What the ‘Album of the Year’ Polls Tell Us About Female Representation in Music

The ubiquitous end of year album lists might seem arbitrary but they are an important way for people to find new music and I believe they have a significant impact on an artist’s overall career. So this year I decided to do a very unscientific analysis of various polls to see how well female voices were represented overall.

I read more than twenty polls from major publications as well as looking at the excellent ‘Album of the Year’ site for more general data. For the purposes of my analysis I counted any album where the main singer/songwriter was someone who identified as female. I also counted any album where a woman was equally billed, like the Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile album. In terms of groups this meant I counted The XX because their female member sings and has a writing credit on all tracks, but I didn’t count Slowdive whose female member sings some background vocals but has no songwriting credit. This is an analysis of how well female voices are being heard so I felt that I had to draw the line somewhere. Please let me know if you find any errors with my data.

Here are my main observations after reading these polls, please see my pinned Twitter thread for links to the various polls discussed below:

1. Women ‘Win’ Less

This overall poll of polls, currently taken from 130 ‘Album of the Year’ lists, proves that female artists gain the number one spot much less frequently than men. In 2017 Kendrick Lamar came first in 35 polls compared to Lorde’s 11 wins and SZA’s 5.

Now you might just think that this was because of the strength of Lamar’s album and therefore there’s no problem. But delve into the data and you will see a pattern: Bowie had the most ‘wins’ in 2016, Kendrick Lamar again in 2015, The War on Drugs in 2014, Kanye in 2013 and 2010, Frank Ocean in 2012 and Animal Collective in 2009. PJ Harvey came out the winner in 2011 but that is one woman in the whole decade so far who has won the best album of the year from the majority of publications (Harvey is also one of only six women who have won the Mercury Music Prize in the last 25 years). Even Beyoncé herself couldn’t beat this system last year, ending up in second place with her career defining Lemonade album.

There were 12 female fronted acts who ‘won’ at least one poll in 2017, compared to 18 male acts, which is uneven but actually not too bad considering some of the other figures. This number would suggest there’s more than enough quality albums by female artists that could win these polls but it just isn’t happening enough.

2. Male Acts Dominate The ‘Big’ Polls, Especially In Old Print Media

The polls from the traditional big UK publications made depressing reading. NME had only 16/50 female acts on their list, Uncut had 22/75 and Q and Mojo had a pathetic 14/50. Worse still was Esquire magazine with 12/50, although perhaps that says something about their target market.

Online blogs are definitely more diverse and most of these represented women quite evenly, like Pitchfork had actual equality at 25/50 and Noisey had 41/100. Drowned in Sound had 48/100 and an all female top ten, which was fantastic. When reading these polls it was incredible to see how many different acts appeared on different lists. There is such a breadth and depth of brilliant female musicians out there who deserve to be heard.

I found three polls from big publications or blogs with a majority of female artists on their lists: Paste Magazine (27/50), The Bluegrass Situation (15/25) and The Line of Best Fit (27/50). When you look at the AOTY data as a whole, which ranks the popularity of albums with a points system, there are 24/50 albums by female artists in the 2017 poll of polls. This suggests equality is possible when a wider scale of publications are taken into consideration.

3. Men Rank Higher

The poll of polls may have 24/50 female fronted acts but delve a little deeper and you find something else a little troubling. In terms of the top 20 albums there are only 6 female acts. So while it is true that women are being represented in these polls, they are not ranking as highly as men. This pattern repeats itself at awards shows, like the Grammys for example where Lorde is the only female in the nominations for Album of the Year.

4. Some Genres are More Equal than Others

Women in pop and RnB appear to be doing well in these polls, as you can see by how highly ranked Lorde, SZA and Kelela were by most publications. Indie and alternative music again seems to be healthy with St Vincent, Big Thief, Wolf Alice and Julien Baker appearing in a lot of lists. Still, I do feel there are some brilliant albums that were overall quite underrated like Hurray for the Riff Raff, Paramore and Phoebe Bridgers.

In terms of country music most of the big all-genre polls only included Margo Price despite excellent albums from Nikki Lane, Courtney Marie Andrews and Angaleena Presley, among others. Genre specific polls were a little better for women in country/Americana as Rolling Stone’s list had 17/40 female acts and American Songwriter 11/25. Considering the problems women are facing on radio in this genre I think we have to take that as a win.

