Top 50 Female Music Artists of the Recorded Era - An Aussie perspective

This list has been a collaborative project by Contemporary Music staff and researchers at the Southern Cross University School of Arts and Social Sciences.

Making a top 50 list’ of anything is always going to be controversial. Our appreciation of music is so subjective I hear you say, so commercialised!   

At Southern Cross University we believe a list that acknowledges the profound contribution that women have made in creating the sounds we listen to on our music playlists is long overdue. And makes for an excellent celebration playlist choice for International World Music Day on October 1 

The list is based around a rationale that considers the following questionWho are the artists that have made a profound contribution to, and have been at the pioneering forefront of, global musical styles emerging in the 20th and 21st centuries? 

We compiled the list by looking (and listening to!) the volumes of sonic evidence to be found in the archives of the global recorded music era, beginning with Mamie Smith’s pioneering 1920 vocal recording and million-seller Crazy Blues, considered to be the first ‘blues’ record in history.  

From blues came jazz, rock, funk, punk, electro pop and hip hop and 100-odd years of global music making. Mamie Smith can therefore be seen to have had a profound musical influence on all of us.   

Popular and contemporary music has always been a major international commercial industry as well as a global cultural paradigm; so, we developed the ranking of the list taking an equal consideration of the cultural and commercial significance of each of the artists included. Those at the very top of the rankings are either a founding pioneer of their style of music performance or a highly regarded and successful artist based on critical and commercial acclaim. 

These rankings are an attempt to overcome subjective notions of importance and influence we make based on our own aesthetic judgement. We have constructed the rankings the same way we have always considered music making more generally within the Southern Cross University Contemporary Music Programlooking (and more importantly listening!) through the sonic lens of 21st century Australian contemporary and popular musical culture.    

Yes, it’s a controversial list but one that clearly shows that over the last 100 years the creative practice of female artists has always been at the forefront of innovation and artistic excellence in all styles of global popular music.  

The sonic diversity in the playlist highlights the sheer breadth of the world's music, whose sounds owe much to the collective creative practice of these culturally iconic and commercially successful artists who have been often overlooked but we hope will never be forgotten.  

Enjoy the playlist and celebrate the musical genius of these truly great women. 

1 to 10

  1. Mamie Smith 

Pioneer of the African American jazz and blues tradition and first blues recording in history ‘Crazy Blues’. Smith was a pioneer of the global commercial recorded music industry. 
Era: Entered the blues scene in 1920s and performed until 1939. 
Musical example: ‘Crazy Blues’  

  1. Arizona Dranes 

Innovator of African American Gospel Music. Dranes combined popular secular styles like Ragtime with Gospel Music. She had a major Influence on gospel music pioneers Thomas Dorsey and Sister Rosseta Tharpe. 
Era: Started recording in 1920s and performed until 1940s. 
Musical example: ‘I'll Go Where You Want Me To Go’ 

  1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe 

One of the many unacknowledged pioneers of the African American blues tradition.  A documented influence on Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Tharpe’s influence on blues-rock guitar changed the global pop music industry, being one of the first artists to use heavy distortion. 
Era: First recorded in 1938 and continued performing until 1970.  
Musical example: ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ 

  1. Edith Piaf 

Pioneer of the pop song form through her interpretation of the chanson or French folk ballad. Popular icon of French resistance in WWII. One of the first global pop music vocal superstars. 
Era: first discovered in 1935 and continued performing until her death in 1963.
Musical example: ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’  

  1. Billie Holiday 

A true pioneer and creator of the improvisational jazz vocal style. Holiday was a prolific songwriter and an extraordinary vocal talent. Overcame incredible personal hardship and suffering to pursue a ground-breaking career in music. Major influence on key jazz artists including Frank Sinatra. Winner of 4 Grammy awards. 
Era: Entered the jazz club scene in 1929 and continued performing until 1959. 
Musical example: ‘Strange Fruit’ 

  1. Sara and Maybelle Carter  

The Carter Family band was a profound pioneering influence on bluegrass and country music.  Major influence on Johnny Cash. First commercially produced American country music group.    
Era: First recorded in 1927 and continued performing into the 1950’s.  
Musical example: ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’ 

