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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.


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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?"


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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

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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

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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.


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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

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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.