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Saturday, November 12, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Top 50 Women-- Best of the Rest
When I wrote the "Top 25 Women in Rock?" post, I realized that I left off many favorites who also deserve a tip of the hat. I solicited ideas here and at Blogcritics.org.
So, without further ado, here are the next 25 women in rock history, chosen arbitrarily according to whim, but informed by the suggestions I've received, and with an eye towards broad inclusion of different genres and eras.
Same basic criteria applies: influence, talent, importance. I again stuck rigidly to what could conceivably be called "rock" and "rock-related", otherwise these lists would be crowded with jazz, soul, country, blues, and electronica artists, too. I also again reserved the right to sneak a couple of favorites in from the fringes.
And yes, I'll begin with 26 again, even though the last list extended to 26.
Some more important/influential women artists/songs include (in no particular order):
26. LiLiPUT: Outburst
Along with the U.K.'s Slits and The Raincoats, LiLiPut were one of the primo all-woman punk bands of the early 80's, at about the time the Go-Go's were breaking nationally in the U.S. Like the others, "punk" isn't quite the right term for them. Part of what made them different was the fact they were from Switzerland and often sang in French; Marlene Marder (guitar) and Klaudia Schiff (bassist/vocalist) also were versatile songwriters and players. Their sound is one of joyous recklessness, but also with an art-pop sophistication, and an almost avant-garde approach that didn't forget to deliver hooks. The band formed in 1978 and was called Kleenex until a lawsuit necessitated a name change. They released one magnificent album in 1982, LiLiPUT, and the less adventurous but delightful on its own merits Some Songs in 1983, but sold few records and disbanded. A Swiss compilation in 1993 rescued them from eternal obscurity, Kill Rock Stars released it in the U.S. in 2001. Get it if you can, you won't be sorry. My personal favorite is the urgent minor-key "Etoile" from their second album, but "Outburst" is a highpoint from their superior debut.
27. k.d. lang: Shadowland
The lowercase monikered k.d. lang is blessed with one of the best country and western voices, accent more on the western than country, and is clearly indebted to Patsy Cline, after whom she named her first band, the re-clines (also lowercase). This didn't sit well with country audiences, who were skeptical of her Canadian roots, her androgyny, her vaguely campy, vaguely arch approach, and idiosyncratic music. She was also one of the first openly lesbian performers to gain mainstream acceptance, predating the Indigo Girls. After two Canadian-only releases, lang made her American debut in 1987; her 1988 sophomore album, Shadowland, and its 1989 followup Torch and Twang represent her artistic peak, although she's always remained interesting. "Shadowland" is a wistful and windswept Cline-like western ballad, one of her best.
28. Sonic Youth: The Sprawl
Sonic Youth is one of the most important bands in history. Since emerging from New York's East Village bohemian no-wave scene, they were the original alternative rock band, a decade before the term had been coined. On musical terms, they pushed the envelope with their assymetrical noise rock, strangely tuned modal playing, and literate, psychodramatic lyrics. Behind the scenes, their influence has also been profound; credit them for brokering Nirvana's deal with DGC, which ushered in the alternative rock era. Kim Gordon's songwriting, singing, and bass playing are sometimes overlooked only because hubby Thurston Moore is very much her equal in the band. This doesn't diminish Gordon's talents, which are among the best in rock of any gender. "The Sprawl" is an epic from their last and best indie release, Daydream Nation, from 1988. Opening with a great Gordon rant, it's full of abrasive, staccato playing that builds into an oceanic strange-key jam at the end.
