The ZORA Music Canon

The ZORA Music Canon

A lively image that says ?The ZORA Music Canon? with several acclaimed album covers by Black women animated  as a gif.

The 100 most iconic albums by African American women

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While commercial and chart-topping success was considered for many of the albums chosen, we also accounted for long-lasting cultural and emotional impact. The albums that get us hype and mark significant periods in our worlds. The timeless works that help us process the anguish and anger brought upon by racism and the absence of justice. The groundbreaking records that speak of our heartaches and give us healing energies. And even the records that served as soundtracks to all of the housecleaning we did as kids on Saturday mornings with our families. The result is a list of masterworks that have changed the world of music, and in some cases history, and reflect us.

But we didn?t stop there. To complement this offering, we put together a list of albums by Black women of the diaspora to honor the contributions of Grace Jones, Rihanna, Miriam Makeba, and other global artists who have had an outsized impact on music worldwide. We also compiled a list of emerging and under-the-radar Black female artists who deserve your ear right now.

Just as we noted in the ZORA literary canon, exercises like this are inherently subjective. We encourage you to share your thoughts and critiques in the response sections at the end of these lists.

This project provides a chance for you to discover and rediscover iconic music, reminisce and share your thoughts with the ZORA community, and pay homage to the game-changers in music.

Far more than they?re given credit for, Black women are the blueprint and the beacon. This project affirms that. We hope you enjoy it.

? Christina M. Tapper, ZORA deputy editor

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Ella Sings Gershwin

by Ella Fitzgerald (1950) Fitzgerald holds us down and holds us up at the same time in her first studio album. She is the blueprint for serious, soulful, and magical Black pop. She is pristine. Her work with Louis Armstrong is home run after home run, but Ella Sings Gershwin is her world championship. ? Danyel Smith

Sarah Vaughan

by Sarah Vaughan (1954)Vaughan gives us rousing swoops and leaps with a voice that is irresistibly husky and instrumental on this jazz record. ?I don?t think I ever modeled myself after a singer,? she once said. ?I?ve more or less copied the styles of horn-tooters right from the start.? That is evident on ?Lullaby of Birdland? and ?Embraceable You,? where she displays endlessly rich vocal stretches. ? Christina M. Tapper

Lady Sings the Blues

by Billie Holiday (1956) The sonic analogue to Lady Day?s memoir, Lady Sings the Blues encapsulates the variety, elegance, scope, and range of her body of work. The singer could level an anti-lynching protest dirge with driving subtlety and move through five dimensions of heartbreak over the course of one syllable. On this late-career recording, Holiday reminds listeners why she is forever known as the first modern singer. ?Daphne Brooks

Image for postSister Rosetta Tharpe, 1957

Gospel Train

by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1956)As the godmother of rock ?n? roll and inspiration for Little Richard and Elvis Presley, Tharpe floods your soul with a galvanic melange of sounds on Gospel Train. A genre-bending guitar virtuoso and queer icon who fused gospel with R&B and rock ?n? roll, Tharpe electrifies as her vocals take center stage with bluesy and spiritual expressions. ? CMT

Stormy Weather

by Lena Horne (1957)Take a sad, sentimental torch song and pair it with expert phrasing, and you have the phenomenon that was Horne. Beautiful and classic, her vocals were as clear as crystal, reflecting a light that allowed her to deliver standards such as ?Stormy Weather,? ?Summertime,? and ?Mad About the Boy? with honey-tinged tenderness. ? Vanessa K. De Luca, ZORA editor in chief

Live at Newport 1958

by Mahalia Jackson (1958)The beauty of a live performance is that the artist can ad-lib to their heart?s ? and their audience?s ? delight. Jackson once said, ?I sing God?s music because it makes me feel free.? When she unleashes her contralto vocals at this seminal concert, you can practically see the angels nodding in approval. ? VDL

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Abbey Is Blue

by Abbey Lincoln (1959)Abbey Is Blue finds jazz?s daring vocalist on the edge of an era in which she would go on to articulate her Black radical grassroots activism as well as her Black feminist sociopolitical vision in her deeply experimental music and in her acting career. All of this is brewing here in a record that yokes together Black diasporic dreaming and Brechtian show tunes. The album also channels Lincoln?s muse, Billie Holiday, along with spiritual odes to Mahalia Jackson. A record that reminds you of the depths of Black women?s musical history while yet still breaking new ground. ? DB

Image for postEtta James, 1960

At Last!

by Etta James (1960)With a gut-wrenching honesty that is raw and vulnerable, James sings of heartache and unrequited love in this jazz-inflected debut. Her colossal voice captivates listeners when she bares her heart?s desires on songs like ?Tough Mary? and ?I Just Want to Make Love to You.? Best known for her signature ballad, ?At Last,? James also mastered genres from blues and rock ?n? roll to gospel and soul, earning her a rightful place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. ? VDL

Leontyne Price (Arias from Verdi and Puccini)

by Leontyne Price (1961) The soprano soars with power in this recital record, leaving us filled with wonder and awe. A leading interpreter of Italian opera composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, Price ?was an international phenomenon throughout European and American opera houses,? Naomi Andr says. ?She represented Black excellence and became one of the most popular classical singers of her time.? ? CMT

He?s Got the Whole World in His Hands and 18 Other Spirituals

by Marian Anderson (1962) Arguably the greatest contralto of the 20th century, Anderson gave us opera arias and songs. She also delivered Negro spirituals with emotional power. On ?I Want Jesus to Walk With Me? and ?Hold On!? Anderson?s voice is gripping. The same can be said when she sang the album?s title track on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963. It was the same location of her legendary performance after being denied a stage at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall 24 years prior. ? CMT

