St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”

One of my favorite things in music is to hear a talented artist that finally puts the pieces together and begins to live up to their potential. On her forthcoming album “Strange Mercy”, which is currently streaming on NPR, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) does just that, and in the process asserts herself as one of the top artists in music today.

Clark’s 2009 album, “Actor”, was one of my favorites of the last few years, and it established Clark as a unique voice and talent.  Yet, it was abundantly clear that the artist behind it was capable of doing a lot better.  For one thing, despite proving on stage that she is a tremendous guitar player, “Actor” was curiously devoid of many great guitar songs, with Clark instead focusing on disney-type strings that were only occasionally punctuated by noisy guitar blasts.  The songs were well crafted and enjoyable, but also frustratingly coy and conventional for someone that could be capable of rocking souls.

My desire for St. Vincent to embrace her inner rock goddess only intensified a few weeks ago, when she did an earsplitting cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the This Band Could Be Your Life show at the Bowery Ballroom.  Rather than do a quirky, “unique” cover of the song, Clark instead opted to embrace Big Black singer Steve Albini’s misanthropic rage, and, while some may think it came off as phony, I thought she did a pretty admirable job on a song that seems really difficult to truly replicate.  It was the exact kind of thing I had been hoping to hear on “Strange Mercy.”

I am happy to report, then, that “Strange Mercy” fulfills what I wanted it to be, and I think it’s one of the best albums of the year.  In every way, I think it’s a quantum leap over “Actor” (which, again, I liked a lot).  Clark’s voice continues to develop, as she’s able to convey more emotion and sound less detached from her dense arrangements.  The lyrics are better too — still sinister like they were on “Actor”, but decidedly more personal.

Most of all though, “Strange Mercy” is weirder than “Actor”, and it’s much better off for it.  Clark continues to use strings, but rather than be the focus, they’re more of a complement to her guitar playing, which finally begins to shine on this album.  There’s funk undercurrents, like the synth solo at the end of “Surgeon”, which is one of the album’s surreal highlights.  All of the bizarre touches on “Actor” are ramped up here, and while it may drive some listeners that appreciated her poppy side (like on her first album “Marry Me”) away, I think it makes her music far more compelling.

Not that “Strange Mercy” doesn’t have its pop moments.  Lead single “Cruel” is one of the best songs of the year so far, and it showcases Clark’s unique ability to turn all of the sounds and influences into an accessible rock song.  While there are layers of strings and woodwinds, Clark’s guitar shines through with the repeated twangy riff and a couple solos in the middle and end.  It’s also one of the best music videos I’ve seen in a long time, as Clark gets literally buried by all of her domestic duties after getting kidnapped by her family.

On “Cheerleader”, maybe the most personal song Clark has ever written, she sings “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.”  That chorus, which explodes after the more delicate verses, is one of the best moments on the album, and in a truly hacky piece of music criticism, I decided that this was more than just a song about trying to stop being a pushover:  It was Clark rejecting the idea of being an indie pop princess.  Many had pegged “Strange Mercy” as a commercial breakthrough for her — and it still very well could be — but I think this music is far too weird, psychedelic, and sinister to be showing up the next iPod commercial.

My other favorite song is probably “Northern Lights”, which is the guitar song I’ve been waiting for from St. Vincent.  It’s pretty much pure noisy rock more in the vein of the Pixies or Breeders, with some roaring guitar solos and a constant build up to the end.  I think Clark could still use to sing more forcefully at times, and this one of the moments on the album where she approaches that idea more, particularly towards the end when she begins to sound more hysterical.

As good as “Strange Mercy” is, I think there’s still room for improvement for St. Vincent.  But this album proves that she’s someone who is going to follow her own muse and evolve musically, which is the most important thing to me.   Her ability to put that ambition into well crafted rock songs is a large part of what makes “Strange Mercy” one of the best, most exciting records of 2011 in my book.

Wild Flag

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning (which I can only hope you have been, for continuity reasons), you may have noticed that there’s been a distinct lack of actual new music on it.  This is sort of intentional:  While I’ve actually liked 2011 quite a bit and have been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new stuff, I still think that something has been missing from current music.  I’ve grown a bit jaded about how most of the hyped bands of the day all seem to chart the same influences, to be following the same basic formula, and constantly living in the past.

Enter Wild Flag, a four woman supergroup consisting of singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and a solo career, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders.  Those names probably don’t mean a whole lot to many people reading this, but for me and many others its a dream collaboration, a veritable Traveling Wilburys of indie rock goddesses.  From day one, the band has had a massive amount of hype and expectations from rabid Sleater-Kinney fans, the kind like me who think rock music has been circling the drain since the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2006 following their colossal swan song, “The Woods.”