29. Macy Gray: Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak
Macy Gray appeared seemingly from nowhere in 1999 with her debut album, On How Life Is, in 1999. "I Try", which won a Grammy, stood out on the radio, with its early 70's sounding arrangement and Gray's raspy but soulful r&b vocal. The album itself was one of the most self-assured debuts of the 90's; Gray sounded like she had been doing this for years, if not decades. Most late 90's r&b was in a dance/pop vein; Gray had a knack for a solid slow rumination that slowly builds to a crescendo, very old school. She wasn't a purely retro-trip however. "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" is a hip-hop/trip-hop inflected funk bomb; and she conjures up some Funkadelic-esque vocals. While Gray cannot be considered "rock" in any way, her appeal to rock listeners was perhaps the biggest for an r&b performer since the 1980's.
30. Mazzy Star: Ride It On
Mazzy Star's lonesome, windswept "Fade Into You" was their biggest hit, which at #47 didn't exactly set the world on fire. However, it was one of the loveliest, most subtly ornate songs on the radio in 1993, and Mazzy Star still has a devoted cult, Essentially the duo of guitarist David Roback and Hope Sandoval plus hired hands, Mazzy Star evolved from Opal, when Sandoval replaced Kendra Smith as Roback's partner. Sandoval's vocals were very much the equal of Roback's guitar in the band, and were notable for their eerie, detached, wistfulness. Mazzy Star hasn't released an album since 1996, but Sandoval has released a couple of solo albums, recorded with Colm O'Ciosoig of My Bloody Valentine. "Ride it On" is an acoustic faux-country-folk with one of Sandoval's most luscious vocals, from She Hangs Brightly, their 1990 debut.
31. The Plasmatics: Tight Black Pants
The Plasmatics were one of the strangest blips during the American punk explosion of the late 1970's-early 80's. Brainchild of impresario/former porn producer Rod Swenson, and fronted by self-destructive porn actress Wendy O. Williams, the band looked like freaks from an issue of Head comics, and played a buzzbomb of noise. Williams' chief talent wasn't her vocals, which where raspy and shrieky but seldom musical; it was in her confrontational manner, and her stage presence. She pioneered the wearing of a sliver of electrical tape over her nipples as her idea of a "top". She'd pull out a gun onstage and spray the audience with blanks, saw a blood filled dummy with a chainsaw, simulate sex, explode cars, run amok. None of this was captured on their albums, which remain a tough listen for even the most open-minded (although their 1980 debut was produced by Jimmy Miller, the Rolling Stones' producer). The band broke up in 1982, Williams' suicide in 1998, largely unnoticed, assures that she'll never be remembered as much of a hero. Still, she was pretty brave in her day, and broke new ground that younger women took for granted by the 90's. "Tight Black Pants" is an abrasive noise, but its defiant chords and Williams' spat vocals do capture their spirit well; it's one of their best.
32. Alanis Morissette: Still
Few albums were as ubiquitous as Morissette's Jagged Little Pill in 1995. While it wasn't her debut, a lot of people in the U.S. assumed it was (she had recorded some albums, her first at age 17, in Canada, and used her experiences as subject matter) which made the album's impact seem even greater. "You Oughta Know" belongs in the rock history books for its lyrics, which were a real scratch in the back with their provocative frankness and f-word. She connected with an enormous amount of women via Jagged Little Pill, she's been more controversial among men. Still, she deserves respect for the enormity of that album's impact, and the solid hits she had subsequently. "Still" was a non-album song from the film Dogma, and encapsulates what people either love or hate about her; her dizzyingly spectacular vocal gymnastics, an in-your-face lyricism with intentionally bad poetry, exotic, trip-hop influenced instrumentation, and an arch sense of humor.
33. X: Los Angeles
Like Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Exene Cervenka's talent is often overshadowed by the renown of her band, X, in which she played an equal role with John Doe. Leading lights in the L.A. punk scene, their debut Los Angeles is on the short list of best American punk albums, with titles like "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" and "You're Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not". X was never a strictly punk band though; they were a sum of influences which also included rockabilly and Doors-like darkness. Along with the Blasters, the Gun Club, and the Cramps, they were vital to the roots-rock and psychobilly movements, and remained an engaging band well into the 90's. Under The Big Black Sun, from 1982, is often considered their best, but "Los Angeles" is one of the most succinct angst anthems ever, a personal favorite of this Angeleno.
