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.

The 25 Greatest Girl Rock Songs: Part One

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.

Helium – The Magic City


I love departure albums.  There’s just something beautiful to me about artists following their muse wherever it takes them, regardless of how many supposedly loyal fans they piss off in the process.  And as a listener, artists that are always growing and evolving are much more interesting to listen to than ones that simply make the same kind of songs over and over again.

This love of departures and change may be part of why I have such a deep love for Helium’s 1997 album “The Magic City”.  Calling it a departure would be an understatement:  It’s a journey into a completely different universe.

Helium made a fairly minor name for themselves in the mid-90s with an angular brand of indie rock led by Mary Timony, whose lo-fi guitar heroics and witty, feminist-slanted lyrics gave the band a unique edge.  However, Helium never quite caught on with a large audience, partly because they weren’t quite as aggressive as the media-hyped riot grrrls and weren’t as accessible as other female-fronted alternative rock bands of the time.  Their first full length, 1994’s “The Dirt of Luck” showcased the sound that Helium is still largely known for — part Sonic Youth, part Pavement, part riot grrrl.

Having gained a decent following with that album and some EPs, Helium returned in 1997 with a different sound entirely, as they combined the lo-fi indie rock of the 90’s with progressive rock from the 70’s.  The first hint of it was the excellent “No Guitars” EP released earlier in the year, and it culminated with “The Magic City.”  The simple guitar rock of “The Dirt of Luck” was replaced by more complex songs that featured a wide array of instruments, including harpsichord, sitar, and keyboards.  Gone were the biting, feminist themes, replaced by lyrics that are more indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien than Kathleen Hanna, with references to dragons, medieval people, and other fantasy themes.

“The Magic City”, like many departure albums, sounds horrific on paper.  But of course, it’s all in the execution, and part of what makes “The Magic City” such a brilliant album is how fully realized Timony’s vision is.  For the duration of the album’s 52 minute run time, you really feel like you’re in some sort of magic, medieval city (there’s even an instrumental song called “Medieval People” that comes complete with bomb sounds).

I can only imagine how baffled Helium fans were when they first listened to “The Magic City”, and, to an extent, I think many of them still are.  But part of the album’s greatness is just how different it was from everything else at the time, and how nothing has come particularly close to it since (although The Decemberists album “The Hazards of Love” comes to mind).  This is a completely unique, brilliantly quirky album that is often beautiful and dark at the same time.

It doesn’t start off too strange, as the opener “Vibrations” is probably the song that most resembles the old Helium on the album.  But after that, things get weird in a hurry.  “Leon’s Space Song” is one of the best songs of Helium’s career, with references to riding rainbow dragons culminating in a trippy instrumental coda.  “Ocean of Wine” is slightly more straight-forward rock, but continues with the fantasy lyrics and proggier sound.

There’s a wide array of sounds on “The Magic City”, which helps the band paint an entire picture of their medieval fantasy land.  “Revolution of Hearts Parts 1 & 2” is the closest Helium comes to directly channeling the 70’s progressive rock they were influenced by, complete with arena rock guitars and a six minute instrumental freakout.  While Helium had previously sounded brash and abrasive, songs like “Lullaby of the Moths” and  “Cosmic Rays” are more fragile and beautiful, with swooping string sections that sound like they belong in a movie climax.

While “The Magic City” certainly seemed like a crazy idea, the band is able to realize their ambitions and craft an album that sounds different from everything else, but at the same time is identifiably Helium.  Like with all progressive rock, there was the risk of sounding over-indulgent, but for the most part the array of instruments and quirky sounds are vital for creating the vision that Mary Timony had in mind.  Helium split after “The Magic City”, with Timony continuing to make weird  fantasy music on solo albums like “Mountains” and “The Golden Dove”.  But she was never as quirky, compelling, and mysterious as she was here.

In many ways, the album is a lost indie classic:  It doesn’t show up on critics “best of” lists and even among Helium fans it is likely their least popular work.  But for the small group of people who are able to find the album and appreciate what it’s trying to do, “The Magic City” is a classic album that has few peers in indie rock when it comes to its ambition and scope.  It’s a massively underrated album by possibly the most under appreciated bands of the 90’s, and is very much worth seeking out.