaptation of Captain Marvel: the group’s hit 1976 single Crazy On You – featuring an intricate intro that showcases Wilson’s talent for groove and melody – appeared in the soundtrack, while the film’s protagonist, Carol Danvers, sported a Heart T-shirt after winning all her battles.

Must hear: Crazy On You

28: Ann Wilson (1950-)

With a powerful voice that takes on the highest of notes with ease, Nancy’s sister Ann became known as the “female Robert Plant” in the 70s. Though a great accolade, she needed no comparison, and has established herself as one of the most influential female musicians in her own right. Synonymous with female empowerment, Wilson’s voice is a dominant presence in the male-dominated hard rock scene, not least on such songs as Barracuda, which has become a Hollywood go-to for scenes in which women are under attack (see Shrek The Third and Birds Of Prey).

Must hear: Barracuda

27: Chrissie Hynde (1951-)

Despite being invented by a woman (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, since you’re asking), rock’n’roll has always been a male-dominated genre. Chrissie Hynde, however, has been at the forefront of the genre since the late 70s with Pretenders, the new wave veterans she has led through triumph and tragedy. Extending her reach into pop culture, she also helped compose Smelly Cat, the signature song of Friends character Phoebe Buffay. Hynde’s list of collaborators goes from Sheryl Crow (If It Makes You Happy) to Bruce Willis (in the Rugrats Go Wild film), and she’s also been a long-time supporter of animal rights; raising funds for PETA, along with other animal charities, Hynde even owned a vegan restaurant for a while. The best Pretenders songs (Don’t Get Me Wrong, Brass In Pocket) are more than enough to secure her place among the most influential female musicians, but Hynde’s commitment to standing up for what she believes in proves she is a class act through and through.

Must hear: Brass In Pocket

26: Enya (1961-)

With a voice that evokes mystical lands, Enya started out performing with her family’s Celtic band, which taught her about harmonies and how to use her voice to create texture. By layering multiple vocal tracks and synthesiser soundscapes, Enya created vivid imagery with her songs, not least on her breakthrough album, 1988’s Watermark. Shrouding her Celtic origins with Gregorian chants, the album’s old-world charm drew listeners in while establishing the sound she would go on to develop on subsequent records, including The Memory Of Trees and the eerily prescient A Day Without Rain.

Must hear: Orinoco Flow

25: Sheila E (1957-)

Breaking gender norms within the music industry, Sheila Escovedo has made a name for herself as a percussionist, singer, songwriter and producer. Born into a musical family (her father, Pete, and uncle Coke performed percussion in Carlos Santana’s band), Sheila E began playing as a child and, by the age of 20, had performed with Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye. In 1984, she sang backing vocals on the Prince B-side Erotic City, leading the Purple Rain star to help her fashion a solo career and, eventually, hire her as his drummer. In the years since, Escovedo has collaborated with everyone from Ringo Starr to Gloria Estefan and Beyoncé. Recently, she launched a non-profit program, Elevate Oakland, to promote art in the public schools of Oakland, California, and help create opportunities for inner-city youth.

Must hear: The Glamorous Life

24: Björk (1965-)

Björk’s enigmatic music career began aged 11, when she recorded her first album. During her teenage years, she performed with different Icelandic groups, practising an array of musical styles, including punk and jazz. Moving to London, she begin her official solo career with the 1993 album Debut, which incorporated techno, dance and Bollywood into a unique sound that made her stand out from the Britpop groups then gaining traction in the UK. Throughout her career, Björk has constantly experimented with sound, visuals and even technology: her 2011 album, Biophilia, was a multimedia “app album” that sought to merge nature and music. Having brought the avant-garde into the mainstream, Björk has become one of the most influential female musicians in pop.

