There’s always a problem when drawing up lists like these in that we could predictably go on forever. The last fifty years has provided an inconceivable amount of authentic female talent, and choosing only ten spine-tingling performances was very difficult and obviously quite personal.
Nevertheless, this list showcases a diverse range of artists from around the world and across a wide wedge of history. The triple threat of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone didn’t make it onto the list, as well icons such as Edith Piaf, in the hope that you’ll discover something new from this rather than a memory jog of what you might’ve already seen before.
Astrud Gilberto – The Girl From Ipanema (1964)
Brazilian jazz singer Astrud Gilberto has a whole back-catalogue of songs that will forever remain in the musical consciousness, but nothing more everlasting than ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Originally recorded by Pery Ribeiro in 1962, Gilberto and Stan Getz’s version became a worldwide hit and won the Grammy for record of the year in 1965. A year earlier they made their TV debut performing the track, Gilberto putting everyone under her spell with gentle tone and effortless style.
Miriam Makeba – Chove Chuva (1966)
Two years later on the other side of the world 34-year-old South African singer Miriam Makeba performs a cover of Jorge Ben Jor‘s Brazilian classic ‘Chove Chuva‘ (Rain Rain). The charisma and raw talent is strikingly obvious from the beginning. Often ascribed the title of ‘Mama Africa’, Makeba went on to popularise African music around the world.
Joni Mitchell – California (1970)
After a decade of hippie subculture fertilising the earth, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s seminal album Blue became a turning point and pinnacle of 20th century popular music. Her fluttering and angelic melody lines and heartfelt lyrics really did help define an era and a generation, and in this 1970’s performance you can step closer to really understanding why.
Karen Dalton – Blues Jumped The Rabbit (1970)
This performance from Oklahoma-born Cherokee folk blues singer Karen Dalton is a diamond in the ruff. Whilst at the same time Joni Mitchell was singing about her hippie adventures on the West Coast, Dalton was tumbling around Greenwich Village in New York heavily addicted to hard drugs and alcohol, performing relatively unnoticed. Thankfully, as time has gone on, the magic of her music has been rediscovered and reintroduced in folk circles across the world.
Etta James – I’d Rather Be Blind (1975)
Winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Awards, Etta James needs very little by way of an introduction. Her eccentric character couldn’t be tamed by anyone around her, and you can spot it best in this video. Seven years after the track was released, James performed what is now a blues/soul standard in Montreux, Switzerland, and thank god it was caught on camera. The tone of her voice, her intense stage presence, the beads of sweat falling from her face – what could be more spine-tingling?
Erykah Badu – Tyrone (1997)
Taking a big jump forward 22 years to the late nineties for one of the sassiest songs ever written and performed live. Released in 1997, Erykah Badu’s debut album Baduizm quickly had the media hailing her the ‘queen of Neo-Soul’, and this live performance explains everything. Listen out for the reactions from women in the crowd throughout the song as she hits the nail on the head. This track even provoked a backlash from a certain male comedian.
Lauryn Hill – Mystery of Iniquity (2001)
Following her debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, East Coast neo-soul singer/rapper Lauryn Hill replaced hip-hop beats with an acoustic guitar for an intimate acoustic performance on the MTV Unplugged TV series. Hearing the Kanye West-sampled phrases of ‘Mystery of Iniquity’, along with her impassioned raps about injustice, it’s hard not to imagine people rediscovering this in 20 years and being totally taken back.
Amy Winehouse – Stronger Than Me (2003)
Off the back of her 2003 debut album Frank, a fresh faced Amy made her TV debut on the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland. It’s amazing to see her perform without all the costume frills and coordinated session musicians. Her talent for songwriting and ‘that’ voice makes this a chilling one to watch, knowing exactly what the future will hold.
Lianne La Havas – No Room For Doubt (2011)
Going on the strength of the song and the way it was captured, this performance by English folk/soul singer Lianne La Havas is a real spine-tingler. The Parisian streets paired with the alluring melodies of ‘No Room For Doubt‘ bring this live performance to a completely different form of visual art.
Nai Palm – Shaolin Monk Motherfunk (2012)
Front-woman for psychedelic future-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote, Nai Palm is a shining light for modern music today. Her multi-layered approach to writing lyrics and constantly evolving melodies sets her (and her band) apart from everything else on the planet. This performance is a case in point, with the whole band appearing like intergalactic travellers who’ve fallen out of the sky and onto the stage.