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100 Extraordinary women – Favourite female vocalists 2010 – 2019

8 MARCH 2020

This is a sister list to one that I compiled a decade ago covering the period to 2009.

When I did my original list, I didn’t have the benefit of ten years of blogging about music. This time I had more music and more ideas to bring to the party. The key question was how does an artist qualify for the list. I knew that I wanted female musicians who were strong, independent minded, and creative. At first I was very focused on songwriters: women writing original material, especially those with things to say. Straight away, this excludes many pop singers. It also excludes folk groups or folk singers who perform traditional songs (I may have sneaked a couple in though). I realised though that I had to include some electronic music too, because there’s some amazing creativity going on there.

Many of the biggest and most commercially successful stars are missing from this list. I make no apology for that. If I succeed in introducing you to one inspiring female artist who you mightn’t have been so familiar with, then this list will have served its purpose. So I’ve only included artists whose music and whose stories resonate with me. I’ve also tried to give the list a forward looking flavour. No artist is given a place on the basis of past reputation alone. Surprisingly, only seven of the 100 artists featured in 2009 appear on the new list ! (They are Laura Marling, Mary Gauthier, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, Shemekia Copeland, Cocorosie, and Goapele.)

At number two in 2009 was Amy Winehouse. Her spirit has been very much with me as I’ve compiled this list. But for her tragic death, she would definitely have been a part of it, and the list is dedicated to her.

100 Pussy Riot – Hangerz (feat Vic Mensa & Junglepussy)  (single, 2019)

OK, I could have placed this a little higher, but it only just squeezed in, having been released in December 2019, and also I wanted to get your attention. LADIES YOU ARE INCREDIBLE !! Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are the trio who were jailed by Putin, I understand that membership of the Russian punk group has changed considerably since then, but each and every group member is an inspiration. In terms of recorded music their output has been very limited up to now, but this song, written in response to Alabama’s anti-abortion legislation, is as good as anything they’ve done, so hopefully there’s a lot more yet to come.

99 Waxahatchee – You’re Damaged  (Cerulean Salt 2013)

For a few years Katie Crutchfield had been in a band with her twin sister that they called P.S. Eliot. Waxahatchee (named after a river in her home state of Alabama) began life as a set of recordings in her bedroom. After she was persuaded to release them, the album got so many accolades that she decided to take herself more seriously as an artist, and the result was the more muscular indie folk of Cerulean Salt.

98 Tiny Ruins – Carriages  (Brightly Painted One 2014)

Band from Auckland (NZ) founded by Hollie Fulbrook. A moody song about separation sung in a beautifully clear voice to soft,  gentle instrumentation.

97 Flohio – Watchout  (Single 2018)

Me, I never saw the appeal of celebrity hip hop. Hip hop is best when it’s a street music. And this track is pure street. The South London MC goes in hard, shooting out lyrics like a machine gun over a menacing beat. Rap music, she says, “isn’t about weed and lipstick. You’ve got to have that punk in there. It’s got to be radical. You’re here to make a statement.” Watch out for her debut album.

96 Daughter – Burn It Down (Music from Before the Storm 2017)

Led by North Londoner Elena Tonra, Daughter is a three piece band who make dark, atmospheric electronic rock music. Music from Before the Storm was written as the soundtrack for a video game.

95 Eilen Jewell – Beat the Drum  (Gypsy 2019)

Eilen Jewell is a fairly mainstream singer songwriter from Boise Idaho who likes to throw country, folk and blues in the mix – but what’s this ? “Raise your voice, beat the drum … if we resist, we win the fight.” Some might mock: what does she know, she’s glued a few phrases together without referencing any actual struggles. But you know what ? It is an uplifting song, and it’s lovely to hear the fiddle in there.

94 Siobhan Wilson – Whatever Helps  (There Are No Saints 2017)

I love the contrast between the melodic vocals and the dark, distorted riff. Highlands lass Siobhan Wilson is now based in Edinburgh where she released this album on Song, By Toad Records. Following the label’s demise, she set up her own label and crowdfunded for her next album. “I don’t cast judgement on anyone,” she says, “but I take indie quite literally because to be fully artistic and be as authentic as possible, I need to not be part of a machine.”

93 Charlotte Gainsbourg – I’m a Lie  (Rest 2017)

Charlotte is the daughter of famous parents, now in her own right one of the brightest stars of French cinema. Believe me though, the singing career is no vanity project or publicity stunt. She pours herself into her songs. Rest is a particularly personal album for her, as it was made after the heartbreaking death of her sister. Because some of the subject matter was so intimate, she wrote the songs in French rather than English as she’d done before. I’m a Lie is about the pains of frustrated desire, too shy to assert itself.

92 Hurray for the Riff Raff – Rican Beach (The Navigator 2017)

Alynda Segarra wrote Rican Beach to stand up for America’s marginalised voices. She’s been there herself. At the age of 17 she ran away from her home in the Bronx and criss crossed America, hopping freight trains. She found herself drawn to New Orleans, where she started out as a street musician. One of her first songs was an ode to a fellow traveller who’d been brutally raped and murdered. By mid-decade they’d moved from being a hobo band to becoming a big name on the folk / roots circuit. And Alynda was now becoming very interested in her own Puerto Rican heritage.

91 Ibeyi – I Wanna Be Like You  (Ash 2017)

Ibeyi is twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz. They were raised in Paris, but their father is Cuban, and was a member of the famous Buena Vista Social Club ensemble. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this isn’t a Jungle Book cover. It’s a sensual downtempo R&B number.

90 Molly Burch – Please Be Mine (Please Be Mine 2017)

This is like a reinvention of 60s girl group music: it’s got those retro Phil Spector chords, the slowed down vocals, and something extra – a smoky voice and a strange intimacy. Molly Burch is a singer-songwriter from LA, now based in Austin.