34. Cat Power: Good Woman
Cat Power is primarily the vehicle of Chan Marshall, who first gained notice in the early 1990's opening for Liz Phair. One of the better women singer/songwriters of the 90's, specializing in quiet, reflective, idiosyncratic tunes Cat Power was often pigeonholed as sadcore, largely for the melodic aching of Marshall's spare arrangements and vocals. Cat Power is actually a lot better than that though, and has shown consistent growth over body of work that stretches back to 1995; Moon Pix, from 1998 is generally the most consistent Cat Power album of the 90's, though You Are Free, from 2003, the most recent, may well be the best, and was the best selling. "Good Woman" is one of that album's highlights, with a haunting vocal from Marshall, accompanied by a raunched up lone electric guitar and her own backing vocals, and intermittant fiddle and harmonica, all enveloped in haze. Mesmerizing in its own muted, sad way.
35. Tom Tom Club: Genius of Love
"Genius of Love", an impossibly infectious piece of Kurtis Blow influenced cotton candy dance pop was the work of Tom Tom Club, which essentially was the Talking Heads' rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. Handling vocals was bassist Tina Weymouth, who also sings the song with the Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense. The song is a novelty in her career; her real legacy is as part of the Talking Heads' famed polyrhythmic rhythm section, which teamed her with husband Frantz. While she was an excellent bassist, and a good backing vocalist too, she and her bandmates invariably were overshadowed by Byrne, one of the most peculiar frontmen in history. But Weymouth deserves fair share of the credit for the Talking Heads' brilliance; without her, the Talking Heads wouldn't have existed. She's always been an interesting interview, perhaps the sanest in the band. Tom Tom Club released albums during lulls in the Heads' recording schedule, making four between 1981 and 1991 (and a fifth in 2000). They're interesting if not exactly essential listening, but "Genius of Love" is one of the great singles of the 1980's.
36. The Slits: Typical Girls
The Slits, an all-girl band of teenagers from the U.K., weren't good musicians at the outset; in fact, their knowledge of their instruments was so poor, it fell to Mick Jones of the Clash to tune their instruments during their audacious tour opening for the Clash in 1977. Their recordings from the era are chaotic and noisy, and abrasively punk. Still, this made them as "punk" as anyone, and by the time their 1979 debut Cut appeared, they had tightened things up considerably, and learned to play. Cut took their essential anarchic punk and bent it to fit reggae rhythms; remarkably the album worked quite well and remains one of the best punk albums by women. By 1981, they were finished; they only released two albums during their lifespan. "Typical Girls" actually sounds better with age, in the post-DIY era, as does all of Cut; it's the best thing on it.
37. Sheryl Crow: If It Makes You Happy
Sheryl Crow's first hit was the quirky, woozy, early AM party tune "All I Wanna Do", but on her debut album, and with subsequent releases she's proven to be a traditionalist at heart, sticking with generally classic rock arrangements with enough modern touches to make her seem both contemporary and old-fashioned. This is part of her appeal; most of her songs have a comfortable, semi-familiar ring the first time you hear them. "If It Makes You Happy" a 1996 hit from Sheryl Crow, seems destined to be her signature tune. It opens with a languid Rolling Stones country-rock groove that sounds like a semi-forgotten Exile on Main Street track; Crow drawls the lyrics before reaching a fairly melancholy chorus.
38. Sarah McLachlan: Possession
A cult figure in Canada since 1988, and one in America since the early 90's, McLachlan never quite became the household name some predicted, but she has played an important role in rock that goes beyond her own political folk/pop/rock. By organizing the Lilith Fair tour, a successful package tour that introduced a raft of women singer/songwriters to the world, many of whom have gone on to success, she established herself as important behind the stage as on it. Musically, she's a traditional singer/songwriter, but one blessed with an intelligent, literate gift with a song. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, from 1993, is generally considered her best; "Possession" a first-person account of a stalker, remains her most well-known song, and a fairly creepy one, sung almost like a lush love ballad, but with edgy trip-hop influenced backing. The line "I'll take your breath away" is completely recontextualized, brilliantly.