Drinking Again

by Dinah Washington (1962) Released one year before Washington?s untimely passing, Drinking Again is a reminder that she was the crucial link between the classic blues women?s era and her own modern R&B moment that she helped to create. The queen of measured, cocktail-hour jazz sophistication, Washington infuses each song with the candor, gravity, and wit of her forebears. The grown-ass woman record that opened the door for Nina, Aretha, and others. ? DB

Lighting The Path, 1950-1962, a playlist by ZORA on Spotify

A playlist featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and others

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One Grain of Sand

by Odetta (1963)The classically trained folk luminary who merged African American work songs with coffeehouse counterculture, Odetta released this album at a pivotal turning point in the civil rights freedom struggle. She reminded listeners of the generations of music made by the folk who transcended the brutality of their captivity by scoring music that insisted upon the sanctity of their souls. ? DB

Anyone Who Had a Heart

by Dionne Warwick (1964)Warwick is one of the most charted female artists in modern music ? of any genre ? and her international pop success started with this sophomore effort. The title track, a torch song Warwick delivered with her hallmark elegance, was the first of over two dozen hits that composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David would write specifically for her strikingly pure but mellow alto, similarities of which we?d later hear in Warwick?s cousin, Whitney Houston. ? Naima Cochrane

Where Did Our Love Go

by The Supremes (1964)Motown?s most celebrated girl group reigned, well, supreme on this ear candy of an album that featured sweet angelic harmonies (and let?s not forget their flawless beehives, crisp choreography, and sartorial splendor to match). The echoey sound defined a moment in time when pop music was cutesy, catchy, and incredibly innocent. ? VDL

Image for postThe Supremes, 1966

I Put a Spell on You

by Nina Simone (1965)Like a wave of fresh air wafting through a window on a hot summer night, Simone?s elegant and emotional delivery washes over you, offering both relief and release. Simone?s expert phraseology combined with meticulous orchestration take us on a journey of pure bliss. When it comes to vocals, no other singer gives us wings in quite the same way. We float along with every dip and trill. ? VDL

Dance Party

by Martha and Vandellas (1965)Dance Party is the perfect name for this album. The tracks, including the world-famous single ?Dancing in the Streets,? are intended to make you move and groove to that classic ?60s doo-wop sound made famous by Motown. The project and the group are a reflection of all of the things that made the Motown era a magical time for music: intricate harmonies, stylish singers, and songs that made you want to jump up and dance. ? Jolie A. Doggett, ZORA platform editor

You?ll Sing a Song and I?ll Sing a Song

by Ella Jenkins (1966)The First Lady of Children?s Folk Song enthralled generations of children with her friendly voice and call-and-response singing on this iconic album. From the handclap game ?Miss Mary Mack? to the instructional title track, this is the soundtrack of kindergarten. Jenkins, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner, is often described as the Ella Fitzgerald of children?s music but stands alone in her dedication and respect for kids. ? Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, ZORA features editor

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

by Aretha Franklin (1967)This is Franklin?s breakthrough album that transformed the fundamental landscape of popular music culture. Gospel heat and majesty meets the magnitude of vocal virtuosity as Queen Re Re effortlessly merges her sacred aesthetics with secular passions, and the world would never sound the same again. A revelation. ? DB

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You?re All I Need

by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye (1968)Though cancer cut her life short at 24 years old, Terrell made an indelible mark during Motown?s dominance of the 1960s. Teaming up with Gaye for their second album together, and her last before her death in 1970, Terrell sparkles with enchantment and soul on the timeless track ?Ain?t Nothing Like the Real Thing? and ?You?re All I Need to Get By,? which Mary J. Blige and Method Man remade into a hip-hop love anthem in 1995. ? CMT

Stronger Than Dirt

by Big Mama Thornton (1969)The grit and intensity of Big Mama Thornton?s vocals made her a force. The brazen blues singer released her biggest hit ?Hound Dog,? featured on Stronger Than Dirt, in 1953 ? three years before Elvis Presley did. She also wrote and sang ?Ball and Chain,? later covered by Janis Joplin. Though both songs were popularized by white acts, Thornton was the originator. The songs are included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, both credited to Thornton. ? CMT

First Take

by Roberta Flack (1969)In the age of Aretha dominance, some dismissed Flack?s comparatively understated vocal style as uninspired. But the carefulness in her delivery is now appreciated as part of her brilliance. It conveyed the vulnerability that made ?The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,? a folk standard, feel autobiographical. Flack?s debut is more loungy jazz than rousing soul. It?s not urgent but deliberately paced for savoring every note, every phrase, and every layer. ? NC

Color Me Country

by Linda Martell (1970)A year before Martell released Color Me Country, the only album she recorded, she became the first African American woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, a prestigious weekly country music stage show. Martell is soulful, even on ?Bad Case of the Blues,? where she yodels, and on ?Color Him Country,? her most popular song, which climbed to #22 on the U.S. country charts. ? CMT

Amazing Grace

by Aretha Franklin (1972)This is the greatest gospel album in the history of recorded music. The project is deeply felt, emotionally complex, musically diverse, and delivered with the confidence of a genius. Franklin?s vocals, her time at the piano, and even her breathing are imbued with the Holy Spirit. With the desire to know and praise God, she builds for us an actual stairway to Heaven. ? DS