89 Preta Rara – Falsa Abolição  (Audacia 2015)

A mighty howl of rage against racism. The young Brazilian rapper spent seven years as a domestic worker, and later exposed the hidden world of domestic service in her book Eu, empregada doméstica. She’s not just a musician, she’s an activist, who uses her music as a way of speaking uncomfortable truths.

88 Zoe West & The Hanging Baskets – Number One (Honesty 2017)

Zoe West is an English singer songwriter. No flashy production, no vocal gymnastics, but I love her thoughtful, funny, down-to-earth lyrics.

87 The Meow Meows – Friends On Benefits  (Friends On Benefits 2015)

Nine piece ska & soul band from Brighton with two female vocalists, Danny and Hanna.

86 Priests – Jesus’ Son  (The Seduction of Kansas Rock 2019)

Three piece feminist rock band from Washington DC led by Katie Alice Greer, who’ve set up their own independent record label

85 Julien Baker – Brittle Boned  (Sprained Ankle 2015)

Julien was 17 when she wrote the songs on Sprained Ankle, 19 when the album was released. It has all the feel of a singer songwriter album: much of it apparently recorded in one take, it has a minimalist production – it’s like she’s speaking directly to us. On this track you have to imagine her speaking from a hospital bed.

84 Noura Mint Seymali – Eguetmar  (Tzenni 2014)

In my book I discuss the apparent paradox that Mauritania, a conservative Muslim country, has produced such outstanding female artists. Noura Mint Seymali is a griot, a tradition bearer, whose parents were both great artists in their own right. In her music she seeks to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity and bring Moorish music to a new international audience.

83 Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn – Bloomin’ Rose  (Echo in the Valley 2017)

“One fateful day,” according to her biog, “Washburn was miraculously offered a record deal in the halls of a bluegrass convention in Kentucky which changed her trajectory from becoming a lawyer in China to a traveling folk musician.” She’s since become one of America’s most celebrated performers of old-time music. In recent years she’s performed with her husband Béla Fleck as a banjo duo.

82 Krista Detor – Can I Come Over  (Barely 2015)

I like the intimacy of the song, the well observed down to earth lyrics – “can I come over if I swear I’ll like your mother”. Krista is a singer-songwriter and pianist from Indiana.

81 White Lung – Thick Lip  (Sorry 2012)

Driving hardcore punk with shouty vocals. Excellent stuff, if you like that kind of thing. White Lung are a trio from Vancouver, and the loud voice belongs to Mish Barber-Way. When she isn’t being a flag bearer for women in punk music, Mish is a writer and journalist who specializes in sex and relationship advice. In 2017 she was handed a senior editor position at Penthouse magazine. “For so long, I kept my band secret at work. Then everyone found out.”

80 Imelda May – It’s Good To Be Alive  (Tribal 2014)

Rockabilly artist from Dublin. Her influences may be retro, but nobody performs it better than she does, making the music sound fresh and relevant.

79 Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone  (Traveling Alone 2012)

North Carolina’s Tift Merritt studied creative writing in college, and could just as easily have ended up being a novelist rather than a singer songwriter. So it’s perhaps only natural that her songs are so lyric rich and beatifully crafted.

78 Willow – Feel Me  (Workshop 21 – EP 2015)

Feel me was the first track that Mancunian Sophie Wilson (aka Willow) ever made. It could so easily have disappeared without trace in the crowded club music scene. But there was something about it. The hypnotic deep house beat drew people in, she became known, and Willow’s never looked back.

77 Savages – Husbands (Silence Yourself 2013)

Jehnny Beth is a Frenchwoman who formed the group when she was living in London. Their dark abrasive art punk, which has gathered two Mercury Music Prize nominations, might seem a natural fit for me, but I find their music rather cold and austere. This track’s good though. Jehnny will shortly be releasing her debut solo album.

76 Chastity Belt – IDC  (Time to go home 2015)

In 2010 four teenage female students at a college in Walla Walla decided to form a band. As Julia Shapiro readily admits, “when we started out we were just fucking around.” After finishing college and moving to Seattle though, they found that being a real band was more fun. They paid their dues, they developed their musical style, and audiences grew to like the irreverent way they took on serious subjects. Julia Shapiro also belongs to the band Childbirth, and she released her debut solo album last year.

75 Shemekia Copeland – Would You Take My Blood  (America’s Child 2018)

A blues singer from Harlem, she’s been making albums for 20 years, but America’s Child has an extra political edge to it. “After having a child,” she says, “I started thinking about the world I brought him into, how it actually is and how I wished it was and all the things he will have to go through.” The lyrics to this song were written by her collaborators John Hahn and Will Kimbrough, but its acid exposure of racism obviously means a lot to her. How can America solve a problem like racism ? Shemekia reckons “a good start might be if people actually lived according to beliefs espoused by their religion.”

74 Rachel Newton – An Hour With Thee (Here’s My Heart Come Take It 2016)

This one breaks my rule about no traditional songs or covers. It’s a bold, interesting move though – a reimagining of a poem by Sir Walter Scott. Rachel, whose main instrument is the harp, is an award winning musician, among the cream of Scottish folk music. She’s been a part of two well known groups, The Shee, and The Furrow Collective.

73 Speech Debelle – The Knowing  (tantil before i breathe 2017)

In 2009 she won the Mercury Music Prize with a hip hop album made on a shoestring budget. The 22 year old Londoner’s life changed overnight – and not necessarily for the better. The pressures of a cutthroat music industry took their toll. “I didn’t have an understanding that I could be me without compromise, I wasn’t aware of that,” she says, looking back. So she took her time making tantil before i breathe, and she was now in a better place inside herself. The Knowing is a song that’s very personal, and at the same time rich in insight.

