This list is part of Turning the Tables, an ongoing project from NPR Music dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive – and accurate – ways. This year, our list, selected by a panel of more than 70 women and non-binary writers, tackles history in the making, celebrating artists whose work is changing this century’s sense of what popular music can be. The songs are by artists whose major musical contributions came on or after Jan. 1, 2000, and have shifted attitudes, defied categories and pushed sound in new directions since then.
Our list includes songs performed by women and non-binary artists. The use of the term “Women+” is part of our engagement in a movement to recognize a wide spectrum of gender identities coming to greater light in the 21st century.
Lori McKenna, “Humble & Kind” (2016)
In 2005, Lori McKenna won the songwriter lottery when Faith Hill recorded three of McKenna’s songs, effectively ushering the New England folk singer into the Nashville country music writing fold. Since then, McKenna has penned dozens of hits, including her magnum opus “Humble & Kind.” Tim McGraw released his version of it in 2016; McKenna recorded her own version for her album The Bird and the Rifle that same year. The song is a list of what McKenna wants to tell each of her five children, with the most important piece of advice at the end of each refrain: “Always stay humble and kind.” The authenticity of her writing rings through the song’s wonderful simplicity, making it one of the best country tunes to come out in the last 18 years. —Cindy Howes (Folk Alley & WYEP)
Rapsody (ft. BJ The Chicago ), “Black & Ugly” (2017)
Rapsody’s sophomore album Laila’s Wisdom, named after the North Carolina MC’s grandmother, houses the type of truths often dispensed in passing from a porch rocking chair or in the midst of cooking Sunday dinner. Standout track “Black & Ugly,” featuring BJ The Chicago , dispenses the type of common sense that society often works so hard to make uncommon: Blackness in any form – light skin or dark, wide or svelte nose – is beautiful. “Talking appearance ain’t no diss to me / No one dissin’ me / I been to hell and back / And came back up here screaming victory,” Rapsody rhymes through her lisp at the tail end of a breath, as a strategic sample from R&B singer Tweet lingers in the background. —Sidney Madden
Demi Lovato, “Cool For The Summer” (2015)
The first few seconds were a tease: a piano riff like a pavement shimmer, a sweetly cajoling verse. But then the growling guitar hook sneaked in, the vocal line revved up, and by the time the chorus hit Demi Lovato had claimed her crown as millennial queen of muscular, self-assured pop. “Cool For The Summer” celebrates the multitudes that sexuality contains: frank yet lighthearted; die-for-you passionate while keeping it casual; steamy but still, well, cool. —Rachel Horn