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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.

Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott

J. Vespa/WireImage

2001 Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott drops “Get Ur Freak On”

It's a hip-hop tantrum catchy enough to turn the entire American people into blithering idiots yelling "Holla!" at one another all summer long. Her episode of Cribs is dope, too.

Aimee Mann

C Brandon/Redferns

1999 Aimee Mann inspires the film ‘Magnolia’

In the movie's most memorable scene, all the characters sing her ballad "Save Me."

Britney Spears

Joey Terrill/WireImage

1999 Britney Spears debuts with the video for “… Baby One More Time”

What do you know: Pop music really can still piss off your parents!


Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect

1998 Aaliyah trips out with “Are You That Somebody?”

Even though she was gone too soon — killed in a 2001 plane crash after a video shoot — Aaliyah still defined herself as one of the era's prime hitmakers, especially in collaboration with Missy Elliott and Timbaland.

Sarah McLachlan

Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect

1997 Sarah McLachlan organizes Lilith Fair

The tour brings together a host of female artists and proves the commercial clout of female audiences. Musicians on the original tour include Jewel, Tracy Chapman and Joan Osborne. Throughout the next two years, Lilith Fair presents artists including Bonnie Raitt, the Pretenders, Erykah Badu, Liz Phair, Luscious Jackson and Missy Elliott.

Sheryl Crow

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

1996 Sheryl Crow comes of age

Her self-produced, self-written, self-titled second album spawns the hits "If It Makes You Happy" and "A Change Would Do You Good."

Lauryn Hill

Bernd Muller/Redferns

1996 Lauryn Hill settles the score

There were lots of great female rappers before Lauryn Hill: Here's a toast to Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shante, LeShaun and Sequence. But when the Fugees blow up in 1996 with The Score, the biggest star in the hip-hop universe is a woman. Hill can do it all: rap, sing and write like a cross between Al Capone and Nina Simone. She launches her solo career in 1998 with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Alanis Morissette

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

1995 Alanis Morissette arrives with “You Oughta Know”

Supposed former infatuation junkie and Canadian kiddie-TV star Alanis Morissette has the best-selling debut album of the era with Jagged Little Pill. The catchphrase "Isn't it ironic? Don'tcha think?" becomes the "For shizzle my nizzle" of the day.

Courtney Love

Mick Hutson/Redferns

1994 Courtney Love makes a grunge classic

With her band, Hole, Love releases the searing Live Through This, just days after Kurt Cobain's body is found. She launches a chaotic, cathartic tour after just a few months off and turns her grief into the unforgettable "Doll Parts" video.


Steve Eichner/WireImage

1993 Björk drops her solo debut, ‘Debut’

The Icelandic muse and former Sugarcube begins her swan-tastic reign as the Nineties' weirdest superstar.

Janet Jackson

Photograph by Patrick Demarchelier

1993 Janet Jackson grows up on ‘Janet’

Celebrating her most personal music to date, she also models her expertly shielded upper torso on the cover of Rolling Stone. The rumor that Janet and Michael are the same person dies overnight.

Whitney Houston

©Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

1992 Whitney Houston stars in ‘The Bodyguard’

It includes her biggest and best hit, a tear-crankingly soulful cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."


Michel Linssen/Redferns

1992 TLC debut with “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”

They raise eyebrows with their baggy pants, sassy talk and Left Eye's patch. They go on to become the decade's premier pop group: crazy, sexy, cool.

k.d. lang

Clayton Call/Redferns

1992 k.d. lang comes out

The swank country crooner abandons the closet the same year that she becomes a star with herbreakthrough hit album, Ingénue.


Mick Hutson/Redferns

1992 Punk rockers L7 break ultimate rock taboo

When the audience at the Reading Festival, in England, won't stop throwing mud at the band, guitarist Donita Sparks adds a new chapter to the art of crowd control by tossing her tampon into the pit.

Bonnie Raitt

Paul Natkin/WireImage

1990 Bonnie Raitt becomes a star after twenty years

Raitt unexpectedly wins four Grammy Awards in one night, including Album of the Year for Nick of Time. She has been making records for two decades, including classics such as 1972's Give It Up, but her folk-blues raunch was too unconventional for pop success. Nick of Time changes all that, and Bonnie Raitt has never been far from the spotlight since.

Ani DiFranco

Patrick Ford/Redferns

1990 Ani DiFranco founds her own indie label

With her Righteous Babe label, she exemplifies the do-it-yourself route to success and control.

Bikini Kill

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

1990 Bikini Kill proclaim, “Revolution Grrrl Style, Now!”

The pioneering riot grrrls start a pop-culture takeover, getting together to play politically charged punk rock in Olympia, Washington. They make a ferocious noise with anthems such as "Rebel Girl" and "Suck My Left One." Bikini Kill are a key inspiration for Nirvana and all that follows. Today, lead singer Kathleen Hanna continues to rock with her great new band, Le Tigre.

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.


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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