Double Dare Ya: A Retrospective of Women in Modern Rock, Part 3 (1990-1999)
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This retrospective continues the exploration of women’s contributions to modern rock, as chronicled thus far in the first two parts: Don’t Dictate: A Retrospective of Women in Modern Rock, Part 1 (1975-1979) and Voices Carry: A Retrospective of Women in Modern Rock, Part 2 (1980-1989). In this third part covering the 1990s we’ll see how, by and large, female artists contributed to the major trends in modern rock and for the first time elevated their stature to a genre itself, as the Riot Grrrl movement harnessed women’s modern rock spirit to advocate for their cause.
The 1990s saw a significant shift in music as indie-alternative music ascended to a dominant presence. In the UK the predominant styles were male dominated, while in the US and Canada the guitar-driven sounds of grunge and the stripped down country-rock and folk-rock of later indie cycles created an opening for women to step through like never before in the modern rock culture. Therefore, unlike the first two retrospectives, this one has more of a North American focus and a greater variety of musical styles. It’s also a longer playlist since there was so much more activity from women, benefitting from the space created by those on the first two playlists of this retrospective. There were also shifts in how women participated over this decade, in that like the ‘80s the solo wave of the prior decade’s end gave way to more groups with a leading front women and then more solo contributors as the decade closed out. All-female acts were also more common, with 12 appearing in this list as compared to 33 that were in mixed groups and 19 that were solo or the principal creative force in a mixed group.
(Cover Photo clockwise from top left: PJ Harvey, Dolores O’Riordan, Holly McNarland, Sleater-Kinney)
Crash Vegas (Michelle McAdorey & Jocelyne Lanois) - It’s Not Funny Anymore (1990)
Lava Hay - Wild Eyes (1990)
Mazzy Star (Hope Sandoval) - Halah (1990)
Tribe (Terri Brosius & Janet LeValley)- Jakpot (1990)
Babes in Toyland - Dust Cake Boy (1990)
L7 - Shove (1990)
Deee-Lite (Lady Miss Kier) - Try Me On… I’m Very You (1990)
Lush (Miki Berenyi & Emma Anderson) - Sweetness and Light (1990)
The Sundays (Harriet Wheeler) - Here's Where the Story Ends (1990)
Indigo Girls - Hammer and Nail (1990)
Ani Difranco - Letting the Telephone Ring (1990)
Wild Strawberries (Roberta Carter-Harrison) - I Don’t Want to Think About It (1991)
Saint Etienne (Sarah Cracknell) - Nothing Can Stop Us (1991)
Cranes (Alison Shaw) - Tomorrow’s Tears (1991)
360’s (Audrey Clark) - Illuminated (1991)
Curve (Toni Halliday) - Coast is Clear (1991)
PJ Harvey - Dress (1991)
Bikini Kill (Kathleen Hanna) - Double Dare Ya (1991)
7 Year Bitch - Lorna (1991)
No Doubt (Gwen Stefani) - Trapped in A Box (1992)
Juliana Hatfield - Lost and Saved (1992)
Tori Amos - Crucify (1992)
Frente! (Angie Hart) - Labour of Love (1992)
The Cranberries (Dolores O’Riordan) - Dreams (1992)
Bettie Serveert (Carol van Dijk) - Kid’s Alright (1992
Acid Test (Lucy Di Santo) - Mr. Skin (1992)
Luscious Jackson - Life of Leisure (1992)
Daisy Chainsaw (KatieJane Garside) - Love Your Money (1992)
Shonen Knife - Riding the Rocket (1992)
Bratmobile - Kiss and Ride (1992)
Swallow (Louise Trehy) - Sugar Your Mind (1992)
Pale Saints (Meriel Barham) - Throwing Back the Apple (1992)
Liz Phair - Help Me Mary (1993)
Bjork - Come to Me (1993)
kd Lang - Just Keep Me Moving (1993)
Sheryl Crow - The Na-Na Song (1993)
Band of Susans (Susan Stenger & Anne Husick) - The Red and the Black (1993)
Medicine (Beth Thompson) - The Pink (1993)
Whale (Cia Berg) - Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe (1993)
Rose Chronicles (Kristy Thirsk) - Glide (Free Above) (1993)
Cub (Neko Case) - Party (1993)
Elastica - Stutter (1993)
Veruca Salt (Louise Post & Nina Gordon) - Seether (1994)
Hole (Courtney Love) - Miss World (1994)
The Murmurs - All I Need to Know (1994)
Lisa Loeb - Stay (I Missed You) (1994)
Portishead (Beth Gibbons) - Sour Times (1994)
Sleater-Kinney - The Day I Went Away (1994)
Alanis Morissette - You Oughta Know (1995)
Garbage (Shirley Manson) - Vow (1995)
The Cardigans (Nina Persson) - Carnival (1995)
Cat Power - Rockets (1995)
Cibo Matto - Know Your Chicken (1995)
Poe - Trigger Happy Jack (1995)
Boss Hog (Cristina Martinez) - Winn Coma (1995)
Fiona Apple - Sleep to Dream (1996)
Patti Rothberg - Looking for A Girl (1996)
Holly McNarland - Mr. 5 Minutes (1996)
Sneaker Pimps (Kelli Dayton) - 6 Underground (1996)
Jane Jensen - Luv Song (1997)
Emm Gryner - Summerlong (1998)
By Divine Right (Leslie Feist) - Come for A Ride (1999)
Dido - Slide (1999)
Le Tigre - Hot Topic (1999)
It’s Not Funny Anymore \ Crash Vegas (1990) – Let’s start off with a couple of Canadian artists, the first of which was blending a country music sound into modern rock, not unlike artists featured in the last retrospective such as Lone Justice, Melissa Etheridge, and Throwing Muses. Crash Vegas came out of Toronto and a relationship between Michelle McAdorey and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, one of Canada’s most popular bands of the time. McAdorey joined with Jocelyne Lanois, sister of famed producer and singer Daniel Lanois and an experienced player on the Canadian scene after time with Martha and the Muffins. As the band grew, Keelor dropped out to focus on Blue Rodeo and the band, eventually a quartet, released its first album, Red Earth, one of the better Canadian albums of the period. Featuring solid singles like “Inside Out” and “Smoke” and solid album tracks like “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” McAdorey and Lanois continued the strong tradition of female contributions to the Canadian music scene.