The expectations for Wild Flag are expected, but also unfair.  In reality, there’s no way the band could capture the unique chemistry and passion that defined Sleater-Kinney.  However, their debut album, which is streaming on NPR, is nonetheless an immensely satisfying collection of tunes that fills many of the gaps left empty by today’s indie kids.

See, Wild Flag make rock music.  Not “indie” rock or “noise” rock or whatever other lame qualifiers people seem to put in front of it now.  This is fun, energetic rock music that is never boring, and in today’s musical climate that qualifies as a revelation.  It doesn’t have the urgency of Sleater-Kinney or the dark combativeness of Helium; rather, it’s a pure, unpretentious showcase of everything that rock can offer from four women who know a lot about it.

A common knock on supergroups is that they’re more a collection of individuals than a cohesive band.  Wild Flag defies that, as they’re instantly able to craft a unique sound that separates themselves from their previous bands.  It’s a diverse collection of songs, from the almost power pop lead track and first single “Romance” to the woozy psychedelia of “Glass Tambourine”.  Brownstein and Timony mostly trade vocals and harmonies, and each brings a different energy to each song.

While the hype around Wild Flag has mostly surrounded the Sleater-Kinney semi-reunion, it’s actually Timony who may be the band’s MVP.  In the later days of Helium and the beginnings of her solo career, Timony flirted with being sort of an indie fantasy pixie girl, as she sang about magic and dragons and played quirky songs full of lush instrumentation.  She doesn’t do that on Wild Flag (although she does sneak a “dragonslayer” reference into “Electric Band”), but her more laid back, mystical qualities make a nice foil for Brownstein’s hyperactive wildness.  It’s illustrated on album closer “Black Tiles”, my favorite song so far, and the only one where they exchange lead vocals and put that duality on full display.  Both are also tremendously gifted guitar players and are able to rip a lot of memorable riffs and solos in each song.

Of course, Wild Flag is also anchored by Weiss, who continues to prove that she’s arguably the best rock drummer in music today.  I know absolutely nothing about drumming, but I can still tell that Weiss is really, really good at it, and she brings a ton of life to each song with her thunderous playing.  Rebecca Cole (who I’m mostly unfamiliar with) also gives the songs some extra bounce with her keyboards, which add an extra dimension that the group’s previous bands didn’t have.

In the end, Wild Flag meets their lofty expectations and provides an absolute treat for Sleater-Kinney fans like me that were too busy failing at life to get into them before they went on hiatus.  But beyond that, it’s possibly the most refreshing album of the year so far — a much needed shot of energy and life into the increasingly dull music landscape.

Life Without Buildings

Listening to Life Without Buildings for the first time was a thoroughly confusing experience.  On first listen, the band’s songs were hard to differentiate from one another and seemed like they were all over the place.  I also thought the singer might be mentally challenged and had no clue what she was babbling about.  Despite that, I was intrigued, so I made a mental note to revisit the band later.

So Life Without Buildings sat on my iPod, metaphorically gathering dust.  Occasionally I would scroll past them and try to remember who they were, then tell myself “oh yeah, the band with the weirdo singer” before I moved on to whatever I was going to listen to.  Then one day, I made a Facebook post about how I couldn’t get into Joanna Newsom despite my love of weirdo indie females, which reminded me of another weirdo indie female that I had forgotten about.

That weirdo singer was Sue Tompkins, a painter and sound artist from Glasgow who fronted Life Without Buildings.  Tompkins’ distinctive talk-sung vocals were the calling card of the band.  She took the ideas from her sound art and applied the to the music, basing songs around repetitive phrasing, random exclamations, and sometimes what appeared to be just plain gibberish.  In a typical Life Without Buildings song, she’ll talk-sing non-stop, jabbering and stuttering weird phrases, squealing with childish glee, and in general sounding a little bit like a toddler.

On the second listen to their lone album Any Other City, I was suddenly obsessed.  By about the fifth, I wanted to be Sue Tompkins’ best friend.  It’s now one of my favorite albums ever and I don’t think I’ve been so obsessed with a band since I got into Sleater-Kinney.  But, while I have an easy time explaining why Sleater-Kinney is so great, I find it a bit more difficult to articulate the brilliance of Life Without Buildings.

I think Life Without Buildings is one of the few bands that just has a magical aura about them, and it’s mostly due to Tompkins.  While indebted to previous talk-singers like The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and various female post-punkers, she has a vocal style that is unlike anything else in music due to her lyrics.  While it would be easy to write off those lyrics as the improvised workings of a crackpot, I’m convinced that there’s a deeper meaning to them.  I’m just not sure what yet, and that’s part of the band’s allure:  Every song is like a riddle that is impossible to fully crack.

