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Friday, March 7, 2014

Top 10 Frontwomen in Rock

Unfortunately, for much of rock music's history, women were under-represented as most bands had had all-male members. Still, the years have given us our fair share of great female band leaders. In celebration of International Women's Day, I'll be counting down my top ten favorite female singers in rock and alternative music history. For this list, I've excluded singers who were/are known primarily as solo artists (sorry Janis Joplin and Sky Ferreira). However, the definition of a "frontwoman" is a loose one, as several of the singers featured on this list often had male companions at the mic, but would at least sporadically have a song to herself. Lastly, in addition to a description of each singer, I've embedding a track of theirs that I feel showcases their vocal prowess most successfully. And remember, as always, this is just my opinion. Let's dive right in.

10. Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill)

This ferocious punk-rocker was at the head of the Riot Grrrl movement, as her band Bikini Kill took a leading role in the counter-culture. Closely tied in with grunge, Riot Grrrl brought significant social change wherever it thrived, advocating for gender and sexual equality, and even facilitated the resurgence of feminism in the United States. Hanna's distinct snarl and tongue-in-cheek lyrics played a significant role in the genre's rise to prominence, and she may be the most politically significant person on this list.

9. Victoria Legrand (Beach House)

Beach House's dreamy indie swirl would be nothing without this singer's whispery, soulful vocals. Victoria Legrand is one of alternative rock's leading ladies at the moment, as 2012's Bloom was highly regarded by fans and critics alike. The French-born singer brings a certain sense of properness to everything she touches, and epitomizes the dream pop genre. Beach House's music is truly beautiful, and much of that is thanks to Legrand.

8. Kim Deal (Pixies, The Breeders)

Rising to fame with indie rock legends Pixies, Kim Deal took center stage when she formed The Breeders in the early nineties. While with the Pixies, Deal played bass and sang backup vocals, her voice standing out most on Surfer Rosa's "Gigantic." However, Pixies frontman Black Francis shut her out of much of the group's activity in the early 1990's, and she left to focus on The Breeders. The alternative band's biggest hit was "Cannonball" (listen above), which featured Deal's unique singing voice and delivery style. Kim Deal is one of alternative music's biggest female icons, and rightfully so. Despite her excellent songwriting abilities, she lands at just #8 on the list because I think there are other frontwomen who bring more to the table in terms of stage presence and vocal ability.

7. Ritzy Bryan (The Joy Formidable)

The Joy Formidable are an extremely powerful band from Wales, and one of my personal favorites. They frequently make use of walls of sound created by layers of guitars, feedback, and flamboyant drums. At the forefront of the group's fortitude is singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan, whose cutesy charm comes across in her vocals on songs like "Forest Serenade," while showing a more edgy side on tracks such as "Chapter 2." Her Welsh accent plays a prominent role in her vocals, and actually adds to the music rather than detracting from it. Not only a great singer, Bryan is a gifted guitarist, most noticeable during the lengthy solo in "Maw Maw Song." She's a dual threat as a frontwoman, and leads one of modern music's loudest, most riotous guitar bands excellently.

6. Bethany Cosentino (Best Coast)

Bethany Cosentino is a typical, laid back California girl who just so happens to be great at writing melodies. As lead guitarist and singer for lo-fi surf-rockers Best Coast, she does a fantastic job of conveying the relaxed attitude she lives by in her music. Though the lyrics may be simple at times, she sure knows how to craft a catchy tune. Best Coast's debut album, still their best work to date by my standards, also includes a large amount of harmonies, also performed by Cosentino, that fit the lo-fidelity mood perfectly. Though The Only Place may have been disappointing, that album's title track proved that Cosentino still has what it takes to remain one of the biggest females in indie rock today.

5. Bilinda Butcher (My Bloody Valentine)

My Bloody Valentine were the monarchs of shoegaze in the 90's, and Bilinda Butcher was their queen. Though her vocal stylings were soft and often low in the mix, she still made a significant contribution to many of the band's biggest tracks, including the one embedded above. Muffled vocals are an essential part of most shoegaze songs, and Butcher provided just that with My Bloody Valentine. Her guitar playing isn't anything to write off, either, as her intense feedback-driven performances combine with fellow group members Kevin Shields's playing to form that wall-of-sound effect MBV were known for.

4. Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs)

Recently nominated for an Oscar for her work on "The Moon Song" from Her, Karen O is one of alternative rock's most dynamic vocalists. Her performances range from bone-jarringly raw ("Date With the Night") to beautifully tender ("Maps") to desperate ("Sacrilege"). Her wild stage presence makes for a great live show, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are known for putting on a great concert. She's also known as somewhat of a fashion icon, thanks to her unique style of dress. Whether she's shouting, crying out, or quietly pleading, Karen O kills it in every song she does.

3. Regine Chassagne (Arcade Fire)

As you probably very well know by now, Arcade Fire are one of my favorite groups. One of the band's key members is vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne, whose perky vocals are wonderfully bright. Though she often lets fellow singer and husband Win Butler take lead vocal duties, songs like "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" show that Chassagne has talent at the mic. In addition to lush synthesizers, she also plays everything from drums to accordion, and even something called a hurdy-gurdy. Multi-talented and a delight to listen to, Regine Chassagne is one of my favorite singers making music right now.

2. Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth, multiple side projects)

Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth have been making music since the early eighties, and during that time the singer/bassist/guitarist has become one of the biggest names in indie rock history. Throughout the band's lengthy career, Gordon has always provided a rebellious sneer and energy not commonly found in other singers. She has influenced countless other musicians over the decades, and remains one of the most famous women in rock history.

1. Courtney Love (Hole)

You either love her or you hate her, but regardless of your opinion of Courtney Love as a person, you can't deny that this woman knew how to sing with the best of 'em. She showed she could scream on "Violet," that she could be transparent and raw on "Doll Parts," and that she could do both in three minutes on "Miss World." Despite her drug-riddled past and recent twitter rampages, Love is the quintessential female grunge/punk singer. Not to mention, she played a mean guitar and wrote some amazing songs with Hole. She's number one on my list because of her wild stage antics, immense vocal range, emotional performances, and impeccable songwriting ability. In short, I feel Courtney Love is not only the best frontwoman of all time, but one of rock's most gifted singers overall.

Did anyone you were expecting to see miss the cut? Perhaps Jenny Lewis? Or Chrissie Hynde? Maybe Tanya Donelly? Jehnny Beth? Stevie Nicks? Leave a note in the comments and check out the embedded playlist below for some honorable mentions alongside all of the singers listed here!

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