Wild Eyes \ Lava Hay (1990) – Another Toronto band, this female folk-rock duo of Michele Gould and Suzanne Little released two albums before parting ways, with Gould forming the band Taste of Joy. The women also had a connection to the Canadian band, Grapes of Wrath, both in getting help with their recordings and marrying members from that band. The self-titled first album went against the tide of growing rock acts in North America, but still gained alternative radio attention with catchy songs like, “Baby,” “Won’t Matter,” and “Wild Eyes.”
Halah \ Mazzy Star (1990) – This was a California band formed out of the ‘80s act Opel, with Hope Sandoval joining on vocals to give Mazzy Star a distinctive sound among the alternative ‘90s acts. They are best known for the 1994 track, “Fade Into You,” but in 1990 they were getting going as part of a wave of artists restoring creativity and energy to the modern rock scene. “Halah” is from their debut album, She Hangs Brightly. Indie music in the ‘90s blended several genres, and Mazzy Star also had some country elements in a stripped down, dream pop style. Hope’s vocals were the key ingredient to this unique mix.
Jakpot \ Tribe (1990) (YouTube only) – An indie band from Boston, Tribe featured two key female band members, Terri Brosius and Janet LaValley. Janet’s lead vocals, when harmonized with Terri’s, gave the band a strong vocal presence riding over thick guitar-driven pop songs. Despite a stellar debut album, first released independently as Here at the Home and then on a major label and re-recorded as Abort, the band couldn’t find a large enough audience to sustain after two more albums. “Jakpot” was their first single and displays the fantastic, power-pop sound of the band and the women’s strong, vocal leads.
Dust Cake Boy \ Babes in Toyland (1990) – Over 1988 to 1990, rock music in America moved away from the big hair, make-up, and epic solos of the late ‘80s to give way to a grittier, thicker, rawer guitar-rock sound that would become known as grunge. Mixing punk with hard rock, this new form of modern rock gained a huge following as it appealed to audiences of many genres. Once again, women were in the mix and Babes in Toyland were one of the few all-female acts to make its mark during this era. Formed in Minneapolis by Kat Bjelland and Lori Barbero (and once featured Courtney Love in the line-up in 1987), the band released three albums and two EPs over six years. While they didn’t make it big, they definitely made their presence known. In 1992 I saw them in a fantastic opening set at the Opera House in Toronto for British shoegazers, Lush (who we’ll get to shortly) and then caught them again in the 1993 Lollapalooza line-up.
Shove \ L7 (1990) – The more prominent all-female grunge act of the early ‘90s was L7. Buoyed by the success of their third album and fourth albums, Bricks are Heavy (with the amazing single, “Pretend We’re Dead”) in 1992 and Hungry for Stink in 1994, the band led by Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner proved women could be every bit as grungy as the plaid-laden men. In 1990 they were getting known through famed grunge indie label Sub Pop, in which they released their second album, Smell the Magic, featuring the single, “Shove.” I saw them in a club show in 1992 and then again recently in 2018, and they’re rocking as strong as ever.
Try Me On… I’m Very You \ Deee-Lite (1990) – One of the most intriguing and visually memorable acts of the early ‘90s was this New York based trio, comprised of a pair of DJs – one Japanese (Towa) and one Ukrainian (Dmitri) – and singer Lady Miss Kier (Kierin Kirby). Eccentric, colourful, and driven by retro-style mixed with funk and modern beats, the band helped usher in the club music craze of the era. After gaining attention with a minimalist, synth-ballad, “What Is Love?” the band took the dance world by storm with “Groove Is in the Heart,” helped by the legendary Bootsy Collins on bass. The album, World Clique, was fantastic from start to finish, so I’ve selected an album track, “Try Me On… I’m Very You” to reveal the undeniable fun and charm of this band. I saw them in concert and it was truly different than any other modern rock act of the time. They released two more albums in the ‘90s but couldn’t repeat the success of their debut. The appeal and personality of the band drew largely from Lady Miss Kier, who matched her bold look with strong vocals that held up against the beats.
Sweetness and Light \ Lush (1990) – The early ‘90s sounds from the UK were male dominated, but women still managed to make their mark. Shoegazers, one of the more prolific genres of the period from the UK, included this band, led by the female duo of Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson. Layered guitars were soothed with the effervescent vocals of Miki and Emma. Lush was a lovely balance to the male vocals typically buried in the shoegaze mix, in which the female vocals added much more flavour to the dense sonics. They were a great live act too that I managed to catch twice in 1992, first on their own and then as part of Lollapalooza. Lush would go on to release four albums before splitting in 1996.
Here’s Where the Story Ends \ The Sundays (1990) – Hands down one of my favourite pop albums of the early ‘90s was The Sundays’ Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic featuring this brilliant single. Beautiful pop melodies riding acoustic guitar and carried by Harriet Wheeler’s enchanting vocals. They wouldn’t be able to equal the success of this debut album over two more releases, calling it quits by the end of the decade.
Hammer and Nail \ Indigo Girls (1990) – By 1990 the Indigo Girls were a successful act, riding the success of the 1989 single, “Closer to Fine.” Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, from Atlanta, rode the wave of success that many female folk acts of the period enjoyed (e.g. Tracey Chapman, Michelle Shocked), but were also outspoken on political, social, and environmental issues, and as lesbians broke ground for women to succeed outside the normal boundaries of female personas in rock music. They would continue to blend their music career with their causes and advocate for women in music through projects such as Lilith Fair.