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself

by The Staple Singers (1972)From gospel music to creating the soundtrack of the civil rights movement to embracing hippie counterculture, Mavis, Pops, Cleotha, Yvonne, and Pervis Staple reinvented themselves over and over. The album, a riff off Jesus? biblical Beatitudes, showed a righteous afterlife ? and rootsy downbeat ? with several Billboard hits and a switch in sound that goes down in Stax history. This album spawned hundreds of covers of ?I?ll Take You There,? which went #1. ? ASG

Image for postGladys Knight, 1973


by Gladys Knight and the Pips (1973)Imagination marks the first big hit for Knight and the Pips after their gasp-inducing ditch from Motown and new contract with Buddah Records. That?s pretty remarkable not only for the commercial success of album single ?Midnight Train to Georgia,? which claimed the #1 spot on the Billboard Top 100, but also because the record showcased a track-after-track grit that cemented Knight?s superstar status for generations to come. ? ASG

Perfect Angel

by Minnie Riperton (1974)Like the delicate baby?s breath she often wore in her hair, Riperton?s airy and sweet songbird stylings epitomize this five-octave range singer who left us way too soon. While the cool ballad ?Lovin? You? is Maya Rudolph?s mama?s claim to fame, she also delved into ?70s funk and soul on this set. ? VDL

The Soul Of A Nation, 1963-1974, a playlist by ZORA on Spotify

A playlist featuring The Supremes, Nina Simone, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, and others

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by Labelle (1974) In the early ?70s, Labelle traded their girl group image for a new futuristic look. Nightbirds gave them the sound to match. The album is a daring mesh of funk, soul, rock, and gospel that explores sexual liberation ? still new territory for Black women in music ? and social issues. Singles ?Lady Marmalade? and ?What Can I Do for You? proved that Nona, Sarah, and Patti?s voices had been restrained with doo-wop. Now they sounded free. ? NC

They Say I?m Different

by Betty Davis (1974)A pioneer of funk, Davis intrepidly sings as a sexually empowered woman who ?used to tie him up? and ?say all kinds of dirty thangs.? Songs like ?He Was a Big Freak? and ?Don?t Call Her No Tramp? show how raw and ungovernable the gravelly voiced singer was in her music, which outraged the NAACP. Credited with influencing Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis ? her ex-husband whose music and style evolved during their marriage ? Davis was well ahead of her time. ? CMT


by Mary Lou Williams (1974)The grand genius pianist who played through the changes (all of them!) across the 20th-century jazz revolution flexes her mastery of groove and her art of delivering sage, intricate musical statements. Having cut her teeth as a blues pianist, a boogie-woogie stylist, a godmother of bebop, and a composer of majestic compositions exploring her Catholic faith, Williams delivers an album that floats and glides back and forth across jazz history and takes us into the future. ? DB


by Natalie Cole (1976) Under the hits ?Mr. Melody? and ?Sophisticated Lady (She?s a Different Lady),? there is effervescence and unforgettable vocal storytelling. But it?s within songs like ?Heaven Is With You,? ?No Plans for the Future,? ?Can We Get Together Again,? and her cover of ?Good Morning Heartache? that the melancholy and mania that define Cole?s creative life merge into a miracle. ? DS

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by Alice Coltrane (1978)Before the enlightened jazz guru ventured off into the world of devotional music, where she stayed for the remainder of her life, Coltrane recorded a live album with Reggie Workman on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, giving the audience at UCLA in Los Angeles an opportunity to hear what Coltrane was naturally working with. This free jazz album is executed with style, grace, and sentimentality toward the traditional jazz improvisational world she was leaving behind. ? Jordannah Elizabeth

The Earthshaker

by Koko Taylor (1978)The accuracy and wisdom found on the Queen of the Blues? album transcend time. When she powerfully belts out, ?You can have my husband, but please don?t mess with my man,? women of every age chuckle and nod. Chock full of blues-raunchy tunes that recall basement Bid Whist parties and adults taking a smoke out back, this album centers the badassery ? and sexuality ? of women. ? ASG

The Boss

by Diana Ross (1979) Deftly guided by legendary writers-producers Ashford and Simpson, The Boss captures the exuberance of the disco era with Ross? unique breathy bravado. With each track, she solidifies her diva status as she coyly sings about the highs and lows of love. We defy anyone to listen to this collection without being tempted to twirl the night away on a smoke-filled lighted dance floor. ? VDL

Please Be Patient With Me

by Albertina Walker (1979)This album is so iconic that choirs still sing the title track, also a life lesson, that ends with this defiant fist shake to the haters: ?When God is through with me, I?ll be exactly who He wants me to be.? The Grammy-nominated cuts were recorded live with the help of the Rev. James Cleveland and, says Walker, God. Said the Queen of Gospel of that day: ?We had church in the recording session, and the Lord really blessed that album.? ? ASG

We Are Family

by Sister Sledge (1979)The breakout album from the Philadelphia-born quartet is stacked with classic disco-era hits that made them bona fide stars. A staple of family reunions and sporting events, the title track has indisputable energy and longevity. The allure of ?Lost in Music,? ?He?s the Greatest Dancer,? and ?Thinking of You? instantly pull you right up outta your seat to look for the nearest dance floor. Even the slow jams compel you to two-step. ? CMT