72 Moor Mother – Parallel Nightmares  (Fetish Bones 2016)

This is challenging stuff. I can hear the questions already – WTF is this ? How can you call it music ? It’s the work of Philadelphia based poet / musician Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother. It may seem chaotic and freeform at first, but as the Guardian’s reviewer explains, there’s a lot going on here – “She blends hip-hop, samples, spoken word and free jazz into MacBook collages that shudder with anger and pride, charting centuries of abuse against black people.”

71 Feral Jenny – Not Enough Hair   (Bedrooms EP 2014)

Never heard of her ? Don’t worry. Jenny Mudarri isn’t exactly a household name even in her native Massachusetts. As Feral Jenny she just made the one six track alt rock EP, recorded in her bedroom. “I didn’t even have an amp or anything, I just recorded everything straight onto my computer. All the frequencies are really low; it was kind of a total mess.” Lo-fi it may be, but the rough edges and fuzzed up guitar riffs are part of the appeal. She’s released another solo EP under the name Thrifty, and is a member of the band Bent Shapes.

70 Ruby Ibarra – Background (feat Ann One)  (Circa91 2017)

Ruby is a Filipino American rapper. The album title comes from the year when her parents emigrated to the US. “The initial purpose of this album was to create a project that would allow listeners to have a glimpse of who I am and where I come from. I feel that in the past, I solely focused on bars/flow/metaphors/punchlines and really tried to prove myself as a lyricist … so this time I wanted to focus on storytelling. I wanted to create a body of work that would read like a story from beginning to end.”

69 Evelyn Cornejo – Mas van pasando los años  (La Chusma Inconsciente 2017)

From a poor village background, Chilean singer Evelyn started out singing on buses for a few pesos. She writes songs that challenge the status quo, that combat ignorance, and that defend workers in struggle. She named her band Chusma Inconsciente – the unconscious rabble – and this became the title of her second album. The words to this song were written by the legendary Chilean protest singer Violeta Parra. Evelyn is one of a generation of female Chilean singers born after Parra’s death who draw massive inspiration from her.

68 Samantha Fish – Go Home  (Wild Heart 2015)

Samantha Fish is known as a blues rocker, but this number which steams with emotion is more of a country ballad. Samantha wrote the words and a couple of session singers provide backing harmonies.  The place that she calls home, Kansas City, has always been a bit of a hub of music styles, and some of this is reflected in Wild Heart.

67 FKA Twigs – Kicks  (LP1 2014)

This is cutting edge music. It’s production driven, experimental, playful, but with a soulful core to it.  English artist Twigs isn’t just a singer – she writes lyrics and is heavily involved in producing the songs. I’m going to make myself unpopular here and say that I think I prefer her earlier release to the album Magdalene which came out last year to huge acclaim.

66 Pins – Too Little Too Late  (Wild Nights 2015)

Pins are an all female band who love being part of a vibrant Manchester music scene, but wish it was a little less male dominated. In Faith Holgate they have a powerful front woman. I like the drone effect on this track, and the style-conscious video reflects their passion for visual artistry.

65 Valerie June – The Front Door  (The Order Of Time 2017)

Growing up in Tennessee, Valerie June had many musical influences. She sang black gospel music until her family moved to a neighbourhood where the congregation was mostly white. She loves Patsy Cline, who lived in the same neighbourhood long before she was born; she loves Sister Rosetta Tharpe and blues music. And she brings some of these influences to the table, along with her own unique nasally voice.

64 tUnE-yArDs – Bizness  (w h o k i l l 2011)

Lead single from the album that propelled Merrill Garbus to international fame. She says the songs on the album were composed while “improvising on the looping pedal” (whatever that means) – then doing a lot of studio work on them. They’re full of samples, different techniques, wild ideas, unlikely fusions of genres. I can’t say that I’m totally sold on it. But this track with its strong melodies is definitely a good place to start from.

63 Anandi Bhattacharya – In Between Us  (Joys Abound 2018)

Refreshing happy music, rooted in Indian tradition, but with a very natural vocal flow and sense of artistic freedom. Anandi’s the daughter of the great guitarist Debashish, and unsurprisingly he co-wrote the songs and performed on her debut album, along with uncle Subhasis on tablas.

62 Joan Shelley – Isn’t That Enough  (Joan Shelley 2017)

“Never want you tame, I’ve seen you wild …” Wonderful lyrics, beautful guitar work by Nathan Salsburg, and a hushed, intimate production. Kentucky has a proud tradition of producing great folk and roots musicians, and Joan Shelley belongs on that list.

61 The Coathangers – Smother  (Suck my Shirt 2014)

All female garage punk trio from Atlanta fronted by Stephanie Luke. They’re still going after 13 years, they’ve been around the world and back, and they’ve shown to themselves and to the rest of us that demand for mouthy upbeat punk music ain’t going away anytime soon.

60 Rowan Rheingans – Lines  (The Lines We Draw Together 2019)

Rowan’s from the Peak District, and she’s been a part of two of my favourite folk groups of the decade, The Rheingans Sisters (with sister Anna), and female harmony trio Lady Maisery. On her debut solo album, she moves away from traditionally based material: all the songs are self-written, and are inspired by her English and German grandmothers, to whom the album is dedicated.

59 Joy Williams – The Trouble with Wanting  (Front Porch 2019)

Michigan girl Joy Williams was once one half of the duo The Civil Wars, whose excellent Barton Hollow album earned them a spot as my February 2011 Band of the Month where I talked about the very dark love song Poison and Wine. So it’s interesting to contrast this with the more conventional but still powerful The Trouble with Wanting, from Joy’s latest solo album.