Letting the Telephone Ring \ Ani Difranco (1990) – Another important female voice in the indie-folk genre was this singer from Buffalo. She has moved through different genres over her career, with her sound united by her strong and distinctive voice. In 1990 she was just getting started but would enjoy greater success over the years as she released twenty albums. She has been an activist throughout her career, lending her voice to many initiatives for women, gay rights, political causes, and the environment.
I Don’t Want to Think About It \ Wild Strawberries (1991) – Yet another entry from the strong Toronto music scene of the period, this band was formed around the married duo of Roberta Carter-Harrison and Ken Harrison. The second album, Grace, would gain them a spot in the Canadian music scene with songs like the title track, “Crying Shame,” “I Don’t Want to Think About It,” and “Sisyphus.” Blending simple, catchy melodies with Roberta’s lower-toned vocals, the band went on to have further hits in Canada in the ‘90s such as “Life Sized Marilyn Monroe” and “Bet You Think I’m Lonely.” They are still releasing albums these days, with 2017’s Vesper 50 being the most recent.
Nothing Can Stop Us \ Saint Etienne (1991) – Another act exploring the dance side of the modern rock world was Saint Etienne from London, featuring Sarah Cracknell on vocals. The band used more melody than many other electronic acts of the time and that pop element gave them crossover appeal. Sarah’s vocals also provided a nice contrast to the beats. This first album, Foxbase Alpha, was helped by the success of their first single, a fun dance version of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” which paved the way for “Nothing Can Stop Us” reaching #1 on the US dance chart. The band has released a total of nine albums over the ensuing 28 years since that debut, enjoying consistent success in the UK.
Cranes \ Tomorrow’s Tears (1991) – Alison Shaw exemplified a common problem for female singers in the modern rock world. Her vocals were high pitched and sounded girlish, which in the super cool or super tough personas of Modern Rock, struggled to find a place. Alison certainly wasn’t the first to sound this way in modern rock (check out Clare Grogan in Altered Images), but not many have had great success with that sound. It seemed to repel as many as it attracted (and I knew women more than men who didn’t care for her sound, read into that what you will), and when the Cranes were trying to find a spot in the early ‘90s shoegaze scene, her vocals were a dividing aspect of their attraction. Me, I loved it, and listened to their first two albums repeatedly and was thrilled to see the band open for The Cure in Toronto in 1992. Formed with her brother Jim, the Shaws put together a fantastic, moody, enchanting, dark-pop and shoegaze band that were one of the more unique acts of that era – and yes, as much because of those undeniably familiar vocals of Alison’s, who has forever defined the band’s sound.
Illuminated \ 360’s (1991) (YouTube only) – This Boston band didn’t last long, but released a very solid album, Illuminated, that offered one of the few shoegazer-like offerings from the US. Audrey Clark fronted a four-piece band that played in the local scene with the likes of Morphine, The Pixies, The Mighty Bosstones, and The Lemonheads. The band would follow up the debut with another album, Supernatural, before calling it quits – though Audrey and bandmate Eric Russell, who are a couple, have continued to record and play together.
Coast Is Clear \ Curve (1991) – One of the best bands out of England during this incredible period of music was Curve, a duo of Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia. Halliday’s vocals pierced through the wall of guitar and electronics featured in their music, to the extent that it separated their sound from the shoegaze sounds of the time. She was one of the few and most recognized alternative singers in England during those years.
Dress \ PJ Harvey (1991) – Polly Jean Harvey, with her debut album, Dry, in 1992, immediately asserted herself as an incredible sounding, strong voice in the music world. Defying genres, mixing femininity with a punk assertiveness, she set the foundation for an impressive career with catchy songs like “Dress” and “Sheela-na-gig” from that first album, and then with many others over one strong album after another – nine in total over her career.
Double Dare Ya \ Bikini Kill (1991) – In addition to the grunge movement, pure punk rock was still alive and well and gaining attention thanks to the increased visibility of guitar-heavy music. Punk music has always been a vehicle for socially conscious music, and in the 1990s many women championed their cause like never before, letting their anger and voices out over the din of punk sound. Bikini Kill was a band of three women and one male from the American Northwest led by Kathleen Hanna, who had published the fanzine Bikini Kill before forming the band. They were deliberately focused on female issues in rock and the broader world, creating a safe space for female fans in front of the stage during their shows, fighting back against male dominance in the rock world, and using their songs to advocate for women’s rights. Bikini Kill would be one of the first and best known acts in what would become to be known as the Riot Grrrl movement, a genre of music and DIY attitude that encouraged women to assert their independence.
Lorna \ 7 Year Bitch (1991) – If the band name doesn’t make it obvious, this all-female band was another early contributor to the Riot Grrrl genre. “Lorna” was their first single and included on their first album, Sick ‘Em, in 1992. The band was active in advocating for women’s issue, especially so after their guitarist Stefanie Sargeant died in 1992 after vomiting and asphyxiating in her sleep after consuming alcohol and heroine, and then Mia Zapata, frontwoman for fellow Seattle female punk band, Gits, was raped and murdered. The band’s second album, ¡Viva Zapata!, was a tribute to these women and drummer Valerie Agnew became co-founder of the anti-violence and self-defense group, Home Alive.
Trapped in A Box \ No Doubt (1992) – Watching Gwen Stefani today on a show like The Voice (which, for the record, I don’t), it’s hard to reconcile against her image in the early days of No Doubts’ career and her performance on a song like “Trapped in A Box.” During an era in which women singers were crooning to folk songs or belting out grunge and rock, Stefani stood out with her colour, energy, and as the front woman for a band that mixed rock, funk, reggae, and pop. Gwen and the band would enjoy a successful run over the 1990s with that sound and Stefani would rise further as a full-fledged pop star.