Image for postDonna Summers, 1979

Bad Girls

by Donna Summer (1979) If you need proof that disco?s reputation as a cheesy subgenre is revisionist history, start with Summer?s concept masterpiece. The double LP runs the sonic gamut from dance hits like the title track to lingering ballads to edgy offerings like ?Hot Stuff,? which garnered a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Had she debuted in a different era, Summer would likely be celebrated more as one of our most versatile voices. ? NC


by Diana Ross (1980)After she put out The Boss, Ross kept us twirling with the release of Diana. The album, with its infinite buoyancy and empowerment, marked the end of Ross? Motown career and a new chapter to celebrate equality and freedom. It ushered in the megahit ?Upside Down? and the lively ?Have Fun (Again)? while the liberating ?I?m Coming Out? became an instant gay pride anthem. ? CMT

You Brought the Sunshine

by The Clark Sisters (1981)The Clark Sisters brought the funk, the groove, and the message back into gospel music with this record. Every track carries that distinguished ?Clark Sound? of high harmonies, masterful runs, and powerful vocals that are the envy of any choir or soloist. But don?t let the old-school gospel sound fool you, these sisters (and their mother, who is featured on the album) were subtly speaking to the problems of the times, including drug abuse, in their chart-topping offering. ? JAD

Strauss: Four Last Songs

by Jessye Norman (1983) ?Norman was among the leading singers in her generation with a rich dramatic soprano voice that excelled in German and French repertoire? Naomi Andr says. Norman, who won four Grammys during her lifetime, delivers an unforgettable performance anchored in control and precision. ? CMT

Break Out

by The Pointer Sisters (1983)There?s a special skin tingle that happens when you blast this album from the speakers. Energetic and vivacious, The Pointer Sisters knew how to get the joint jumping with sassy vocals and synthesized music that has ?80s written all over it. The old-time church influence is undeniable, yet the entire album is utterly of-the-moment. ? VDL

I?m in Love Again

by Patti LaBelle (1983)?If Only You Knew? gave us a heart-wrenching, pining ballad that?ll make any slow jams list. ?Love, Need and Want You? is a sexy classic that would become a popular sample for future generations of musicians. The album, as a whole, revealed the multitudes contained in all Black women?s hearts and lives, and it?s classic LaBelle: sexy, heartfelt, powerful. ? JAD

Private Dancer

by Tina Turner (1984) Turner?s seminal album is one of the greatest second acts in music. She had never been a core R&B singer. But launching a comeback with a rock ?n? roll album at 44 years old after multiple failed solo efforts seemed impossible. The LP?s multiplatinum success, anchored by ?What?s Love Got to Do With It,? was as much a testament to Turner?s resilience as her talent. ? NC

Whitney Houston

by Whitney Houston (1985)The eponymous album marked the emergence of a groundbreaking new voice and has since become one of the biggest-selling debut albums of all time. These wonderful ballads allowed Houston to harness the full extent of her vocal power and inspired a whole generation of female singers. ? Morgan Jerkins, ZORA senior editor


by Janet Jackson (1986)Control was one of the most groundbreaking albums of its kind. Jackson put dance on the map with hits that paved her own unique path in the industry. It was motivating, pulsating, and inspirational. Her style of performance has influenced the likes of many who have followed in her footsteps. ? MC Lyte


by Anita Baker (1986)The album is full of smooth and confident lyrics. Baker sang from a woman?s perspective to show strength and vulnerability. She coasted over the masterfully composed instrumentation and made it so stylized that you were never confused about who you were listening to. ? MCL

There’s No Stopping Us, 1974-1986, a playlist by ZORA on Spotify

A playlist featuring Minnie Riperton, LaBelle, Betty Davis, and others

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Hot, Cool & Vicious

by Salt-N-Pepa (1986) Featuring ?Push It,? ?I?ll Take Your Man,? and ?Chick on the Side,? the album is one of the most under-celebrated efforts in music history. Salt-N-Pepa came through a male-dominated rap culture, inventing themselves in real time and creating hits that influence hip-hop stars ? men and women ? to this day. ? DS

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by Whitney Houston (1987) ?There had been so much anticipation after hearing her single ?You Give Good Love,?? MC Lyte says. ?The world was on pins and needles awaiting the follow-up.? Houston delivered. Whitney?s chart-topping singles like ?I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)? and ?Didn?t We Almost Have It All? became instant classics. And not just in the U.S., as MC Lyte recalls, but all over the world. ?She quickly became an international star.? ? CMT

Tracy Chapman

by Tracy Chapman (1988)Domestic violence, systemic inequality, radical queer intimacy, and talk of revolution. Chapman?s debut album dropped into the zeitgeist of Reagan-Bush America in 1988 and spoke to the silent majority ? this country?s marginalized peoples who were longing to be seen, heard, and cared for. A folk revelation that crossed over to the center of popular music culture. ? DB

Rhythm Nation 1814

by Janet Jackson (1989)Control is its own massive book of magic, but truly it functions in Jackson?s career as the run-up to her finest moments. The fact that so many songs from Rhythm are so rich with feeling and appeal to millions of people is an achievement of creativity, collaboration, and Jackson?s relentless commitment to excellence. The lineup is impressive: ?Miss You Much,? ?Love Will Never Do (Without You),? ?Alright,? ?Escapade,? ?Come Back to Me.? Artists get crowned into the Hall of Fame with this kind of work over a career. These are from just one of Jackson?s projects. One. ? DS

