Voices Carry: A Retrospective of Women in Modern Rock, Part 2 (1980-1989)
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Picking up where the first retrospective of Women in Modern Rock left off, this playlist takes us through the 1980s, a decade in which the seeds of musical diversity sown in the late ‘70s came to fruition. Modern Rock spread out into a variety of new genres and sub-genres, blending with each other along the way. Women continued to play an important and vital role, though as always struggled to get the same airspace and attention as men. Women continued to show prominence in R&B, heavy metal, pop, country, folk, and to a lesser extent, jazz, while in modern rock grew in numbers but remained generally sidelined.
- Kirsty MacColl - They Don't Know (1979)
- Martha and the Muffins - Paint by Number Heart (1979)
- The Pretenders (Chrissie Hynde) - Tattooed Love Boys (1980)
- Grace Jones - Private Life (1980)
- Lydia Lunch - Atomic Bongos (1980)
- X (Exene Cervenka) - Los Angeles (1980)
- Plasmatics (Wendy O. Williams) - Butcher Baby (1980)
- Rough Trade (Carole Pope) - High School Confidential (1980)
- Bow wow wow (Annabella Lwin) - Louis Quatorze (1980)
- New Order (Gillian Gilbert) - Doubts Even Here (1980)
- Eurythmics (Annie Lennox) - Never Gonna Cry Again (1981)
- Romeo Void (Deborah Lyall) - White Sweater (1981)
- Go Go's - You Can't Walk in Your Sleep (1981)
- The Human League - Hard Times (1981)
- Divinyls (Christine Amphlett) - Boys In Town (1981)
- Tom Tom Club (Tina Weymouth) - Lorelei (1981)
- Thompson Twins (Alannah Currie) - In the Name of Love (1982)
- Bananarama - Shy Boy (1982)
- Yazoo (Alison Moyet) - Only You (1982)
- Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon) - Shaking in Hell (1983)
- The Parachute Club - Rise Up (1983)
- Cyndi Lauper - Witness (1983)
- Cocteau Twins (Elizabeth Fraser) - Sugar Hiccup (1983)
- The Fall (Brix Smith) - Hotel Bloedel (1983)
- 10,000 Maniacs (Natalie Merchant) - My Mother the War (1983)
- Nena (Gabriele Susanne Kerner) - Hangin' On You (1984)
- Eurogliders - Heaven (Must Be There) (1984)
- Dalbello - I'm Gonna Get Close to You (1984)
- Jane Siberry - Symmetry (The Way Things Have to Be) (1984)
- Sade (Sade Adu)- Hang On to Your Love (1984)
- Everything but the Girl (Tracey Thorn) - Each and Every One (1984)
- ‘Til Tuesday (Aimee Mann) - Voices Carry (1985)
- Suzanne Vega - Left of Center (1986)
- Lone Justice (Maria McKee) - Shelter (1986)
- Sinéad O'Connor - Mandinka (1987)
- The Sugarcubes (Björk) Birthday (1988)
- Melissa Etheridge - Like the Way I Do (1988)
- Pixies (Kim Deal) - Gigantic (1988)
- My Bloody Valentine - Lose My Breath (1988)
- Laurie Anderson - Baby Doll (1989)
- Throwing Muses - Dizzy (1989)
There were some high-profile female artists like Pat Benatar, Madonna and Whitney Houston that had success unlike any women before them – especially as solo artists – but in new wave, punk, goth, and other forms of modern rock women continued to be either parts of larger acts or minor selling or fringe artists; and all-female groups were so few in number as to be considered a novelty category. This playlist of 41 songs only includes 2 all-female acts compared to 11 solo artists, 18 that were part of a band of all (or mostly) men, and 10 that were part of a band but were the, or one of, the principal creative force(s) and very often went on to solo careers outside of the band. However this much longer playlist compared to the first indicates the higher levels of female engagement in the recording industry and modern rock genre. This list isn’t exhaustive but a good representation of women who had success and influence during this explosive decade of music.
They Don’t Know \ Kirsty MacColl (1979) – MacColl might be a singer many have heard but don’t know her name. “They Don’t Know” was her first of several singles released through Stiff Records, released in June of 1979 she was part of a burgeoning wave of alt-pop artists spinning off the punk movement. This song was covered by Tracey Ullman in 1983 and was a top 10 hit for the comedienne/singer in both the UK and US. The closest Kirsty would come to such success was her 1984 single, “A New England,” which reached the top 10 in the UK but didn’t chart in North America. She released her first album in 1981 and wouldn’t release another until 1989, generally focusing on singles and guesting on others’ work, especially those of her husband\producer Steve Lillywhite. Her best-known contribution would be on The Pogues’ Christmas song, “Fairytale of New York.”
