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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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Christian Jakubaszek/Getty Images

2005 Robyn hits the floor

Nobody expected this 1990s Swedish teen-pop washout to keep making music as a grown-up — let alone to rebuild her career as an electro-disco weirdo with songs like "Konichiwa Bitches." But with her self-titled debut, she refuses to go out like a "Crash and Burn Girl." She’s kept making amazing records ever since.

Joanna Newsom

Hayley Madden

2004 Joanna Newsom reinvents the harp solo

The pride of the then-bustling freak-folk scene, Newsom scores with The Milk-Eyed Mender, complete with a song about bean sprouts. More mead, sire?

Alicia Keys

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

2003 Alicia Keys opens her diary

With The Diary of Alicia Keys, the Hell's Kitchen pianist shows off the newfound maturity of her voice, even in teen-romance concerns like "You Don't Know My Name."

Meg White

L. Cohen/WireImage

2003 Meg White Sings

The hard-hitting but soft-spoken drummer of the White Stripes finally answers the prayers of fans by crooning "In The Cold Cold Night," just one of the classics on the Stripes' breakthrough hit Elephant.


Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

2003 Beyonce gets crazy

She was already a mega-blam-blam with Destiny’s Child, but "Crazy In Love" announces her solo ascendancy with that Chi-Lites-sampling horn fanfare and a guest rap from Jay-Z. Has anyone begun a solo career with a louder pop blast? In a word, no-oh-uh-oh-uh-oh.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Hayley Madden/Redferns

2002 Yeah Yeah Yeahs become an international word-of-mouth sensation

With punk goddess Karen O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs revitalize eighty years of female rock & roll tradition in punky gems such as "Bang," "Our Time" and "Mystery Girl." Somewhere, Bessie Smith is smiling — and playing air guitar.

Mary J.Blige

Mark Allan/WireImage

2001 Mary J.Blige brings that beat back

The queen of hip-hop soul hits Number One with "Family Affair," denouncing holleration and hateration.