Perhaps the genius of the band fully set in when I listened to their live album Live at the Annandale Hotel.  While I’m typically not a fan of live albums, this one is an essential recording of a rare performance from a short-lived band, and features Tompkins’ adorable stage banter and breathless enthusiasm.  Most shockingly of all, the live versions of the songs are near carbon copies of the ones on record, proving that there’s a real method behind Tompkins’ madness.

Lost in all this blathering about Tompkins is that the band behind her was extremely good as well.  Led by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar playing, they’re the perfect complement to Tompkins’ ramshackle vocals.  Rather than be flashy and show everyone how great they are at playing their instruments, they’re willing to take a backseat and complement Tompkins with strong rhythmic playing.

As mentioned, LWB only made one album, Any Other City.  Along with a couple songs off singles, they have 14 songs in total (along with the accompanying live versions from Live at the Annandale Hotel).  I’ve been playing the crap out of all of them, treasuring every second that the band recorded and constantly wishing there was more.  Unfortunately, the band broke up, partly because Tompkins wanted to go back to pursuing her art.

While their scant amount of material is disappointing, it’s acceptable when the quality of everything is so high.  The band mostly had one trick anyways, so it’s hard to know what they would have done after Any Other City.  On that album, they use pretty much every variation of that trick perfectly, delivering a set of songs that are more different from each other than they appear on first listen.  The first track is “PS Exclusive”, the fastest paced and most rocking song on the album which immediately asserts the genius of Tompkins, who cycles through phrases like “the right stuff” and “this is not advice” until they’re burrowed into your brain.

More than any other band, there are specific little moments in each LWB song that I absolutely love, and it’s easy to collect a list of favorite phrases from the eminently quotable Tompkins.  “Let’s Get Out” has some of her best lines, including “LOOK AROUUNDDDDD”, “look back and say that I didn’t!” and “come complete!”  The spiky instrumentation makes it possibly the most post-punk track on the album, but Tompkins’ vocals always separate LWB from the post-punk revival bands that would follow them (usually gloomy Joy Divison knockoffs).

While I love all of their songs, “The Leanover” stands out among them and is, in my opinion, one of the best songs of the last decade.  It’s wordy even for LWB standards, and I love reading different interpretations of the song (one rumor is that it’s about fellatio; I prefer to think of it as being about the beginnings of a relationship in general).  It’s littered with pop culture references (M-B-V would seem to be a nod to My Bloody Valentine, Virginia Plain, etc) and more Tompkins-isms like “I don’t trade”, “contact!”, and “he’s the shaker, baby!”  The rest of the band gives it a perfect background with a more laid back, dreamy sound.

There’s numerous other highlights on the album:  The mostly spoken-word finale “Sorrow”, the jaggedy pop of “14 Days”, “Juno” with its tempo changes and ringing guitars.  I think every song is worth checking out, although the band is obviously an acquired taste:  What makes Tompkins such a genius is also what likely drives a lot of people away from the band.  Regardless, in a decade that I thought was marked by a lot of boring and unoriginal music, Life Without Buildings stood out as a unique band that had more charisma and personality than any of their peers.

Favorite 90s Albums: #9 – Nirvana – “In Utero”

Nirvana occupies a strange place in music history.  In the 90’s, they were universally seen as the most influential band on what came to be known as alternative rock, which was one of the defining phenomenons of the decade.  But in the last few years, it seems like the entire idea of alternative rock has gone by the wayside, replaced by a swath of indie bands that have gained increased exposure due to the internet and music sharing.  The so-called alternative rock stations of yesteryear are largely ignored and mocked, at least among people I know, as they play bands like Nickelback and Three Days Grace that copied Nirvana’s sound but sucked all of the energy and spirit out of it.

So what does all of this mean?  For one thing, it’s likely that Nirvana has influenced more bad music than any other band in the last 20 years, and in a way I think that has detracted from their legacy.  While the band always had haters, it seems like more than ever it’s become a popular thing to call Nirvana overrated, to chide them for being unoriginal, or to label frontman Kurt Cobain as someone who only has achieved the level of fame that he did because he killed himself at age 27.  Oddly, little of this discussion seems to be about the music:  Calling Nirvana overrated has just become another tool that people use to try to sound like they’re cooler than other people.

Of course, based on their placement of them on this list, you can probably guess what I think of these people.  I think they’re wrong.  Completely, insanely, embarrassingly wrong.  The kind of wrong that makes me wonder if they really have brains that are capable of rational thought.   Nirvana is largely deserving of all of the accolades they get and the reputation that they earned, and it is mostly due to Cobain, who is similarly worthy of all the praise heaped upon him.  It’s not a result of dying young (although I’m sure it helped), it’s a result of him being a genius songwriter and the perfect frontman for his generation.