Paint by Number Heart \ Martha and The Muffins (1979) – Rather than highlight the big single from this first album, “Echo Beach,” which was written by band member, Mark Gane, I’ve chosen another great song that was written by one of the two female band members, lead singer Martha Johnson. Martha Ladly was the other female in the band who also co-wrote songs, added vocals, and played keyboards. A Canadian act, this band was one of many that helped drive the rise of new wave music. After this first release in late ’79 they would release several more LPs in the 1980s and enjoy prominent success in Canada. Ladly left the band after the second album, moving to the UK where she would contribute vocals to music by Roxy Music and join the band The Associates. She also did visual arts work with Factory Records mainstay, Peter Saville. She would create iconic album covers for OMD’s Architecture and Morality and New Order’s EP, 1981-FEP 313-1982. Today she’s an Associate Dean at Toronto’s art college, OCAD. Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, who are married, continued as the main members of Martha and the Muffins, also briefly changing their name to M+M. Martha has also done children’s music and recorded music to fundraise for Parkinson’s Disease, which she was diagnosed with in 2001.
Tattooed Love Boys \ The Pretenders (1980) – As we reach the arrival of Chrissie Hynde, we touch on one of the most prominent and successful female artists of the modern rock era. As the singer, primary songwriter, and face of the band The Pretenders, Hynde forged a career that was ostensibly solo work but supported by her male band and operated under the band’s moniker. She has only released one album as a solo artist in 2014 and otherwise always released music as The Pretenders (and also partnered and guested on many other recordings) and has been the band’s only consistent member in its almost forty-year history. Born in Akron, Ohio, Chrissie found herself in London hanging out in the heart of the punk community that exploded in the late 1970s. She formed a band and had Nick Lowe produce their first single. This first album was a landmark of the emerging post-punk sound, and The Pretenders were notable for its frontwoman, who was strong and unapologetic – basically a punk but with more style and less aggressive music. Hynde would be a huge influence on the generation of women that followed.
Private Life \ Grace Jones (1980) – An immediate sign of the influence of Hynde and The Pretenders was Grace Jones’ decision to cover their song, “Private Life,” on her 1980 album, Warm Leatherette. The album featured several cover songs of current new wave songs and re-introduced Jones, who had been an average-selling disco singer in addition to a high fashion model, as an androgynous, sometimes outrageous, and generally unique figure in the 1980s music scene. She enjoyed four consecutive hit albums over the next six years, including 1985’s hit, “Slave to the Rhythm,” which was a classic of the era. Grace Jones was another strong woman that presented an uncompromising example for other women and challenged the gendered stereotypes of the music world.
Atomic Bongos \ Lydia Lunch (1980) – Following the examples of Lene Lovich and Nina Hagen, Lydia Lunch was another experimental female artist coming out of the American punk scene. This song comes from her solo debut, Queen of Siam, which followed a brief spell in a band. Her creative output ranged in styles and is linked to artists of the ‘no wave’ movement of the early 80s, which was a noisy and experimental off-shoot from new wave. She has done film work, spoken word, writing, and has been another strong advocate for women in the male-dominated arts industry.
Los Angeles \ X (1980) – By 1980 the first wave of punk was ebbing away and settling into a niche by a group of bands that carried the torch through the next decade. America’s west coast was a hotbed of these bands, and one of the most prolific was X, featuring singer Exene Cervenka. X’s first two albums are classics and they’ve been one of the few punk bands of that era to sustain. Exene’s distinct voice and her continuance as a rare female lead in the punk realm helped pave the way when women were ready to rock it out in the following decade.
Butcher Baby \ Plasmatics (1980) – Long before I ever heard a Plasmatics song I had heard of Wendy O. Williams. This punk and heavy metal band out of New York, one of the most notorious in rock history, were led by its iconic female founder and singer. Performing topless with electrical tape over her nipples and in various revealing outfits, Williams would chainsaw guitars (this is what you hear as the ‘solo’ in “Butcher Baby”), blow things up, sledgehammer TVs and generally cause untold mayhem everywhere they went. I was never very impressed with their music, but if there was ever a thought that woman couldn’t push boundaries (though she was arrested at one point), Wendy was there to show women couldn’t be held down or told what to do. She would enjoy her greatest success with a solo song, “It’s My Life” (written and produced with members of Kiss) in 1984. Wendy committed suicide in 1998 at the age of 48 after years of battling depression. On a lighter and more surreal note, you might want to check out the Plasmatics appearance on SCTV in 1981.
