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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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Bananarama

Graham Tucker/Redferns

1982 Bananarama invent the New Wave girl-group archetype

Their hits include "Shy Boy," "I Heard a Rumour" and the immortal "Robert De Niro's Waiting." Somehow, they manage to go through their entire career looking hot and bored at the same time.

The Go-Go's

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1982 The Go-Go’s crash the Top Forty with “Our Lips Are Sealed”

Girl power will never be the same. The Go-Go's started out as hardcore L.A. punkers, hanging out with the Germs. But when they learn to sing, play and write songs, they discover that they are actually a great rock & roll band. Beauty and the Beat defines a new kind of California teen cool, and Gina Schock is one of the toughest drummers in rock history.

Debbie Harry

David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images/Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

1980 Blondie’s Debbie Harry hosts ‘The Muppet Show’

Singing "One Way or Another," she brings punk rock and Miss Piggy together and shows the mainstream clout of New Wave.

Laurie Anderson

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1979 Laurie Anderson first performs her art-rock theater piece ‘United States’

"O Superman" later becomes a freak hit, reaching Number Two in the U.K.

Joan Jett

Anne Fishbein/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

1979 Joan Jett quits the Runaways to go solo

She loves rock & roll, and rock & roll definitely loves her back. She's worn the same black leather jacket ever since.

Poly Styrene

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1978 Poly Styrene, a London kid with braces, rocks out with X-Ray Spex

The classic single "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" is a raw punk anthem featuring Styrene's scream and her high school pal Lora Logic on saxophone. Styrene is definitely a weirdo in the rock world – young, clumsy, half-Somalian, with funky clothes and a big mess of curly hair – but she sums up the eternal appeal of punk to outsiders and underdogs everywhere.

Stevie Nicks

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1975 Stevie Nicks joins Fleetwood Mac

With Nicks singing hits including "Rhiannon" and "Landslide," the Mac become the world's most popular band.

Donna Summer

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1974 Donna Summer scores with “Love to Love You Baby”

The seventeen-minute Giorgio Moroder production puts disco – and simulated orgasms – on the map.

Labelle

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1974 Labelle explore outer limits of fashion insanity

Dressed up as disco Martians, the three nightbirds hit Number One with the gitchy-gitchy classic "Lady Marmalade."

Linda Ronstadt

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

1974 Linda Ronstadt takes off with ‘Heart Like a Wheel’

The album, featuring "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved," perfects the L.A. mellow sound.

Bette Midler

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

1972 Bette Midler invents a whole new style of rock & roll cool

Reaching back to the Andrews Sisters, Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker, she opens up rock's emotional repertoire.

Carole King

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1971 Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ defines the singer-songwriter movement

King is already a veteran when she makes her first hit album, Tapestry. As one of the legendary Brill Building songwriters, she co-wrote hits such as "The Locomotion," "Up on the Roof" and "One Fine Day." But after her marriage ends, she moves out West and makes the grown-up soft-rock autobiography Tapestry. It becomes one of the Seventies' longest-running hits, eventually selling 22 million copies and spawning the hits "I Feel the Earth Move," "So Far Away" and "It's Too Late."

Joni Mitchell

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1968 Joni Mitchell Releases Her First Album

Song to a Seagull introduces a new style of poetic songwriting that continues to be hugely influential on artists from Cat Power to Prince.

Dusty Springfield

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1968 Dusty Springfield goes to Memphis

The London beehive diva makes her American pilgrimage for the torch-pop masterpiece Dusty in Memphis.

Janis Joplin

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1967 Janis Joplin takes a piece of our heart

Janis Joplin becomes the reigning goddess of the new hippie love generation at the Monterey Pop Festival, belting the blues epic "Ball and Chain" with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. A Texas girl relocated to San Francisco, Joplin is a nobody before she comes to Monterey, but she steals the show. In the Monterey Pop movie, you can see Mama Cass in the audience shake her head and say, " Wooow " – and that says it all.

Bobbie Gentry

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1967: Bobbie Gentry Writes and Sings ‘Ode to Billie Joe’

The mysterious acoustic Southern-gothic hit holds a nation spellbound – what did they throw off that bridge, anyway?

Aretha Franklin

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1966 Aretha goes to Muscle Shoals

When Aretha Franklin heads down to the Alabama studio to cut I Never Loved a Man, she truly becomes the queen of soul. After growing up on gospel, she made her first records in the early Sixties for Columbia – mostly tame lounge jazz. But producer Jerry Wexler lets Franklin cut loose with the immortal Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, and the results earn her the name Lady Soul.

Velvet Underground

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1966: Maureen Tucker Joins Velvet Underground as the Drummer

Her backbeat in "I'm Waiting for the Man" becomes the definitive punk rhythm.

Grace Slick

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1966 Grace Slick joins Jefferson Airplane

The band turns from mellow folkies into the hard-driving psychedelic rockers of "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit."