Just a little tribute to the women in rock history. There are far too many important ones to limit to 25; expect a Part II at some point. There wasn’t any real criteria beyond importance, talent, or influence, although I reserved the right to sneak a couple of favorites in. I decided to be fairly ruthless in defining “rock”; great women of soul, country, blues, jazz, pop, and non-English singers have been omitted. It’s not a best-of, just an overview of sorts.
Some of the most important/influential women artists/songs include -in no particular order-:
1. Patti Smith: Gloria
In terms of rock history, few women performers achieved the mix of critical respect, influence, and adulation from her audience as Patti Smith. With her band, the Patti Smith Group, she was an intellectual punk, famous for her spoken poetry/psychobabble intros and tough, keening, expressive singing; the latter was undeniably borrowed by Deborah Harry of Blondie. Her peak was short; 1975-1979, a stage accident slowed her down in 1978. However, she continues to release good, interesting albums well into her autumn years on an irregular basis. “Gloria” readapts the Van Morrison original into an epic garage rocker of lesbian seduction. An audacious conceit that she gets away with completely; the G-L-O-R-I-A part still raises the hairs on the back of my neck for their intensity and subversive new context.
2. Big Brother & The Holding Co.: Ball and Chain
Speaking of history, Janis Joplin’s showstopping performance of “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was a true milestone for women as well; Cheap Thrills (1968) was the first rock album with a female lead singer (mostly; the men in the band sang, too) to reach #1. Joplin abandoned the group upon her success and embarked on an erratic solo career that ended with her death in 1970. “Me and Bobbie McGee”, written by Kris Kristofferson became her only #1 single, posthumously. “Ball and Chain” is from Cheap Thrills, which also includes her incredible versions of “Summertime”, “Combination of The Two”, “Piece of My Heart”, “I Need A Man To Love”, all pieces of some of the rawest, most original rock singing ever. Billie Holiday is probably her strongest influence, but she had plenty of Texas hillbilly in her voice as well. Big Brother was a great acid rock combo, a perfect compliment to her voice.
3. Liz Phair: Fuck and Run
Forever legendary on the strength of her 1993 debut, Exile In Guyville, Phair took a lo-fi DIY approach to her music, largely a guy thing, and took a post-feminist naked approach to songwriting. The album was promoted as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (if it is, it made no sense whatsoever when I tried matching them up), but its real strength lies in the brutal lyrics, tough playing, and credibilty. She’s never really topped it, but that’s a tough chore. “Fuck and Run” is a good sample from the album, which works better as a whole. She’s always remained engaging; she also displays an intelligence and wit that is becoming.
4. Sinead O’Connor: Mandinka
In 1987, Sinead O’Connor really was a strange, brave woman. She’s remained both at times ever since, while also careening in all directions in her personal and professional lives. For sure, she had the most distinctive voice anyone had ever heard; her keening on “Mandinka” atop an angular, Peter Gabriel-esque stripped art-rocker was a whole new avenue; her debut album The Lion and the Cobra was eye-opening in its blending of art-rock, dance-pop, proto-hip-hop, and indie rock. She had a much bigger hit with her next album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, but her debut remains her masterpiece. Her success may have directly opened avenues for the raft of Celtic women singers who got airplay in the 90’s, including the Cranberries.
5. Hole: Violet
Courtney Love has also careened in her personal and professional life, and has always been a controversial figure, even before Kurt Cobain died. Her talent has also been controversial, although she’s actually an excellent songwriter with a likable roar of a voice that masks a very fragile femininity in her melodies and phrasing. She also has an undeniably rock ‘n’ roll attitude, which included largely blowing off Hollywood (intentionally or otherwise) after her Oscar nomination. Live Through This remains a great album, made poignant by subsequent events. Her public reading of Cobain’s suicide note showed class too; she may have prevented some copycat suicides when she exhorted the crowd gathered in the park to chant “asshole” in an almost generational catharsis. Unfortunately, her own drug problems appear unresolved at present, although her most recent album was a good one, against all odds.
6. Jefferson Airplane: Greasy Heart
Grace Slick’s achievement as a pioneering woman in rock eclipses Janis Joplin’s on many levels; she lasted longer, wrote her own material, had more hits, stayed with her band (most of the time), lived. “Greasy Heart” is one of Jefferson Airplane’s lesser remembered songs, although it did manage to chart at #98 in 1968. An early feminist anthem delivered with a seething sarcasm, it captures Slick’s best strengths as a singer and a lyricist; the band’s hardcore psychedelic backing is good support. She also wrote “White Rabbit”, the only bolero to reach the top-10. Her presence on Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” in 1986 earned her a #1 at the age of 47, a record at the time in rock/pop. Unflinchingly honest in demeanor, and once upon a time the best singer on the planet with the good looks to match, Slick remained fairly unchallenged as first lady in rock until Patti Smith showed up.
