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Women Who Rock: Greatest Breakthrough Moments

The achievements that changed everything, from Bessie Smith to Adele

The century-long history of pop music is full of breakthrough moments for female performers. Sometimes it’s a moment in the spotlight, like the emergence of mighty voices like Aretha Franklin or Joni Mitchell. Sometimes it’s in the shadows, as in Mo Tucker drumming with the Velvet Underground or the Chantels getting it together in high school. Here’s a timeline of some of these breakthroughs, from Bessie Smith to Adele.

By Rob Sheffield

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Sinéad O'Connor

Michel Linssen/Redferns

1987 Sinéad O’Connor shaves her head

Marking her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, as a personal act of defiance, O'Connor shocks her record company with her newly shorn pate.

Roxanne Shanté

David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

1985 Roxanne Shanté, a fourteen-year-old homegirl from the Queens projects, writes the hip-hop hit “Roxanne’s Revenge”

An answer record to UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne," it introduces one of the toughest voices hip-hop has ever heard.

Madonna

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

1984 Madonna scandalizes world at MTV Awards

To sing her new hit "Like a Virgin," Ms. Ciccone decides to writhe on the floor, flashing her underwear beneath her wedding dress. Catholicism hasn't been the same since.

Tina Turner

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

1984 Tina Turner: Free at last

With her album Private Dancer,Turner pulls off the most famous comeback in rock history. After quitting her abusive marriage to Ike Turner in 1976, she began her career over from scratch. In 1984, Private Dancer makes her a solo star, as she denounces secondhand emotions in "What's Love Got to Do With It" and demands "Better Be Good to Me." She also sings a memorable "It's Only Rock & Roll," with Mick Jagger, at Live Aid in 1985.

Annie Lennox

Chris Walter/WireImage

1983 Annie Lennox redefines gender-bending

The Eurythmics singer even shows up at the 1984 Grammy Awards in drag – as Elvis. In her "Who's That Girl" video, the male Annie shares a passionate smooch with the female Annie.

Cyndi Lauper

Chris Walter/WireImage

1983 Cyndi Lauper has fun

The unlikely starlet becomes American's sweetheart, hiccuping her way through the femme-bonding pink-haired New Wave slumber party "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and the album She's So Unusual. Which she was, and still is.

Kim Gordon

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

1982 Kim Gordon plugs in

The Sonic Youth bassist becomes one of the most distinctive voices in rock with songs like "Halloween," "Flower" and "'Cross The Breeze." On the band's 2006 tour, she even started to dance.

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