Lost and Saved \ Juliana Hatfield (1992) – Hatfield had an interesting run-up to her solo career, or at least to fronting a trio that bore her name. She started with the Boston band, Blake Babies, one of many American alt-rock bands that enjoyed underground success and College radio attention during the late 1980s. She then spent a stint with fellow Bostonians, The Lemonheads, as they rose to success with the album, It’s A Shame About Ray, while also starting her solo career with the album, Hey Babe. It’s from this album that “Lost and Saved” appears and shows her pop-rock sensibility, marked by her distinctive vocals. Similar to Alison Shaw in the Cranes, Juliana’s youthful voice could at times enhance and at others draw away from her songs. Either way, they made them worthy of a listen. She would go on to release sixteen albums, and counting, but enjoyed her greatest success over the second and third albums in 1993 and 1995.
Crucify \ Tori Amos (1992) – Another artist that has moved in and out of focus for modern rock listeners, and equally charmed and irritated those fans, has been Tori Amos. Her personal, piano filled music and emotive vocal style drew many fans along with criticisms of being a Kate Bush imitator (never a fair comparison as their music was never alike enough to warrant it). Her talent, passion, and conviction could not be denied as she was one of few artists to appeal to pop and alternative audiences. Her first four albums were huge sellers and chart toppers, delivering a healthy list of singles – of which “Crucify” was the fifth but the first to draw attention to her music. “Cornflake Girl” from her second album would drive her success and lead to a strong and loyal following.
Labour of Love \ Frente! (1992) – Another band with a young sounding lead female vocalist, Angie Hart, this Australian act, like so many others on this list, had great success with their debut, couldn’t replicate it, and then packed it up before the decade was out. Part of the band’s demise was Hart and guitarist Simon Austin were in a relationship that broke up, with Hart going on to marry Alanis Morrisette’s guitarist, Jesse Tobias. Perhaps best known in North America for their acoustic cover of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” the band had many other catchy folk-rock songs such as “Labour of Love,” the title-track from their debut.
Dreams \ The Cranberries (1992) – Dolores O’Riordan’s untimely passing this past year brought back strong memories of her arrival to the music scene in the early 1990s. Few singers have sung with as strong an Irish accent as she did in their first single to garner international attention, “Linger.” Along with that was “Dreams,” a solid rock song that showed this band had a great sound throughout their first album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? The band’s tight playing and her bewitching vocals – that could draw you close in a ballad, lift you up with an anthemic rocker, or stir you to justice with her lyrics and anger – made The Cranberries one of the biggest selling acts of the 1990s. Their success came from broad crossover appeal between audiences of multiple genres, which was testament to the talent of their remarkable singer, who could give the songs such broad access.
Kid’s Alright \ Bettie Serveert (1992) – Carol van Dijk (Vancouver born) helped form this Dutch band in Amsterdam, bringing the American indie-rock sound to northern mainland Europe. The band name means “Bettie Serves” in Dutch and was taken from the autobiography of Dutch tennis player, Betty Stöve. The debut album, Palomine, was released in 1992 and included this wonderful song, “Kid’s Alright,” which perfectly captured the aggressive-sound-meets-slacker-delivery of the grunge era. The band has released ten albums and is still going strong with three of its original members still in the fold and with van Dijk still delivering vocals in front of the straightforward rock sound they’ve championed.
Mr. Skin \ Acid Test (1992) – This song was drawn from the Canadian movie, Highway 61, in which Acid Test, a band from Toronto, provided two songs. The song’s title refers to the antagonist, a man who believes he is Satan. The band offered these songs and a great mix of other indie-dance-rock songs on their debut LP, Drop, which was released on Sire Records with much fanfare. Unfortunately, the band’s unique sound couldn’t catch on and they broke up before releasing another album. They recently issued an EP, Jus Rite, to commemorate the passing of band member, Mike Harland. The band’s sound was tied together by vocalist and bassist, Lucy Di Santo.
Life of Leisure \ Luscious Jackson (1992) – This all-female band from New York was the first to be signed to Beastie Boys’ label, Grand Royal, and like their mentors blended a hip hop vibe with indie-rock. The first EP, In Search of Manny, helped the band with songs like “Daughters of The Kaos” and “Life of Leisure.” Their greatest success would come on their second full-length album in 1996, Fever In, Fever Out, and the single, “Naked Eye,” which refined their sound with a greater pop sensibility. They’ve only issued five albums over their career, with the most recent in 2013.
Love Your Money \ Daisy Chainsaw (1992) – The first time I heard “Love Your Money” on a compilation album, I was taken aback, thinking it was just noise. After a couple listens I was hooked and made sure to pick up the full cd, Eleventeen. Like the single, the whole album was filled with catchy, chaotic, noise-rock songs all punctuated by the screeching, unhinged, childlike vocals of KatieJane Garside. “I Feel Insane,” “Dog with Sharper Teeth,” and “Hope Your Dreams Come True” are all worth checking out. Even in the grunge era this album took it to another level and was mesmerizing for its energy (I recall seeing a poster of the album’s cover on the bedroom wall of Darlene Conner, the misanthropic character played by Sara Gilbert in Roseanne, and thinking it was perfect for her and probably chosen by Gilbert herself). Garside and the band, from London, were known for crazy performances that included her wearing dirty dresses, drinking from a baby bottle, and drilling holes in dolls’ heads. She left the band after this first album and they continued with new singer, Belinda Leith, releasing one more album in 1994. Garside has performed in a few more acts over the years. I still go back to this album every so often and love it every time I hear it.
Riding on the Rocket \ Shonen Knife (1992) – This all-female Japanese pop-punk band built a reputation and following in Japan over the 1980s, having released five albums between 1982 and 1991. Their US exposure was growing through releases on soon to be legendary grunge label Sub Pop, and when former labelmate Kurt Cobain cited them as one of his favourite bands their international status shot up and led to success with this single and the album, Let’s Knife, their first on a major label. Originally formed around the trio of sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano and Michie Nakatani, the act has gone through several line-up changes with Naoko being the only sustaining member. Her sister regularly returns for tours.
