I grew up to the music of the 1980’s, and like the millions of kids of my generation, I fell in love with the escapist pop music of that era. Madonna, Whitney Houston and Kate Bush were my favourite female solo artists of that time, who consistently pushed out hit after hit into the pop charts. But there were so many others with hit songs that continue to be signposts of that time, such as Tina Turner, Bonnie Tyler, Laura Branigan, Sheena Easton, Cyndi Lauper and Annie Lennox. As I moved away from pop in subsequent years and as popular music moved towards R&B and rap, I realize that very little of the music I was listening to was from female artists, with the exception of a few hits from Janet Jackson and Salt-N-Pepa in the 90’s and Nelly Furtado’s first few albums in the early 2000’s. In the past 15 years, popular music has been dominated by amazingly talented female artistes like Beyoncé, Alicia Keyes, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, and I have listened to and enjoyed many of their hit songs (impossible not to), but it’s rarely music that I actively choose or add into my playlists.
Having said that, in the past few years I’ve realized that there are a handful of female artists, particularly in the soul and jazz genres, whose music I keep coming back to often enough that they can be classified as my favourites of the past decade:
Amerie: Born to a Korean mother and African-American father, Amerie has built a career as a singer, actress and model. Two singles from her debut 2002 album All I Have first caught my attention, the lead track Why Don’t We Fall in Love and the follow up Talkin’ To Me. I really liked the groove-infused, easy-listening soul sound of these two songs, although the rest of the album is fairly generic R&B. In spite of the average reviews the album received, the working relationship between the singer and producer Rich Harrison was cemented. Soon after, Amerie released a cover of Diana Ross‘ 1980 hit I’m Coming Out (co-written by the legendary Nile Rodgers) for the Maid in Manhattan movie soundtrack. Amerie and Rich Harrison next collaborated on the album Touch, released in 2005, which had some great up-tempo percussion-driven tracks. The best example is 1 Thing, which samples the drums from the 1970 recording of Oh! Calcutta by The Meters. Other notable songs are the propulsive Talkin’ About and the title track, Touch, with a looping tabla backtrack. Her next album Because I Love It, continued in the same vein with Gotta Work carrying a catchy sample of the classic 60’s soul track, Hold On, I’m Comin‘ by Sam & Dave. The other catchy songs in this album are Hate2Loveu, Take Control (co-written by CeeLo Green and sampling a Hall & Oates song) and the synth-driven Crush. Since 2010, her recording output has slowed down, with some one-off singles and EPs, none of which have really caught my attention.
Sia: The Australian singer-songwriter has emerged as one of my favourite artists of the past 5 years. I first took notice of her music when Never Give Up played while the credits rolled on the award-winning 2016 film Lion. I then realized that the hit 2014 song Chandelier which I liked a lot, was also by her. So I checked out the album it came from, 1000 Forms of Fear, and discovered a couple of great tracks – Big Girls Cry and Elastic Heart. The album I like the most is This is Acting (2016), which includes the dance hit Cheap Thrills, as well as the searing love song One Million Bullets, the playful House of Fire and Footprints. One of my favourite Sia tracks of all time is Sunshine from her 2017 album Everyday is Christmas. While Sia’s music is up-tempo and is popular on the dance floor, the lyrics are frequently dark and full of meaning. In 2019, she teamed up with producer Diplo and rapper Labrinth, to release the album Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD. There are lots of amazing songs on this album – Angel in Your Eyes, Genius (featuring Lil Wayne), Audio, Thunderclouds (amazing music video) and No New Friends (check out the live performance on The Ellen Show). As I listen to these songs, I realize that what I enjoy the most is Sia’s raw and emotional vocalization which reminds me quite a lot of Cyndi Lauper.