58 Fistymuffs – Coercive Control   (About Time – EP 2018)

Suky Goodfellow is a performance poet and visual artist, originally from Cornwall, now living in Edinburgh, where she formed the female punk trio Fistymuffs. She’s also a member of the band Voicex. “This song is based on a Twitter hashtag #hedoesnthityoubut which saw women using their real-life stories to highlight the impact of this kind of abuse. It’s the song people cry at, which might sound bad but it means we are reaching them, possibly helping them process their own pain like it helped us process ours. For us that makes it one of our most important songs.”

57 Jlin – Nandi  (Black Origami 2017)

“I love when I hit a person like a tornado. There is no easing. We just go straight in.”

” In this day and age, it’s ridiculous for an artist to make something and not have a reason for it. You made something ’cause it sounds good? For real? You’re not doing enough.”

Jerrilynn Patton, aka Jlin, was working at the steelworks in Gary, Indiana when she found out that her debut album made year-end lists at The New York Times, The Wire, and Pitchfork. Black Origami was recorded after she’d quit the day job. It’s electronic music with no rules and no boundaries. Love the rapidfire percussive sound on this track.

56 Wolf Alice – Formidable Cool  (Vision of a Life 2017)

Guitar-heavy rock music doesn’t get recognised as often as it should be at the big awards, so it was pleasing to see Wolf Alice get the Mercury Music prize in 2018 for Vision of a Life. On this track they take on the difficult subject of sexual abuse. Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell who has been a very public supporter of the Labour Party in recent elections believes that musicians should use their public platform to do some good. She was the driving force behind the Bands4Refugees project.

55 Jessica Pratt – Strange Melody  (On Your Own Love Again 2015)

The album was recorded at home on a 4 track, and the hiss of the tape hasn’t been edited out. That said, the music also has a warmth and richness to it. The Californian singer songwriter isn’t too keen on others pigeonholing her music, but this song for me is evocative of Nick Drake.

54 Brandi Carlile  – Whatever You Do  (By The Way, I Forgive You 2018)

Brandi came out as gay when she was a teenager in a small conservative town in Washington state. A couple of decades later, as an openly gay artist in Trump’s America, she’s still fearless, speaking out publicly on issues that concern her. Her music is less overtly political, but once you scratch the surface By the Way, I Forgive You draws on her experience of difference in songs such as The Joke and The Mother. The album won her three Grammys. This is my favourite song from the album.

53 Leikeli47 – Wash & Set  (Wash & Set 2017)

This makes me smile whenever I hear it. It’s sassy, it’s funny. I guess it’s a bit of a statement too, it’s embracing part of her identity as a black woman from Brooklyn. Why can’t more hip hop be like this ?

Leikeli’s trademark is the face masks that she always wears when performing.

52 Dead Sara – Mr Mr  (Pleasure to Meet You 2015)

“Dead Sara should be the next biggest rock band in the world” – Dave Grohl

Well they’ve got some way to go on that score, but the LA band can certainly belt out a stonking good hard rock song. The band revolves around two women who’ve been close friends since their teenage years, Emily Armstrong and Siouxsie Medley.

51 Goapele – Play  (Break Of Dawn 2011)

Goapele (her real name) was raised in Oakland California, where under her parents influence she grew up a fighter for justice and equality. “Where I come from and where my family comes from has affected my experiences and perspective and all of that bleeds into my music … I grew up thinking that music is not only fun to dance to or cry to, but it is meant to truly reflect us and it can be a vehicle for change in this world. Growing up in The Bay also had me immersed in the Hip Hop community, where I made my first collaborations and it influenced the kind of production I use to this day.” On this track she shows her sultry, sensual side.

50 Jahcoozi – Barefoot Dub   (Barefoot Wanderer 2010)

Sasha Perera was born in London to Sri Lankan parents. After moving to live in Germany, she formed Jahcoozi with producers Robot Koch and Oren Gerlitz. This is just such a cool song – like a barefoot anthem, complete with heavy dub rhythms and a kick drum thumping in halfway through. These days Sasha works as a producer and as a DJ, and has been involved in a variety of projects, including bringing grime music to Berlin.

49 Marie Davidson – Naive to the Bone  (Adieux Au Dancefloor 2016)

Montreal’s Marie Davidson is a music obsessive. Every day she’s practicing, working, composing. Having discovered a love of techno, getting to know about all the production techniques was a steep learning curve, but she seems to have done well. And she’ll bring in other influences and ideas that are at times quite unexpected. The spoken word vocals are brilliant on this track.

48 Fatoumata Diawara – Boloko  (Fatou 2011)

Fatoumata already had a lifetime of experience behind her when at the age of 20 she fled her native Mali for Paris to avoid an arranged marriage. She’s become one of African music’s greatest ambassadors. “My main message is hope. All is about the world, peace, how Africa can be a better place, especially for women, because I am one and I am a survivor and I have been doing everything to be where I am today so I want to encourage those who have lost hope.”

47 Bella Hardy – The Herring Girl  (Songs Lost and Stolen 2011)

Bella’s from Edale in England’s Peak District. One of her passions is writing new folk songs with a traditional feel. Here she tells a vivid story of a young girl who finds her way to the north of Scotland to earn a few bob in the herring trade before tragedy strikes and she ends up going down for murder. This won Best Original Song at the 2012 BBC Folk Awards.

46 Margo Price – All American Made   (All American Made 2017)

“We actually wrote that song during the Obama administration,” says the Nashville based singer, “but it really altered meaning for me on the day Trump was elected. That song embodies the good and the bad in the ugly in this country. America is so beautiful to me, but it’s in a really hard spot right now. I feel like I was one of the first and only country artists to speak out so openly against Trump, and I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t be giving my opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s not a lot of doubt about the difference between right and wrong.”