Must hear: It’s Oh So Quiet

23: Donna Summer (1948-2012)

While touring Europe with the countercultural musical Hair, Donna Summer worked on the side as a studio backing singer. Forming a partnership with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, they created the groundbreaking 17-minute disco hit Love To Love You Baby, whose suggestive moans stirred major controversy even as the song went gold in 1975. Not always comfortable with the “First Lady Of Love” title she was given, Summer overcame mental-health issues and scored international hits in every year from 1975 to 1984 with trademark songs that moved from slow, ballad-like intros into uptempo dance territory. Going on to influence an array of artists, among them New Order (whose Blue Monday was inspired by Summer’s 1979 cut Our Love) and Selena Quintanilla, Summer’s place among the most influential female singers of all time is assured.

Must hear: Love To Love You Baby

22: Christine McVie (1943-)

This Fleetwood Mac songstress has created some of the catchiest hooks in music history. Having cut her teeth playing blues piano before joining Fleetwood Mac, McVie merged her blues roots with Lindsay Buckingham’s pop production to create the standout Rumours singles You Make Loving Fun and Don’t Stop. A decade later, in 1987, she continued to ensure the group’s presence on the charts thanks to the standout Tango In The Night songs Everywhere and Little Lies, the latter’s magnetic hook and electronic instrumentation giving Fleetwood Mac their last Top 5 Billboard hit.

Must hear: Little Lies

21: Tori Amos (1963-)

One of the most fascinating singer-songwriters of her generation, Amos was a piano prodigy who earned a scholarship to the Peabody Institute aged just five. She also has a form of synaesthesia which causes her to see sounds as images of light. Her career breakthrough came in the 90s with the uncompromising trio of albums Little Earthquakes, Under The Pink and Boys For Pele, and she has continued to develop her unique artistic vision with experimental works such as The Beekeeper and American Doll Posse. As a mark of her legacy as one of the most influential female musicians of any era, Amos was ahead of her time in tackling “taboo” subjects such as grief and trauma abuse so openly in her music – something today’s artists do without fear of recrimination.

Must hear: Winter

20: Kylie Minogue (1968-)

You know an artist has secured a lasting place in history when they’ve become mononymous. While she found stardom in the late 80s, on the Australian soap opera Neighbours, Kylie has forged a decades-spanning career in music, and currently shows no signs of stopping. Like most great artists, she has gone through many periods of stylistic and musical reinvention, from recording sugary pop confections to dropping cutting-edge dancefloor-detonators. With collaborators as varied as Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds (Where The Wild Roses Grow) and Enrique Iglesias (Beautiful), and career landmarks such as the decade-defining Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, the “Princess Of Pop” is one of the best-selling Australian artists of all time, and a beloved icon in all corners of the globe.

Must hear: Can’t Get You Out Of My Head

19: Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

Having a successful gospel singer, Cissy Houston, as a mother, Dionne Warwick as a cousin and Aretha Franklin as a godmother, it was only natural that Whitney Houston would come into her own as a vocalist. After scoring a worldwide hit with the 1987 single I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Houston’s powerful voice helped her move beyond her poppy dance beginning into jazz and R&B. Her first film role, in the 1992 blockbuster The Bodyguard, saw her so wholly own Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, most people don’t even know it is a cover version. There were many facets to Houston’s career, but she will always be loved for having an incredible voice that could turn any song into a hit.

Must hear: I Will Always Love You

18: Kate Bush (1958)

Emerging from the English countryside at the young age of 19, Kate Bush already knew how to elevate her music to the level of performance art. Her debut single, Wuthering Heights, took inspiration from Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name, with Bush channelling the 250-page novel’s psychological drama into a four-minute pop masterpiece, making her the first female artist to hit the UK No.1 spot with an entirely self-penned song. From her debut album, The Kick Inside, through to landmark works such as Hounds Of Love and her long-awaited comeback, Aerial, Bush went far beyond the strictures of pop music, blazing a trail for sonic innovation, enigmatic lyrics and groundbreaking visuals.

Must hear: Wuthering Heights

17: Hayley Williams (1988-)

An emo figurehead since the early 2000s, Hayley Williams is one of the most influential female musicians in the genre. Both with the band Paramore and in her solo endeavours, she has cut a path for others to follow, from WILLOW to Olivia Rodrigo, all while demonstrating the power of female emotion. From Paramore’s early rock albums to the group’s more recent pop-infused material and her own solo work, Williams has used anger to fuel her passionate vocals, successfully traversing the music industry in a way that is both inspirational and empowering.

