Today being White Ribbon Day here in Australia, I thought I’d do something a bit different and rattle off my ten favourite female musicians and celebrate their contribution to the music industry. These are in no order and are completely my own opinion.
Hope Sandoval – The Mazzy Star vocalist is a rare gift with an ethereal quality. Her partnership with guitarist Dave Roback delivered three excellent albums throughout the 90s, each one a dreamy, shoegaze musing. Hope’s vocals floated on top and took the listener to the darker reaches of introspection, but never abandoned us there, merely guided us through. Unabashedly shy, Hope often performs in darkness – I was lucky enough to attend a concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2018 – it’s certainly an odd experience to attend a concert where all the lights are out! It was to promote the Vivid Light Festival, no less; there’s some wonderful irony in that.
Essential listening: She Hangs Brightly (1990), So Tonight That I Might See (1993), Among My Swan (1996).
St. Vincent (Annie Clark) – known better by her stage name St. Vincent, Annie is a breath of fresh air in the overproduced popular music scene of the 21st century. In these musical dark ages, she dares to sound unique, and like any great artist, is constantly changing things up and producing one excellent album after another. I feel that the best is yet to come with Annie, despite her already impressive discography. She plays her own instruments, sings her own songs, writes her own ideas – I reckon many will agree, that’s a big deal in these days of trap-beat autotune bullshit.
Essential listening: Masseducation (2018), Daddy’s Home (2021).
Patti Smith – Proved that the girls can match it with the rougher side of contemporary rock music. Patti’s punk-infused musicianship made a good mix with her skills as a poet, lending her to become a staple of the art rock scene. Also a fine writer, Patti has several books including the brilliant Just Kids. Her 1975 album Horses stands as one of my all time favourites, which opens with the loud brashness of Gloria, and never misses a beat after.
Essential listening: Horses (1975), Wave (1979).
Siouxsie Sioux – The dusky jewel in the crown of new-wave and gothic, Siouxsie is iconic in more ways than one, be it her spider-like hair and heavy makeup, or the tortured anguish evoked from her music with the Banshees. She bashed down the door that stands between all of us and our deepest insecurities, our ominous thoughts, and brought them to the forefront – nobody dares to say what we all think sometimes, nobody but Siouxsie.
Essential listening: Kiss in the Dreamhouse (1982).
PJ Harvey – I feel Polly Jean is often underappreciated for what she’s contributed to the modern music scene, from her early days rocking out in a trio to her many excellent solo albums. Taking the over-sexualisation of female musicians and completely owning it for herself, PJ adds bite and dares anyone to challenge her. This best exemplified on the album Rid of Me, where the lyrics talk of twisting off the heads of her wrongdoers, or becoming ‘man-sized and being skinned alive’. Visceral stuff. My personal favourite album of hers is 2011’s Let England Shake – a dark folky romp that talks of the horrors of war.
Essential listening: Rid of Me (1993), Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), Let England Shake (2011).
Grace Slick – Vocalist for Jefferson Airplane, and a poster girl for 60s psychedelia, Grace had a beautiful free spirit that gave Jefferson Airplane an edge over their contemporaries. It says a lot about her ability that the band really took off once she joined. Whether she was singing lead or providing perfect harmonies, her voice soared. Her song White Rabbit became the anthem of hippie culture, building constantly in one long crescendo.
Essential listening: Surrealistic Pillow (1967), Crown of Creation (1968), Volunteers (1969).
Breanna Barbara – The next three entries here will take us to some of the lesser known but no less excellent indie musicians of today. I can’t exactly remember how or when I first listened to Breanna, but her 2016 album Mirage Dreams is utterly brilliant, carrying a tinge of psych rock mixed with the blues and some awesome slide guitar. Her singing is soulful and perfectly suited to each track, best heard in her unrestrained coyote howls in the title track. I truly hope to hear more from her in the coming years.
Essential listening: Mirage Dreams (2016).
Tess Parks – Another hidden gem of the modern indie scene, Tess has a beautiful huskiness in her voice that carries well over her spacy psychedelic guitar work. Somewhere between Patti Smith and Hope Sandoval, but no less unique, Tess has collaborated extensively with Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe, and the two have produced some great stuff I can’t recommend highly enough. An absolute breath of fresh air in today’s music scene, she is equal parts classic throwback and pioneer, and like Breanna, I hope to hear more music from her in the future.
Essential listening: Blood Hot (2013), I Declare Nothing (2015).
Warpaint – The ladies from Warpaint have put out a number of great albums and have developed a beautifully plaintive sound that begs for long listening sessions across their entire discography. Their songs are often moody dirges to get lost in, as I feel their transcending of multiple genres results in something unlike anything else you’ll hear. Emily, Theresa, Jenny and Stella certainly deserve credit for their great synergy.
Essential listening: Exquisite Corpse (2008), The Fool (2010).
Joni Mitchell – What else can you say? She’s the queen. From her deeply personable songwriting to her truly unique guitar style, Joni Mitchell has pioneered for many musicians that have come after her. Also a skilled visual artist, Joni had to learn guitar while suffering from polio, which led to her tuning her instrument in odd ways to compensate. The result is a distinct sound that has endured for many decades. She had often been referred to as a female Bob Dylan, but that ain’t it – she’s Joni Mitchell.
Essential listening: Blue (1971), Hejira (1976).
From the White Ribbon website: Men’s violence against women is a social issue. It’s everybody’s issue to help end. Did you know: on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. You can help change that statistic by raising much needed funds for White Ribbon’s important primary prevention work in schools, workplaces and communities around Australia.
Visit whiteribbon.org.au for more information.
Stand up, speak out, and act to prevent men’s violence against women.