45 Lizzie Nunnery – Poverty Knocks  (Black Hound Howling 2012)

Lizzie Nunnery is a successful Liverpool playwright and Co-Artistic Director of the female-led theatre company Almanac Arts. Her music is always worth listening to for its complex and thoughtful lyrics. This song though to me is special. Listen out for the backing harmonies by the Liverpool Socialist Singers – who coincidentally will be performing at the International Women’s Day event that I’m going to tonight.

44 Pieta Brown – I’m Gone  (Mercury 2011)

“Turn around baby I’ll be gone.” It’s sung as a lighthearted rockabilly canter, but the words are those of a woman taking no nonsense, in charge of her life. Pieta Brown is from Iowa, and she’s the daughter of another great singer songwriter Greg Brown. Greg is now in his third marriage, to Iris Dement, who we’ll be hearing from later.

43 Just Mustard – Deaf  (Wednesday 2018)

Reading some of the band’s interviews, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing here. Singer Katie Ball’s the only woman in a band with four men. It’s very much a team effort: they compose all the songs together, they give interviews as a group. But I love the combination of Katie’s vocals with the noise rock, it reminds me of Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. And they’re one of Ireland’s most exciting bands right now.

42 Vivian Girls – Dance (If You Wanna)   (Share The Joy 2011)

The song’s like a little sparkle to brighten your day – a breezy, breathless shot of joy. New York garage pop band Vivian Girls sparkled briefly before disappearing – already by the time that this album was released Cassie Ramone had joined The Babies and Katy Goodman had formed La Sera. In July 2019 Cassie and Katy announced that the Vivian Girls had reformed, and a new album, Memory, followed shortly after.

41 Zoe Muth – Mama Needs a Margarita  (World of Strangers 2014)

Hey, what a great title for a song. And the lyrics ain’t too bad, with their sense of yearning – “a dream of a life somewhere beyond these blues.” Country singer Zoe Muth moved from Seattle to Austin not long before making this album, and her songwriting seems to have benefited from the move.

40 Larkin Poe – Sometimes  (Venom & Faith 2018)

Larkin Poe was formed by two sisters from Georgia, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, and was named after their great-great-great-grandfather. They’re at their best performing songs with plenty of bad-ass attitude. This is a blues rock stomper.

39 Tanya Tagaq – Flight  (Animism 2014)

Canadian Inuit throat singing. This is from my book:

Learning about throat singing was also a step in Tanya’s political education. Her eyes were opening to the fact that the reason Inuit culture was invisible was that past Canadian governments had suppressed it, and the decline of the self-sustaining Inuit way of life was partly atrtibutable to the forced relocations carried out by Canadian governments in the 1950s. As her career developed Tanya would speak out more and more on Inuit issues, making herself known as a fiercely committed champion of her people.

So began an extraordinary journey. Although the traditional throat singing helped her discover her own mode of expression, she uses her own techniques; in fact almost nothing in a Tanya Tagaq performance is traditional. Her live shows are almost entirely improvised and are an intense emotional experience for all who’ve witnessed them.

38 Pharis & Jason Romero – Sad Old Song (Long Gone Out West Blues 2013)

It’s as a duo that we know them. From their home in Horsefly, British Columbia, they make instruments and fashion songs together. But they’d both already been performing for many years before they met, and they do bring different qualities to the table. Pharis wrote the songs on Long Gone Out West Blues which aren’t traditional, and she takes the vocal lead on this number, giving it a country twang.

37 Gretchen Peters – Lay Low  (Dancing with the Beast 2018)

Gretchen has written movingly about the experience of being a transparent, raising a girl who transitioned to become a man. So can we expect a song about it ? “I’ve made a few attempts” she admits, but she has to let it come when it comes, it can’t be willed into being. For now, here’s a taster of what the Nashville based songwriter is capable of. “You say I’m not who I used to be, that ain’t exactly news to me / That girl has long since cut and run / But baby I am not the only one …”

36 Dry Cleaning – Phone Scam  (Sweet Princess EP 2019)

Florence Shaw was none too enthusiastic when her friends asked her to join their band. After all, she wasn’t a musician or a singer. She was an art school graduate. But eventually she agreed to come to the tiny South London garage where they rehearsed, and something clicked. Her matter of fact spoken word delivery chimed with what the band were trying to do. Last year they released a couple of six track EPs: I’ve picked out this track for its edgy, spiky quality.

35 Nina Kraviz – Taxi Talk  (Nina Kraviz 2012)

Deep house. Great dance music doesn’t have to be loud and in your face. The music and the vocals are calm and relaxing, but also carry a hypnotic quality. Nina’s a DJ / producer (and former dentist) originally from Irkutsk in Siberia, now living in Moscow.

34 Mare Advertencia Lirika – Incómoda (Manifiesto Feminista)  (SiempreViva 2016)

Mare Advertencia Lirika is a Zapotec Hip Hop artist from Oaxaca, Mexico whose music speaks out for the rights of indigenous women. Her lyrics cover topics ranging from standards of beauty within the media, to the forced disappearances of women in Mexico to reproductive justice and bodily autonomy.