However by far and away the most troubling thing about these polls was the lack of representation for female rappers. Hip hop is the dominant genre in the charts and in many of these lists and yet women are almost entirely absent. Even in a genre specific poll like Stereogum published of forty rap albums only four females made the list. I’m not knowledgeable enough about this genre of music to explain why this is happening but as an advocate for women in music I find the lack of representation utterly shocking. It actually makes me want to go listen and review female hip hop because I know these women are out there. With the success of Cardi B’s singles we can only hope this leads to a new wave of albums by female rappers being heard.

Conclusions

Despite all these issues I don’t think these lists are bad in themselves and I’m not advocating for their end. On the contrary I think it is vitally important to have these all inclusive lists. However I do think that until we see women winning these polls as often as men, as well as fair gender and racial equality across the board then we have a problem. The under representation of women in these polls is also replicated in terms of charts, streaming, radio, festival line ups, interviews, reviews, concert ticket sales etc. The majority of these polls reflect that but they also offer us an opportunity – when one woman wins a poll then the chances are next year another might do the same.

After I began this thread on Twitter there were a lot of angry people who tweeted me thinking I was arguing for female quotas – which was not my intention at all. While I personally think affirmative action could be justifiable, I know it is something many people disagree with and therefore it might undermine the credibility of these lists. Plus it would be hard to implement in a case like this since a lot of these polls are a combination of different people’s opinions.

So what can we do to improve representation? Here are a few possible suggestions for your consideration:

1. Be More Aware of Inherent Biases

Consciousness raising is the first step to changing our biased views of the world. If we can all understand how the patriarchal history of society has ingrained inherent biases that make us view male voices as more significant and worthy of attention then maybe we can begin to think differently. Please read my review of Margo Price’s new album, where I discuss these issues in more detail.

2. Encourage more women to release music and promote them better

Some people have argued that perhaps the problem with these polls isn’t discrimination but instead claim that they are just a consequence of the fact that men release more music than women overall. If this is the case then these polls and the music industry itself will always be dominated by men. To improve this situation we need to encourage more women into the music industry and do a better job of promoting them and helping them to succeed (I hope this blog is one tiny way of doing that).

3. Maybe ‘Women’ Should Be A Genre

Across history women have improved their status in society and politics by working together through collective action. In the end there’s only so long you can stand about hoping to get a chance to sit at the table with the men before you start to realise there are other ways to get the results you want. That doesn’t just mean we should start smashing windows or protesting Kanye-style either, even if it feels necessary at times. Instead we should look to learn from other examples of women working together to promote their art on a wider scale.

For example in the literary world women were sick of being excluded from the Booker Prize nominations so they started their own, now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s an all genre award and has become one of the most prestigious in the industry, making the careers of many new writers and honouring the legacy of others. I’ve long believed that a Women’s Prize for Music could do something similar to promote female talent in the music industry. Every year an album released by a woman would be guaranteed an award and all the coverage that would bring for them and the other nominees could only be a positive thing.

Personally I think the more time women spend advocating and supporting each other, the less we even notice or care about being excluded by the patriarchy. If we work together then ‘Women’ could be the most popular genre of music in the world. And if Sarah McLachlan would bring back Lilith Fair then that would be a really awesome start to my plan.

If anyone else has any other thoughts on these polls or ideas as to how to achieve equal representation in the music industry then please contribute to the comments or use the contact page to send me a message.

If I’d had infinite amount of time I would have also liked to look at how well these polls represented older women, women of colour, LGBT women and also non-binary/gender fluid people. These are issues I hope to return to in the future because I believe that fair representation benefits everyone.

5 thoughts on “What the ‘Album of the Year’ Polls Tell Us About Female Representation in Music

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  1. I did not do a list this year, and may never do again. We’ll see. Of the 19 Album Spotlights I did this year, which is basically my AOY list, 12 were female. Not bragging, not saying anything other than those were the albums that I liked.

    Female as a genre is a horrible idea. It’s insulting to the artists. One artist asked me, and I obliged, to do a Q&A without mentioning gender at all. I know opinions vary, but it irks me when someone or some site puts out a best female guitarist list (or something similar). Where is the best male guitarist list?

    It’s a systemic problem that I won’t deny. I just don’t think separating male from female artists accomplishes anything in music. Halestorm won a Grammy for best Hard Rock or Metal Act (I don’t keep up with the Grammy’s) a couple years ago. Not best female fronted metal band.

    You do a great job in promoting female acts. I think you would do a better job if you promoted male acts as well, giving them equal footing. In other words, this female act stacks up against the male acts.