7. PJ Harvey: To Bring You My Love
PJ Harvey was one of the more theatrical and aggressive of female singers in the alternative rock era, combining dark lyrical themes with an abrasive guitar style that set her apart from her peers and led to considerable MTV exposure in the mid-90’s. To Bring You My Love was her big mainstream breakthrough in 1995; its obsessions with death, sex, decay, and blues imagery put it in a category close to Nick Cave (with whom she worked in 1996) and Tom Waits. “To Bring You My Love” is almost like fingernails on a chalkboard in its raw vocals and guitar, which is what makes it great.
8. Madonna: Justify My Love
A rock purist could leave Madonna off this list entirely; she’s never been a rock performer, and has never achieved the depth to her material many of the other women on this list have. But ignoring the biggest selling woman in pop history would be silly, as would ignoring her very real cultural influence, her longevity, which remains extremely rare among women, and indeed her art; if she wasn’t a great singer, she was a master of media manipulation, putting her in league with the greatest pop artists, from Andy Warhol on down. “Justify My Love” was a personal favorite of mine when it came out in late 1990, an introduction to trip-hop before the genre had been invented (almost) and a song that could really set a mood if it came on at the right time with the right person.
9. The Runaways: Cherry Bomb
The Runaways weren’t the first all-female rock band of note (Fanny, from the early 70’s, gets that distinction, and obscuro fans may want to cite the Shaggs). They weren’t even a real band. A marketing gimmick hatched at a party by Los Angeles musician/producer/songwriter/impresario Kim Fowley, the Runaways were promoted as jailbait, from their name to their attire, to the ages of their members. Among the members were Joan Jett (only 15 when the band was assembled) and guitarist Lita Ford, both of whom saw subsequent solo success, particularly Jett with solo anthems like “Bad Reputation” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Fowley’s “Cherry Bomb” was the band’s lone classic, a quasi-punk anthem just before punk’s dawn, and wound up being a great riot-grrrl prototype in spite of itself. One more example of art triumphing over artifice.
10. Cocteau Twins: Heaven Or Las Vegas
Until the mid-80’s, most women in rock were essentially singer/songwriters or pop divas, and generally fell into the soft-rock/adult contemporary categories. In the indie rock era, the splintering of any notion of mainstream opened up a lot of new genres for women, including dream pop and space rock genres, which usually rely on womens’ voices for texture and tone, and also saw many of these women playing guitar or bass. The general ambience of dream pop and space rock has a tendency to render many of the women anonymous, as the production is the story rather than the personality, and some of these sounds deserve credit. Cocteau Twins, architects of dream pop when they debuted in 1984 and cornerstone of the 4AD label, built a sound based on the shimmering vocals Elizabeth Fraser. “Heaven or Las Vegas”, from 1990 and their last for 4AD, is one of their most gorgeous.
11. Tracy Chapman: Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution
Time has been kind to Tracy Chapman. She was a folkie singer/songwriter during the end of the Reagan era, a time when folkie singer/songwriters were generally on the outs. Her lyrics tended towards a political correctness prevailant at left-leaning universities at the time that was already in danger of becoming dogmatic. Her albums were muted, quiet affairs; she wasn’t known for having a particularly large personality. Her surprise 1996 retro-soul hit “Give Me One Reason” elevated her star considerably, and also drew attention to her earlier work, which has gained resonance over the years, making it sound somewhat better than it once did. “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” is a typically quiet anthem that is still useful today.
12. Velvet Underground & Nico: All Tomorrow’s Parties
Nico won’t be remembered as much of a feminist legend; she was overshadowed by the men in her group, and led a fairly miserable life that ended in 1988 with her death. Still, when The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in 1966, neither Janis Joplin nor Grace Slick had been discovered by the world at large. Not a “rock” singer, Nico (Christa Paffgen) was a photogenic German who had begun her career as one of the earliest supermodels; her singing was in a chanteuse-meets-Gothic vein. Before joining the VU, she recorded a single with Jimmy Page and Brian Jones. After VU’s debut, she embarked on a shaky solo career that relied on the talents of her collaborators as much as her own talent and persona. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (a Lou Reed song) is one of the VU’s greatest moments, as are her other vocal contributions.