Kiss and Ride \ Bratmobile (1992) – This band was an all-female trio and one of the early progenitors of the Riot Grrrl movement. This song was released as a single in 1992 and then included on their first album, Pottymouth, in 1993. It’s another example of the DIY spirit of the American Northwest and the female strain of punk and grunge that was blossoming in that area over the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Sugar Your Mind \ Swallow (1992) – This UK duo of Mike Mason and Louise Trehy were on the 4AD label and accompanied their suggestive band name with an appropriate title, Blow. They had a shoegazer sound with the genre’s signature layered guitar and buried vocals, blending the sounds of labelmates Lush and Cocteau Twins. The album was remixed as Blowback before a subsequent EP, Hush, was released in 1994 and that would be it for Swallow, which ended when Trehy and Mason broke up their relationship.
Throwing Back the Apple \ Pale Saints (1992) – Another 4AD band, Pale Saints was originally an all-male band formed in Leeds, England in 1987, and had a #40 album for a debut in 1990. Shortly after, the band added vocalist Meriel Barham (formerly of Lush) as a second guitarist and back-up vocalist. She gave the band that feminine touch on the second album, In Ribbons, in 1992. Colleen Browne (formerly of Heart Throbs) joined in 1993 on bass. The band released one more album in 1994 before breaking up.
Help Me Mary \ Liz Phair (1993) – Part of the American embrace of indie rock in the 1990s was the elevation of many artists that otherwise might not have achieved the same acclaim. Liz Phair never made much of an impression on me, but she was successful and championed as a strong female figure in the modern rock genre. Her albums, six in total running up to 2010, have all done solid sales and chart success in the US, with little international attention. Her debut, Exit in Guyville, was especially celebrated and was a big part of her ensuing success through the next ten years. The singles from the album didn’t grab me, but “Help Me Mary” had an okay, slacker vibe to it.
Come to Me \ Bjork (1993) – I covered Bjork in the last retrospective as part of her arrival with The Sugarcubes in the late ‘80s. Therefore, I only include her in this list because, when she went solo with her album, Debut, in 1993 it allowed her to break free of the constraints of her band. She used that freedom to chart one of the most original, creative, and remarkable careers of any women in modern rock. Therefore her start as a solo artist should be commemorated, and this sublime, lovely track from Debut can’t do it any better.
Just Keep Me Moving \ k.d. Lang (1993) – This Canadian country singer had a successful and established career before she shifted into a new direction, embracing pop music and leaving the country scene behind. Perhaps one reason was that she was never embraced by the country world, not the least because she was a vegetarian-animal rights advocating-lesbian with a butch fashion style. So for that, and the fact that she was (is) one of the best, most purely talented female singers ever, then she deserves inclusion on any list that discusses female artistic talent. Few women have charted as independent a career as kd Lang, so I’ve always considered her a bit punk even if her music isn’t in the modern rock mold. Her 1993 album , Ingenue, was a classic and the follow-up, All You Can Eat, was one of my favourite discs of the ‘90s. This song was as modern rock as she got, slipping in a dance-new wave vibe. Unfortunately it’s not the best example of her extraordinary voice, but one of the nice things about her approach was that she didn’t try to impress you on every song; the song always had to work as a whole and her voice was just a part. This track appeared in the soundtrack to the female empowerment movie, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, to which kd provided the soundtrack and was one of the movie’s highlights.
The Na-Na Song \ Sheryl Crow (1993) – It might be hard to recall at this point, but Sheryl Crow started out as an alternative artist, brief though it was. In late ’93 when her first album came out, Tuesday Night Music Club, the single “Leaving Las Vegas” was a mainstay on alternative radio and went top ten on the US Alternative chart. It was after the next single, “All I Wanna Do,” with its infectious dance-pop groove, that Crow moved firmly into the pop-rock category and became one of the most popular, biggest selling solo-female acts of the past twenty-five years. Her career got a late start – she was 31 when she broke out – but she never looked back once her foot was in the door. This song was from that first album that captured a bit of the alternative vibe from her early tunes.
The Red and the Black \ Band of Susans (1993) – The band name originated from a trio of Susans in the original line-up, formed in the mid-‘80s. Two of the Susans quit after the initial album in 1988, leaving Susan Stenger as the sole Susan though not the only female, as Karen Haglof joined for the next album and was then replaced by Anne Husick for the next three albums. “The Red and the Black” comes from the fourth album, Veil, which was a fantastic album and one in which they harnessed the raw power of their earlier work into a more refined, shoegazer influenced sound. The band broke up in 1996 and was never able to capture success despite having a sound that fit into the prevailing sounds of the day.
The Pink \ Medicine (1993) – Another American shoegaze band, they were fronted by singer Beth Thompson who, in typical shoegaze fashion, flitted her vocals amongst the morass of keyboards and guitar sludge. Employing a bit of a pop approach, the band gained some attention with the inclusion of the song, “Time Baby III” on the 1994 soundtrack for The Crow (the song was enhanced by backing vocals from the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser). In 1993, however, they released their very good second album, The Buried Life, of which “The Pink” was the lead track. The band broke up after their third album in 1995, but has recently re-formed since 2013, releasing two more albums.
Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe \ Whale (1993) – Yes, 1993 was a noisy year in music and that continued with Sweden’s Whale and their unlikely, glorious, minor hit that had the very original title matching their chaotic sound. Cia Berg fronted this trio, adding her ethereal vocals to the band’s funk-punk sound. The band issued two albums in 1995 and 1998, and this first single did rather well across Europe, on US alternative radio, and on MTV.
Glide (Free Above) \ Rose Chronicles (1993) – Canada’s Rose Chronicles also employed the shoegazer sound, but more in the dream pop vein a la Lush. Vocalist Kristy Thirsk cited Cocteau Twins and Sarah McLachlan as unlikely, but appropriate, inspirations for her style. They released two albums in 1994 (Shiver) and 1996 (Happily Ever After) before disbanding, once again after a personal relationship break-up between Thirsk and guitarist Richard Maranda.
