10 Best Female Rockers of ’90s
The ’90s were a golden age for new and lasting music. Grunge, alternative, hip-hop and numerous other genres congealed into something the press dubbed “modern rock,” and many of the best bands were fronted by women. What follows is a list of the 10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s. It’s an electric-centric tally — hence the absence of primarily acoustic singer-songwriters like Shawn Colvin, Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos — but it nevertheless speaks to the decade’s wide range of talented ladies.
Donita Sparks was the singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter for the all-female in-your-face punk/grunge outfit L7. Based in Los Angeles, the band rose to fame in the early ’90s and became known for catchy, energized songs brimming with outrage, not to mention wild and unpredictable live shows. Sparks and her band were also the driving force behind Rock for Choice, a series of pro-choice benefit concerts that boasted participation and support from some of the biggest names in the music industry.
Their Butch Vig-produced third album, ‘Bricks Are Heavy,’ was included in Rolling Stone’s ‘Essential Recordings of the 1990s,’ and they’ve shown up on a bevy of film soundtracks, including ‘Natural Born Killers’ and ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer.’ Of course, Sparks will always be best known for an incident at the 1992 Reading Festival, where the restless crowd responded to technical difficulties by hurling mud at the band. Sparks, in turn, responded by reaching into her pants, throwing a tampon into the crowd and yelling, “Eat my used tampon, f—ers!”
L7 called it quits in 2001, but as Sparks told Diffuser.fm, there’s a documentary and possible reunion in the works.
Essential Tracks: ‘Shitlist’, ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, ‘Stuck Here Again’, ‘Andres’
Luscious Jackson formed in New York City at the beginning of the decade and dropped their debut on friends and sometime touring partners the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal Records. Mixing rock, hip-hop and funk, the band featured bassist/vocalist/songwriter Jill Cunniff’s light vocals, which seamlessly switched between singing and melodically speaking – not quite rapping – on each of their songs. Their biggest hit, 1997’s ‘Naked Eye,’ made the Billboard 100 chart, and they became mainstays on MTV and Modern Rock radio. Their song ‘Here’ was prominently featured in the film ‘Clueless,’ and ‘Why Do I Lie’ was part of the ‘Good Will Hunting’ soundtrack. Luscious Jackson released ‘Electric Honey’ in 1999, and ‘Ladyfingers,’ the first single, was a mild success, appearing in an episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and gaining regular rotation on VH1. ‘Ladyfingers’ is marked by Cunniff’s vocals, acoustic guitar playing and a video that takes the band all over their native New York City.
In November, Luscious Jackson return with ‘Magic Hour,’ their first album in 14 years, and they’ll celebrate with shows in Philadelphia and New York City.
Essential Tracks: ‘Naked Eye,’ ‘Citysong,’ ‘Ladyfingers,’ ‘Nervous Breakthrough’
Known for her airy, ethereal vocals and jangly semi-hollow-bodied electric guitar tones, Tanya Donnelly was a power player of the early-’90s alt-rock scene. Prior to her finding success with the band Belly, she was a founding member of both the Breeders and Throwing Muses. In 1993, Belly had huge hits on the Modern Rock charts and MTV with ‘Feed The Tree’ and ‘Gepetto,’ both from their album ‘Star.’ The 1995 follow-up, ‘King,’ didn’t garner quite the same attention as their debut, and they eventually disbanded in 1996. In the latter half of the ’90s, Donnelly enjoyed a successful solo career, beginning with 1997’s ‘Love Songs For Underdogs.’ Whether with a band or on her own, Donnelly has been instrumental in defining the sound of alternative rock.
Essential Tracks: ‘Feed The Tree,’ ‘Gepetto,’ ‘Not Too Soon,’ ‘Counting Backwards’
Gwen Stefani began her career as a backup singer for her brother’s ska band and moved into the spotlight when he left and the outfit morphed into the pop- and New Wave-influenced four-piece now known around the world as No Doubt. Gwen’s cartoonish voice paired with confessional lyrics and high-energy live shows propelled the group into superstardom. Like Fleetwood Mac, the they feature a pair of high school sweethearts, Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal, and while they ended their romantic relationship, they managed to keep the music going. The Stefani-penned ‘Don’t Speak’ was not only a huge hit, but it touched on their personal history and made them superstars. Soon after, Stefani became known for her striking Debbie Harry-influenced platinum blonde hair and a SoCal surf-and-skate wardrobe that quickly evolved into high fashion, turning her into a glamorous style icon. On the heels of No Doubt’s success, Stefani launched a solo career, fashion line and fragrance and inspired millions of teenage girls to rock mid-drift-baring baby tees.
Essential Tracks: ‘Don’t Speak,’ ‘Spiderwebs,’ ‘Just a Girl’
One-half of the ’90s alt-rock “it” couple, Courtney Love fronted the band Hole and achieved mainstream success in the wake of her husband Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide with the aptly titled album ‘Live Through This.’ The band’s sophomore release featured Love’s dark songwriting and crunchy, distorted guitars, and onstage, she sported the baby-doll dresses, Doc Marten’s boots and smeared lipstick emblematic of the day’s ‘kinderwhore’ look.
Love ripped through the grunge scene like a hurricane, marrying its prom king and becoming as notorious for her public antics as for her music. And yet despite all the tabloid sensationalism, ‘Live Through This’ resonated with angsty teenagers across the nation and spawned the hits ‘Doll Parts,’’Violet’ and ‘Miss World.’ She achieved critical acclaim as an actress in 1997, playing the drug-addicted wife of the titular pornography publisher in ‘The People Vs. Larry Flynt’ and returned to music with 1998’s ‘Celebrity Skin.’