    For my blog, I listen to a lot of albums. I spotlight the one’s I like. It just so happened that in 2017 the majority of the artists I liked happened to be female. I like good good music, regardless of genre or gender.

    Sorry for the rant. But let’s not confuse genre with gender.

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    1. Interesting points and I do agree about the importance of an all inclusive list. But for me I pretty much mainly listen to female acts anyway so it was a natural decision to focus on them when I started the blog. Another aspect of my thinking was that if I covered male acts this would just end up another country/Americana blog and I wanted to be more diverse than that. I am considering writing about male acts for another site this year though, we will see if I have enough time. Maybe I just did too much feminist studies at Uni but I always think about gender issues when writing about music/books/art etc and in life in general too. Hard for me to stop now the feminist ranting now I have a blog about it lol.

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      1. Fair points. And like I said, really the only point of discontent is having female as a genre. I come from a hard rock background which is worse than country in its misogyny. It just irks me when so many gender qualifiers are used to describe females and not males. Alice Cooper can get pretty much any musician he wants to be in his band (outside of the obvious global stars) so he gets to pick from the cream of the crop. In succession, one of the guitarists in his band has been Orianthi and Nita Strauss. Because they were the best female guitarists out there? No. Because they are two of the best guitarists out there regardless of gender. It’s going to be a long, slow fight to get some people to view artists on their merits without regard to gender, but I don’t think using gender as a genre is the right way to go.

        Everything else you wrote, I spot on agree with. And you keep writing about what you listen to, regardless of genre or gender. I’m on your side.

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  2. Michael tagged me on Twitter so yeah…guess I’ll say something too.

    My list had 5/25 female acts (counting the Whiskey Gentry) not counting the honorable mentions list. Honestly, it’s low. I’ll admit that. Like Michael said though, I just based off of what resonated with me most this year. I labeled the post the “best albums of 2017”, but really they’re just my personal picks and nothing more.

    However, I do think it is a problem for larger outlets (which you already explained). Plus, it’s interesting for the genres you mostly cover. Country of all kinds whether it be mainstream, Texas or otherwise has an obvious female problem that’s existed for too long. Heck, we’re praising a song like “Female” when it’s unfortunately not actually part of the solution. Americana is the best for gender equality but still.

    I think a larger problem to look at is how many albums by females are we getting compared the males? The only albums by females I didn’t get to cover that I really wanted to in 2017 were Valerie June’s and The Secret Sisters’ (not counting Sarah Shook since it was really 2015). With males, there were a lot more. I don’t cover more male albums because I like it. I just work with what I have.

    Now, are there albums out there I’m not aware of? Of course, Hurray For The Riff Raff’s latest is one I’m just getting to right now. I’ve seen so many labels for it though. Latin, Folk, Pop,…now I’m even seeing Country too! Genre labeling can also play a huge role, since I’m not usually going to touch something outside of Country to actually review unless it somehow links to that. Now I’ve got the band on my radar for the future. And that’s just me and my blog.

    And admittedly too a lot of albums by females just didn’t resonate with me as much. Margo Price is one example (although I didn’t dislike it the same way say…Trigger did…damn). Whitney Rose is another. As someone who loved the latest album from the Secret Sisters, I was let down by the new one. With that said though, for every one female who releases something I’m not wild about, there are probably four or males who disappoint me more because that’s what we have to work with. Margo? Hell, I’ll raise you Will Hoge, Moot Davis, and Tony Jackson. Whitney Rose? Hello Kyle Fields, Jon Wolfe, and The Cadillac Three (all male band).

    I wish I had blogged in the past. Holly William’s ‘The Highway’ and First Aid Kit’s ‘Stay Gold’ would have likely been my albums of the year in past years. Gretchen Peters’ ‘Blackbirds’ is one of very few albums that I consider to be perfect. This year? It just didn’t work out that way. Sunny Sweeney’s ‘Trophy’ came damn close. Still, as a male blogger, I get it. You’re highlighting a problem. I’m glad for it. I can’t promise that I’ll award a ton of accolades to females this year. I’m counting (and am so excited for) on First Aid Kit, Courtney Patton, and Brandi Carlile. All I can promise is that much like I do with the males, I’m going to be fair and give an honest take. The music will be what it will be.

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  3. Yeah I’m hoping this year will have lots of great new releases for us to write about. There’s so many issues around coverage of female artists but it helps when we have brilliant albums to back up our beliefs they are being overlooked. Hope you enjoy Hurray for the Riff Raff – might be good to listen to their previous album first as that was more rootsy and might be more up your street.

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