1. Shirley Collins
Shirley Collins was a 19-year-old singer and folk-music enthusiast when, in London in 1954, she met legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Soon after, she was traveling through the Deep South of America, making field recordings of hillbillies and bluesman. A diligent student, Collins became a repository of folksong, both English and American, and grew into a towering, definitive figure in the folk revival. She mixed old forms with new (1964's jazzy collaboration with Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes) and employed ancient, archaic instruments to critique modern Britain (1969's legendary Anthems in Eden). For Collins, cataloging oral musical traditions was a fiercely political act, putting history back in the hands of the people.
2. Delia Derbyshire
In 1959, as a 22-year-old music school graduate, Delia Derbyshire applied for a studio-recording position with Decca Records, only to be rebuffed on the grounds that they didn't hire women. She ended up at the BBC, instead, and became a pioneering practitioner of electronic music, tape experiments, and field recordings. Much of her work wasn't glamorous —she toiled making incidental music and themes for TV— but, in the studio for countless hours, Derbyshire was like a scientist in her laboratory. Her work ranges from the iconic theme for Doctor Who, to a creepy collection of musical interpretations of others' dreams ("The Dreams"), to a '68 LP with her electro-psychedelic outfit White Noise, who presaged the work of bands like Stereolab and Broadcast by decades.
3. Patty Waters
4. Yoko Ono
The most demonized woman in music history wasn't, herself, simply a musician. But that's why Ono, an inter-disciplinary artist exploring the intersections of different media, was a pioneer. Blamed for the break-up of The Beatles —history somehow overlooking fame, wealth, ego, grudges, and heroin— she was made hated villain, and mocked for her practice of conceptual art and embrace of the avant-garde. At best, Ono is regarded as a kook whose fame (or infamy) is disproportionate to her actual work. Which, whilst true, doesn't lessen the fearsome power of the Plastic Ono Band's Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, whose screeching vocals and improvised noise blazed a trail picked up by future figures of female power like Diamanda Galás, Meredith Monk, and Sonic Youth.
6. Catherine Ribeiro
French chanteuses were supposed to hold audiences enraptured with their feminine allure, a performative practice in keeping with notions of women singers as pretty and sweet. But Catherine Ribeiro casually, comically destroyed such stereotypes. Though schooled in the works of Piaf, the singer used her monstrous voice —all unalloyed vibrato and powerhouse projection— to stage highly-theatrical song-dialogues exploring folklore, war, politics, and gender. Ribeiro worked in league with husband Patrice Moullet —and the band Alpes— on a run of albums that pushed psychedelia and prog-rock to new extremes. Her 1972 masterwork Paix is essentially two side-long songs on which Ribeiro sounds less like chanteuse, more like the high priestess of shamanic psychedelia.
7. Brigitte Fontaine
8. Patti Smith
The pre-eminent poet of American punk-rock is an undoubted legend, in both underground and overground circles; a veritable rock'n'roll saint whose greatness can't even be denied by the masculine establishment. The legend of Patti Smith is two-fold: forged by her fiery debut album, 1977's Horses, and then burnished over four decades of unbowed independence, refusal to compromise, and seeming inability to make a bad record. But her influence is less about her LPs, more about her life. Smith embodies notions of womanhood seemingly in opposition —androgynous rocker and mother; raging voice-of-protest and poetic romanticist— and, in such, challenges both cultural and musical ideas of what females are allowed to be.
9. Poly Styrene
When Marianne Elliott-Said saw The Sex Pistols perform in 1975, she was inspired to start her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. At a time in which white-power party the National Front was on the rise, her mere presence —18, braces on teeth, half-Somali, female— was provocation, but Elliott-Said went out of her way to be confrontational. She 'branded' herself Poly Styrene as a commentary on consumerist culture and music-as-commodity, and X-Ray Spex's debut single (1977's immortal "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!") equated mass-marketed images of women with shackled oppression. X-Ray Spex's sole LP, Germ Free Adolescents, proved endlessly influential, Poly's poignant politics and broadside voice authoring the blueprint for the riot-grrrl movement.
In 2008, Björk wrote an open letter decrying the credit given to her male collaborateurs. "The work I do on the computer gets credited to whatever male was in 10 meter radius," she spat. Though Björk had worked with amazing musicians from Mark Bell to Matmos, she was always in charge: as writer, as producer, as conceptualist, as the driving force behind an unbroken string of groundbreaking albums. From 1993's Debut, Björk has made radical, experimental pop music, working avant-garde elements —electronic sound, sampling, songs assembled from bizarre components— into melodic form, whilst singing in an idiosyncratic, utterly-unique wail that is hers and hers alone. She's, needless to say, no man's puppet, more the most singular solo act of the past 20 years.