33 Rabbittail Abigail – Ballad Of Johnny Be Good   (Basement LP 2010)

This is an absolute gem of a song. Rabbittail Abigail is a folk punk artist from Minnesota. Beyond that I can find next to nothing about her, but this is what I wrote about her band Rail Yard Ghosts in 2014:

Rail Yard Ghosts are much more than just a band. They’re a freethinking DIY collective, an alternative lifestyle, an alternative world. They’ve got no home, they travel America, performing where they can, living on the road. How they manage it with no money is a mystery to me, but they’re not alone : Squat the Planet declares itself to be “an online community exploring nomadic lifestyles through minimalist travel. That’s a fancy way of saying we’re a bunch of gypsies, migrant punks, hippies, and other ne’er do wells.”

32 CocoRosie – Forget me not  (Heartache City 2015)

Cocorosie are sisters Sierra and Bianca. They approach music a bit like one might create a piece of art. They look around themselves for inspiration, and pay attention to every element of a song. The results are often unlike anything that we’re familiar with : at times discordant, at times strangely beautiful. The sounds that you hear at the start of this track are produced by old toys recovered from suitcases.

31 Bully – Kills to Be Resistant  (Losing 2017)

Grunge music for the 2010s. Alicia Bognanno has penned a good lyric about unrequited love which she delivers with all the raspy emotion of a great frontwoman. And the Nashville band’s credibility has been done no harm at all by signing for Sub Pop in Seattle, which of course was Nirvana’s record label. Bognanno for one believes they’re on the side of the angels: “if they’re fans of your music, they’re going to want to put it out and it doesn’t matter if you’re Katy Perry or Beyoncé.”

30 Yaeji – Raingurl  (EP2 2017)

The Korean American DJ may not be a household name yet, but the tributes to her are eye-catching: “House Music’s Most Exciting New Voice” (Pitchfork), “Yaeji is redefining house music for a multicultural generation” (GQ). She’s an art school graduate torn between the visual arts and her passion for music. Her music feels so new and refreshing, we can only hope for more.

29 Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs – The Rest Of Your Life  (No Help Coming 2011)

She’s been an underground artist for longer than some of you have been listening to music. During the 1990s she was a partner in crime with the champion of DIY garage rock Billy Childish. Her own musical influences drew heavily on American country and roots music. In the mid-2000s she formed a duo with Lawyer Dave (a little joke – the Brokeoffs are just one man), and they left England’s shores to live in the US. She still makes music that’s under the radar, and which is a joy to those who stumble across it.

28 Big Joanie – Its You  (Sistahs 2018)

Big Joanie is a black feminist punk band from London. Steph Phillips: “I felt quite at odds with the punk scene and the way it tackled race and racism. We formed to make a little safe space for us as black women to create. At the same time by creating and performing we hope to influence other black people that punk is a great place to find yourself and be creative.” Their reputation’s also quickly spreading among white people, and that’s all down to their wide ranging and heartfelt music.

27 Shannon & the Clams – Rip van Winkle   (Dreams in the Rat House 2013)

1950s rock & roll meets shambling 1960s garage rock with sweet backing vocals and a memorable hook. Oakland’s Shannon Shaw is a former art school student who “never thought I’d be someone who played music, but one day I picked up this bass and started writing songs. I became addicted to it. It became my focus.”

26 Mariem Hassan – Gdeim Izik  (El Aaiun Egdat 2012)

Before Mariem’s death in 2015 I was lucky to get an email interview with her for my book. Here’s a little extract:

In October 2010, weeks before the events which triggered the Arab Spring, a protest every bit as extraordinary as those which were to follow was taking place in Western Sahara. Thousands of Sahrawi men, women and children set up a protest camp, Gdeim Izik, in the heart of the occupied territory. Once it became clear that they were intent on staying, Moroccan security forces swooped in, destroyed the camp, and made hundreds of arrests. It was one of those moments when pride turns to anger, and Mariem felt compelled to put everything she felt about Gdeim Izik into a song :

“Immediately I contacted Beibuh, one of my favorite poets, and we composed Gdeim Izik. With this song I am denouncing the violent destruction of the camp, the media blackout of what was happening and the shame for the actions of the Spanish diplomacy.”

It’s not easy, comfortable listening – and that’s fitting. There’s rawness and hurt in Mariem’s voice, but there’s also great strength and energy. This is not the voice of a victim, it’s the voice of a woman with fires raging in her eyes, yet also able to control and direct her anger. The rhythm of the electric guitars kicks in after a minute and a half allowing the momentum of the song to build.

25 Lydia Loveless – Can’t Change Me  (Indestructible Machine 2011)

It’s a country rock song about a hard drinking woman whose life’s a mess. I don’t know what age the Ohio singer was when she wrote it, but the album came out around her 21st birthday. I placed the song in my top 5 of 2011, but since then I’ve been a little disappointed in her. She’s stayed with the same label, Bloodshot Records, but there’s been a shift in musical direction, and the street attitude that pulled me in isn’t there any more.

24 She Drew The Gun – Revolution of Mind   (Revolution of Mind 2018)

“Liverpool bands influenced me in a big way,” says Louisa Roach, founder of Wirral band She Drew The Gun. “Going back, The Coral, The Las, you know, The Beatles. It’s very much part of the musical heritage. Yeah, it’s a boss musical place …” Even by the standard of Liverpool bands, She Drew The Gun are exciting and different. This track showcases some of their trademarks: the spoken word vocals, the social observations, the crashing synths. The album, Louisa tells us, “is about everything from personal relationships to the global war industry, resistance, depression, love, solidarity, capitalism, the human reward system, outsiderness, the things that have been on my mind. The only way we can ever really have a revolution – the only way we can achieve the vast changes necessary – is in the way that we think.”