High School Confidential \ Rough Trade (1980) – Also pushing taboos and redefining the expectations of women in music was Carole Pope, the lead singer and co-writer in the Canadian band, Rough Trade. From this first album Pope and co-leader Kevin Staples would make Rough Trade one of the more successful and broadly appealing acts in Canada during the ‘80s. Pope could be direct and suggestive on stage, which was scandalous in the staid Canadian scene, and later became an icon for the lesbian community. She would be known for her personality as much as her music. A friend told me of standing in line at Sam the Record Man on Yonge St in Toronto to buy this album, and dressed in her suit for her banking job was intimidated by the punk in line in front of her, until she noticed they were buying the same album – such was the appeal of Rough Trade. “High School Confidential” announced their arrival (it was their second album but first success) and shocked the Canadian airwaves with the lyric, delivered by a woman, “It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way.”
Louis Quatorze \ Bow wow wow (1980) – In 1980, famed manager of The Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, was looking for his next act to promote. He lured several members of Adam and the Ants away to form a band (this is why Bow wow wow and Adam and the Ants sound so similar), and after a search located thirteen-year-old Annabella Lwin whose exotic Burmese looks complemented the band’s exotic sound. Aside from her tender age, she would court more controversy by appearing nude at the age of 15 (though the picture is not revealing) on an album cover and often exuding a raw sexuality in her performances. Lwin’s mother accused McLaren and the band of exploitation and there had to be agreements to not use Annabella in sexual ways to promote the band (the nude album cover was delayed for a year before being used). The band was also criticized for plagiarizing African music given their use of tribal beats for their music. Bow wow wow would have some success with the single, “I Want Candy,” in 1982 but never break through. They broke up in 1983 when the band ousted Lwin and formed a new act (which was much less successful without their charismatic and intriguing front woman). The story of Annabella is a cautionary tale of the manipulative and exploitative ways women are often treated in music.
Doubts Even Here \ Gillian Gilbert (1980) – After the suicide of Ian Curtis and the reformation of Joy Division as New Order, drummer Stephen Morris’ girlfriend (they would later marry) would join the band to restore it to a quartet. Though never expected to fill the shoes of Curtis (she was brought on to play keyboards and guitar so Bernard Sumner could be free to focus on singing when in concert), it had to be a daunting task to step into that situation. Quiet and unassuming, Gillian would lend her skills to many of the most ground-breaking music of the decade. According to Peter Hook’s take in his book on New Order, she was never much of a contributor to their song writing or the success of the band, but nevertheless she was a rare female presence in the new wave genre. Her and Morris’ subsequent work as The Other Two both in recording and producing suggests she has more to give than perhaps New Order’s dominant personalities of Sumner and Hook would allow. Gillian, picking up from Gaye Advert and along with others like Tina Weymouth, provided examples that there was a place for women in bands other than as singer or pin-up. In “Doubts Even Here,” from the first album, Gillian provides a rare female backing vocal to the also-rare lead vocal from Peter Hook.
Never Gonna Cry Again \ Eurythmics (1981) – The fact that it took ten songs in this playlist to get through the first year of the decade shows how much more women were participating in modern rock. Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, as the Eurythmics, would carry on this tradition and enjoy greater success than most other acts spawning from the new wave genre. While Lennox’ impressive vocals were captivating enough, her success was also intriguing given her androgynous look. I could have included Annie as a 70s artist given they had some initial success as a band called The Tourists, but it was really as the Eurythmics that they made their mark and are best-known as an ‘80s act. The first album, from which this song is taken, shows all the sonic signatures of their sound, yet lacked the one song to take them to the next level. The next album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), would do just that and make them one of the biggest acts of the decade. Annie would go on to a very successful solo career in the ‘90s and cement her place as one of the most iconic and well-recognized female singers of the modern rock era. She and Stewart were a rare act to make it out of the new wave hinterlands and into the mainstream limelight.
White Sweater \ Romeo Void (1981) – One of the more under-recognized bands of the decade, Romeo Void featured Debora Lyall on vocals. Her voice was the signature of the band and took their sax-infused new wave/punk sound and gave it a distinctive, sardonic edge. She was noted for providing a female perspective to the topics of their songs. Their 1982 single, “Never Say Never,” is a classic, featuring the memorable line (especially from a female), “I might like you better if we slept together.” “White Sweater” was their first single and shows their distinctive sound was intact from the start.