Must hear: Still Into You

16: Roberta Flack (1937-)

From romance to heartbreak, Roberta Flack has used her iconic voice to express the deepest of emotions. At just 15, her virtuosic classical piano skills earned her a full scholarship to Howard University, making her one of the youngest students to ever attend the institution. Eventually switching majors from piano to vocal performance, she began making money by accompanying opera singers on piano, but her vocal coach urged her to give pop music a try. In 1973, Flack’s version of Killing Me Softly With His Song spent five weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, underscoring the sophisticated sound her classical grounding brought to pop and soul music. “As a woman of colour, I, like so many others, had to do ten times as much,” Flack told Dig!. As one of the most influential female musicians of her era, she accomplished even more.

Must hear: Killing Me Softly With His Song

15: Tracy Chapman (1964-)

In the synth-pop landscape of the 80s, an organic singer-songwriter blossomed with her self-titled debut album, Tracy Chapman. In June 1988, just two months after the album’s release, a self-conscious Chapman wielded her acoustic guitar on stage at Wembley Stadium, a global audience looking on as she shared the bill with Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and many others in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Performing her signature song, Fast Car, the hypnotic riff, honesty in her voice and hardship discussed in the lyrics offered a refreshing realism that brought her overnight fame and which continues to resonate. Chapman’s debut album went on to win three Grammys and became one of the first albums by female musician to sell more than ten million copies.

Must hear: Fast Car

14: Lizzo (1988-)

Responsible for one of the best songs of 2021 (Rumors, featuring Cardi B), Lizzo’s many talents – as a singer, songwriter, rapper, actress and even a classically trained flautist – combine to make her the quintessential entertainer. Her conversational approach to songwriting makes her music feel not only relatable, but like you’re living her experiences with her. Changing the music industry from the inside out, Lizzo is continuing the legacy of Chaka Khan, Missy Elliott and others who have before her, with music and performances that celebrate diversity of race, sexuality and body types. For any one of these reasons alone, she would be one of the most influential female musicians of the modern era. Taken together, they make her nothing short of an inspiration.

Must hear: Juice

13: Carole King (1942-)

Carole King’s music has soundtracked many people’s lives. As well as co-writing such 60s hits as The Loco-Motion (for Little Eva, later repopularised by Kylie Minogue), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and Up On the Roof (The Drifters) with her ex-husband, Gerry Goffin, King’s solo work defined the shift from 60s pop to the confessional singer-songwriter era of the early 70s. One of the greatest break-up albums of all time, her 1971 debut, Tapestry, propelled her to the top of the charts in her own right. Speaking to listeners with all the intimacy of a close friend, songs such as I Feel The Earth Move and It’s Too Late have ensured that the Carole King songbook stands the test of time. A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, an activist for climate change and a role model for songwriters everywhere, King remains one of the most influential female musicians to emerge from the West Coast singer-songwriter scene.

Must hear: I Feel The Earth Move

12: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

One of the most influential black musicians in history, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald broke race and gender barriers in the 40s. With her two-and-a-half octave vocal range, she could mimic horn sections in the bands she performed with, using her trademark scat vocals as if her voice were another instrument. Throughout her career, Fitzgerald tackled a wide range of styles, from jazz to psychedelic music, and she collaborated with some of the most iconic names in jazz, including Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Having won virtually every award available for singers, Fitzgerald subsequently had many awards named after her – a clear recognition of her immense talent. Dubbed “The First Lady Of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy is one of true elegance and grace.

Must hear: Sunny

11: Madonna (1958-)

Madonna’s career has encompassed a variety of styles as she has constantly reinvented herself in order to push the boundaries of popular music. From a young age, she showed proficiency in the arts, studying both classical piano and ballet before using modern technology to her advantage at the start of her career. Madonna’s promo videos set style trends throughout the 80s and established her as a true fashionista, while her first No.1 album, 1984’s Like A Virgin, created pop hits that still rank among the best Madonna songs. Her third studio album, 1986’s True Blue, found immediate success across 28 countries, setting the standard for what it means to be a pop star. Having set and broken multiple records, Madonna is also an award-winning actress whose often controversial career has forever crowned her “The Queen Of Pop”.

