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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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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

2012 Adele sweeps the Grammys

She's the kind of mass success story that isn't supposed to happen anymore: girl gets her heart broken, girl writes a bunch of pissed-off songs about it, girl makes a brilliant record that speaks to every corner of the pop audience, girl sells a gazillion copies. When she sang "Rolling in the Deep" on the 2012 Grammy Awards, it was like a coronation of a new pop queen–not to mention a confirmation that where music is concerned, heart and soul never go out of style.


Josiah Kamau/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic

2012: Blue Ivy Carter is born

Her first Number One hit is due in approximately 8 years. Her first presidential term begins in 2048.

Wild Flag

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2011 Wild Flag take charge

The four-woman indie rock supergroup, led by Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Helium's Mary Timony, prove that hardcore will never die.

Nicki Minaj

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2010 Nicki Minaj blows up

The pelican-fly Queens rapper goes from mixtape star to mainstream favorite, getting even weirder the more successful she gets. With her crossover pop hit "Super Bass," she lets the world know who the eff she is.

Sleigh Bells

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2010 Sleigh Bells crush eardrums

The girl-boy duo from Brooklyn break out with "Ring Ring," a song full of brutally overamped guitars, a Funkadelic sample, and Alexis Krauss chanting, "Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces?"


Mark Von Holden/WireImage for On 3 Productions

2009 Ke$ha brushes her teeth with Jack Daniels

God's gift to karaoke bars arrives, complete with her perfect trash-disco apocalypse, "Tik Tok."

Lady Gaga

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2008 Lady Gaga causes a commotion

Lady Gaga, meet the fame. Fame, Gaga. A passionate love story begins, as Stefani Germanotta dominates the radio, refuses to wear pants, and invites the whole world to her Monster Ball.

Katy Perry

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

2008 Katy Perry kisses a girl

And she likes it. After years of scuffling around in the business, the onetime Christian singer-songwriter goes to Number One with a cherry-chapstick-flavored makeout song. Perry takes up permanent residence at the top of the charts.


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2008 Feist visits Sesame Street

The Canadian folkie crackpot brings her left-field hit "1, 2, 3, 4" to the Muppets, where she sounds right at home.


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2008 M.I.A. takes your money

To everybody’s shock, the Sri Lanka-via-London art guerrilla flukes into a massive hit single when "Paper Planes" gets attention in the TV ads for a James Franco stoner comedy. Duuuuude! The song inspires hip-hop answer records from Kanye, Diddy, and T.I.


Daniele Venturelli/WireImage

2007 Rihanna opens her umbrella

The Barbados-born Ri dominates the radio all summer, showing off her new wave haircut and her "ella ella ella, ay ay ya" chant.

Amy Winehouse

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

2007 Amy Winehouse says no, no, no

The British lass scores a U.S. hit with her retro-Sixties soul homage "Rehab." Hipster girls rock the beehive hairstyle, but Winehouse, already plagued by drug problems, is dead within a few years.

Taylor Swift

Rick Diamond/WireImage

2006 Taylor Swift plays guitar hero

Once the country ingenue arrives, nothing is quite the same. For a generation of girls, Taylor Swift is the first time they’ve ever laid eyes on a guitar. Your niece wants one for Christmas. Future generations of rock goddesses will bond over her songs the way their moms bonded over the Annie soundtrack. 

The Gossip

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2006 The Gossip take a stand

Punk rocker Beth Ditto belts "Standing In The Way Of Control," a passionate protest against homophobia. American radio is too prissy to play it, but it becomes a top ten smash in the UK.

Cat Power

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

2006 Cat Power gets a grip

Already a revered indie songwriter, but dismissed as a flaky headcase, Chan Marshall finally makes her soul-power breakout with The Greatest, cut with a band of Memphis R&B legends.

Gwen Stefani

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2006 Gwen Stefani yodels

The No Doubt singer, in the middle of a surprising run of solo hits, becomes the first bare-bellied pop star to try making people dance to "The Lonely Goatherd" from The Sound of Music. Yodelcore!

Fiona Apple

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2005 Fiona Apple completes Extraordinary Machine

She spent years laboring over her third album — changing producers, scrapping finished versions — as bootleg demos kept leaking out. But it was worth the wait, as Apple delivered on all the promises her voice had always made.


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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.