39. My Bloody Valentine: Come In Alone
While Kevin Shields usually gets most of the credit for My Bloody Valentine's two dense, layered, textured shoegaze/dream-pop/noise-pop landmark albums, they could never have been what they were had it not been for Bilinda Butcher's vocals, who instantly changed My Bloody Valentine from an unfocused goth band into one of the essential bands of the late 80's-early 90's. Loveless, from 1991, remains a classic of the early 90's; Butcher's voice is integral, conveying mystery, allure, sorrow, without rising above the complex mix of overdubbed guitar, reverb, and feedback. Debbie Googe also deserves mention for her bass playing, which was melodic, metallic, psychedelic, funky, often all in the same track. Unfortunately, not much has been heard from either since Loveless; the band never made another album. "Come In Alone" is perhaps the most elegant and sensual track on Loveless, with Butcher's lilting vocal the perfect foil to Shield's guitar.
40. The Bangles: The Real World
Originally the Bangs, the Bangles emerged from the paisley underground psychedelic revival scene in Los Angeles in the early 80's. Their debut EP appeared in 1982, just after the Go-Go's broke nationally, and while the EP (on I.R.S. and still unavailable on CD) didn't sell, it did capture the original essence of this band, which was a cross between the Byrds, The Grass Roots, and The Seeds, as played by women. With their first album, on major label Columbia, they were already moving in a much more pop-oriented direction, and the glossy Different Light briefly made them stars. All four women in the band sang and wrote, although Susannah Hoffs generally garnered the most attention. "The Real World" is a great organic and vaguely psychedelic jangle pop number, in a Byrdsian vein, from the debut EP.
41. Marianne Faithfull: Broken English
A controversial figure, but also a brave woman in the end, Faithfull's bio is one of the most harrowing of any woman in rock. Discovered by Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, she had a hit at the age of 18 with the Jagger/Richards "As Tears Go By". A string of U.K. hits followed, in a similar vein; she was not dissimilar to Jackie DeShannon. She also dated Mick Jagger and developed a serious heroin habit. In 1969 she released "Sister Morphine" which she co-wrote, the Stones covered it on Sticky Fingers. In 1971, as her relationship with Jagger crumbled, she suffered a near-fatal overdose. Little more was heard from her again until 1977, when she re-emerged sounding nothing like her fragile old self; her voice was raspy and rough, although she applied it to pop oriented material. Broken English, from 1979, was her real comeback, eclipsing anything she had done before. A hard-hitting, almost art-dance-punk offering that also included John Lennon's "Working Class Hero", Broken English was the sound of a woman who had been used and abused (by herself as well as others), who wasn't going to have it anymore.
42. Fleetwood Mac: Gold Dust Woman
Fleetwood Mac's long, convoluted history has included a lot of musicians over the years. The Peter Green version of the band was hardcore blues-rock, the Bob Welch/Christine McVie version was a folk/bluesy art-pop, the Lindsay Buckingham/Stevie Nicks/Christine McVie version was 70's California soft rock, and yielded the most hits. McVie (nee Christine Perfect) joined the band in 1970 after releasing a solo album; she married (and later divorced) bassist John McVie. Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham had released an album as a duo in 1973, they came aboard as a team in 1975. McVie and Nicks were very different; McVie's husky, bluesier voice sang fragile, tender love songs, while Nicks' cute sexy voice sang tough, cynical love songs. Nicks' witchy image overshadowed McVie's to a considerable degree, and enabled her to have a solo career that achieved first tier success into the 90's.