You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep \ Go Go’s (1981) – Because of the success of the two singles from their first album, “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and “We Got the Beat,” as well as their ensuing embrace of a mainstream pop sound on subsequent albums, the Go Go’s are generally categorized as pop/top-40 band. It’s this sort of reputation that led me to exclude from this list fellow all-female band, The Bangles (though they had many really good songs and included a member of The Runaways). But the Go Go’s originated out of Los Angeles as a punk band (originally working with the band, The Motels, led by singer Martha Davis, yet another female contributor to the new wave era) and the first album was an excellent new wave-pop album, one of my favourites of the decade. The band was comprised of Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar), Charlotte Caffey (guitar, keyboards), Gina Schock (drums), and Cathy Valentine (bass, and ex-member of British all-female rockers, Girlschool). And yes, they are one of the only all-female acts during this time within the modern rock genre (at least for this album). This really was an impeccable album and songs like “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep” perfectly encapsulates their power-pop sound, which was a 60’s pop vibe with punk energy and new wave sound.
Hard Times \ The Human League (1981) – One of the synth-pop pioneers out of Sheffield, England, this act led by Philip Oakey (and originally Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh before they went on to form Heaven 17) was joined in 1980 by two teenage girls, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall. Through various line-up changes the band remains this day as a trio with Oakey, Sulley and Catherall. Though Oakey was only seeking a single female for backing vocals, he discovered the pair in a nightclub, and given their young age and being best friends, decided to bring them on together so they could look after each other (a different approach than how McLaren handled Annabella). The female duo gave the band a different look and sound and were instrumental in future hits like, “Don’t You Want Me.” “Hard Times” was a non-album song released as a double A-side with “Love Action (I Believe in Love),”and was the third single to feature the new, female band members. This was a lead-up release to the band’s breakout album, Dare.
Boys in Town \ Divinyls (1981) – Australia had a few international successes by 1981 – AC\DC, The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, Air Supply – but more often than not, and especially so for modern rock acts, it took awhile for their more accomplished acts to catch attention in North America and the UK. Such was the case for INXS and The Church, and as it was for Divinyls, led by Christina Amphlett. It wouldn’t be until their 1991 album, diVINYLS, that they would achieve international success with the singles, “I Touch Myself,” and “Make Out Alright.” By then Amphlett was 32 years-old and not beyond drawing attention with a sexy look and songs about female masturbation. Amphlett died of breast cancer in 2013 after her treatment was hampered by her Multiple Sclerosis. However, she left a legacy in Australia and beyond as one of the many fearless, independent female leads in an era that didn’t have many. “Boys in Town” was the band’s first single and a top ten hit in Australia.
Lorelei \ Tom Tom Club (1981) – Tina Weymouth is best known as the bassist in Talking Heads, one of the most respected and accomplished bands of the late ‘70s New York music scene. Her contribution in that regard warrants her inclusion on this playlist. However, we can see her talent more starkly with Tom Tom Club, a side project she did with fellow Heads drummer and husband, Chris Frantz. They’ve released music sporadically under this name over the years but did put out three albums in the ‘80s and the first, self-titled album was a notable contribution to the new wave and dance scene. The album was best known for the song, “Genius of Love,” but songs like “Lorelei,” better captures Tina’s vocals and the spirit of their music. They had a distinct, alt-dance style before dance and disco returned to the fore as a mainstream sound. Female bassists became more normal in rock bands in later years, and it’s the likes of Tina that led the way.
In the Name of Love \ Thompson Twins (1982) – Formed in 1977, this was an all-male band (and never a duo as the band name would suggest, which referred to the detectives in the Tin Tin comic) until Alannah Currie joined, first as a guest performer on the first album in 1981 and then as a permanent member for the second album in 1982. “In the Name of Love” was the first of a string of hits that the band would enjoy on UK charts and on the pop and dance charts in the US and internationally. While the first two albums had a larger line-up including guitar, the band would eventually settle into a guitar-less trio, with Currie providing primarily backing vocals, percussion, and sax (replacing another female on sax, Jane Shorter, who had also toured previously with the band, Japan). Blending a pop sensibility with new wave musical styles, the Twins enjoyed tremendous success over the decade, giving Currie prominent visibility as female in her genre.
Shy Boy \ Bananarama (1982) – The other all-female act on this list, like the Go Go’s they would eventually be known mostly as a pop-dance band as opposed to a modern rock act. However, Bananarama (Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey, & Keren Woodward) got their start doing backing vocals for various punk and new wave bands. After releasing a minor hit single, they avoided going the route of Annabella Lwin by turning down an offer to be managed by Malcolm McLaren, and instead released their second single, “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way that You Do It)” as a collaboration with Terry Hall’s post-Specials act, Fun Boy Three. The song was a top ten hit in the UK and boosted by that success their first album took off, making singles like “Shy Boy” one of its three top ten hits. The following albums would move their indie-dance sound into more of an unabashed pop-dance style, and with hits like “Cruel Summer” and “Venus,” would bring them international success. It’s notable that, while an attractive trio, the band was also known as much for their tomboy style and refutation of the typically sexualized presentation of female artists.