What’s easy to forget about Cobain and Nirvana (even though I think it’s said a lot) is just how different they were from what had always existed in mainstream rock music before them.  The typical rock frontman before them had to be full of cocksure bravado, presenting himself with shirtless, chest-beating machismo.  Cobain was the complete opposite of that:  A sensitive, troubled guy who would often wear layers of sweaters to try to hide his scrawniness from the public.  And he replaced the typical rock male arrogance and swagger with an altruistic view of music:  While the typical arrogant male rock star would pat himself on the back for his success, Cobain was always willing to admit that he ripped off the Pixies, to credit contemporary bands that he enjoyed, or to trumpet his own favorite obscure bands of old.

Nirvana also came around at the perfect time.  They were different, and America badly wanted something different, particularly in rock music, which had been dominated by the bombastic hair metal bands of the 80’s.  They broke through with “Nevermind”, a great album that remains possibly the last truly game-changing moment in music.  But, while that album may be their most important (and one of the most important in rock music history), I think “In Utero” has always been the more interesting album.  “Nevermind” made them the biggest rock band in the world; “In Utero” is the fascinating follow-up from a band and frontman who never really seemed comfortable with that level of popularity.

While “Nevermind” was a huge album, the one criticism of it generally centered around its slick, radio-friendly production.  The band wanted to avoid that on their second album, so they brought in indie rock maven, punk rock icon, and all around badass Steve Albini to produce “In Utero.”  The choice of Albini fit perfectly with how uncomfortable Cobain was in the spotlight:  The band was seeking to get away from their mainstream image, and there was nobody more out of the mainstream than Albini, who would froth at the mouth at the very mention of signing with a major label or selling a song to a commercial.  He also gives “In Utero” his patented noisy sound, with very wide dynamics, vocals lower in the mix, and more of a “live feel” in general, which makes it sound better (to me) than “Nevermind.”

I’ve already mentioned that I think Cobain was a genius songwriter, but it’s admittedly a more subtle kind of genius.  It isn’t the kind of genius that immediately shows itself with amazingly complex thoughts that are beyond anything you can understand.  Rather, Cobain’s genius lies in simplicity.  His uncomplicated song structures, simple lyrics, and seemingly basic melodies never seem like they should be great, but they turned out to be transcendent.  He had a knack for finding that simple little melody or lyric that would just stick with you, such as “I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad” off album opener “Serve the Servants.”  It seems meaningless or nonsensical, but for some reason it’s a line I think about a lot, and that is a testament to Cobain’s abilities.

One of the aspects that I always enjoy about “In Utero” is how it seems almost like an attempt at a flop by Nirvana.  The band had gained a massive following, and in many ways the album seems like a test of that audience, an attempt to weed out the posers and fakers that Cobain believed had misappropriated their music.  “Scentless Apprentice” and “tourette’s”  in particular are far cries from the radio-friendly tunes of “Nevermind”, with each featuring Cobain howling over a massive amount of noise.

The ironic part is that “In Utero” became a big hit anyways, in part because Cobain just couldn’t seem to help himself when it comes to writing great rock songs.  Singles like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are both perfect examples of Nirvana’s quiet-loud dynamics (something they “borrowed” from The Pixies) and huge rock choruses.

The album also showed some growth and perhaps hints at maturity from the band, like on the world-weary album closer “All Apologies.”  While most of Nirvana’s songs prior to it had been straight-forward grunge rock, “All Apologies” sounded more folk influenced with its cello and Cobain’s bleak lyrics.  At the end, he refrains “all in all is all we are”, a typical Cobain-ism that sounds more significant than it should be.  “All Apologies” is the ideal closing track to Nirvana’s brief career, and a glimpse at what may have lied ahead for the band had Cobain lived on.

Cobain’s death makes it difficult to evaluate his career objectively, and certainly it has been romanticized.  But I don’t think it’s an accident that Nirvana is the one band from the scene that continues to be acclaimed, the one that continues to be listened to, and the one that continues to inspire people.  “Nevermind” was the commercial breakthrough, but I think “In Utero” does a lot more to explain why this band continues to be cherished by so many.  It’s a daring, ambitious, progressive album from a band that probably could have put out anything and had it sell like hotcakes.  More than anything else, I think that sense of ambition and punk spirit is what separates Nirvana from their grunge counterparts, and makes them one of the best rock bands of the 90’s.

Favorite 90s Albums: #10 – Neutral Milk Hotel – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

I should hate “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.”  Really, I should.  I mean, a nasal voiced, hipster white guy singing about how sad he is after reading Anne Frank’s diary?  It would be difficult to imagine a lamer concept for an album or one that is deserving of more ridicule.  And as a devoted fan of girl rock and hard-hitting rock music in general, sensitive male-fronted folk-rock lies pretty far outside of my comfort zone.