43. Rickie Lee Jones: Willie and the White Boys Cool
When Rickie Lee Jones appeared in 1979, wearing a beret and smoking a cigarillo on her self titled debut on Warners, she seemed easy enough to pigeonhole. A singer/songwriter with a jazzy delivery and odd, bohemian lyrics she was dubbed the new Joni Mitchell, and had an enormous hit with "Chuck E's In Love". Her romance with Tom Waits at the time added additional credibility to her image. However, Jones has made a career out of being unpredictable. She's never really recorded another album in the same vein as the first, which initially was greeted with disappointment that was accompanied by a dramatic drop in sales. However, her forays into everything from jazz-pop to folk-pop to quirky cover versions has gradually built her a whole new devoted cult who admire her specifically for her restless determination not to repeat herself. And there's no denying her voice and vocal style, which remain one of the most distinctive in pop.
44. Heart: Bebe Le Strange
Heart is a band whose legend has receded considerably over the years, partly because they never really had very many hits in their rock years, and partly because their mid-80's renaissance as a glossy adult contemporary band alienated many of their original fans. Ann Wilson had one of the best voices among women in rock in the 70's, while sister Nancy was a capable guitarist. Their albums were usually odd hybrids; half hard-rock in a Led Zeppelin mold, half gentle folk-rock. "Barracuda", from 1977, is their best known hard rock hit, although the "Kashmir"-esque "Bebe Le Strange" the title cut from their lukewarm 1980 album of the same name, is a lesser known gem. A fan letter from a groupie given nuance from Ann and weight from Nancy, it was one of their most ambitious rock numbers.
45. Fairport Convention: Who Knows Where The Time Goes
Fairport Convention, formed in 1967, has had one of the most confusing histories of any band over the last 38 years. Having undergone repeated lineup changes and stylistic changes, they're the kind of band newcomers might find too confusing to even start with. That'd be a shame; their music, which has always been variations on what essentially was British Isle folk rock, is always engaging and their earliest albums were rich, intricate, and meaty folk-rock albums notable for the talents of Richard Thomas, Ian Matthews, and (beginning with their second album) Sandy Denny, who had a foreceful, prenetrating voice capable of extremely compelling emotion and nuance. She was almost immediately hailed as one of the best female singers in England, and routinely made top-10 lists. She's since been entirely forgotten except by diehards; her untimely death in a 1977 fall down a flight of stairs ended career that seemed destined to be a good one. "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" was her signature song, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell crossed with Judy Collins, and its innate sadness is made more poignant by her subsequent story.
46. Ani DiFranco: Not A Pretty Girl
The 90's was a fertile time for women singer/songwriters, equalling their mainstream prominence of the 1970's. The fringe of 90's singer/songwriters, too edgy for the mainstream, was a particularly interesting rock cul-de-sac. Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco represented the alternative-rock DIY ethic the best among women; Buffalo-born DiFranco even more than Phair took DIY beyond its limits in the service of putting together a solid career that was against the odds from the start. She began performing at age 9, and was befriended by Suzanne Vega and Michelle Shocked before she was in her teens; she split from her troubled home in her mid-teens to pursue her muse. At the age of 19, she established her own record company to distribute her records, and built her following in a purely grassroots fashion, barnstorming the country in a VW bus, guitar in hand. Her tattoos, shaved head, piercings, unapologetic bisexuality, and assorted oddities made her a longshot for anything more than cult success, yet since 1996, she has routinely made the album charts; four of her albums were #1 on the Billboard Independant charts.
47. Carole King: It's Too Late
Carole King was already a legend long before her 1971 album, Tapestry, briefly became the biggest selling album in history. Prior to her solo career, she had a prolific and extremely hit-rich career as a songwriter with husband Gerry Goffin, penning songs for everyone from the Sirelles to the Monkees to the Byrds. Tapestry was her second solo album (she had a modest 1962 solo hit with "It Might As Well Rain Until September" before concentrating on songwriting), and is a classic among singer/songwriter albums of the early 70's, yielding hits with "It's Too Late" "I Feel The Earth Move" and "So Far Away". "It's Too Late" a classic divorce song following her own divorce, is a good relic of the tenor of the times in 1971. Strangely, King's solo career never even remotely came close to repeating Tapestry's success; although she had a few more hits, including the children's album Really Rosie, by the late 70's her hitmaking years were over.