Party \ Cub (1993) – Cub was an all-female indie band from Vancouver that played a stripped down modern rock. They released four albums during the ‘90s but never caught on. This song is from the first album, Cub, that included Neko Case on drums. Case would go on to be the prominent vocalist in the band The New Pornographers that would enjoy success in the next decade. She would also establish a very strong following as a solo, country artist.
Stutter \ Elastica (1993) – As noted earlier, women in the UK fared a little less well in the 1990s as the male dominated scenes of Madchester and then Britpop dominated the modern rock scenes. One of the few acts to gain some success in both the UK and the US with their debut album was Elastica, which was three women and a man. Formed as an offshoot from the band Suede by ex-members Justine Frischmann and Justin Welch (who would play with Lush later also), they were joined by Annie Holland and Donna Matthews. Their brand of power pop with a mix of electronica made for an infectious groove. Their best known song was “Connection,” but I love the energy and tight hooks of the first single, “Stutter.”
Seether \ Veruca Salt (1994) – Veruca Salt featured two lead female band members, with Louise Post and Nina Gordon on guitars and vocals. My memory seems to always join Elastica and Veruca Salt together due to their similar female power-pop sound and having such infectious hits around the same time. For Veruca Salt though (yes, named after the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory character), there wasn’t as much to sink your teeth into after this wonderful single. “Seether” might have been a little too melodic, just too pop sounding, to fully appeal to modern rock audiences, and yet too edgy for mainstream audiences. The song and album, American Thighs, charted reasonably well for the Chicago band that would last through two albums, with the band effectively breaking up in 1998. However, it carried on in name under lone remaining member, Louise Post, releasing two more albums before recently returning to its original line-up since 2013, releasing a fifth LP in 2015.
Miss World \ Hole (1994) – Someone once commented to me in the late ‘90s that Courtney Love would end up one of those people that was famous for reasons that weren’t clear, like Zsa Zsa Gabor. I’ve always thought that comment to be funny and true since Love’s notoriety always seemed to be her most identifiable feature, but ultimately denied her credit for the noteworthy contributions she made to the music world. Originally a little known grunge singer and actress, her marriage to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana made her famous, especially when she gained access to talented collaborators and players. She made the most of it, as her band, Hole, released two of the best albums of the ‘90s with 1994’s Live Through This and 1998’s Celebrity Skin. She also gained some respect as an actress in the 1996 movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt, but ultimately couldn’t shake the reputation as a drug-addicted, trouble-making celebrity and widow of one of the most famous musicians of the modern rock era.
All I Need to Know \ The Murmurs (1994) – The Murmurs were the duo of Heather Grody and Leisha Hailey, and later an all-female four-piece for their final two of four albums, all released in the ‘90s. They were best known for the assertive, folk-rock song, “You Suck.” They were one of many folk acts that blossomed in the mid-90s. Grody and Hailey would also perform together in the 2000s as Gush, Grody would then perform in an act called Redcar while Hailey continued in the duo Uh Huh Her.
Stay (I Missed You) \ Lisa Loeb (1994) – In the same vein, Lisa Loeb was a folk-pop artist that enjoyed success after this song’s exposure on the Reality Bites soundtrack. Her sound was more pop than modern rock and she’s failed to sustain the success of her 1995 album, Tails, and 1997’s Firecracker. Her earnest music was very representative of the wave of female solo artists that arose in the second half of the decade. As this playlist reveals, most of the women in the first half of the list were in bands, while the second half shifts to more lone performers.
Sour Times \ Portishead (1994) – An abrupt change from Lisa Loeb, there’s no place to put a Portishead song on a playlist without it standing out, so original was the band’s sound. Beth Gibbons fronted the sparse, dark rhythms with a melancholic vocal, evoking a nostalgia for old jazz. The first album in 1994, Dummy, landed like a bolt from outer space, contrasting with the guitar heavy rock of the decade’s first half and helping spur a wave of ‘trip hop’ bands like Tricky and Massive Attack. They released an equally stellar, self-titled album in 1997 before going into hiatus, before returning with another excellent album, Third, in 2008. All three of their albums peaked at #2 in the UK. Portishead and its band members remain an enigma, staying out of the public eye, though have worked off and on with other artists and on solo projects.
The Day I Went Away \ Sleater-Kinney (1994) – This all-female trio of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss was the other most prominent act associated with the Riot Grrrl movement and was formed out of other Riot Grrrl bands. They also came out of the American Northwest and their sound was more contemporary and better than the punkier and rawer sounds of Bikini Kill. “The Day I Went Away” was a fantastic song from their self-titled debut. They would release six more albums over the next decade before breaking up, only to reform to much fanfare and issue an eighth LP in 2015. Brownstein is also well known as an actress in the TV show, Portlandia. Like other acts of the Riot Grrrl genre, their lyrics and advocacy did much to create a female-friendly environment in modern rock.
You Oughta Know \ Alanis Morissette (1995) – The success of this album, Jagged Little Pill, was as unlikely as any other modern rock album but was indicative of the progress of the genre as well as the success of female artists within it. Formerly a dance-pop, teen singer in Canada known just as Alanis, Morissette caught many by surprise when she released this rocker full of attitude in the summer of 1995. Starting with this single, it built momentum as five more successful singles came out over the next eighteen months, culminating in over 33 million copies sold worldwide, going #1 in thirteen countries, and making it one of the biggest selling albums ever by a solo female artist. Its huge exposure diverted attention from the fact that it was, through and through, consistent with the grunge and alternative rock of the 1990s. While the music was perhaps more slickly written and produced than its lesser known peers, a song like “You Oughta Know,” with its provocative and profane lyrics, seemed an unlikely breakthrough hit, and especially from a woman given that audiences often tended to sidestep assertive music from women. Indeed, this album became an anthem for the rise in female success in the rock world during the ‘90s.