23 Anna Shannon – For a Keg of good Brandy   (Rough Weather 2016)

I saw Anna Shannon performing the songs from Rough Weather in a small room like this one at the Ellesmere Port Sea Shanty festival. The album has a really authentic feel, thanks to her strong songwriting and honest Yorkshire voice. “My sea songs aren’t actually working shanties; they are songs of a maritime nature. I have ballads and stories, but I enjoy singing the rougher songs that should really be sung by men! Coming from Scarborough, Roy and I know a lot of the old salts from the old town. It’s here I can get a lot of tales for my songs. I like to write true stories of the sea.”

22 Drahla – Invisible Sex   (Useless Coordinates 2019)

I don’t know what it is about their off kilter music, but it’s like a pulse of electricity going right through my body whenever I hear it. With the release of their first full length album, the Leeds art punk trio are at a defining moment. They’ve given up their day jobs, moved to London, toured like crazy, and set out their stall as one of the most creative new bands around. For Drahla, the creative process is what it’s all about. Luciel Brown supplies lyrics and vocals, but the band put just as much creative energy into designing their own artwork and directing their own music videos.

21 Solange – My Skin My Logo  (When I Get Home 2019)

Yes, it’s a little perverse of me to include Solange in this list but not her elder sister Beyoncé. Beyoncé’s an absolute pop goddess, but I actually find Solange more interesting as an artist. The slow pace of the tracks and the jazz inflected R&B beats create a certain mood; the songs touch on aspects of the black experience; at times they’re reflective; but this one has a light hearted tone to it, with its exchange of banter between Solange and rapper Gucci Mane.

20 Little Simz – Therapy  (Grey Area 2019)

This is hip hop for rock music fans: dark and unornamented, complex and personal. Little Simz was born in London to Nigerian parents. “Being in your mid-twenties feels like a strange place to be. I’m still discovering myself and things are a lot more complex than they were five years ago. Nothing’s straightforward. I’m peeling off layers as I’m getting older, and finding more and more about myself.” I’ve a feeling that her best work could be yet to come.

19 Kate Tempest – All Humans Too Late  (The Book Of Traps And Lessons 2019)

“I see how blind I’ve been” Said all prophets, too late. All humans – Too late.

Lines like this make Kate Tempest one of the most important voices in British music today. She’s also a true original. On the Londoner’s latest album she leaves the hip hop behind – it’s more like spoken word poetry with some light musical backdrops. The next album will probably be completely different again.

18 War On Women – Pro-Life?   (War On Women 2015)

In 2011, Shawna Potter started the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, an activist group committed to ending street harassment. Shortly before this, she’d formed the feminist hardcore punk band War On Women, whose first two songs were both about street harassment. War On Women put the sense of righteous purpose back into punk and Riot Grrrl music. “We’re presenting female anger in a way that people are not used to,” says Shawna, and importantly, they do it in their own style: they’re not just recreating what male hardcore bands do.

17 Louise Distras – The Hand You Hold   (Dreams from the Factory Floor 2013)

Songwriter from Wakefield in Yorkshire whose influences include Joe Strummer and Kurt Cobain. “All my songs are real life stories. Real things that have happened to me. Real experiences that I’ve seen, heard, felt. And the first album, Dreams From A Factory Floor, was just pure therapy for me. I was never trying to be a Rock star or trying to make it as a musician, I’ve always just viewed art as therapy.” For me on the other hand this track is a brilliant sing-along anthem which should be part of every woman’s life.

16 Patty Griffin – Everything’s Changed   (Servant Of Love 2015)

“It’s a dark song. It’s about those moments in everyone’s life when, all of a sudden, things will never be the same from that point on for one reason or another. One minute, you’re staring at the sunrise, smoking a cigarette, and a few minutes later, you get a phone call with life-altering, or devastating news. I also thought about the people in Austin who came here during Hurricane Katrina that haven’t ever had the chance to go back home to New Orleans.” Ironically, not long after this was made, everything changed for Patty Griffin: the celebrated American songwriter was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the ensuing treatment meant that she was no longer able to sing. Happily she’s since been able to recover her singing voice.

15 Gillian Welch – The Way It Goes  (The Harrow & The Harvest 2011)

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings write songs and perform together under the name Gillian Welch. They have a very characteristic style – sparse, slow paced, beautifully written songs. This is a jaunty track compared to the other songs on the album ! It’s incredibly dark though – all about lives destroyed by addiction. “Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm. That’s the way that it goes, that’s the way. And her brother laid her down in the cold Kentucky ground. That’s the way that it goes, that’s the way.”

14 Billie Eilish – Listen Before I Go  (When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? 2019)

Los Angeles singer Billie Eilish is 18 years old. This was America’s best selling album in 2019, and among the many accolades it won her five Grammys at the 2020 Grammy Awards. She’s unlike other teen sensations, according to Pitchfork: “She cast her bored, listless eyes upward instead of batting them at the camera. She filled her videos with flowing black tears, plunging needles, and arachnid hors d’oeuvres instead of twirling around sleek cityscapes. Eilish just seems sharper, meaner, more self-sufficient.” It’s important to add, she’s also a very original and interesting artist – she’s no man’s puppet.

13 Anna & Elizabeth – Orfeo  (Anna & Elizabeth 2015)

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are traditional musicians who share a love of old time folk and Appalachian song. The album is a collection of very old traditional songs (of which Orfeo has a particularly rich history – check it out here.) It’s no ordinary folk album: the women are total masters of their art. The arrangements are exquisite, the unadorned singing feels very authentic. The duo have created crankies – a long forgotten piece of technology; basically pictorial representations of particular songs on illustrated scrolls, wound onto spools – which are displayed to the audience in time with the music as part of their live act.

12 Laura Marling – Night After Night   (A Creature I Don’t Know 2011)

When Marling released her second album A Creature I Don’t Know, no one could quite believe that a 21 year old could have written songs of such depth and maturity. Night After Night is guaranteed to hold any audience in rapt attention. There’s so much expression here in her voice, so much to dwell on in the lyrics.