13. Bjork: Army of Me
Those who remember the Sugarcubes’ lone quirky pop hit “Motorcrash” and some of their other quirky art-pop probably filed the Icelandic group away as “novelty” and left it at that. Little could they have predicted what a big name Bjork would become in electronica and trip-hop, as well as a very unlikely mainstream success. There’s no doubt she’s an acquired taste for many; her art-pop pretensions can be bewildering at times, and her forays into caterwauling can put her in Yoko Ono territory. But she’s also put out one of the most experimental and compelling bodies of work among women in the 90’s and 00’s. “Army of Me” was her 1995 solo breakthrough.
14. Neko Case: Set Out Running
Virginia-born Neko Case is actually a veteran of the Northwest music scene, where she’s been busy since the early 90’s. She gained entry into the music world as a drummer in punk rock groups, and then moved to Vancouver to attend art school. When she re-emerged, she split her time between recording alternative country rock with her group the Boyfriends, and recording with Vancouver indie pop supergroup The New Pornographers. In 2004 she opened for Nick Cave. “Set Out Running” opens her 2000 album Furnace Room Lullaby, where she co-wrote all of the album’s material, most of it alt country-rock with art-school touches.
15. Joni Mitchell: Free Man In Paris
Joni Mitchell has to be on the short list of most important women artists of the entire 20th century. Writer of dozens of oft-covered songs, among them familiar titles like “Both Sides Now”, “Woodstock”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, as well as a string of excellent albums that touched on folk, pop, jazz, and country, Mitchell was one of the most consistent and reliable performers during her peak years. “Free Man In Paris” from her 1974 #1 album Court and Spark is a page from a record producer’s diary sung in first person, making it as much about Mitchell as anyone (and adding nuance to the gender noun). Her last album was Travelogue, in 2002, which Mitchell claims is her final one.
16. Blondie: Hanging on the Telephone
Blondie always had an identity problem; they were a band all along, capable of exciting playing in power-pop, disco, punk, girl group, and urban modes. However, most people only noticed Deborah Harry, the beautiful dyed-blonde sex symbol who helped pave the way for Madonna in the 80’s. Harry actually dates back as far as the 60’s as member of Wind in the Willows, a Mamas and Papas-style pop group that never hit big. With Blondie, she helped re-write the role of a frontwoman, and even more so the public persona of a rock woman; along the way she sang some great songs. “Hanging on the Telephone” is a cover of the Nerves’ non-hit.
17. Ike & Tina Turner: River Deep, Mountain High
Possibly the greatest mainstream recording to flop, “River Deep, Mountain High” was supposed to save Phil Spector’s career as producer; its failure to hit (it reached #88 in the US) was a failure Spector never fully recovered from. More resilient was Tina Turner, who not only racked up 25 charting singles with husband Ike, she also managed another 23 on her own. With Ike in the late 1950’s through the mid 1970’s, she was known for the pair’s spectacular stage show, which made use of her intensely sexual soul voice as well as her great legs. In the 1980’s she had a major comeback with “Better Be Good To Me” which restored her as a major commercial force. “River Deep Mountain High” is a spine-tingling single, with a great Turner vocal, and great state-of-the-art wall-of-sound production.
18. Yoko Ono: Mind Train
One of the most misunderstood women in history, Yoko Ono really has talent, more on the conceptual side than the performing side, but her work as a performer deserves recognition. She was already active in avant-garde art circles in London prior to meeting John Lennon in 1966. The work she recorded with him in the late 60’s and early 70’s was almost universally decried as unlistenable. However, at her best, on Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Fly (1971), her screeches and screams over a group that included Lennon, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Klaus Voorman on many cuts were revelatory, foreshadowing punk and new wave (the B-52’s owe a tremendous debt), as well as electronica and dance music in the 90’s and 00’s. And say what you will about her breaking up the Beatles (she didn’t, the Beatles did), it is obvious Lennon loved her until the day he died, lost weekend and all. “Mind Train” is mesmerizing, 17-minutes of Ono alternately intoning “dub-dub-train passed through my mind” and “thought of killing that man…” over a great hard rock jam.