48. Dusty Springfield: Son of a Preacher Man
The British Invasion brought several women to U.S. shores, among them Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cilla Black, Petula Clark, and Sandie Shaw (not to mention Honey Lantree, drummer for the otherwise male Honeycombs). Springfield was by far the best, having the most British Invasion-era hits in the U.S. (including "Wishing and Hoping" which features Jimmy Page on guitar). Her hits had stalled by the time the 1970's started, but Dusty in Memphis, recorded with Stax sessionmen and a consciously soul effort was a surprise hit, powered by "Son of a Preacher Man", possibly the most convincing slab of soul ever recorded by a white woman. Her star receded again after that, but she continued to release well-received albums until her death in 1999.
49. Pat Benatar: Hit Me With Your Best Shot
Benatar can't be left off a list of top rock women if we're really talking about "rock". Her 1979 debut, an arena-friendly hard rock powered by husband Neil Girlado's guitar and Benatar's own streetwise tough-girl persona, was a huge debut. At the time, solo women "rock" stars were still fairly rare; most solo women remained in the singer/songwriter arena. Benatar rang up a solid string of hits until 1985; a shift towards adult contemporary pop didn't pay off well, and she has been hitless since the end of the 80's. As an arena rock/pop artist, she's never recieved the critical acclaim contemporaries Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith got. That's fair; Benatar's best albums (her first two) are catchy more than deep or meaningful. However, she was as much a pioneer as anyone, and deserves credit.
50. Laurie Anderson: Big Science
Performance artist Laurie Anderson never has been a "rock" artist, although many of her fans are rock fans, and her marriage to Lou Reed consummates her fringe relationship with rock. She raised eyebrows with her 1982 video "O Superman", which revealed the spiky redhead with ambiguous sexuality intoning the song into a vocoder while accompanying it with bizarre signifying gestures. "O Superman" comes from her 1982 masterpiece Big Science, a strange, eerie, literate electronic album that explored the contadictory messages of progress and humanity; it remains one of the essential albums of the 1980's. Anderson embarked on far more ambitious projects, including the multimedia epic production USA and even had a minor hit with "Sharkey's Day" in 1984. Since then, she's remained active, although she no longer commands the attention she did with her startling debut.
Here are choices #1-#25
Honorable mentions to:
Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, Fiona Apple, Carly Simon, Maureen Tucker (Velvet Underground), Jewel, Garbage, Joy Of Cooking, The Distillers, Cyndi Lauper, Maria Muldaur, Dorothy Moskowitz (The United States Of America), Sonja Kristina (Curved Air), Naomi Yang (Galaxie 500), Renaissance, Toni Basil, The Carpenters, Betty Blowtorch, Portishead, Lulu, Olivia Newton-John, Joan Armatrading, Janis Ian, Takako Minekawa, Emmylou Harris, Bananarama, Opal (Kendra Smith), Missing Persons, Beth Orton, Nelly Furtado, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tiny Lights, Fanny, The Shaggs, The Raincoats, Merry Clayton, Mary Hopkin, Kim Deal (The Pixies, The Breeders), Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, Belly), Linda McCartney, Lydia Lunch, Indigo Girls, Wanda Jackson, Michelle Shocked, Suzanne Vega, Lunachicks, Julee Cruise, Aimee Mann, Donna Godchaux, Mia Zapata.
I have to stop somewhere, so I think it will be here. Sorry to those I've omitted, and now, readers, you can fix my wagon.
Listen to LiLiPUT: Etoile (1982)