Only You \ Yazoo (1982) – Alison Moyet would bring a rare dose of soul to new wave with her strong voice. Paired with ex-Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke, Yazoo had several new wave-dance hits. This first single nicely shows Moyet’s vocals against the simple synth backing track. Alison would go on to solo success a few years later with the album, Alf, and its singles, “Love Resurrection,” “All Cried Out,” and “Invisible.” She was a rare female vocal in the early new wave years.
Shaking in Hell \ Sonic Youth (1983) – This band wouldn’t get broader attention until the 1990s and the rise of grunge music, but through the ‘80s they released several albums and were part of an underground, ‘no wave’ or ‘noise rock’ movement. Featuring experimental, sometimes chaotic and unstructured songs, the band challenged the common perceptions of rock music. The band was led by husband and wife team, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. Like Tina Weymouth, Gordon was a bassist but also often provided vocals. Her even, unemotional delivery was part of the defining characteristics of the no wave sound, as can be heard in “Shaking in Hell” from the band’s first album, and a song not only sung but also written by Kim. She has often been cited as an influence by the generation of female rockers that arrived in the ‘90s.
Rise Up \ Parachute Club (1983) – In Canada many females were also making their way into the new wave and pop sounds of the decade. Parachute Club was especially notable as a collective of Toronto musicians in which four of the band’s six members were female, including a rare female sax player in Margo Davidson (along with Alannah Currie). For many years you couldn’t go a day in Toronto without hearing Lorraine Segato’s voice on the radio. “Rise Up,” their first and most successful single, became an anthem of many causes, not the least of which was gay rights due to its celebrational lyrics of peace and equality. The band’s mix of world beats and soca rhythms defied classification and built a fanbase across multiple genres.
Witness \ Cyndi Lauper (1983) – Another quirky and colourful female contributor, the energetic and petite Cyndi burst out of Brooklyn, after a brief spell in a band, and into the pop scene with a fantastic first album, She’s So Unusual, led by the irrepressible lead single, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (written by new waver, Robert Hazard). Her accessibility and infectiousness led to instant success yet belied the edgy and varied styles of her music. She was forced by her label to record songs written by others (notably, Prince) but managed to put her indelible stamp on them nevertheless – though several songs on the album, such as her huge second single, “Time After Time,” and deeper tracks like “Witness,” were written by her. On her second album she would move to a more consistent, blues-based pop sound and continue to enjoy chart success. For the time Lauper was a rare solo, female artist that achieved success and genre-crossing respect as a performer.
Sugar Hiccup \ Cocteau Twins (1983) – I cover this band more extensively in my profile on them, but undoubtedly their distinctive sound was significantly due to Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals. Using her voice like an instrument, her undecipherable lyrics blended with the music to create their perfect dream pop sound. It was a style that would be developed by shoegazer bands later and other female vocalists, though never to the same effect as Fraser. “Sugar Hiccup” is from their second album, Head Over Heels, and was also the single from the Sunburst and Snowblind EP. It was this album and EP that started to define their sound and separate them from the other, darker new wave and goth acts and show that Elizabeth was a unique talent.
Hotel Bloedel \ The Fall (1983) – Over its history Manchester band The Fall was mostly the vehicle for recently departed, Mark E. Smith. Formed in 1977 the band had built a following for its avant garde and largely unapproachable brand of post-punk music. In 1983 Smith’s American girlfriend and future wife, Brix Smith, joined the band as a singer and guitarist (she was born Laura Salenger but adopted the name ‘Brix’ while in her first band as a nod to The Clash’s song, “Guns of Brixton.” She took Mark’s surname once in The Fall and later would add the surname Start after marrying Philip Start in 2002, so she is now known as Brix Smith Start.). Her influence would bring greater pop sensibility to the band’s sound and The Fall would enjoy its first successes. The first album with her input, Perverted by Language, and the singles of the period, “Oh! Brother,” and “C.R.E.E.P.” would be the start of the band’s run of largely underground, minor successes that would build a die-hard audience and the enduring respect of critics. Brix would become a notable female presence in the UK indie scene which was rare (this playlist has a notably lower level of UK content compared to my others).
My Mother the War \ 10,000 Maniacs (1983) – And with that we’ll return to the US and the 10,000 Maniacs, a band that launched the career of notable songstress Natalie Merchant. Though she would eventually be known as a pop singer as a solo act, in this band she was much edgier and they were the darlings of the indie-college scene. In 1983 Merchant was only twenty-years-old and after a first EP release, the band released its first full-length album. “My Mother the War” was a single from the album that achieved some success in the UK. A more polished version would appear on their second album, The Wishing Chair, which was the album that established them and featured the fantastic song, “Scorpio Rising.” Their sound would smooth out over time, achieving a more pure-pop sound by the time of their successful third and fourth albums, In My Tribe and Blind Man’s Zoo respectively. Throughout, the band’s sound was defined by Natalie’s voice, which was strong and could move through pop, blues, and soul, allowing the band to rock it out or fall into lovely, slow ballads. Merchant was another, rare female artist that moved from indie to mainstream success.