Must hear: Like A Prayer

10: Linda Ronstadt (1946-)

Linda Ronstadt’s diverse career is a study in creative expression: she has conquered pop, country, rock, jazz standards, bluegrass, and Spanish-language music. After scoring an early hit with The Stone Poneys, Different Drum, Ronstadt stood at the forefront of the late 60s Laurel Canyon scene, putting her own band together with drummer Don Henley and guitarist Glenn Frey, making her an instrumental figure in the formation of Eagles. With iconic albums such as Heart Like A Wheel and Simple Dreams, Ronstadt became one of the most prominent singers of the 70s, and the first female singer to perform an entire tour of arena venues. Together with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, she released the 1987 album Trio to international acclaim, and, that same year, recorded the solo album Canciones De Mi Padre. Revealing how Ronstadt’s early love of mariachi music influenced the strong vibrato and phrasing of her singing, it became the best-selling non-English-language album in US history. Winning both mainstream and Latin Grammys, Ronstadt has ensured her status among the most influential female musicians of all time, carving out a place for Mexican-American women within the English-speaking music industry.

Must hear: Blue Bayou

9: Missy Elliott (1971-)

Missy Elliott established her career in the early 90s with R&B group Sista. In 1997, however, she marked her arrival as a solo artist with her iconic debut album, Supa Dupa Fly. Overturning hip-hop stereotypes and establishing her own unique style, Elliott created a template for female rappers that was forceful yet jovial, and sexy without being sexualised. One of the most successful hip-hop artists of all time, Elliott set herself apart from her contemporaries – both male and female – thanks to her humorous free-association raps, delivered over beats that are impossible to shake. Writing her own songs and collaborating with the best producers in the industry, Elliott is also a performer with a keen eye for showmanship.

Must hear: Work It

8: Alanis Morissette (1974-)

Alanis Morissette’s impassioned mezzo-soprano voice lives outside of time and place: with her generation-defining debut album, Jagged Little Pill, she has soundtracked breakups both on-screen and off, and the record has even been adapted into a successful Broadway show. Blending a no-holds-barred feminism with catchy pop hooks, Morissette swapped the image of the “sensitive female singer-songwriter” of the 70s for a louder, more openly aggressive 90s update that traded in post-grunge rock. She has since been cited as an influence by artists ranging from Taylor Swift to Pink, and even Beyoncé covered her breakthrough single, You Oughta Know, at the 2010 Grammys, proving that Morrissette’s music has crossed genre barriers in order to stand on its own universally-accessible emotional terrain.

Must hear: Ironic

7: Patti Smith (1946-)

Transcending the labels of “songwriter” or “musician”, Patti Smith is simply the ultimate artist. Hailed as the “punk poet laureate”, Smith draws on her own deeply personal experiences in order to write lyrics that often given voice to society’s misfits. She’s toured with Bob Dylan, co-written a hit song with Bruce Springsteen (Because The Night) and even appeared in a Jean-Luc Godard film, yet Smith can more than hold her own among her male counterparts, and she remains her own shining beacon of creativity. Through her mere presence in the music industry, Smith has become an icon of the highest degree.

Must hear: Because The Night

6: Chaka Khan (1953-)

With a career that spans over five decades, Chaka Khan has championed many styles of music but, as one of the best female soul singers of all time[link to best female soul singers], she has always retained her commitment to providing danceable grooves. The future “Queen Of Funk” made her breakthrough in the mid-70s, with the Chicago group Rufus; her early solo sound reflected the disco era’s mirrorball magic, and she easily adapted her style to suit the electronic dance-pop production of the 80s, scoring her biggest hit with a cover of Prince[https://www.thisisdig.com/artist/prince]’s I Feel For You, for which rapper Melle Mel provided a signature hook. Hip-hop has since plundered the Rufus and Chaka Khan catalogues for samples. Time may pass quickly, but one thing remains constant: people will always be dancing to Chaka Khan’s music.