Vow \ Garbage (1995) – This mid-West American band first gained attention due to having super-producer Butch Vig on drums, but it was the engaging, raven-haired, Scottish lead singer, Shirley Manson, that drove the band’s image and success. It also didn’t hurt that from the first, self-titled album, the band delivered huge helpings of catchy, electro-rock songs. The first album in 1995 was one of the best of the decade and, like the ‘80s, marked one of the last gasps of great modern rock before a late-decade decline in quality. The album also had a lyrical focus on dark themes and an empowerment message for the overlooked and downtrodden in songs like “Stupid Girl” (built around The Clash song, “Train in Vain”), “Supervixen,” “Queer,” “Milk,” “I’m Only Happy When It Rains,” and “Vow.”
Carnival \ The Cardigans (1995) – The noise and guitar power of the early ‘90s started to give way with the arrival of acts like Sweden’s The Cardigans, which restored a lighter, melodic, pure pop sound to modern rock radio and charts. The single “Carnival” helped the band’s second album, Life, get some international attention before the band scored a hit with “Lovefool” from their third album, boosted by its appearance on the soundtrack to the 1996 Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes movie, Romeo + Juliet. The band has released six albums over its career and maintained the same five member line-up, with Nina Persson on vocals.
Rockets \ Cat Power (1995) – Cat Power is the stage name for Atlanta-born singer, Charlyn Marie Marshall. The name was taken from a trucker’s Caterpillar trucking hat that read, ‘Cat Deisel Power.’ This, her first album, benefitted from a collaboration with guitarist Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth’s drummer, Steve Shelley. Tending towards minimalist compositions ranging from raw, guitar-driven songs and later to more richer, ambient, moody, piano-laced songs, she slowly built a following over six albums in ten years before finally breaking through with the 2006 song and album, “The Greatest” – a lovely, string-filled ballad that appears regularly in shows and movies. Undoubtedly, the charm and attraction to her music is her emotive, almost indifferent vocal style, that can create fantastic moments of tension and release.
Know Your Chicken \ Cibo Matto (1995) – A duo of ex-pat Japanese women, Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, formed in New York and released two albums in 1996 and 1999 (a third would follow in 2014). Cibo Matto is Italian for ‘crazy food’ and indeed, much of their early music focused on food. Their mix of drum and bass, sampling, and dubstep captured some of the New York club sounds of the mid-’90s. They were fairly experimental within the modern rock world and enjoyed more critical success than commercial attention, though their videos did well on MTV.
Trigger Happy Jack \ Poe (1995) – Similarly, Poe is the stage name for New York singer Anne Decatur Danielewski. She took her name from a Halloween costume based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Her career is a curious one, as she released two fantastic and mildly-successful albums, Hello in 1995 and Haunted in 2000, before being dropped by her label, the victim of a post-merger downsizing during the music industry’s troubled reckoning with online file sharing and declining sales. Poe seemed poised to be one of the brighter lights of the label’s alternative music choices but was released anyway due to her affiliation with a sub-label that was dropped. And with that she disappeared and never released more music. “Trigger Happy Jack” was her first single, the first of many strong releases such as “Angry Johnny,” “Hello,” and “Hey Pretty.” She was another example of the growing ranks of solo female artists in the late ‘90s.
Winn Coma \ Boss Hog (1995) – This band started as a side project for Jon Spencer, who was known in alternative circles for his band, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Forming Boss Hog with his wife, Cristina Martinez, and musicians from several other acts they had worked with, they have sporadically released four albums over the past thirty years. The band also includes a female drummer, Hollis Queens. Their albums are filled with solid noisy, grungy, punky guitar songs, all carrying the aggressive and impressive vocals of Martinez. She was also a provocative front woman, often appearing without much clothing on the album covers and videos. She followed in the footsteps of many modern rock, female provocateurs. “Winn Coma” was a single from the second, self-titled album that also included the fantastic tune, “What the Fuck,” a phrase that at the time wasn’t yet the ubiquitous social media acronym.
Sleep to Dream \ Fiona Apple (1996) – Apple was another New York solo, female singer. Classically trained she wrote her debut album, Tidal, when she was seventeen and it was released two years later. Driven by the success of the single, “Criminal,” she has enjoyed considerable success over her four albums, with the last released in 2012 – though the first still remains her best known and highest selling. It was of the burgeoning style of the times for modern rock, mixing an indie edge with catchy, drum, bass and keyboard compositions – not unlike Poe’s music. It was a style that was distinctly feminine within the usual forms of modern rock assertiveness. This was not flowery, saccharine, or timid, this was modern rock from a female point of view; and it appealed to both men and women. The success of artists like Apple was indicative of the growth and acceptance of female artists, and while never attaining the same volume of output as men, women now routinely rose to the top ranks of alternative music.
Looking for A Girl \ Patti Rothberg (1996) – Patti was part of a wave of solo female artists that had success in the US during the later half of the decade. Mixing modern rock, folk, and occasional blues and jazz, she has put out six albums over the past twenty years, though only the debut, Between the 1 and the 9, had chart success driven by the single, “Inside.” “Looking for A Girl” better represents her vocal ability and subtler musical styles.
Mr. 5 Minutes \ Holly McNarland (1996) – Holly was a Canadian indie artist that had a minor hit with this tongue-in-cheek song in 1996 (though the remix version was more even-tempo’d and beat driven compared to the original from the EP, Sour Pie, where it was largely acoustic with a rock crescendo finish). There was greater success with the album, Stuff, and the songs “Numb” and “Elmo” in 1997. Yet another strong, female solo artist with a strong voice, attitude, and an independent streak.
6 Underground \ Sneaker Pimps (1996) – DJs Liam Howe and Chris Corner started as a duo mixing beats, acoustics, and electronics, but needed a vocal to complete the sound. They recruited Kelli Dayton and the sound was complete, leading to the sensational debut album, Becoming X, which featured great electronic-rock songs like “Tesko Suicide,” “6 Underground,” and “Spin Spin Sugar.” Kelli was another female vocalist with a girlish sound, and she would leave after that first album, going solo as Kelli Ali. The Sneaker Pimps would lose that distinctive element to their sound, making the subsequent albums very different sounding with Chris taking on the vocals.