Hangin’ On You \ Nena (1984) – Known in North America as a one-hit wonder due to the success of the single, “99 Red Balloons,” Nena was a bigger deal in its native Germany. Led by singer, Gabriele Kerner, whose nickname since childhood was ‘Nena’ (little girl in Spanish), the name was given to the band and has also been Kerner’s stage name through her solo career. Performing a solid mix of pop and new wave, the band released several albums through the ‘80s before breaking up and Kerner going solo. She has released twelve solo albums which regularly crack the top ten in Germany. To North American audiences, she was a rare European female in the new wave scene.
Heaven (Must Be There) \ Eurogliders (1984) – Keeping in the international spirit, this Australian band had success internationally with their second album, This Island, in which the single, “Heaven (Must Be There), reached #2 in their homeland as well as #47 in Canada and #65 in the US. The band included two women, Grace Knight on lead vocals, sax, and keyboards (and was married to the other founding member, Bernie Lynch) and Amanda Vincent on keyboards (a composition similar to Martha and The Muffins). This band was a consummate example of the new wave-pop sound of the 80s, full of infectious melodies and a synth-driven sound.
I’m Gonna Get Close to You \ Dalbello (1984) – Back to Canada and the hit single from Lisa Dal Bello, whose powerful voice had driven several R&B albums since she was a teenager. However it was the album whomanfoursays, recorded for the first time under a version of her surname, that brought her success with a more stark and alternative sound. While she would continue to work in Toronto and Los Angeles, the success of this song in Canada relegated her to a one-hit wonder. Like Nena, even amongst the more fleeting successes women were showing up more and more. Another such artist in Canada that comes to mind is Sherry Kean, who had a fantastic hit song, “I Want You Back,” also in 1984, and Jane Child, who had a hit, “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love,” in 1989 .
Symmetry (The Way Things Have to Be) \ Jane Siberry (1984) [not available Spotify] – Another Canadian songstress that broke out in 1984 was Jane Siberry, who had released a low selling album in 1981 but broke big in Canada with the second album, No Borders Here. Her first successful single was “Mimi On the Beach” followed by “Symmetry.” She followed this success with several more successful albums and singles over the next ten years before fading. Always a little different, her quirky pop music drew fans across a broad spectrum. She was also one of several solo female artists to breakout in Canada in the ‘80s, with other genres featuring the likes of Alannah Myles, Mitsou, Luba, kd Lang, Lee Aaron, and Sarah McLachlan.
Hang on to Your Love \ Sade (1984) - I’ll accept that Sade Adu doesn’t belong on a list of modern rock singers, but there was something about her look, her sound, and general crossover appeal that brought her into favour with fans of alternative genres. Exotic, alluring, beautiful, and talented with an incredibly sensuous and enticing voice, she immediately rose to a high level of success with her band and their first album, Diamond Life, led by the song “Smooth Operator.” “Hang on to Your Love” was another stellar but less successful song on the album. She followed that with the album Promise and the hit, “The Sweetest Taboo,” and Sade became an unlikely sensation. Her style of R&B, jazz, and pop combined with her Nigerian heritage set her apart from her peers in these genres. Though she didn’t chart or get much airplay on alternative stations, I know more than a few people raised on punk and new wave that were big fans of Sade. You can’t talk about female singers in the ‘80s without including this accomplished singer.
Each and Every One \ Everything but the Girl (1984) – Another unlikely crossover success, the duo of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn gained prominence with their laid back, jazz influenced pop music – all marked by Tracey’s lovely and distinctive vocals. “Each and Every One” was their second single and the lead single from their debut album, Eden. Their easy-listening pop style would never get them big sales but provided several charting singles and albums over the years. It was their 1986 album, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright that first caught my attention and the single “Come on Home,” which included orchestral backing. After Todd Terry remixed their song “Missing” and turned it into an international dance hit did they enjoy two successful albums in the mid-1990s (recovering from a terrible album, Worldwide, in 1991). In the past ten years Tracey has released several solo albums that have leaned more into the pop-dance style that gave EBTG its peak success. “Get Around to It” is a great song of hers (written by Arthur Russell).