Janelle Monáe: I first came across Janelle Monáe at the end of 2016 on account of her double whammy appearances in the critically acclaimed films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. It was only when she released her third album Dirty Computer in 2018 that I started listening to her songs. I was deeply moved by the poignant lyrics on the title track (“I’m not that special, I’m broke inside“) and inspired by her resilience and fighting spirit on the track I Like That (“I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong, I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs, And I like that…“). Other notable songs are Don’t Judge Me and Make Me Feel. As many critics have pointed out, this album is as much a powerful socio-political statement as it is a work of art. In a relatively short period of time, Monáe has become a voice for diversity, both of colour and sexuality. No wonder then, that she was chosen to open the 2020 Oscar awards as a self-aware nod to the criticism the Academy has faced for its lack of diversity. Unlike many black filmmakers and rappers whose creative work focuses on the misfortunes suffered by people of colour, Monáe stands out because her musical output over the past decade has been built around Afrofuturism, the movement that explores the confluence of African culture and state-of-the-art technology. Afrofuturism as a concept has been around since the mid-90’s but it was only with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018 that it received global exposure. Monáe’s first two albums The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013) were both based on her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an android inspired by the female robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 experessionist classic Metropolis. In Dirty Computer, Monáe has shed the Cindi Mayweather persona and revealed her true self (she also came out in real life at the time of the album’s release), creating a more introspective and vulnerable body of work. Of the two earlier albums, I prefer The ArchAndroid, which has such a varied sound – the two singles Tightrope (featuring Big Boi) and Cold War are both reminiscent of the Outkast’s 2003 hit Hey Ya; at the other end of the spectrum, the opening verse of Oh, Maker sounds like it could have been sung by Doris Day or Julie Andrews; Wondaland is pure synth-pop, with operatic backing vocals; Make the Bus is a duet with one of my favourite artists, Of Montreal, and very much reflects their musical style; BaBobByeYa has a distinctive bossa nova sound. From the second album, The Electric Lady, the only tracks I’ve really liked so far are the disco-like We Were Rock and Roll and the jazzy duet Dorothy Dandridge Eyes, sung with Esperanza Spalding.
Esperanza Spalding: And speaking of the celebrated jazz singer-songwriter, I had heard of her (first jazz artist to win the Grammy for Best New Artist, invited twice by President Obama to perform at the White House), but listened to her music only this year, when Earth to Heaven played on the radio and I used Soundhound to find out who it was. This led me to the album it came from, the 2016 release Emily’s D+Evolution and what a revelation it turned out be! I don’t think I’ve been so entranced by the distinctiveness of an album’s sound since Kate Bush’s 1978 debut The Kick Inside, which in fact Emily’s D+Evolution does strongly remind me of. This is Spalding’s fifth studio release and she decided to explore a different musical style, creating an alter ego, Emily (her middle name) to release her from her past musical baggage. The album has been a major success, receiving widespread critical acclaim, and rightly so. There are many standout tracks; besides Earth to Heaven, I would recommend listening to Good Lava, Unconditional Love, Judas and the surreal Ebony and Ivy, which sounds like it should play on an episode of The Twilight Zone. I’ve recently started listening to her preceding album, Radio Music Society and am enjoying the music just as much, particularly tracks like Radio Song, the beautiful Cinnamon Tree (“We meet just once in a while but the spice in your smile is magic to me“), Black Gold (shades of Beyoncé) and the Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal, City of Roses.
BENEE: This artist jumped out at me from nowhere in the past few weeks, when I heard Supalonely on the radio and was hooked. The 19-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand has been steadily gaining momentum over the past year through two EPs that she released in 2019. The single Supalonely (featuring Gus Dapperton) from the 2nd EP Stella & Steve, gave her international exposure via TikTok. It’s a great song, but my favourites are all from the 1st EP Fire on Marzz, with four of its six songs currently on heavy rotation on my Spotify playlist – Soaked, the super-groovy Glitter, Afterlife and Evil Spider. BENEE has an incredibly soulful voice for someone so young, and the production on the EPs is outstanding, with it’s bass-driven groove and bright guitar sounds, a credit to producers Josh Fountain and Djeisan Suskov (both musicians themselves from the NZ indie music scene). Meanwhile, she also appeared on the latest album from Japanese-Australian musician Joji, with the outstanding, hypnotic and dark duet Afterthought. With all this, I was really looking forward to BENEE’s debut full album Hey U X, which came out on 13th November; on my first run-through, I haven’t come across any songs which have hooked me the first time, so I’ll have to give this another go.
As I’m writing this, I’ve been listening to Dua Lipa‘s Grammy-nominated album Future Nostalgia, but it’s too early to tell if she will go on to become a long-term favourite or not. And Swedish soul singer Snoh Aalegra‘s 2019 album Ugh, Those Feels Again has a few songs that I really like, but I just haven’t listened to enough of her music yet to be able to classify her as a favourite artist.