Following a collaboration with Mike Lindsay under the name LUMP, a new Laura Marling album is expected later in 2020.

11 Jaymay – Long Walk To Never  (Long Walk To Never 2010)

One minute 55 seconds of pop perfection. Apparently the lyrics were inspired by a short story by Kurt Vonnegut. Jaymay’s a New Yorker who grew up in Long Island. She says she gets her inspiration from the city, but I see it differently, her music can be so uplifting, that has to come from a place inside herself.

10 Iris DeMent – Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth   (Sing the Delta 2012)

Sing the Delta was Iris Dement’s first album of original material in 16 years. It’s packed with brilliantly written country songs, but for a list celebrating strong women it simply had to be this tune. Iris’s mother Flora Mae Dement died in 1991 at the age of 93. Flora Mae brought up a family of 14 children in Anaheim, California. It was a strictly Pentecostal upbringing to a soundtrack of gospel music. “My mom sang constantly. The harder life got, the more she sang. Always, it met some deep down place inside of me.” In this very moving song, Iris brings her back to life.

9 Big Thief – Not  (Two Hands 2019)

“Every opportunity that comes up, we look at it just like, if money wasn’t involved, if fame wasn’t involved, would we want to do this thing? And the answer has to be yes in order for us to do it. It has to feel inherently creatively fulfilling and it has to feel like it’s in alignment with our core spirit as a band.” For three years, the American band had been touring so hard that their only real home was the road. Adrianne Lenker had been writing songs – so many songs that the band decided to split them up into two albums, both released last year within a few months of each other. She must have been in touch with her core spirit, as the songs have a depth and a vulnerability to them that you don’t often see in indie rock.

8 Sharon Van Etten – Serpents  (Tramp 2012)

Behind the curtain of guitars, the song hints darkly at scenes of domestic abuse – something to which New Jersey raised Sharon Van Etten is no stranger. She writes emotionally intelligent guitar rock songs which have made her the darling of those who are into angsty rock music. In 2017 she took time out to become a mother. She’s now making music and performing again, and what with bringing up a son in Trump’s America she’s going to have plenty to brood about in her new songs.

7 Rhiannon Giddens – At The Purchaser’s Option  (Freedom Highway 2017)

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were a breath of fresh air, a new take on old time American roots music, and one which brought the forgotten role of black people in this music into sharp focus. North Carolinan banjo player Rhiannon Giddens has emerged from the group to become this inspirational figure, someone who performs material and writes songs that are totally unlike anything that most of her contemporaries are doing. Many are songs steeped in black history, or songs that shine a torch on acts of violence and injustice: informing people and raising their awareness is clearly important to her. I’ll leave it to Rhiannon to introduce this song.

6 Joanna Newsom – In California   (Have One On Me 2010)

When the Californian singer and harpist released this triple album of ethereal psych folk on an unsuspecting world, critics were left scratching their heads what to make of it all. Ten years later, they’re still scratching their heads. Perhaps they’ve just not being taking the right stimulants. If you want to forget the cares of the world and transport yourself to another place, I recommend this album.

5 Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds – Seven Days of Nothing  (Songs My Ruiner Gave to Me (Concerning Love, Madness & Obsession) 2017)

This is a brilliantly mad song, with startling lines sure to bring a smile to your face. Naomi Bedford is an English singer songwriter who was brought up in the folk tradition, but her songs also draw on the blues, and on folk punk – her partner Paul Simmonds is part of veteran folk punk band The Men They Couldn’t Hang.

4 Holly Williams – Waiting on June   (The Highway 2013)

Holly’s the granddaughter of country music legend Hank Williams Sr. This song though is about her grandparents on her mother’s side; and having already fallen in love with this beautifully told story, it was so moving to hear her say in this video that “every word is true”. Backing harmonies are provided by the little known singer Gwyneth Paltrow. Elsewhere, Holly talks about the happy memories that the words evoke for her, and the emotional effect of the song on others – “that’s definitely my most proud songwriting moment, I think probably ever.”

3 Mary Gauthier – How You Learn to Live Alone  (Trouble & Love 2014)

Mary was an orphan child, born in New Orleans to a mother she never knew, now one of America’s greatest songwriters. “Those who have slept in the wilderness know things that those who sleep in comfortable houses may never know. This song is about learning how to sleep in the wilderness. I wrote this with my friend Gretchen Peters … We wrote it in a very short period of time, I’d say less than 2 hours. It came fast, and I am not sure how we did it.” I’ve listened to this many times now, and it still breaks me up every time.

2 Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Nothin’ Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong  (Sidelong 2017)

If there’s one thing that Sarah Shook hates, it’s rich country singers affecting a working class cred. “I own this shit, this is mine. Don’t take what’s very real and very important to me and throw it into this cookie-cutter bullshit.” She’s not too fond of the music industry either, so it took some soul searching to sign up with Bloodshot Records. In this video she’s like a grouchy teenage boy, refusing to raise a smile – but then she loves subverting gender roles in her punky alt-country songs. In real life, Sarah Shook is a bit of an activist. She’s created her own music festival in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in which the only bands invited are ones with at least one member who identifies as female or non-binary.

1 Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian At Best  (Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit 2015)

Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you / Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey / I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny / My internal monologue is saturated analog

These are killer lines. They read like part of a hip hop number, but this is a rock song. Where do all these thoughts come from ? The Australian songwriter projects ordinariness and a down to earth character which is part of her appeal; at the same time she’s a keen student of the written word who carries notebooks with her everywhere, making observations which may find their way later into song lyrics. She can be funny, perceptive, and disarmingly candid.

 

 

 

 

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