Here at XPN, we’re all enjoying the top 885 greatest songs by women countdown. And we hope that you at home, or you in your car, are, too. Maybe this sounds familiar: exclamations of “OOH, I picked this one!” and “this one is so good” are popping up around our station as the countdown plays. 

To keep the momentum strong heading into the list’s higher-ranking songs, and for some context into the history of women artists, XPN spoke to our own Debra D’Alessandro, host of Sunday night’s Amazon Country. D’Alessandro has been programming the show, which celebrates women’s music – music by women, for women, and often, for the love of women – for 27 years. To say she’s been a fan of the genre is an understatement; D’Alesandro is a vital part of the movement herself by honoring legacy artists like Ferron and Chris Williamson and championing contemporary artists like Brandi Carlile and Joy Clark. While we’re all appreciating the musical accomplishments of women this countdown season, it’s important to understand the niche that women’s music and Amazon Country inhabit. 

Let’s go back to the 70s. In response to a new wave of feminism, a group of women musicians, in particular stars like the aforementioned Ferron and Williamson plus Holly Near, Meg Christian, Linda Tillery, among others were paving the way for generations of out-lesbian artists in the industry. D’Alessandro was a teenager living in Pittsburgh when she heard women’s music for the first time on local station WRTC. The experience played a formative role in her self-discovery. “At 14, I was too young to go to a bar, but radio privately comes into your home. So that was my introduction to it as a teenager, and I went through my own coming out process later in college.” While she was at Temple University, D’Alessandro found XPN’s Amazon Country – then hosted by Elaina Bouvier with assistance from Sue Pierce – and sought out women’s music concerts at Penn’s Saint Mary’s Parish Hall. Her love and knowledge of the community was so extensive, that D’Alessandro often lent records to Pierce, who later became her radio mentor. When Bouvier stepped down, D’Alessandro was the natural next choice to host Amazon Country.

In her time as host, D’Alessandro has touched the lives of countless listeners, and was among the first XPN hosts to be issued an email address to be in contact with fans. One listener in particular wrote to say that her family was confused that she chose 9 p.m. (the previous time slot for Amazon Country) to do her grocery shopping; closeted at the time, she found solace in hearing the voices of strong, lesbian songwriters. “We joke that radio is like talking to yourself in a padded room, but you know there’s someone out there listening, and you’re talking directly to that listener,” says D’Alessandro. 

Though women’s music had its most radical decade in the 70s, with record labels like Olivia Records supporting the genre’s stars, the movement is still thriving today. Major label artists like Janis Ian and Melissa Etheridge helped pave the way for artists like Tegan and Sara and Brandi Carlile, and many of those names you’ll hear on XPN’s 885 Greatest Songs by Women countdown. D’Alessandro also mentions local artists like Bobbi Carmichael and The Anna Crusis Feminist Choir of Philadelphia, who are not only singer-songwriters, but organizers as well. And we’d be remiss not to mention that two women’s music contemporaries even played XPNfest this past year: Christine Havrilla from Delaware and Joy Clark, who played with Allison Russell but also has her own solo career. 

Just like on Amazon Country, you’ll hear women artists of all backgrounds singing from a feminist perspective on the 88 Countdown this year. Listen on to hear some of the greats, and perhaps discover a new favorite.

D’Alessandro with Joy Clark

D’Alessandro with Sonia Rutsein aka SONIA Disappear Fear