Image for postQueen Latifah, 1989

All Hail the Queen

by Queen Latifah (1989) Nineteen-year-old Latifah?s debut was thematically and creatively ahead of its time. It?s a hip-hop record with elements of jazz, house, and reggae/dancehall, accentuated with hooks and ad-libs she sang herself ? a formula Missy Elliott would utilize almost a decade later. Lyrically, songs contained references of Black nationalism and the Five-Percent Nation (standard for conscious rap) but also early feminist statements in hip-hop, namely Latifah?s collaboration with U.K. emcee Monie Love, the still resonant ?Ladies First.? ? NC

What?s the 411?

by Mary J. Blige (1992)This is the first album out the gate for the Yonkers B-girl. Everything about this album was a merge of authentic hip-hop drums, snares happily met with a fresh take on R&B. Without the industry knowing, the rawness of her voice and lyrical content was exactly what we all needed. ? MCL

It?s Not About the Melody

by Betty Carter (1992) One of the most important jazz composers and educators in jazz history, Carter released a beautifully adventurous jazz record that showcased her gift for using complicated syncopation in a manner that not only creates a unique style but also gives you a new perspective on how music can be sung. ?Stay as Sweet as You Are? is a startlingly simplistic yet penetrating track that makes Carter the queen of sweet talk. ? JE

It?s About Time

by SWV (1992)If you grew up in the ?90s, you could not escape the soulful sounds of SWV ? nor did you want to. These around-the-way sisters with voices took hip-hop on a trip with a smooth R&B flair on this album, which included such megahits as ?I?m So Into You,? ?Right Here,? and ?Weak.? ? VDL

Funky Divas

by En Vogue (1992)Queens of the ooh-bop bridge breakdown, the ladies of En Vogue came out brash and brassy on this album, especially on the anti-prejudice anthem ?Free Your Mind.? True video vixens, their four-part harmonies exemplified early ?90s femme swagger. ? VDL

Femme Fatale

by Miki Howard (1992) Howard?s covers of ?Good Morning Heartache,? ?Hope That We Can Be Together Soon,? and ?This Bitter Earth? are epic and underrated translations. But her ?Ain?t Nobody Like You? is a perfect recording. It?s modern, vibrant, and desperate in thrillingly complicated ways. And Howard?s voice? It is an incantation. ? DS

Our Mics Sounds Nice, 1986-1992, a playlist by ZORA on Spotify

A playlist featuring Salt-N-Pepa, Whitney Houston, Tracy Chapman, and others

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Still on the Journey: The 20th Anniversary Album

by Sweet Honey in the Rock (1993)To see this a cappella group live in concert is to be immersed in the purest form of music-making. This anniversary album gives you just a taste. As layer upon layer of seamless harmonies unfold, you can feel the timbre of their voices in your chest ? and in your heart. Freedom songs and spirituals are their particular oeuvre, reminding us of the rich cultural inheritance we must not ever forget. ? VDL

Ma Rainey, 1928: The Complete 1928 Selections in Chronological Order

by Gertrude ?Ma? Rainey (1994)The Mother of the Blues has several multidisc compilations, but this collection is a digestible overview that stays true to the imperfections of time on the recordings. Her personality shines, just like her gold teeth, flashy jewelry, and open bisexuality. She tells real stories. On ?Black Eye Blues,? Rainey casts a song of roots work on a man beating his woman. ?You low down alligator, just watch me soon or later. Catch you with your britches down.? ? ASG

My Life

by Mary J. Blige (1994)Blige?s debut album What?s the 411? was the autobiography of an around-the-way girl. Her sophomore LP, My Life, reflected the internal reflection, conflict, and longing of a grown woman beyond Blige?s 23 years. My Life played like a musical diary for so many of us, but it was also clear that Blige was singing about her own experiences. The emotional rawness and soulful depth she revealed through My Life is centric to her music career. ? NC

Merry Christmas

by Mariah Carey (1994)If we?re talking about albums with a worldwide cultural impact, there is no body of work more iconic and irreversibly attached to a specific season than Merry Christmas. This project is a magnificent showcase of Carey?s vocal range as well as her love of God and the holidays. It features what is arguably one of her most famous singles, ?All I Want for Christmas Is You,? which will go down in history as a yuletide ? and karaoke ? classic. ? JAD


by TLC (1994)When you hear the intro trumpet on ?Creep,? you know it?s time to throw on the silk PJs and jam. CrazySexyCool boasts four top-five singles on the charts, including the poignant ?Waterfalls,? and offers strong album cuts like the Prince cover ?If I Was Your Girlfriend? and ?Switch,? where Lisa ?Left Eye? Lopes gleefully rhymes about how to replace your boo. The album, which moves between edgy, sultry, and relaxed vibes, established the trio?s icon status. ? CMT

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Pronounced Jah-Nay

by Zhan (1994)The duo?s debut helped usher in neo-soul before the genre went mainstream in the late ?90s. Opening with the enduring party jam ?Hey Mr. DJ,? Zhan follows up with the up-tempo tracks ?Changes? and ?Groove Thang.? The entire project is a steady display of harmonizing vocals and punctuated bass lines. But it?s ?Sending My Love,? lush with softness, charm, and yearning, that shines. ? CMT

Waiting to Exhale

by various artists (1995)The album consists of songs from Black women only. Whitney Houston with the eternal and Grammy-winning ?Exhale (Shoop Shoop).? Mary J. Blige with one of her best performances. Brandy at the top of her game. Toni Braxton. Aretha. TLC. Chaka. SWV. Patti LaBelle. CeCe Winans. We can go on, but the fact that it?s one of the bestselling soundtracks of all time tells how iconic this project is. ? DS