A departure from grunge, ‘Celebrity Skin’ featured bigger hooks, tighter songwriting, slicker production and five co-writes from Billy Corgan. Despite her unpredictable behavior, ‘Celebrity Skin,’ cemented Love as one of the most important frontwomen of the ’90s.
Essential Tracks: ‘Doll Parts,’ ‘Malibu,’ ‘Violet,’ ‘Miss World,’ ‘Celebrity Skin’
Hailing from Boston (an incredible hotbed of early-’90s alternative rock), the next entry on our list of the 10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s is Juliana Hatfield, who made her name with the Blake Babies and Juliana Hatfield Three before embarking on a long solo career. The notoriously shy, baby-voiced singer hit No. 1 on the Modern Rock charts with her trio’s ‘My Sister,’ and her song ‘Spin The Bottle’ received massive attention when it was included on the ‘Reality Bites’ soundtrack. The latter’s video was directed by Ethan Hawke and includes appearances by the director himself and Tanya Donnelly.
Hatfield also played guitar on fellow Bostonians the Lemonheads’ hit ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ and earned a degree in songwriting from Beantown’s revered Berklee College of Music. She became an MTV staple and even scored a guest part on the quintessential ’90s television show ‘My So-Called-Life,’ playing a homeless teenager/angel who appears to Claire Danes and her mother in a Christmas episode.
She had the fledgling Jeff Buckley as an opening act on one of her mid-’90s tours and was even asked by Sarah McLachlan to perform on the inaugural Lilith Fair, where she was one of the only rock acts on the bill.
Essential Tracks: ‘My Sister,’ ‘Spin The Bottle,’ ‘Universal Heartbeat’
When legendary producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, L7, Sonic Youth, House of Pain, Foo Fighters) was seeking a female singer for the newly formed post-grunge big-hook rock band Garbage, his bandmate Steve Marker stumbled upon an Angelfish video on MTV featuring a fire-haired Scottish singer by the name of Shirley Manson. Their manager tracked her down, and she joined the band.
Manson’s deep and sultry voice lent itself perfectly to the group, and the foursome generated the hits ‘Only Happy When It Rains,’ ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘#1 Crush.’ Gushing about the combo, the L.A. Times raved “one of Garbage’s most compelling features is a force of nature: Manson’s vocals, which can convey a multitude of emotions without ever coming across as melodramatic.”
Which is more than enough to solidify her place on this list.
Essential Tracks: ‘Only Happy When it Rains,’ ‘Stupid Girl,’ ‘#1 Crush’
Englishwoman Polly Jean “PJ” Harvey established a cult following in her native land with her 1992 release ‘Dry’ and 1993 follow-up ‘Rid of Me.’ By the time 1995’s ‘To Bring You My Love’ hit the States, she’d become a bona fide rock star.
Over the course of her career, she’s earned Mercury Prizes, Grammy nominations and accolades from Rolling Stone, Spin and MTV, among others. Originally, PJ was going to be a visual artist, as she was accepted to Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design as a sculptor, but the demos for ‘Dry’ were gaining attention and ultimately led to a bidding war won by Island Records. With music calling, she put college on hold.
PJ’s biggest hit was 1995’s ‘Down By The Water,’ which reached No. 2 on the Modern Rock charts and was in heavy rotation on MTV, leading to a 1995 VMA nomination. In ’96, Harvey described her video performance to Spin as “Joan Crawford on acid.”
Still going strong, she has set the bar for alternative, experimental rock.
Essential Tracks: ‘C’Mon Billy,’ ‘Down by The Water,’ ’50 Ft. Queenie’
Famous in her native Iceland for her childhood acting career, and for fronting the ’80s cult band the Sugarcubes, Bjork debuted her self-titled solo effort in 1994 and was catapulted into international superstardom.
She has been nominated for 14 Grammy Awards, one Golden Globe and one Oscar. Her music defies categorization, and she’s dabbled in dance, trance, industrial, jazz, alt-rock and orchestral music, among other styles.
Along the way, she’s scored worldwide hits with ‘It’s Oh So Quiet,’ ‘Army of Me’ and ‘Hyperballad’. Academy Award-winning director Michael Gondry (‘Science of Sleep’) frequently worked on her videos, making trippy, cinematic masterpieces that were in heavy rotation throughout the ’90s.
If her pixie-ish high-art image made her less relatable to mainstream audiences than some of her peers, her mix of confessional songwriting, warm acoustic tones and colder electronic sounds entranced listeners and made her one of the era’s definitive artists.
Essential Tracks: ‘Hyperballad,’ ‘Possibly Maybe,’ ‘Joga’
Liz Phair may very well be the patron saint of 1990s alternative rock. She burst onto the scene with her 1993 release ‘Exile in Guyville,’ a song-for-song response to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street’ that proved a huge success for Madator Records. Based in Chicago, she recorded most of ‘Exile’ at home in her childhood bedroom on a four-track.
Known for her sexually explicit, literary lyrics; liberal arts background; and girl-next-door vibe, Phair wielded a Fender Mustang and notched several hits, achieving massive popularity among the ‘120 Minutes’ set. Her best-known tunes include ‘F— and Run,’ ‘Never Said Nothing,’ ‘6’1,’ ‘Supernova’ and ‘Whip Smart,’ and regardless of what critics think about her subsequent work, ‘Exile in Guyville’ remains a benchmark for alternative rock.
Essential tracks: ‘Fuck and Run,’ ‘Polyester Bride,’ ‘Supernova.’