  1. Ella Fitzgerald 

One of the most recognisable jazz vocalists and innovator of the ‘scat’ improvisational singing style. Multiple collaborations with other pop singers and jazz artists. Known for sublime vocal technique. Known as the ‘first lady of song’. 60-year career, 14 Grammy awards. 
Era: Started recorded career in 1935 and continued performing until 1990.  
Musical example: ‘A Tisket A Tasket’ 

  1. Aretha Franklin 

Pioneer of the soul music sound in the 1960s, combining gospel and pop music. Over 75 million album sales and 18 Grammy awards. 
Era: Started singing solo gospel in 1952 and continued performing 2017; passed away in 2018.  
Musical example: ‘Natural Woman’ 

  1. Dolly Parton 

Influential pioneer of country music. 41 career top-10 country albums, a record for any artist, and 110 career charted singles over the past 40 years. 
Era: Began recording in 1967 and continues to perform today.  
Musical example: ‘Jolene’  

  1. Helen Reddy 

Anthem of the feminist movement during the 1970s. Grammy award winner and  1st Australian woman to top the US music charts. 
Era: First recorded hit came out in 1971 and continued to perform until 2002.  
Musical example: ‘I Am Woman’ 

No 1: Mamie Smith, pioneer of the global commercial recorded music industryNo 1: Mamie Smith, pioneer of the global commercial recorded music industry

Aretha Franklin - Pioneer of the soul music sound in the 1960sAretha Franklin - Pioneer of the soul music sound in the 1960s

Edith Piaf - One of the first global pop music vocal superstarsEdith Piaf - One of the first global pop music vocal superstars

Helen Reddy - 1st Australian woman to top the US music chartsHelen Reddy - 1st Australian woman to top the US music charts

Ella Fitzgerald - One of the most recognisable jazz vocalists - Original image by Gottlieb 02871Ella Fitzgerald - One of the most recognisable jazz vocalists

11 to 20

  1. Mavis Staples 

Gospel-soul pioneer, and political activist. 16 studio albums, 2 Grammy awards, Lifetime Achievement award. 
Era: First recorded in 1969 and most recently performed at 2019 Glastonbury Festival.  
Musical example: ‘Crying in the Chapel’ 

  1. Carol Kaye 

Critically acclaimed as one of the world’s best and most prolific session musicians (bassist) of all time. Kaye has recorded over 10,000 songs in a wide variety of popular music styles.  
Era: Began career as a session bassist in 1958 and continued through till 2006. 
Musical example: ‘Sloop John B’ – Beach Boys 

  1. Patti Smith 

Pioneering New York punk musician poet and political activist. 11 studio albums, 12 books, 4 Grammy nominations.  
Era: 1970 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’  

  1. Janis Joplin 

Iconic pioneering rock musician. A breakthrough women artist who succeeded in and challenged an incredibly male-dominated and mysoginistic 1960s rock music industry. Released 4 albums, died aged 27. Sold over 15 million albums. 
Era: 1966 – 1970. 
Musical example: ‘Piece of My Heart’ 

  1. Joni Mitchell  

Considered one of the most important and culturally influential commercially successful recording artists of the late-20th century. 19 studio albums, 3 live albums, 5 complications. 9 Grammy awards, multiple gold and silver albums. Sold 10 million albums in the US. 
Era: 1964 – 2013 
Musical example: ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ 

  1. Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog 

One-half of ABBA, the Swedish band that pioneered the Eurovision style of pop music and turned it into a global culture. One of most commercially successful pop groups in history. 
Era: 1974 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Fernando’ – ABBA 

  1. Madonna 

One of the first women pop music artists to have complete commercial contractual control of her artistic career. One of the biggest selling artists of all time, with more than300 million albums sold. 
Era: 1982 – present.  
Musical example: ‘Like a Virgin’ 

  1. Lita Ford and Joan Jett  

Two Influential pioneers of hard rock and early punk music. Recorded four studio albums with iconic rock band The Runaways. Both Lita Ford and Joan Jett went on to successful solo careers. 
Era: Runaways, 1975 – 1979. 
Musical example: ‘Cherry Bomb’ – The Runaways 

  1. Miriam Makeba 

Singer, songwriter, civil rights activist. It is impossible to overlook Makeba’s worldwide commercial artistic success and extraordinary musical abilities as a composer and vocalist as well as her contribution as a political activist within the international civil rights movement. Makeba was the first African artist to win a Grammy award. Recorded more than 20 studio albums in jazz popular and African musical styles.   
Era: 1953 – 2008. 
Musical example: ‘Pata Pata’ 