New Moon Daughter

by Cassandra Wilson (1996) Upon listening, one would agree that this deep and earthy record has secret healing properties that draw you in by Wilson?s ethereal alto voice. The album shot to #1 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Albums chart because the world experienced an unspoken connection to her deep, magnetic musical atmosphere. ? JE

Hard Core

by Lil? Kim (1996)Like it or not, Lil? Kim changed the way Black femme rappers looked, rapped, and navigated through the world forever. But her neon-colored wigs, bikini, and fur coat were only ornaments for her undeniably strong rap flow and powerful lyrics. She was in control of her sexuality and had no problem with expressing it. Hard Core created a paradigm shift in the rap game that still stands today. ? JE

Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1

by Chaka Khan (1996) Featuring hits like ?Through the Fire,? ?I Feel for You,? and ?I?m Every Woman,? this compilation is a spirit-shifting project that will make you move. ?This has been played in my home more than the law should allow,? MC Lyte admits. ?I absolutely adore Chaka?s voice and love each one of these songs showcased. The sequence is magical, yet every song stands on its own.? ? CMT


by Toni Braxton (1996)It?s difficult for artists to avoid the sophomore slump with their works, but Braxton managed to pull it off with Secrets. With tracks like ?You?re Makin? Me High? and ?Un-Break My Heart,? Braxton delivers some of the biggest hits of her career replete with sheer emotion and depth. ? MJ

One in a Million

by Aaliyah (1996) With the support of Timbaland and Missy ?Misdemeanor? Elliott, who created a sonic universe like no other, Aaliyah solidified her place in R&B popular music. Her soft and subtle vocal delivery over far-out and melodic hip-hop beats offered the world gifts like ?Hot Like Fire,? ?If Your Girl Only Knew,? and ?4 Page Letter,? which all completely defied cookie-cutter urban pop music. ? JE

The Velvet Rope

by Janet Jackson (1997)Considered to be too long and diverse by her critics, the project prevailed by winning countless awards and produced several hits like ?I Get Lonely,? ?Got ?Til It?s Gone,? ?Go Deep,? and ?Together Again.? This album nourished the world with sincere and memorable music. ? JE

Image for postErykah Badu, 1998


by Erykah Badu (1997) The Queen of Neo-Soul?s concert LP bowed just nine months after the release of debut album Baduizm, but Live was perhaps a clearer introduction to Badu?s full artistry and creativity. Album singles like ?Next Lifetime? and ?Otherside of the Game? translated perfectly to live renditions. But the standouts were covers and brand new pieces like ?Ye Yo,? the endearing lullaby for Badu?s son Seven, and the session improv turned legendary anti-bum anthem ?Tyrone.? ? NC

Supa Dupa Fly

by Missy Elliott (1997) Other-planetary is a way to describe Elliott?s debut. No one had ever heard or seen anything like the hip-hop maven whose larger-than-life imagination bled into her music and everything she touched. She did not fit into the mold of hip-hop. Instead, she created an entirely new realm to demonstrate her genius. Supa Dupa Fly offered humor and hits, something no other femme hip-hop artist had done before. ? JE

The Essential Bessie Smith

by Bessie Smith (1997)Her name is synonymous with the kind of gutbucket blues you might hear at a backwater juke joint. And in this latter-day compilation, the woman known as the Empress of the Blues demonstrates how her music influenced and paved the way for generations of artists who came after her. Never one to shy away from sly innuendos in her songs, she could evoke more emotion with her raspy voice and a piano accompaniment than many can do with a fully loaded orchestra. ? VDL


by Mariah Carey (1998)There are very few musicians who can boast that every one of their albums is a hit-maker. Carey is one of those artists. It?s impossible to choose just one Mariah Carey project that speaks to her songwriting ability, her vocal prowess, and her ability to elicit heartfelt memories ? while giving us vocabulary lessons ? because they all do. #1?s is the unapologetic musical highlight reel of the songstress?s formidable career and the playbook for all singers following in her footsteps. ? JAD

Image for postLauryn Hill, 1999

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

by Lauryn Hill (1998) This was one of the most prolific albums to hit the scene in years. With its impressive musicality and songwriting, the project garnered every award known to man during award season and rightfully so. Hill set the bar for a new take on soul meets hip-hop. ? MCL

The Boy Is Mine

by Monica (1998)Three years after her debut, 17-year-old Monica returned with an album asserting her maturity. Offering ballads and bops, The Boy Is Mine further confirmed the striking and tender power of Monica?s voice with classics ?Angel of Mine? and ?For You I Will.? She draws a declarative hard line in ?The First Night? and launches into a vocal duel with Brandy over a two-timing boy on the title track that still has us acting out the lyrics years later. ? CMT

Never Say Never

by Brandy (1998) At 19 years old, Brandy was able to convey all the feelings of love any woman can relate to at any age without ?acting grown? as the elders would say. And that?s what made her appeal in 1998 resonate with young Black girls and their moms alike. It also allowed this album to become an enjoyable classic more than 20 years later. ? Olivia Dope

The Writing?s on the Wall

by Destiny?s Child (1999)OG Destiny?s Child came through with a well-composed album that told a complete story from beginning to end. Not only did this album give us the universal DC hits like ?Say My Name,? ?Bug a Boo,? ?Jumpin?, Jumpin,?? and ?Bills, Bills, Bills,? it also maturely spoke to the complexities of relationships, fidelity, and moving on, all in four-part harmony. It?s a cultural snapshot of the times and reminds us of the good ole days of pagers and AOL. ? JAD