And yet, here we are.  I do love “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” — maybe not as much as a lot of other people, given that is it one of the most beloved indie albums ever, but enough to consider it one of the finest albums of what I consider the greatest decade in music.

In trying to articulate why I love “Aeroplane” so much when I typically can’t stand wimpy guy music, I decided that I love it because it is coming from such an honest place.  There is something undeniable about frontman Jeff Mangum’s sincere, relentless dedication to this seemingly silly concept, and the fact that doubt never seemed to enter his mind:  At no point did he say, “hey guys, don’t you think this horn part is a bit much?” or “isn’t the phrase ‘semen stains the mountaintops’ a bit too jarring and weird for a mass audience?”  It is an album that is completely unconcerned with what other people think about it.  It’s almost as if Mangum was inviting snarky jackasses like me to make fun of him because he knew, either due to an incredible amount of confidence or pure insanity (or both), that it would work.

Musically, “Aeroplane” is extremely original, with few real precedents when it comes to its combination of orchestral arrangements and fuzzed out, lo-fi production.  The instrumentation is also bizarre, and Mangum’s use of accordions, horns, and other instruments gives the album a distinct timeless quality.  While other albums on this list will have a distinct “90’s” sound, I find that “Aeroplane” sounds like it could have existed in pretty much any era of music.  It isn’t tied down by any trends that were happening at the time —  it just kind of exists.

Mangum’s lyrics are also a signature, replacing typical simple rock lyrics with long, wordy passages that read more like prose.  He also is able to craft a lot of uncomfortable imagery, like on the eight minute epic “Oh Comely” which has lines like “your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies”, or on “Two-Headed Boy” when Mangum sings “and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches of your spine”.  There’s also a direct reference to Anne Frank on “Oh Comely”, as Mangum wails “I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine.”  It’s one of those moments that could be really corny, but Mangum is blessed with the gift of making lyrics like those sound like they’re coming straight from the bottom of his soul.  That ability is able to make you feel that he sincerely cares about Anne Frank’s plight and isn’t just doing a glorified middle school writing assignment.

The highlight of the album for me is “Holland, 1945”, which is also the most straight-forward rock/pop song.  The fast tempo and his typically wordy lyrics give Mangum’s vocals a rushed feel, as if he’s trying to cram every thought he has into the roughly three minutes of song he has to work with.  It’s a feeling of wild, overstuffed imagination that permeates the album.  It also is probably the song that is most directly about Anne Frank — about how  “they buried her alive/one evening, 1945/with just her sister at her side.”  “Holland, 1945” is sophisticated, legitimately catchy, and extremely moving.  I think it stands up as one of the greatest indie rock songs of all time.  If you don’t like it, there’s a very realistic chance that I hate you.

While the Anne Frank connection is well known, “Aeroplane” remains a very mysterious album, thanks to Mangum’s interpretive lyrics.  It’s difficult to tell which parts of the album are about Frank, which are intensely personal, or whether the entire thing is a combination of both.  The album gains further mystique due to Mangum’s life since the album:  As “Aeroplane” has continued to garner acclaim and influence bands over the years, the man responsible for it has mostly been silent, instead content to play the occasional unannounced acoustic live set or contribute on albums made by friends.  Only recently has Mangum re-emerged, announcing a solo tour and curating an All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival this year.

All of this makes it easy to see why “Aeroplane” is held in such high esteem by indie music fans.  It’s a true “indie” album, in the sense that it has its own ideas and doesn’t seem to care about any trends.  And Mangum himself is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of indie rock, a reclusive maybe-genius whose motivations for making it remain largely unknown.  While “Aeroplane” has been one of the most influential indie albums ever, no artist has been able to replicate its conceptual nature, the sophisticated lyrics, the grand arrangements, and the emotional honesty (although The Decemberists have tried really, really hard).  Many bands have taken bits and pieces of it; none have come close to it as a whole.

“Aeroplane” is the kind of album that I think unites people — almost all indie fans, regardless of what they typically listen to, seem to have some love for it.  Listening to it, I am always in awe of its singularity, how it seems so detached from all other music, and how fearlessly emotional it is.  It has alternately moved and baffled listeners for over a decade now, and seems like it will only continue to grow in popularity and acclaim as time goes on.

