The recent list of 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women, compiled by National Public Radio music critic Ann Powers and 50 of her colleagues, has got me thinking. About women in popular music, and about the function of lists, and especially about what, and who, is not on this list. One album in particular, I believe, is conspicuously missing from this tally of great musical works by females: Jennifer Warnes’ gorgeous, game-changing Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, an artistic triumph and an audiophile legend that sold in the millions and changed the perception of both Warnes and Cohen, well into each of their careers.
The trouble with lists, of course, is their forced equity. “Best” and “greatest” are markers assigned by listmakers, who then must catalog something other than personal and critical favorites. Art and artifice must both be considered, so that well-regarded work winds up sharing space with fluff that sold a lot. Thus, a list of “great” LPs recorded by women may, as this one does, include albums by Britney Spears and Reba McEntire and the tuneless shrieking of Diamanda Galas, but nothing from Maria McKee, who pioneered Americana music, nor anything at all by best-selling Christian pop singer Amy Grant.
Powers and company take a stab at internationalism by including South African singer Miriam Makeba, Malian vocalist Oumou Sangare, and Israel’s Ofra Haza. But U.K. singers get short shrift.
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Despite impressive careers, Shirley Bassey, Lulu, and Cilla Black aren’t represented; nor are Alison Moyet or Kim Wilde. There is no mention of Cher, the first pop singer to record an album of American standards (1973’s dreadful Bittersweet White Light) and who popularized the use of autotune in pop music (with her monster disco hit “Believe”). Yet there are two entries for Madonna, who primarily popularized the use of lingerie in pop music. The Spice Girls, a group assembled by a pair of men, are represented, but Janis Ian and Judee Sill and Mary Wells, self-starters who defied the male-dominated record industry with woman-centric message music, are nowhere to be found. I was thrilled to see singer/songwriter Cris Williamson, a favorite of mine and perhaps the first openly lesbian folk singer, on the list. But where, oh where, are the McGarrigle sisters?
Famous Blue Raincoat is not my favorite album, not even my favorite album by Warnes, a singer-songwriter whose career spans five decades. It isn’t even necessarily Warnes’ best album, a distinction I’d hand to 2001’s The Well, her last recording. But Raincoat is an album that’s widely well-regarded, one that affected a recording industry in flux and set a standard for digital multi-track recording in the analog era.
More than 30 years after its initial release, Famous Blue Raincoat — particularly in its original vinyl Cypress Records version and its more recent Impex 45-rpm wax reissue — remains an aural benchmark among audiophiles, who cite its pristine engineering and mastering by studio legend Bernie Grundman.
Raincoat speaks also to listeners who care less about sonic quality than they do about good, solid pop music. Its centerpiece is Warnes’ own “Song of Bernadette,” co-written with Cohen on a bus during his 1979 European tour. An exquisite composition since covered by Judy Collins, Bette Midler, Anne Murray, Linda Ronstadt, and Aaron Neville, among many others, “Bernadette” recalls the sainted woman who “saw the queen of Heaven once,” a vision she steadfastly refused to deny. The song’s proto-feminist message alone ought to have secured its parent disc a place on Powers’ list.
In an essay published with that list, Powers describes more than once how David Crosby introduced Joni Mitchell to listeners while he was recording her debut album. With Famous Blue Raincoat, Warnes inverted this traditional male-empowered equation by presenting often-overlooked poetry written by a guy.
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Just as Joan Baez introduced the world to Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, Warnes boosted Cohen’s profile in America, where the Canadian poet, who died last year, enjoyed a mostly underground following prior to Raincoat’s release. Judy Collins, also missing from Powers’ list, brought Cohen into the pop mainstream with her 1966 rendition of his "Suzanne," but his commercial career remained stalled here.
While Collins and most other singers who covered Cohen attempted to match his sullen approach, Warnes went one better: She reimagined his work for less indulgent listeners, with an expensive and commercially risky album of songs by an artist who’d been largely ignored by American listeners. Raincoat was a project Warnes pursued for decades, shopping it to label executives who laughed when she pitched an album of Leonard Cohen songs.
By then, I imagine Warnes was accustomed to that laughter. And it’s likely she’s not surprised, if she even knows, that her Cohen album didn’t make Powers’ list. Because despite an interesting and estimable career —she played the lead in the first L.A. production of Hair, was a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, has scored a number of pop and country hits, including a pair of Billboard chart-toppers, and holds the record for the most Oscar-winning songs of any other female singer — she’s routinely dismissed as just another Southern California pop singer. Sought after in her industry as a vocal arranger and background vocalist, Warnes has been gently warring for decades with an industry that would have liked her just to shut up and sing. (She once chastised record impresario Clive Davis, who wanted her to cover pop chestnuts he could turn into hits, by recording a cover of the Bacharach/David classic “Don’t Make Me Over” — a lyrical plea to be seen for oneself.)
A list of important recordings by women should include work from a woman who once broke her record contract rather than be forced to make product for an empty-headed, male-powered hit machine. It should include a much-lauded project that a female singer fought to have made, one that burnished its subject with deep affection and changed the way analog music was recorded. Ann Powers’ list is incomplete without Famous Blue Raincoat, which brought both fierce intelligence and the gorgeous sound of Jennifer Warnes’ voice to us, one more time.