Mountain High? Valley Low

by Yolanda Adams (1999)This glorious gospel album has a distinctly contemporary flair that will have you both down on your knees and lifting your hands in total praise. Adams infuses every song with her trademark lilting and spirit-filled harmonies. Standouts include the crossover hit ?Open My Heart? as well as the ebullient ?Already Alright.? ? VDL

Image for postKelis, 2000


by Kelis (1999)People talk about the influence of The Neptunes and how they made it okay for Black kids to be ?alternative.? But with Kaleidoscope, Kelis was right there, repping for all of the eccentric girls. Sunburnt orange hair and all. Released at the turn of the century, the game-changing album covered massive ground ? aliens, troubled relationships, and ?I hate you so much right now? declarations. It carried a soul-meets-rock-meets-rap vibe that couldn?t fit into one box. Much like its artist. ? CMT


by Mary Mary (2000)Every church kid knows exactly where they were when they first heard ?Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance!? Dancing? In church?! We have Mary Mary to thank for that. Their debut album, featuring elements of hip-hop, rap, and R&B, gives glory to God while celebrating the complexity of Black music culture. Thankful ushered in a new era of contemporary gospel music that gave us permission to have fun and dance for Jesus. ? JAD

Mama?s Gun

by Erykah Badu (2000) At 20 years old, Mama?s Gun feels more like an Afrofuturist vision board more than an aging time capsule. This neo-soul masterpiece is an eclectic collection of music that merges jazz, blues, and spoken word in a manner that is so personal to Badu?s otherworldly style, making this album a pure postmodern treasure that cannot be duplicated. ? JE

Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1

by Jill Scott (2000) Scott?s debut album turned what we knew about romance and Black sensuality completely on its head. Her silky, penetratingly sexy voice flowed over soulful musical landscapes and took us on a journey into her glowing and open creative universe. Scott taught us how to express love at its core in an increasingly chaotic and technological era. ? JE

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Miss E? So Addictive

by Missy Elliott (2001)The architect. Queen Muva. There would be no Lizzo without Missy Elliott taking her innovative rhyming skills, animated vocals, comedic timing, dual talents of rapping and singing, and her ?plus-size sexy? pride to untapped territories as she did with this album. ? OD

Songs in A Minor

by Alicia Keys (2001)An acclaimed, classically trained pianist, the prodigy officially introduced herself to the world with this debut in which she handled the lyrical and musical production. In Songs in A Minor, Keys explores the vicissitudes of relationships with a vulnerability beyond her years. ? MJ

Acoustic Soul

by India.Arie (2001)If you ever need a listening session with some music that makes you feel seen as a Black woman, just put on this double-platinum masterpiece by the bohemian goddess India.Arie. With mellow vocals accompanied by a folksy acoustic guitar, she celebrates self-worth and the unabashed joy of loving oneself unconditionally. ?Strength, Courage & Wisdom? is just one of the many inspiring melodies that make this album stellar. ? VDL

Mahogany Soul

by Angie Stone (2001)Stone solidified her spot as an R&B songstress with this set full of bass-bumping anthems. From ?Soul Insurance? to ?Pissed Off,? Stone sings of the travails of modern life and love with the assurance of your wisest sister-girlfriend. Let?s not forget this is also the album where she saluted the strength of Black men ? and the women who love them ? in ?Brotha.? ? VDL


by Ashanti (2002) With this album, Ashanti broke the record for best opening week sales for a female artist?s debut back when everyone had to buy physical copies. The reasons for that are simple: Ashanti?s writing skills and her ability to carry the R&B and hip-hop soul torch that her idol Mary J. Blige lit 10 years before into the new millennium. Ashanti created a classic album on her first try, a feat mastered by few. ? OD

Outrun the Sky

by Lalah Hathaway (2004)Looking for soulful background music for a lazy Sunday afternoon? Look no further. Hathaway is the kind of music artist that other artists praise, but that still often doesn?t get her flowers from the masses. Her husky, earthy vocals harken to some of father Donny?s influences, yet she has distinctly carved out her own niche. Still not convinced? Just check out her sultry cover of Luther Vandross? ?For Ever, for Always, for Love.? ? VDL

Having Our Say, 1994-2004, a playlist by ZORA on Spotify

A playlist featuring Mary J. Blige, TLC, Zhan, and others

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by Santigold (2008) The album in which a Black feminist techno wonder lays claim to new wave; invokes the spirit of Grace Jones, Missing Persons, Berlin, and big electronic ?80s pop and ?90s dance music; and forecasts the future. Later retitled Santigold, this brilliant debut album walks the line between cool, dazzling beats and quirky, euphoric vocality while bucking narrow racial and gender conventions in pop. Space-age party music for the people. ? DB


by Esperanza Spalding (2008)Spalding is no jazz purist. She proves that here. With nods to Brazilian music, rock, and pop, her eponymous sophomore effort, at age 23, is a brilliant bricolage of sounds that solidify Spalding as a once-in-a-lifetime prodigious talent who doesn?t shy away from rewriting jazz?s rule books. Listeners float on her mellifluous voice and melodic bass play in ?Precious? and ?Ponta De Areia.? ? CMT