The 25 Greatest Girl Rock Songs: Part Three

10.  Elastica – “Stutter” (1993)

Insulting an ex-boyfriend has long been a tradition in girl rock, but I’m not sure if any ex has been eviscerated quite as soundly as the poor bastard that got “Stutter” written about him. In a sense, that poor bastard is every male rock star who has sung about his sex appeal or getting laid: “Stutter” isn’t just a roaring, catchy britpop/punk song, but a perfectly executed take-down of masculine bro culture. Singer Justine Frischmann brings a somewhat detached sexuality to the song, even though it’s about erectile dysfunction (a topic that I can’t imagine many male singers have tackled). “Is there something you lack/when I’m flat on my back/is there something I can do for you?” she sneers in the chorus, followed by the final zinger: “Is it just that I’m much too much for you?” Ouch.

9.  The Slits – “Typical Girls” (1979)

The Slits were one of the weirdest bands in rock music history: One of the earliest female punk bands, their lead singer was a teenager with a wild, Medusa-like head of hair. They also had a growing love of African rhythms, which manifested itself on their 1979 album “Cut”, a bizarre combination of girl punk and reggae fronted by Ari Up’s quivering voice. Like most of their songs, “Typical Girls” is strange and unpredictable, veering wildly between a twinkling piano part and the reggae-influenced post-punk of the rest of the album. During all this sonic weirdness, the band recites a laundry list of things about “typical girls” — they’re confusing, they don’t think too clearly, they buy magazines, and in the end they get the typical boy. “Typical Girls” is all kinds of goofy fun, and one of the first big feminist statements in rock music.

8.  X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (1977)

In 1977, the UK punk scene was still dominated by males. Then along came Poly Styrene, one of the first frontwomen in punk history and certainly one of the most unique. She performed wearing a weird dayglo wardrobe and large dental braces, presenting herself as pretty much the opposite of whatever a female sex symbol should be. She also had a huge voice that she puts to good use on their first single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” With its iconic opening lines (“some people think little girls should be seen and not heard”) and 16 year old Lora Logic’s saxophone playing, it’s a fiery and quirky punk song that is a clear precursor to pretty much any female punk band that came after. Styrene passed away in April, but her influence on this little segment of music will be felt forever.

7.  The Breeders – “Cannonball” (1993)

I’d like to just list the parts of “Cannonball” that get stuck in my head on a regular basis: the “OOOO-oooo” thing at the beginning. The bouncing bass line. The surf-poppy guitar part. The verses. The chorus. Free from the evil male tyranny of Black Francis, Kim Deal let it all loose on “Cannonball”, throwing as many hooks at the wall as she could and hoping that they’d stick. Of course, they all do, and as a result it’s one of the catchiest and most infectious songs ever. “Cannonball” may not be a feminist anthem — in fact, I have no idea what the song is even about — but you’d be hard pressed to find a song with so many ideas that are all executed so well. They don’t make them like this anymore.

6.  Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit” (1967)

“White Rabbit” is a revolutionary song on multiple levels: it’s a pioneering psychedelic song and one of the first examples of not-so-subtly disguised drug references making it onto the radio. I would also argue that “White Rabbit” is the first truly great female rock song, and, sure enough, it is the oldest one on this list. The “Alice in Wonderland” inspired lyrics are clever if nothing else, and point out a valid hypocrisy among parents who forbid drug use but then read a book like that to their children. But I mostly enjoy the trippy instrumentation, the way the song grows over its entire two and a half minutes, and the truly virtuosic vocal performance by Grace Slick.

5.  Sonic Youth – “Kool Thing” (1990)

“Kool Thing” apparently began as an excuse to trash LL Cool J in song form, but it ended up becoming something bigger: a bold feminist statement from one of the most respected rock bands in the world as their first major label single. Kim Gordon’s song is full of feminist punk attitude, and it’s a vicious takedown of the misogynistic rap culture (which would only get worse with time) thanks to a hilarious performance by guest vocalist Chuck D. of Public Enemy (“tell it like it is!” “word up!” “hit ’em where it hurts!”). It helps that the song also rocks like a beast, thanks to the signature noise created by guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. In a long and extremely prolific career, “Kool Thing” stands out as one of Sonic Youth’s best moments and a hugely important piece of girl rock.

4.  PJ Harvey – “Sheela-Na-Gig” (1992)

22 year old singer/songwriter/genius PJ Harvey arrived fully formed in 1992 with her debut album “Dry” and its best song “Sheela-Na-Gig.” An unassuming farm girl from England, PJ was nonetheless armed with many musical weapons: a massive voice despite her tiny frame, a complete absence of fear when it came to writing lyrics, and a deep love of blues music and rock. She deploys all of them on “Sheela-Na-Gig”, an astonishing song about a woman whose body is rejected by her man (Wikipedia Sheela-Na-Gig for more information on what she’s talking about). The punk/blues/grunge sound of PJ’s early work combined with those lyrics makes “Sheela-Na-Gig” raw, intense, and a little bit discomforting. In other words, exactly what rock music should be. “Sheela-Na-Gig” is the first moment of genius in PJ Harvey’s career and one of the songs that helps cement her status as the boldest, and, for lack of a better term, ballsiest female artist of all time.