Modern Rock followed an ebb-and-flow pattern over its first 25 years, with two explosive periods of growth and innovation followed by bleak periods in which there wasn’t a lot of good music to draw upon. The second half of the ‘80s was a bleak period, and therefore after taking 31 songs to cover the first five years of the decade, it will only take ten songs to travel through the latter half. Women’s contributions were not much different than the larger trends with a drop-off in quality acts during this time. New wave fell out of favour, mainstream music was dominated by R&B and hair bands playing formulaic rock, and no new styles were forthcoming to reinvigorate the indie and alternative scenes.
Voices Carry \ ‘Til Tuesday (1985) – It was in this environment, in the last days of new wave, that bands like ‘Til Tuesday, playing a new wave influenced pop music, were able to rise to the top. The music was ok but not as engaging or ground breaking as the music it followed. This band, however, introduced us to Aimee Mann, who would go on to a solo career and release a lot of solid music, becoming an influence on the female generation that would take their share of attention in alternative music ten years later. “Voices Carry” was the big hit for this band, reaching the top ten in 1985.
Left of Center \ Suzanne Vega (1986) – Offering an alternative take on the acoustic-folk-rock sound was Suzanne Vega, whose subtle voice played off smartly crafted pop songs. After a first album that didn’t make much of a splash, her inclusion on the landmark Pretty in Pink soundtrack with “Left of Center” brought her more attention. Her next album in 1987, Solitude Standing, was an excellent recording and included the biggest hit of her career, “Luka.” I also recommend the album 99.9F° from 1992, which is one of the best albums of the decade and was largely overlooked.
Shelter \ Lone Justice (1986) – Though I’ve never been a fan or followed it closely, it always appeared to me that country music had more successful female artists over its history. I don’t doubt the experience of women within that industry was any easier, but in terms of visibility and recording success it seemed women were doing better than in other music forms. Country had also crossed over with rock music from its earliest days, but in Modern Rock there had been very little sampling of the country sound. Bands like Lone Justice started to change that and enjoyed some success. “Shelter” was the title track and single from their second, and last, album. The lead singer was Maria McKee, who like Aimee Mann went on to a successful solo career in the ‘90s and helped launch that generations’ female wave of rockers. I’m particularly fond of her 1996 album Life Is Sweet.
Mandinka \ Sinéad O’Connor (1987) – Few female artists of any genre have been as enigmatic as this Irish singer. On this first album, Lion and the Cobra, the twenty-year-old with the shaved head gave us one of the best albums of the decade and certainly of this moribund period of modern rock. Mixing dance beats, rock-edged guitar, lovely slow and emotional moments along with grandiose flights, and a voice that swooped from highs to lows with impressive dexterity, the album rolled out one engaging tune after another. “Mandinka” was the second single and the song that raised awareness of this new singer in alternative radio and late-night video shows. This set-up for her second album and the monster, Prince penned hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” From there controversy, a wandering path of musical styles (check out her wonderful reggae album from 2005, Throw Down Your Arms), and a distressing pattern of depression and desperation has made her career both an emblem of female empowerment and an archetype of the pitfalls of fame. Sinéad O’Connor is one of the most talented and outspoken female artists of her generation, but her mental health challenges have hindered the harnessing of those qualities into a fulfilled and happy career.
Birthday \ The Sugarcubes (1988) – There are some parallels between Sinéad O’Connor and Björk Guðmundsdóttir, the Icelandic singer we first discovered as the lead singer of the band, The Sugarcubes. Björk, as she is commonly known, started as a child singer and released her first album at age eleven. After singing in an all-girl punk band, then a jazz fusion group, then marrying and having her first child, she eventually settled in with the Sugarcubes in 1986, and all by age 21. So if we marvel at all she’s done since, know that this was not new to her when she emerged beyond the shores of her remote homeland. Few female artists have been as creative, combative, independent, and talented as Björk. She has acted, set new fashion trends (or maybe not), protested, and mentored other singers. For a diminutive individual, she is as strong and fierce as they come, but unlike O’Connor has not been subverted by personal health issues. “Birthday” was The Sugarcubes third single but first from their debut album, Life’s Too Good. It is a brilliant song and just one example of the incredible effect her voice had on the music throughout the album – and everything else she’s done since. When listening to the albums and when I saw them in concert, I always implored the band’s other vocalist, Einar, to just shut up. So perhaps it was not surprising that after two more albums with The Sugarcubes she went solo and never looked back, having released nine solo albums of impressive variety, experimentation, and quality. For every girl aspiring to go her own way and make her mark on the world on her own terms, there are few better examples to follow than Björk.