Image for postJanelle Mone, 2010

The ArchAndroid

by Janelle Mone (2010) Mone?s first full-length album is a fearless Afrofuturist opera, ambitious in its reach, soaring in its imaginative vision. A history-making recording that centers the voice of queer Black feminism, The ArchAndroid gives listeners a cold, dystopian universe as well as a punk, funk, R&B, and hip-hop heroine who has the power to save us all. The most path-breaking concept album of the 21st century. ? DB

Pushin? Against a Stone

by Valerie June (2013) June trips the light fantastic with this album, a magical elixir of Afro dream folk and transcendental blues that weaves together Tennessee time with Williamsburg indie energy. June?s iridescent vocals are the cosmic thread that ties together journeywoman narratives of wonder and wandering. ? DB


by Beyonc (2013)Beyonc?s self-titled album changed the entire music game, literally. A secret release by a megastar with zero warning or promotion? Never done before. Every song accompanied by a music video and visual treatment? Unheard of. And on top of that, every single track had the nerve to be really, really good. This album and its internet-breaking release started important conversations about third-wave feminism and solidified Beyonc?s place as the GOAT of contemporary music. ? JAD

Ego Death

by The Internet (2015)It?s hard to pin down and define the sound style that is Ego Death, and that?s why it deserves a place on this list. A Black woman lesbian-led band created a whole new musical genre that?s at once pop, synth, rock, and R&B. With Syd at the helm as its frontwoman, The Internet gave millennials new words to express the complexities of love, courting, and heartbreak in the digital age ? all set to rich instrumentals. It?s music with a unique point of view. Instantly relatable and replayable. ? JAD


by Beyonc (2016) The magnum opus of 21st-century Black feminist sound, Beyonc?s game-changing sixth studio album brings together history and politics, cultural memory, and social resistance in its exploration of complex and feeling Black womanhood. A masterpiece in multi-genre sound and vision, Lemonade is a meditation on the afterlives of slavery and the intersectional conditions shaping modern Black life. ? DB

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by Jamila Woods (2016)?I?m very Black, Black, Black / Can?t send me back, back, back / You take my brother, brother, brother / I fight back, back, back,? Woods sings on the trembling track ?VRY BLK.? With a nostalgic nod to childhood hand-clapping games, the song explores police brutality and loss. It?s one example of the exemplary work on Wood?s solo debut that also honors Black female freedom fighters (?Blk Girl Soldier?) and affirms worthiness (?Holy?), establishing Heavn as a soundtrack for Black womanhood. ? CMT

A Seat at the Table

by Solange (2016) An avant-garde masterpiece of the first order and the quintessential protest album of the Black Lives Matter era. Solange?s third album is a radical mood study and an exercise in probing Black feminist introspection and ?quiet sovereignty.? Luminous, brooding, and potently lyrical, it is a stirring affirmation of Black feminist poetic resolve and imagination. ? DB

Image for postSolange, 2017

Dreams and Daggers

by Ccile McLorin Salvant (2017) The monumental double album from the greatest jazz vocalist of her generation, Dreams and Daggers is a tour-de-force collection of songs, revisionist readings of jazz, and songbook classics that dissect the meaning of race, gender, and power that lies at the heart of popular music?s fundamental DNA. Salvant?s ferociously intelligent, daredevil vocalizing draws out the details of each charged work in the canon and then counters with original compositions, rejoinders that lay claim to Black feminist lifeworlds. ? DB

Invasion of Privacy

by Cardi B (2018) ?Bodak Yellow? is one of the best debut singles in history. Cardi B came in with the whole reality-show-cast-member thing to ?overcome.? But the thing is, Cardi didn?t give a shit about that or about what anyone thought about anything but herself. Cardi came in on the offense, and when she talked about those ?bloody shoes,? her status as a poet was etched in stone. Her version of ?I Like It? lifts the iconic original into the now. What?s funny about Cardi? What?s awesome? We?re still at the beginning. ? DS


by Rapsody (2019)With every track named after a powerful Black woman, Eve is an homage to us. It?s a piercing and validating love letter brimming with lyrical truths and reminders. ?I know my worth / these colonizers got to pay me,? Rapsody testifies on ?Sojourner,? a fitting mantra for us to recite when preparing for negotiations. Uplifting legacies with honesty and pride, Rapsody claims and makes space for Queen Latifah, Mereba, and Leikeli47 and poet Reyna Biddy to join her on select tracks. ? CMT


by Brittany Howard (2019) Rock?s greatest songstress of the 21st century is a crooner and a wailer. She is also a bold and righteous singer-songwriter who brings together early R&B groove, funk sensuality, and the moral economy of soul and folk music with the fury and intensity of rock ?n? roll. Jaime is an extraordinary debut album with searing critiques of racism and sexism as well as gorgeous affirmations of self-worth, communal solidarity, and care. An instant classic. ? DB

Our Time, Our Moment-Present, a playlist by ZORA on Spotify

A playlist featuring Santigold, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Mone, and others

Photos via Getty Images (in alphabetical order):Donna Summers: Michael Ochs Archive, Erykah Badu: Ebet Roberts/Redferns, Etta James: Michael Ochs Archives, Gladys Knight: Walt Disney Television, Janelle Mone: Frederick M. Brown, Kelis: Patrick Ford/Redferns, Lauryn Hill: Chris Lopez/Sony Music Archive, Queen Latifah: Raymond Boyd, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Henry How/Mirrorpix, Solange: Rick Wern/WireImage, The Supremes: Robert Abbott Sengstacke


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