Luv Song \ Jane Jensen (1997) – I didn’t catch on to Jensen and her music until five years ago, which shows that in modern rock there is always talent flying under the radar. A multi-talented artist, singer, dancer, comic book writer, and actress from Chicago, she performed with different artists and under different pseudonyms before releasing her first solo album under her name, Comic Book Whore, from which this song appeared. It again caught the modern, aggressive sound of female artists during this era. I discovered this song from a scene of The Good Wife (also Chicago-based), in which the character Kalinda vandalizes a man’s car, bashing it in time to the music’s beat.
Summerlong \ Emm Gryner (1998) – This Canadian singer is one of many female artists that have straddled the line between mainstream, pop success and indie-alternative attention. She came to attention in the late ‘90s Toronto music scene, scoring hits like “Summerlong” and “Magic Bus,” though never cracking through outside of Canada. She did a stint in David Bowie’s band around 2000, touring with him as a back-up singer. Like her male counterpart, Ron Sexsmith, she is critically acclaimed and appreciated by fellow artists, but unable to attain breakthrough success.
Come for A Ride \ By Divine Right (1999) – Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver developed collectives of artists that performed together in various incarnations, leading to an incredible music scene across Canada in the early 2000s. By Divine Right was one of those early formulations, led by guitarist and vocalist José Miguel Contreras. The 1999 album, Bless This Mess, was the band’s fifth and was a fantastic LP, featuring the minor hit, “Come for A Ride.” The album was also notable for including Brendan Canning and Leslie Feist, who would team up with many others to launch the band Broken Social Scene soon after. Feist also simultaneously launched a solo career, going on to international success with the albums Let It Die (2004) and The Reminder (2007). You can see Leslie in the video for “Come for A Ride.” By Divine Right would also include many more females over the years, including Collen Hixenbaugh, who is Ron Sexsmith’s partner.
Other bands that developed out of those collectives were Stars in Montreal, featuring Amy Millan, The New Pornographers in Vancouver with Neko Case, and in Toronto the Hidden Cameras, Len (including Sharon Costanzo), and of course Broken Social Scene which has included Feist, Millan, and Emily Haines of the band, Metric.
Slide \ Dido (1999) – After taking 55 songs to explore the first half of the decade, you can see it’s only going to take nine more to cover the last four years since, after 1995, the quality of modern rock dropped precipitously. Female rockers, likewise, were harder to find and less prominent as modern rock fell away in dominance to other genres.
Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong, known as Dido (a childhood nickname that she considers her proper name, both since it was how she was known growing up and for disdain for her lengthy and unusual given names), was a Londoner and was one of the few female solo artists to break through during this period. Even then, some of her success came from when rising hip hop star Eminem used her song, “Thank You” as the backing track for his song, “Stan,” in 2001. Use of her songs in film and TV also led to her success, which in the past twenty years has become a critical means to success for artists after once being a derided as a form of ‘selling out’ for alternative artists.
Whether Dido was a modern rock artist or not can be debated, given her albums – especially the first two, No Angel in 1999 and Life for Rent in 2003, went to #1 in the UK and to #4 in the US, which suggested she was more of a pop sensation. Indeed, her style of music was much less aggressive and built on a dance-pop sensibility. However, such was the state of modern rock that its sounds and styles had been integrated into more broadly accepted and celebrated music. Dido’s light-pop version of the electro-rock styles of the ‘90s was a crossover success appealing to listeners of alternative and mainstream channels. To this day her first two albums are oft-listened to by me, of which I never tire.
Hot Topic \ Le Tigre (1999) – We’ll close this list with one of the leading female voices of the era, Kathleen Hanna (check out a great documentary on her, Punk Singer). Bikini Kill wrapped up in 1998, and Hanna had been doing some self-produced solo work under the name, Julie Ruin, releasing an album in 1997 (she would also form a band, The Julie Ruin, in 2010). Hanna then started working with friend Johanna Fateman in New York, adding first Sadie Benning who was then replaced by JD Samson. The all-female trio released a self-titled album in 1999 which was followed by two more in 2001 and 2004. The band was a continuation of the female empowerment message of Riot Grrrl but delivered in more of an electro-rock format than an indie-punk style. “Hot Topic” was their first single, a catchy, beat-driven tune reminiscent of early Bananarama or Tom Tom Club and that name-checked a wide variety of female (and some male) artists, athletes, and writers along with the lyrics, “Don’t You Stop / We Won’t Stop / Don’t you stop.” It seems an appropriate song to close this three-part retrospective, since indeed female artists haven’t stopped, continuing to ensure that women are a vibrant and integral part of modern rock music, to the point that while work still needs to be done to address sexism and inequality in the industry, much progress has been made since the likes of Patti Smith, The Runaways, and Debbie Harry started the work of creating a female presence in a male-dominated genre.
A sampling of female modern rock artists, 2000 to date…
Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley)
Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls)
The Long Blondes
St. Vincent (Annie Clark)
Dum Dum Girls
These three retrospective playlists, plus the introductory list, have introduced you to 138 different acts comprised of various female participants, solo artists, and entire groups. All stemming from the modern rock genre, they have covered, punk, rock, goth, new wave, electronica, grunge, folk, pop, and dance. Some worked mostly in obscurity, came and went quickly, while others climbed to some of the highest levels of success in the music world. Yet all helped established that modern music was not just for men, didn’t need to rely on men, and could produce talent and music better than what most men could do. Yet to this day “rock n’ roll” seems to naturally skew to male iconography, yet these lists clearly prove there was a healthy female ingredient.
Note these playlists also got longer, with the ‘70s having 19 artists, the ‘80s running to 55, and the ‘90s topping out at 64. And while none of these lists covers all the contributions of women to the genre, it’s indicative of how the strength and presence of women increased in Modern Rock over the 25 year period. This has carried through to the new century, as women have risen to rival men in dominating music of all forms. In modern rock, the trend has continued, and I encourage you to check out these artists listed to see what has come in the past twenty years.