3.  Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” (1993)

What does a revolution sound like? I don’t know, but “Rebel Girl”, with its military-style drum beat, Kathleen Hanna’s fiery vocals, and that sing-along chorus has to be pretty close. Widely acknowledged as pioneers of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill gained media notoriety for their radical feminist music and, ironically, for their decision to shun the mainstream media. While I find the actual Riot Grrrl music to be hit-or-miss a lot of the time, “Rebel Girl” stands out as not only the best crafted song of the movement, but also the one that most perfectly captures what it’s all about. Riot Grrrl was frequently pigeonholed as music that was only about tearing down men (and certainly some of it was), but “Rebel Girl” is all about the positive things that women should be doing: holding their head up high and generally ignoring what other people said about them. Bikini Kill were known for their righteous fury, but “Rebel Girl” sounds like a celebration of everything that Riot Grrrl achieved.

2.  Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out” (1997)

By 1997, the Riot Grrrl movement was over and the state of girl rock was in disarray. It took Sleater-Kinney roughly six seconds of their third album “Dig Me Out” to establish themselves as the new torchbearers of girl rock, and as simply one of the best bands in the world. That’s the time it takes for Carrie Brownstein’s memorable guitar riff to play through one time and for new drummer Janet Weiss’ crashing drums to come thundering in. Then comes Corin Tucker’s monstrous firecracker of a voice, an unhinged wail that is able to make even the most basic lyrics sound like a deeply meaningful statement. “Dig Me Out” has a seemingly unsustainable amount of visceral intensity and passion, but Sleater-Kinney keep it going for the rest of that classic album and then for four more after that. In the process, they made it look like their male indie rock counterparts weren’t even trying. “Dig Me Out” is a massive song by not just the best girl band ever, but one of the best bands ever, period.

1.  Patti Smith – “Gloria” (1975)

Patti Smith wanted to turn rock music upside down on her debut album “Horses.” On the opening song she pretty much does that literally, borrowing the chorus of a classic horndog male rock song and subverting it into an intellectual feminist statement that absolutely shatters any gender barrier that had previously existed in rock. The reason “Gloria” is number one is simple: outside of Jefferson Airplane, it would not be a stretch to say that every single song on this list is indebted to Patti Smith, and this song in particular. It has possibly the most iconic opening lines in rock music history (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”), a groundbreaking structure, and Patti Smith’s voice, which sounds like no other female singer before it. “Gloria” marks a turning point in music, where women could not only rock, but do it on an intellectual level instead of one completely based on sex appeal or appealing to the lowest common denominator.

The 25 Greatest Girl Rock Songs: Part Two

19.  The Raincoats – “Fairytale in the Supermarket” (1979)

The Raincoats were one of the very first female post-punk bands and crafted a sound that has still not really been replicated, a quirky and dissonant combination of folk and punk with jagged guitars and a screeching violin.  “Fairytale in the Supermarket” was their first single and remains their signature song (along with their similarly off-kilter rendition of The Kinks’ “Lola”).  It combined their unique sound with lyrics that are completely free of cliche and the manic, fun energy that personified most of these female groups.  The Raincoats were also a favorite of Nirvana singer and fellow girl rock enthusiast Kurt Cobain, who helped get their albums re-released and wrote liner notes for them.  Riding that wave of new fans, The Raincoats made a new album in 1996 and still occasionally perform together today.  Thanks Kurt.

18.  Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation” (1980)

Having surfaced in seemingly every teen movie and TV show (including as the theme to the beloved “Freaks and Geeks”), amongst other places, “Bad Reputation” might be one of the most overplayed songs ever.  Which is too bad, because as a result I don’t think anyone ever stops to think about just how good of a song it is.  Released in 1980 after her stint with the Runaways, Jett’s song is an unsophisticated and gloriously bratty piece of girl punk, with the highest level of fun and energy possible.  And sometimes there’s something to be said for a song that everyone can relate to, and “Bad Reputation” is certainly one of those — why else would it appear in so many movies and TV shows?

17.  Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone” (2004)

I’m probably going to get crap for this one, but I don’t care:  “Since U Been Gone” is an amazing song that isn’t just perfect pop but rocks surprisingly hard.  Remove all preconceptions about who is singing it and what radio station you heard it on and instead savor the anthemic chorus, the deliciously biting, kiss off lyrics, and the killer bridge.  But what really separates this song and Clarkson from other bland female pop-rock is the fact that Clarkson can sing her face off and that she brought the perfect combination of pissed-off rage and new-found joy to the song.  She may have been a product of a pop music machine, but for at least one song Clarkson rocked as hard as anyone.