  1. Judith Durham  

Leader singer of Australia’s first international super group, The Seekers. The Seekers hold the record for the biggest concert crowd in the southern hemisphere: 200,000 people in 1967. Sold 50 million records worldwide.  
Era: 1950’ – present. 
Musical example: ‘Georgy Girl’ – The Seekers 

21 to 30

  1. Suzie Quattro 

Along with her contemporaries Lita Ford and Joan Jett, Quattro is one of the still-rocking pioneers of the hard rock genre. She was the first female vocalist/bassists to front a band. Has sold 55 million albums and is still performing. 
Era: 1986 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Can The Can’ 

  1. Olivia Newton John  

Internationally acclaimed Australian artist and actress. Four Grammy awards, 10 American Music Awards, one ACM award, one ARIA. Sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide. 
Era: 1963 – present. 
Musical example: ‘You're the One That I Want' 

  1. Meredith Monk 

Influential ground-breaking multi award-winning American composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker and choreographer.  
Era: 1960s – present. 
Musical example: ‘Eon' 

  1. Ruby Hunter 

Australian Aboriginal music pioneer. 1st Indigenous woman to sign to a major record label. Three albums, nominated for 2 ARIA awards: Best Indigenous release and Best blues and roots album. One Deadly award. 
Era: 1988 – 2010. 
Musical example: ‘Down City Streets' 

  1. Dusty Springfield  

Influential ground-breaking UK soul singer. One of the Pioneers of the ‘Northern Soul’ UK pop sound. Multiple chart successes and at one stage was the highest selling artist in the world.  
Era: 1958 – 1995.  
Musical example: ‘Sun of a Preacher Man’  

  1. MC Lyte 

One of the pioneering artists of American hip hop. The first commercially successful female rapper. 8 studio albums. Five US Rap chart #1s. 
Era: 1988 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Keep On, Keepin' On’ 

  1. Diana Ross 

Leader of the influential and ground-breaking group, The Supremes. Ross was one of architects of development of the smooth Motown sound and style of musical performance that appealed to white audiences and opened the door to greater mainstream popular musical success for African American artists.  
Era: 1959 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ 

  1. Renee Geyer 

Geyer occupies truly iconic status in the Australian music industry both for her own music career and as an exceptional and sought-after session vocalist who recorded music for other artists such as Sting, Jackson Brown, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan and Buddy Guy. Suitably inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. 15 albums, 6 ARIA nominations. 
Era: 1970 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Heading in the Right Direction’ 

  1. Laurie Anderson 

Pioneering electronic music composer. 1 Grammy award in 2019 for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. 7 studio albums, 2 spoken word albums, 2 live albums, ‘Oh Superman’ a ground-breaking commercially successful track. 
Era: 1969 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Oh Superman’ 

  1. Chrissie Amphlett  

Australian rock vocalist and songwriter whose original raspy vocal tone fronting the hard rock group The Divinyls was a massive commercial success in Australia; one of the first Australian female stars of hard rock.  
Era: 1980 – 2011. 
Musical example: ‘Science Fiction’ – Divinyls 

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31 to 40

  1. Nina Simone 

One of the most highly regarded blues pianists, composers, vocalists of all time. Released more than 40 albums. Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000. 
Era: 1954 – 2003. 
Musical example: ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ 

  1. Kylie Minogue 

Internationally acclaimed Australian singer, songwriter and actress. Fourteen studio albums, ARIA Hall of Fame in 2011, multiple ARIA awards, Brit Awards and a Grammy award. 
Era: 1988 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Loco-motion’ 

  1. Amy Winehouse 

Winehouse’s supreme abilities as a songwriter, musician and her huge commercial success as well as her tragic personal battle with addiction can be considered in the same breath as Janis Joplin or even Billie Holiday. The album ‘Back in Black’ is a masterwork that features one of the best vocal performances ever recorded.   
Era: 1997 – 2011. 
Musical example: ‘Rehab’  

  1. Bjork 

First found commercial success fronting Icelandic pop music group The Sugarcubes, then developed a highly original musical style that borrows from an eclectic blend of influences from around the world. Bjork is a ground-breaking multimedia artist as well.  
Era: 1975 – present 
Musical example: ‘Hyperballad’ 

