We're barely skimming the surface, of course, but we think these discs constitute a respectable cross-section of the best CDs ever recorded by women singers, with selections limited to one per artist. The timeline ranges from 1921 to last year, covering as many styles as we could think of (except opera and classical, mostly because we don't know squat about either). We hit most of the legendary touchstones, but also sprinkled in some obscurities — a few pet titles, as it were. The list is in alphabetical order, not ranked. (And OK, we cheated on the one-artist rule with Laura Nyro.)
Who did we leave out? Who made it that shouldn't have? As always, let us know. We'd be glad to print a second list of readers' picks.
Let the arguments begin.
Christina Aguilera: Back to Basics (RCA, 2006). Xtina gets all grown up and drops a double-disc that puts her big, sexy (and sensitive) pipes in front of a winning mix of disco beats and old-school horns.
Tori Amos: Little Earthquakes (Atlantic, 1992). Her debut is a compelling, piano-driven exploration of emotions; Amos raised the stakes by singing a cappella about her own rape.
Fiona Apple: Tidal (Sony, 1996). The singing-songwriting pianist unleashed her debut at 18 with this lusciously melodic, jazz-inflected pop album, delivering mature, confessional lyrics in a fiercely husky voice. And who can forget the "Criminal" video?
Erykah Badu: Live (Umvd Labels, 1997). Badu intersperses a collection of R&B and jazz covers among material from her retro-soul debut, the very worthy Baduizm.
Joan Baez: Diamonds & Rust (A&M 1975). The folk queen strikes back at ex-lover Bob Dylan with the haunting, self-penned title-track, and puts her soprano stamp on an eclectic mix of cuts written by Dickey Betts, John Prine and others.
The Bangles: Different Light (Sony, 1986). The height of the 1980s girl-pop movement, The Bangles merged SoCal soft rock, folk and poppy harmonies into hits like Prince's "Manic Monday" and the novelty tune, "Walk Like an Egyptian." Susanna Hoffs' little-girl-pout voice still titillates.
Bikini Kill: The Singles (Kill Rock Stars, 1998). While far from a cohesive album, this disc collects three Olympia-shaking Bikini Kill 45s that explain exactly why this band was the adrenaline needle to the heart of the riot grrrl scene.
Bjork: Vespertine (Elektra, 2001). High-pitched, breathy, by turns anguished and ecstatic, the Icelandic swan (remember that Oscar dress?) is an acquired taste, but once acquired, hard to shake. The knotty melodies and gorgeously spacey orchestration seal the deal.
Mary J. Blige: Mary (1999, MCA). As the title suggests, this is a highly personal album from the rapper/singer that effectively blends contemporary hip-hop with classic soul.
Blondie: Parallel Lines (Capitol, 1978). New York attitude. Platinum blonde hair. Disco meets punk meets Euro meets girl groups. Debbie Harry was the coolest customer to emerge from the late-'70s CBGB-fueled punk scene, her voice a singular blend of sneer and what-the-fuck.
The Breeders: Pod (4AD/Elektra, 1990). Pixies bassist Kim Deal and Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donelly teamed up for this promising debut, before various conflicts sadly sidelined the band for most of the decade.
Rosanne Cash: Seven Year Ache (Columbia, 1981). The scion of country royalty created the template for every pop-country singer to follow. Her world-weary voice turned male-centered songs (from producer/then-hubby Rodney Crowell and others) inside out.
The Carter Family: Can the Circle Be Unbroken?: Country Music's First Family (Columbia/Legacy/2000). Two-thirds of this highly influential trio were women, which helped forge country's strong bond with the ladies. These vintage recordings from '35 and '40 are smartly chosen and carefully cleansed for minimal pop 'n' hiss.
Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-, 2006). An intelligent, unpredictable and spellbinding collection of genre-defying tunes that Case calls "country noir."
Cat Power: The Greatest (Matador, 2006). Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) lightened up (a bit) and dialed up Al Green's Memphis to record this brilliant disc of indie soul.
Patsy Cline: The Patsy Cline Story (1963, MCA). Two dozen gorgeous hits, each one showcasing one of the world's most expressive singers at her finest.
Judy Collins: Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Elektra, 1968). Collins' crystalline soprano never sounded better than in this Stephen Stills-produced disc, which features definitive renditions of the Sandy Denny title tune and Collins' own "My Father." A high point in artful '60s folk/pop.
Shawn Colvin: A Few Small Repairs (Sony, 1996). At once lovely, frank and at times bitter, this is singer/songwriter fare with bite.
Celia Cruz: Celia and Johnny (w/Johnny Pacheco) (Fania, 1974). The most important — and the greatest — woman's voice in Cuban salsa. Arranger/bandleader Johnny Pacheco knew exactly how to showcase her in this explosive recording.
Ani DiFranco: Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe, 1998). The preferred artist of Women Studies majors nationwide introduces a bit of humor, punchy brass and jazz elements into her punk-folk aesthetic, creating an album even a male chauvinist pig can love.