16.  Pixies – “Gigantic” (1988)

I have a hard time truly loving the Pixies, because whenever I listen to them and hear Black Francis’ yelpy voice, I find myself wishing that Kim Deal was singing.  On “Gigantic”, Deal makes the most of one of her rare chances in the spotlight for the influential alternative rock band.  Anchored by her simple bass line and featuring their trademark quiet-loud dynamics, “Gigantic” offers a humorous contrast between Deal’s syrupy vocals and the raunchy content of the lyrics, which detail a white woman lusting after a large black… man (although it’s also effective as a take on white suburban boredom).  “Gigantic” remains one of the Pixies’ best known songs and offers a taste of the excellent Kim Deal girl rock that would follow.

15.  Kleenex/LiLiPUT – “Die Matrosen” (1980)

Like most of their female post-punk counterparts, the Swiss band LiLiPUT (formerly Kleenex – a brand of tampons in Switzerland – before a forced name change) made up for a lack of instrumental skill with heavy doses of creativity and enthusiasm.  That’s particularly evident on “Die Matrosen”, a ridiculously fun and catchy song with a strong funky bass line, jangly guitars, a saxophone part that sounds like it stumbled in off the set of “Hawaii Five-O”, and best of all, a whistling chorus.  As if that’s not enough, there’s also some good vocals and lyrics about going two people going on a date that somewhat resemble a nursery rhyme.  Like The Raincoats, LiLiPUT’s music fell out of print for several years, growing into something of a legend, before being re-released by female rock friendly label Kill Rock Stars in 1993.

14.  Liz Phair – “Fuck and Run” (1993)

It’s easy to see why Liz Phair captivated rock critics with her first album “Exile in Guyville” – she was good looking, potty-mouthed, and no songwriting topic was off limits.  Phair would (often shamelessly) live up to that foul-mouthed bad-girl reputation on later releases, but there was much more to “Guyville” and its best song “Fuck and Run” than simply dropping some f-bombs.  The lyrics to the song are painfully honest and almost uncomfortable in their unflinching self-reflection, as Phair thinks “I’m gonna spend my whole life alone” after another one night stand.  While Phair’s career notoriously went downhill after “Guyville” (including a disastrous attempt at pop stardom on her self-titled 2003 album), her debut was a scrappy, lo-fi masterpiece that took confessional songwriting to a whole new level.

13.  Helium – “Pat’s Trick” (1995)

I’ve already mentioned on this blog that I consider Helium to be one of the most under-appreciated bands ever — in a world in which justice prevailed, frontwoman Mary Timony would have been universally seen as an indie  rock goddess.  Alas, we don’t live in such a world, and Helium’s music has mostly been forgotten except by die-hard girl rock dorks and mid-90s nostalgists.  “Pat’s Trick” is likely their defining song, and showcases Timony’s considerable guitar skills along with her smart, feminist lyrics (and her career-long affinity for pirates).  The band’s low-end sludge and Timony’s husky voice give a darker edge to their sound that helps make “Pat’s Trick” simultaneously mysterious, catchy, and just plain brilliant.

12.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps” (2003)

For a band previously known mostly for frontwoman Karen O’s wild stage performances and a trashy, garage punk sound, “Maps” was a very uncharacteristic song.  Karen O isn’t the strongest singer, but on most early Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs she made up for it with crazy, sexed-up energy.  However, on “Maps”, she sings straight from the heart, and the aching sincerity behind the simple lyrics is what makes it one of the hardest things to pull off in music:  A love ballad that doesn’t sound cliched or corny in any way.  The overlooked other members of the trio also carry their weight on “Maps”, particularly guitarist Nick Zinner, whose guitar solos help give the song a more epic feel.  The success of “Maps” propelled Yeah Yeah Yeahs into the spotlight, and made them one of the few female-led alternative rock mainstays of the 2000s.

11.  X – “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” (1980)

On their classic debut album “Los Angeles”, west coast punk band X trafficked in songs about the dark, seedy side of the title city.  Album opener “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” establishes the tone for the rest of the album, and showcases Exene Cervenka as one of the best female vocalists in punk history.  While other punk bands were amateurish, X were pros with plenty of technical skill and the songwriting duo of poets Cervenka and John Doe.  As a result, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook..” isn’t just a rocking punk number, but also one with plenty of intellectual depth.  The dark lyrics tell the story of a robbery, and the guitar riff and Cervenka’s powerful vocals give the sense of paranoia and dread that would typify the rest of the album.  And, as much as I hate to praise a male vocalist, John Doe’s backing vocals are also top notch.  “Your Phone’s Off the Hook…” is simply one of the best punk songs by one of the best punk bands.