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.

Introduction

So, I started a music blog, which will certainly raise questions from most people.  Specifically, questions like “why should I care about what this guy thinks about music?” or “does the internet really need another music blog?” or “doesn’t Josh have anything better to do with his free time?”.  The answer to all of these questions is no.  You probably shouldn’t care about what I think about music, the internet certainly doesn’t need another music blog, and I really, truly have absolutely nothing better to do with my free time this summer.

Having admitted that you shouldn’t care and that this blog is meaningless in the grand scheme of the internets, I suppose I should explain why it exists.  This blog is primarily for me to try to improve as a writer, and also to share music that I think is worthy of finding a larger audience than it has.  I don’t consider myself an authority on music and I don’t know much of the technical mumbo jumbo, but I do enjoy looking at art through a somewhat objective lens and have very strong convictions on what’s good and what isn’t.

A lot of people say that music can’t be looked at objectively, that no band can be considered “better” than another band.  Such a statement has always infuriated me.  Sure, a certain amount of music enjoyment is subjective — it’s about that “gut” reaction where it just hits you in a certain way that can’t quite be articulated.  But I think a lot of the things that create that reaction, at least for me, are objective criteria.  Mostly, I want to feel like the music being made is important to the artist making it.

My other love in music is female singers, particularly of the rock and/or roll variety, and that will certainly be a frequent subject of rambling on this blog.  This is harder to explain and might be where the subjective aspect of music kicks in,  but I’ve put some thought into it and think I can rationalize it pretty well.

For one thing, the notion of music being “important” applies more to females than males to me.  Largely, I think women have a more interesting viewpoint of the world at this point in time than men, particularly white men.  This is illustrated in the Riot Grrrl punk movement that I’ve been obsessed with for awhile — it was a group of female musicians making music to inspire change and rebel against societal norms.  It’s also a kind of music that white men simply couldn’t make — they are in a position of power, and being in a position of power makes for largely boring, uninteresting music, such as this entire genre of sissy white guys strumming on their guitar that I find rather repulsive.

Female singers also sound more original than their male counterparts, simply because there’s less of them.  With such an oversaturation of male singers, at a certain point they all tend to sound similar to me.  This is particularly true when it comes to rock music in the indie world, which is mostly what I listen to.  The number of authentic female rock artists in indie music is extremely slim — I can probably count them on two or three hands (and I’ve done a lot of listening).  They also tend not to get their fair shake from music sites like Pitchfork and are ignored by the largely male indie rock community, many of whom think their balls will fall off if they risk listening to female singers.

The result of these reasons, and I’m sure some other disturbing, psychological ones, as led to me being obsessed with female singers.  It’s probably the one area of music that I can claim being an expert on and actually be kind of right, which makes me feel better if I’m going to be writing from a faux-authoritative standpoint.

Hopefully this intro at least gives some idea of where I’m coming from.  I’m hoping to write plenty in the coming weeks about music new, old, and kind of old or kind of new.  And I’m hoping I can do it without being pretentious or annoying the way most music review sites are (too late maybe?).  At the very least, I hope I can improve as  a writer and maybe get one person to listen to something they wouldn’t have otherwise, because that would make me very happy.

Thanks and enjoy.