Must hear: I Feel For You

5: Joni Mitchell (1943-)

A painter as well as a songwriter, Joni Mitchell’s music creates vivid portraits in song. Key early works such as Both Sides, Now, The Circle Game and Woodstock took a unique view on the late 60s counterculture, while her 1970 hit, Big Yellow Taxi, stands as one of the first environmental anthems in music. The following year’s Blue album remains a landmark recording for singer-songwriters, even at Mitchell pushed far beyond the boundaries of what was expected of solo musicians in the 70s. Incorporating jazz and world music into her sound, Mitchell’s refusal to repeat herself created a body of work that continues to help listeners figure out what’s going on in the world today.

Must hear: Big Yellow Taxi

4: Tina Turner (1939-)

The ultimate powerhouse performer, Tina Turner has more than earned the title of “Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”. Performing the same athletic dance moves at the age of 70 as she did when she was in her 20s, Turner never let something as trivial as age get in her way. Overcoming her difficult upbringing and domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband, Ike Turner, Tina has become the ultimate role model for women everywhere, embodying not only power and success, but also kindness and generosity. Her 2020 book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide To Changing Your Life For Good, delves into her enlightened path as Buddhist and the importance of cultivating happiness in life. Through her music and her own story, Turner has inspired fans to follow their dreams and never give up.

Must hear: The Best

3: Carly Simon (1945-)

Born into a musical and literary family, Carly Simon grew up learning the importance of the arts. As a young girl, she developed an unwanted stammer, which she nicknamed “famul”. Her mother suggested she sing her sentences, unknowingly setting her daughter on a path to the stars. From her self-titled debut album onwards, Carly crafted perfect vignettes that explored her love life and family issues in song, unapologetically creating the sense that there were no secrets between her and her fans. With the gold-certified hit You’re So Vain, however, she kept one secret to herself: a frenzy of speculation still surround the identity of the song’s target. The first artist to ever win a Grammy, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe (for the awe-inspiring hit Let the River Run, penned for the 1988 movie Working Girl), Simon has also survived breast cancer and established herself as both a children’s-book writer and the author of two memoirs as unflinchingly honest as her songs.

Must hear: You’re So Vain

2: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

A beacon of light when your spirit is in the dark, Aretha Franklin has made a lasting contribution to both music and culture. Though known as “The Queen Of Soul”, she might as well be called “The Queen Of Music”. With a three-octave vocal range, her one-of-a-kind voice reached the heavens as part of her pastor father’s gospel revues, before going on to reach audiences of multiple generations as a soul singer. Opening doors for women’s rights and race relations, Franklin came to represent the American experience by fusing secular and spiritual music in the same way cultures mixed on the continent – and she could even handle opera: at the 1998 Grammys, Franklin stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti and sang a tear-jerking rendition of Nessun Dorma. Taking Otis Redding’s song Respect and making it her own, Franklin’s legacy is a reminder that people should be unapologetic in fighting for their both their rights and their worth.

Must hear: Respect

1: Stevie Nicks (1948)

The embodiment of fairy tale and romance, Stevie Nicks has fashioned herself into a mystical poet from the 19th century. Never ageing, and never failing to inspire, the Fleetwood Mac icon danced a path across the world’s stages for all women in rock’n’roll to follow. From her first Fleetwood Mac hit, Rhiannon, though to penning the group’s sole US No.1, Dreams, and her enigmatic solo work, Nicks’ music continues to transport listeners to another time and place. Collaborating with some of the best in the business – including Prince, Tom Petty, and Don Henley – Stevie Nicks has demonstrated the importance of women in the industry, showing fans how to draw power from femininity. The only woman to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame twice, Nicks more then earns her place at the top of our list of the most influential female musicians of all time. As she sang herself: “Once in a million years a lady like her rises.”

Must hear: Rihannon

You’ve seen the most influential female musicians of all time, now find out the best female singers.

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