19. ABBA: Name Of The Game
Okay, they probably weren’t “great” although they’re much better than usually acknowledged. Once Sweden’s biggest export, Abba’s sound was mainly the harmonies of Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad over pop-meets Eurodisco backing from paramours Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Their existence was relatively short-lived, from 1974-1981, done in by collapsing romantic liasons within the band. Still, the enormous number of records they sold deserves respect. The epic and grandiose “Name of the Game”, preferable in its full-length album version, is a good example of the deceptive complexity of their arrangements and probably their very best hit. From the same 1978 album was the non-single “Eagle”, a breathtaking semi-electronic art-pop song.
20. Linda Ronstadt: You Can Close Your Eyes
Linda Ronstadt is often remembered now as the matronly singer of standards and Spanish-language music, but in the 70’s she was a sex symbol, and an important figure in country-rock and pop. Her chief asset was her rich, expressive voice, one of the most stunningly gorgeous of any pop singer. She was also an important interpretor of others’ music, not only old hits but lesser-known songwriters as well. “You’re No Good”, a 1974 cover of an old 1964 soul hit by Betty Everett given rock treatment, was her biggest smash, reaching #1, but her country-rock was closer to her true idiom. Heart Like A Wheel, from 1974, was the peak of her rock years, including both the #1, and “You Can Close Your Eyes” a luscious adaptation of a James Taylor song that eclipses the original.
21. Maria McKee: If Love Is A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags)
Maria McKee came to prominence in Lone Justice, a country-rock outfit that released two albums for Geffen in the mid 80’s. While Lone Justice never quite found an audience, McKee’s remarkable multi-octave voice captured immediate attention. She works best in a country-rock idiom, although her solo career has seen her record straight pop and art-pop as well. One of the most bonechillingly lonesome and sad songs of the 1990’s was “If Love Is A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags)”, heard very briefly in Pulp Fiction; it didn’t appear on a McKee album at the time. Both Lone Justice albums are excellent and worth seeking out; they usually can be had cheaply.
22. 10,000 Maniacs: Like The Weather
Along with Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant was another of the generation of semi-political politically correct singer-songwriters of the late 1980’s. Merchant has had greater staying power than either, due largely to her way with a hook, and her distinctive voice that is neither pretty nor sexy, but honest and earnest. Her earnestness can sometimes be her undoing; she does get dogmatic and clumsy with lyrics. But with 10,000 Maniacs, particularly on In My Tribe, from 1987, she had a special knack for idiosyncratic little pop tunes that worked best when they weren’t political, like “Like The Weather”. More recent solo hits like “Carnival” and “Kind and Generous” are in a more adult alternative vein, but benefit from her tunefulness and general warmth.
23. The Go-Go’s: Head Over Heels
The Go-Go’s were the first all-woman band to become a major commercial force, paving the way for the Bangles and others in the early 1980’s. Their roots were punk, and in their early club days, they really played punk, although by the time of their 1981 debut, Beauty and The Beat, most of the rough edges had been sanded off, highlighting the infectious melodies and choruses, putting them in power-pop territory. On the road, they had a reputation as partiers; in-fighting broke them up in 1985, and Belinda Carlisle embarked on a pop-oriented solo career that fizzled after a couple of years. “Head Over Heels” is from their usually overlooked third (and final) album Talk Show, and still boasts a great lyric and chorus, and some better than not-bad playing.
24. Sleater-Kinney: You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun
An Olympia WA based indie-rock/punk trio, Sleater-Kinney might be the best currently active female led band of all. Their music is raucous and loud in riot-grrrl tradition, and has some of the primal edges of Queercore acts like Team Dresch, whose label they recorded for in the mid 90’s. However, they also have a magic touch with big, giant, fat hooks and a real sense of humor. “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” is one of the great put-down anthems of all-time; not old enough to be a classic yet, but old enough to have a blog and a fanzine named after it. From All Hands On The Bad One, released in 2000; the band’s most recent album appeared in 2005 on new label Sub Pop.
25. The Pretenders: Brass In Pocket
One tough cookie with a smouldering but low-key sensuality, Chrissie Hynde led one of the greatest bands ever, the original Pretenders, who managed only two albums before two members were lost to heroin overdoses. Hynde, the survivor, has managed to keep looking forward, and has come up with an impressive roster of hits that extended into the 90’s. But her real legend lies primarily with the Pretenders’ 1979 debut, on which the other musicians were integral, a direct and resonant reinterpretation of British Invasion rock in the punk era that was neither punk nor power pop, but something wholly original.
I forgot your favorite? Nominate her here, and she’ll be considered for part II.
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