NOTE: I wrote a little addendum about this series here. I recommend reading it!
So, the time has come: The 25 greatest girl rock songs. I say “greatest” instead of “favorite” because this is really the one tiny segment of music that I feel at least vaguely qualified to be an expert on. My credentials are thus: I have spent a huge, borderline disturbing amount of my life in the past couple years listening to as much girl rock as I can get my hands on. Rather than studying, making friends, or gaining valuable experience in the world of work, I have mostly been consuming girl rock from all eras and carefully analyzing it. In many ways, this last chunk of my life has all been a lead up to this stupid list — while I certainly haven’t listened to all girl rock, I feel I have reached the point where I have listened to most of the essential artists. Nonetheless, I’m finding new stuff all the time, so this list could be revised in the future.
One thing I want to make clear before jumping in to the list: The point of this isn’t to be some stupid Rolling Stone article like “zomg women can RAWK!” or “These girls are just as good as the boys!” The primary point is that girl rock is a largely misunderstood genre — ask a casual music listener what their favorite “girl rock” song is and they’ll likely respond with “You Oughta Know”, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, or, god forbid, something by Avril Lavigne. It seems that, much more than typical male rock, a lot of the best girl rock is far under the radar. You don’t really hear it on the radio, even on hip radio stations like The Current, and it isn’t reviewed or discussed as often, except for the aforementioned idiotic magazine stories. Most rock fans stick to their classic jock rock and don’t bother to explore this little category of music.
But, as this list will suggest, the great girl rock is out there, and at its best it is far better than anything that men have to offer. While men mostly seem to sing about drugs, sex, or nothing, women can riff on gender politics, sexism, relationships from the female point of the view, and a number of other subjects that men largely can’t touch. Most of all, female rock just feels more important to me than male rock — I find that most of the songs on this list have a purpose and a legitimate reason to exist, something that I find largely lacking in a lot of male bands. Plus, as a decidedly un-macho male who has often felt like an outsider, I find myself oddly relating more to these female musicians and their place in the music business than I do their male counterparts.
So, let’s get on with it. The songs were mostly just based on my semi-objective opinion, but I’m admittedly prone to playing favorites on occasion. There wasn’t really a set criteria, but I tend to give points for originality, influence, and for any song that insults men or toys with the male consciousness in any way.
25. L7 – “Pretend We’re Dead” (1992)
One of the more important female bands of the late 80s/early 90s, L7 were at the forefront of both the grunge movement and the growing Riot Grrrl punk scene. The band offers a nice mix of both those styles, and that’s never been more clear than on “Pretend We’re Dead”, their best and most accessible song. Riding a memorable grunge guitar riff and Donita Sparks’ fairly unladylike vocals, the song can be seen as either a critique of conformity or as a feminist piece coming from a band that feels like their peers “pretend that we’re dead” (I prefer the latter interpretation of course). Either way, “Pretend We’re Dead” holds up as one of the best songs of the grunge era and a clear precursor to feminist rock bands that would follow.
24. Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Arabian Knights” (1981)
Siouxise and the Banshees were a band that fit many different labels, and “Arabian Knights” personifies that. On one hand, it’s a dark, gothic song, in line with the band’s goth image and reputation. But it’s also clearly a product of post-punk and is surprisingly poppy and danceable despite the dark content. Accompanied by a slightly Middle-Eastern sounding guitar and a rumbling rhythm section, Siouxsie Sioux’s vocals are in top form, particularly on haunting, mysterious lines like the famous “I heard a rumor/What have you done to her?” “Arabian Knights” is the Banshees at the height of their powers, and contains the seeds of everything from goth rock groups to dance-punk acts like Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
23. Mo-Dettes – “White Mice” (1979)
Remember what I said about the best girl rock being under the radar? Mo-Dettes are a largely forgotten band, even by female post-punk standards — finding information of the band is fairly difficult, even on the internet. They released just one full length album and three singles, but one of those singles was the classic “White Mice”. From the marching band drum intro to the fantastic bass line, the “wah-ooo-wahs”, the excitable, mostly incomprehensible (thanks to a Swiss accent) vocal, this is just a perfect piece of girl post-punk. The lyrics are even quite smart, and this is one of the songs that gets male-bashing bonus points (“don’t be stupid/don’t be limp/no one likes a wimp” goes the chorus).
22. Fiona Apple – “Criminal” (1996)
In 1996, a 19 year old Fiona Apple stormed into the mainstream music scene with “Criminal”, a fiery piano rock tune that showed her considerably advanced skills as a singer and songwriter. The piano groove is nice, but what makes the song work is Apple’s smart lyrics about a girl using her sexuality and her impeccable, jazz-influenced vocals. “Criminal” became a hit for Apple, in part due to its infamous music video that showcased her in various states of undress while looking like an anorexic 16 year old girl. Since then she’s recorded two increasingly quirky (and better) albums in the last 15 years while largely staying out of the public eye. Fans await her next release – if there ever is one – but it’s unlikely that any songs on it will top the power and pure shock value of “Criminal.”
21. The Pretenders – “Middle of the Road” (1984)
The Pretenders were an old school rock band at heart, and “Middle of the Road” is certainly nothing fancy — it’s just a really, really good rock song. Frontwoman Chrissie Hynde was known for her tough-girl style, but on “Middle of the Road” she shows just enough of a fragile side as she documents life as a touring mother “in the middle of life with my pains behind me.” At the end she admits “I’m not the cat I used to be/I’ve got a kid I’m 33.” Full of poignant lyrics like those and some classic guitar work, “Middle of the Road” is the definitive nearing middle-aged mom song.
20. Blondie – “Call Me” (1980)
Blondie came up in the New York punk scene, but it’s hard for me to think of them as anything but a really good pop band. “Call Me” is at least arguably their best song, and is possibly the best combination of their punk roots and pop/disco sensibilities. Of course, having Debbie Harry, one of the most charismatic (and let’s face it, good looking) frontwomen of all time helps a lot, and her seductive vocals and lyrics are what make this song great. “Call Me” effortlessly blends the disco and punk scenes into a classic piece of pop that still sounds fresh today.