  1. Beyonce 

First with Destiny’s Child and then as a solo artist, Beyonce has become a most highly regarded singer songwriter, with 6 studio albums, 5 live albums, 23 Grammy awards. 
Era: 1980s – present. 
Musical example: ‘Halo’ 

  1.  Taylor Swift 

Swift is a commercial tour de force who dominates the current world music scene. She has mastered the use of image and social media in building her career. 7 studio albums, 10 Grammy awards, 23 American Music awards. 
Era: 2004 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Love Story’ 

  1. Rihanna 

Influential hip hop/RnB artist who has now sold more tracks than Eminem. 
Era: 2003 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Diamonds’ 

  1. Nana Mouskouri 

Highly regarded European multilingual musician combining European folk and pop music. A cultural ambassador with the UN who, in 70 years, has recorded more than ver 200 albums and has had musical success singing songs in 12 languages. Mouskouri is still performing! 
Era: 1958–2008, 2011–present. 
Musical example: ‘White Rose of Athens’ 

  1. Whitney Houston 

Highly regarded vocalist with an incredible vocal range and technique. Endured terrible domestic violence and battled drug addiction but sadly passed away too young.   
Era: 1977 – 2012 
Musical example: ‘I Will Always Love You’ 

  1. Rickie Lee Jones 

Jones is considered one of the best songwriters of the late 20th century.  Highly regarded influential and commercially successful with 2 Grammy awards, 14 studio albums and 7 live albums. 
Era: 1970s – present. 
Musical example: ‘Chuck E's in Love’ 

41 to 50

  1. Linda Ronstadt 

Highly regarded prolific contribution, multiple music styles. 30 studio albums, 11 Grammy awards, 3 American Music awards, 2 Academy of Country Music awards, 1 Emmy award.  
Era: 1967 – 2011. 
Musical example: ‘You're No Good’  

  1. Deborah Conway  

Australian singer songwriter who has created successful music across many musical genres. 9 studio albums, 1 ARIA award for 'Best Female Artist'. 
Era:  1980s – present. 
Musical example: ‘Man Overboard’ – Do Re Mi 

  1. Adele 

Highly regarded songwriter and vocalist. 3 studio albums, 100 million records sold, 15 Grammy awards, 1 Academy award for ‘Skyfall’. Her second album, 21, remains the longest-running No. 1 album by a female solo artist. 
Era: 2005 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Someone Like You’ 

  1. Tina Arena  

Highly regarded, internationally best-selling Australian artist. 7 ARIA awards and 2 World Music awards. Only Australian artist to have a gold or platinum release in every decade since the 1970s. 
Era: 1976 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Chains’ 

  1. Sandy Evans 

A very highly regarded Australian performer composer and improviser. Saxophonist who has performed on more than 30 albums, winning 3 ARIAs and 2 Mo awards. 
Era: 1980 – present. 
Musical example: ‘The First Tune’ 

  1. Astrud Gilberto 

A somewhat controversial inclusion in this top 50 as she may not be considered the artistic equal of other South American musicians such as Marissa Monte, Celia Cruz or Mercedes Sosa to name a few. But Gilberto’s unique whispering vocals introduced the whole world to Brazillian Samba and paved the way for the global commercial success of this music.  
Era: 1963 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Girl from Ipanema’ 

  1. Kate Bush 

Unorthodox ground-breaking musical stylist and a pioneer of glam rock. 10 studio albums. Her song ‘Wuthering Heights’ was the first by a female artist to achieve a UK number one with a self-written song. 
Era: 1975 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Wuthering Heights’  

  1. Kate Crawford   

Pioneering Australian Electronic Dance Producer part of the legendary Australian 90s electronic duo B(if)tek and a prolific writer and researcher on contemporary culture. 
Era: 1995 – present. 
Musical example: ‘Bedrock’  

  1. Christine Anu 

Anu makes just makes this list!  She became a household name in Australia with the commercial success of her remake of Neil Murray’s iconic song ‘My Island Home’. Anu’s unique career as an Indigenous Australian actress, musician and broadcaster has been multifaceted and influential.  
Era: 1993 – present 
Musical example: ‘My Island Home’ 

  1. Kasey Chambers

Influential Australian country music artist. 12 studio albums, 14 ARIA Awards, inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Has toured with some other great country artists, such as Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. 
Era: 1987 – present. 
Musical example: ‘The Captain’ 

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