Last spring I started having a daydream. What if instead of going through the agony of compiling a year-end Top 10, I did something much more fun — like host a girls' night out? My fantasy involved a night of convivial chatter and music-making across genres and generations: a country music artisan exploring ideas about song form with a jazz revisionist; a punk doyenne giving image pointers to a young pop iconoclast; an R&B revivalist talking emotionalism with an African-born European rocker. Women were making great music all across the world, and by autumn I realized that though I might never get my favorites in the same physical space, I'd have no problem shaping a list that shows how their music works together to form fascinating debates and moments of confluence, even when, stylistically, they seem distant or even opposed.
Plenty of men made outstanding music in 2013 — I've enthused about some of my favorites elsewhere within NPR Music's year-end coverage. But from the controversies generated by Miley Cyrus and Lorde to the overwhelming critical love for Brandy Clark and (surprise!) Beyonce, little presented itself as more worthy of serious consideration than women's identities, attitudes and creative output. (Yeezus did. But it was clearly inspired, at how many degrees of artistic removal we can't know, by one particular, oft-maligned woman — Kanye West's muse, Kim Kardashian.) Women's performances shocked and titillated and gave rise to crucial conversations about race, sexuality, entitlement and cultural disruption. In quieter ways, women were at the helm and the heart of albums that honored innovation, deep craft and risk-taking. I've always been conscientious about including plenty of women on my year-end lists; this year, I'm agonizing about how many I had to leave off.
On to the greatest party ever — at least until next year. I hope you listen to these musicians together, in dialogue that goes long into the night.
And then, just for fun, let's get back together for brunch — my songs list highlights ten more women who made my year more meaningful, challenging and fun.
1. Holly Williams, "Waiting on June"
This daughter of country music royalty speaks in the voice of the grandfather who was never famous in this story of a life-long love that shows how making a marriage work is one of life's most creative acts. I can't not cry when I hear this.
2. Paramore, "Future"
Hayley Williams became the boss of power punk with her band's self-titled masterwork this year. This is her claiming the crown — eight minutes of building complexity that's the sonic justification of the grand claim the lyrics make: "I'm writing the future."
3. Sky Ferreira, "24 Hours"
The would-be teen pop star lets her messy side show throughout her excellent album Night Time, My Time, which sounds like perfect 1981 New Wave. This anthem of romantic longing, which recalls both David Bowie and Robyn, is her finest timeless expression.
4. Natalie Maines, "Take It On Faith"
She co-wrote three songs on her meticulously rendered comeback album; this beautiful bit of gospel about vulnerability and perseverance makes me long for more from the former Dixie Chick's pen.
5. Janelle Monae, "Ghetto Woman"
The android with the tight dance moves continued to let high concepts dominate the sounds on her second album The Electric Lady, but this in Stevie Wonder-infused tribute to the working mother who never let her down, her heart powers the flow.
6. Diane Birch, "It Plays On"
You gotta love a woman who can really own a power ballad. Nobody did that better than rock goddess-in-the-making Birch on this piano-driven paean to music, broken romance and the twirling twin ghosts of Stevie Nicks and W. Axl Rose.
7. Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Dawn McCarthy, "Omaha"
Intuitive grace and harmonic intuition are as important to music-making as compositional skill; McCarthy, taking a break from her own band Faun Fables, demonstrates this on the haunting centerpiece from the Everly Brothers tribute she shared with her friend Will Oldham.
8. Fantasia featuring Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott, "Without Me"
Pity the cad getting schooled in this dry-ice slow jam, facing three of the most commanding voices in hip-hop and R&B. Fantasia keeps her trademark melisma in check, but it stings everything she spits: what would you be without me?
9. Wild Child, "Living Tree"
Kelsey Wilson, one of two leaders of this playfully old-timey Austin-based band, has the voice of a Jazz Age Broadway baby, all coos and hiccups and shivers. Songs like this one are gin cocktails, fizzy with just a hint of a juniper-berry bite.
10. Lorde, "Buzzcut Season"
With her pop smarts married to an unquenchable thirst for a good argument, the seventeen-year-old marvel created a new character for the Top 40: the inside-outsider. This song stays in, revealing a teenage world of hazy risk and nervous dreaming wrapped in the smoke trails of clove cigarettes.