Like the Way I Do \ Melissa Etheridge (1988) – In the late ‘80s guitars and more traditional rock sounds started to make their way into the prevailing trends of alternative music. Melissa Etheridge’s first, self-titled album was indicative of that trend, and despite the straight-ahead rock format of the music, became an underground success. “Like the Way I Do” was the third single from that album. It would be a few more years and a couple albums later before she broke through to larger success during the female rock movement of the 1990s, of which she was a forerunner. Outside of her music, she has also been a great contributor to helping women break through societal barriers. She came out as a lesbian in 1993, being one of the leaders in advocating and normalizing the acceptance of gays in music. Men had been able to get away with hints of bisexuality or homosexuality in music since the 1970s, but women had to be more circumspect. Melissa helped remove that stigma. She also was an empowering example when she had to fight breast cancer, choosing not to wear wigs when she lost her hair during treatment.
Gigantic \ The Pixies (1988) – I cover Kim Deal’s significant influence on the music of the 1990s in my profile on her. “Gigantic” was The Pixies first single and Kim sings the lead vocal. The band, and her bass playing, were an influence on the entire grunge genre that followed and, like Tina Weymouth and Kim Gordon, forged a path for female band members in mostly male bands. During and after The Pixies she formed The Breeders with Tanya Donnelly from Throwing Muses and her sister, Kelley Deal, and enjoyed success with their 1993 album, Last Splash.
Lose My Breath \ My Bloody Valentine (1988) – The late ‘80s, as bleak as it was for modern rock, did have the burgeoning sounds that would explode in the ‘90s. As guitars, feedback, noise, and aggressiveness returned to the fore, various sub-genres broke out in the last great wave of rock in the modern era. One of the most interesting was the shoegazer movement (named for their tendency to look down at their guitars while performing), led by bands like Ireland’s My Bloody Valentine. Formed in the mid ‘80s, the band released its first mini-album in 1985 but failed to gain much attention. Undergoing several line-up changes, the line-up and their sound were galvanized when Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig were joined first by Debbie Googe on bass and then by Bilinda Butcher on guitar and vocals, which she shared with Shields. Their first album together, Isn’t Anything in 1988, laid the groundwork for their shoegaze sound which was perfected on their landmark album, Loveless, in 1991. One of the loudest and most innovative acts of their era, the two women in the band were integral to the band’s sound. “Lose My Breath” was written by Bilinda and she provides the lead vocal.
Baby Doll \ Laurie Anderson (1989) – Part of the creative expanse of the ‘80s was an increase in awareness of performance art and those that blended music with visual and spoken word performances. While such art had always existed in the clubs and museums of the ‘60s and ‘70s they were on the fringes. Artists like Laurie Anderson managed to break through and expand the audience for this genre. She got her start in the 1970s and had a hit in the UK with the song, “O Superman,” in 1981. She also had a successful concert film, Home of the Brave, in 1986. Since most of her songs are long and more spoken word, I’ve opted for what’s probably her most accessible and pop-oriented song in “Baby Doll,” which reached #7 on the US Modern Rock chart in 1989.
Dizzy \ Throwing Muses (1989) – Another band that grew out of a country-rock-punk sound, this Boston-based band (originating from Newport, RI) featured two stellar female musicians and stepsisters, Tanya Donnelly and Kristin Hersh. Formed in 1981 and originally as an all-girl band, they eventually ended up with a mixed line-up for their first album in 1986. After being the first American act to sign with British label 4AD, they went on to release two more albums before the decade was out. “Dizzy” is from their third album, Hunkpapa, and was their first single to gain some attention. It would be their fourth album, The Real Ramona, that would be their masterpiece and provide many stellar songs such as “Not Too Soon.” It moved their unique brand of indie-pop into a stronger, more assertive, and pure rock-alternative sound. Donnelly would leave after that album and, as noted above, join the Deal sisters in The Breeders. She then went on to form the excellent band, Belly. Meanwhile Throwing Muses would release three more albums in the ‘90s before Hersh went solo, starting with the highly enjoyable album, Hips and Makers, in 1994.
At the start of the decade women were establishing greater visibility in bands and as leads both solo and in ensembles, thanks to the many independent and hard-rocking acts covered in the first part of this three-part retrospective. As music spread into many new directions in the 1980s, women continued to be drivers of this change, though as always were challenged in getting the same amount of radio and chart attention as the men. There were fewer all-female acts in this era, but perhaps more solo performers. By the end of the decade the idea of a female rocker or lead performer was no longer a rarity and was normal. Women had crossed many barriers and while it was still tough to be taken seriously or not be turned into a pin-up by the industry, fans were certainly more willing to get behind them. A solid foundation had been built and a new generation of women were ready to take over, this time making female modern rock a genre of its own.
Coming soon, part three of this retrospective looking at the ‘90s and a sampling of the new millennium of female artists.