Rocks Off Sr. was straightening up our office a few days ago, something that happens like clockwork every time Middle Eastern governments start toppling like dominos. In one of the piles and piles of al fresco CDs, we ran across two of our favorite albums of the '90s.
Two spins through Cowboy Junkies' Lay It Down and a spin and a half through PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love - it was one of those mornings - later, we had our latest Round Table prompt: Who, in your opinion, was the best female artist (or female-fronted band) of the '90s? Not the most important, or even the most influential - just the best, in one man or woman's opinion. It's probably a tougher question than either one of the others.
For Rocks Off Sr. personally, as Chris Gray, the '90s were not only a time female musicians set a new watermark of success, independence and visibility, but the decade I came of age both musically and sexually. The two are hardly unrelated.
It took me days to come up with an answer I was satisfied with. Sorting out the women who turned me on talent-wise from the ones who turned me on for other reasons was no easy task, and not one I would like to repeat anytime soon. Music is sexy, or it should be. There's a reason the heart is halfway between the ears and the nether regions, I think.
So sorry, Liz Phair. Sorry, Shirley Manson. (Real sorry.) Sorry, Tanya Donnelly and your fellow Breeders the Deal sisters. You were close. As you can tell by now, I tend to go for tough chicks who aren't afraid to speak their minds, know their way around a guitar lick and - although they may be loath to admit it - conceal a kernel of vulnerability underneath that shell.
So eventually it clicked: Although she only made two albums in the '90s, my Female Artist of the Decade could only be Lucinda Williams.
Sweet Old World, released in 1992, abounds in passion, loss and the Southern poetics Williams inherited straight from her father, Clinton-era U.S. Poet Laureate Miller Williams. Six years later, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road is still as close to a perfect album as I've heard to this day.
The notoriously finicky Williams scrapped sessions, sidemen and songs several times, and the difficult, protracted genesis of Car Wheels makes its status as a masterpiece both unusual and understandable. Musically it's untouchable - contributors include Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Gurf Morlix, Buddy Miller and Charlie Sexton - and lyrically, every last line sounds like it could have come from no one else, even when it did (Randy Weeks' rip-roaring "Can't Let Go").
Both nakedly autobiographical and irresistibly tuneful, the title track has been rolling around my head for days now. Shot through with blues of both the happy and unhappy-woman variety, the rest of the album simmers in a steamy climate both sensual ("Right In Time," "Joy") and sorrowful ("Metal Firecracker," "Lake Charles").
For my money, not only did Car Wheels make Williams a role model for contemporary songbirds like Kasey Chambers, Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Borges and Kathleen Edwards (as much as Harris was for her), it did more to put alt-country/Americana on the map as something besides mainstream Nashville's red-headed stepchild than anything by boy bands like Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, Old 97's and Whiskeytown.
Anyone who's seen my CD collection knows that's saying a lot.
For runners-up, I'd have to say L.A. badasses L7 in a walk. The quartet was too heavy for grunge and too grungy to be riot-grrrl, and I had their LPs Bricks are Heavy and Hungry for Stink in my CD player for months on end. Somehow, they also convinced me that sleeveless flannel shirts were a wise fashion decision. For the hip-hop side of the ledger, I'll go with Salt-N-Pepa.
Why? None a yo bidness. I hereby yield the floor to team Rocks Off.
Neph Basedow: This is the toughest Round Table topic thus far! The '90s was a decade full of influential women in music. Tanya Donelly, Kim Deal, Bjork, Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Kathleen Hanna... they were all strong, independent, and talented, helping defy the [increasingly] archaic idea that only men can truly rock. I'd have to say, while she didn't necessarily front a band, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon is my pick for the Best Female Artist of the '90s because she's endlessly cool and always collected.
She's the Godmother of Alternative Music, c'mon!
Marc Brubaker: Well, this one is a bit tricky. Most Important should probably be awarded to Sarah McLahlan, the founder of Lilith Fair. There's a bevy of great female artists from the 90s. Natalie Merchant is among my favorites, but her complete snoozefest of a show at Verizon last year was a complete bait and switch. There are probably some better artists - The Cranberries were in heavy rotation for me as well - but I'm going to side with Alanis Morissette for this one.
Sure, Tori Amos & Fionna Apple wrote more hauntingly beautiful songs behind the piano, but Morissette and her sharp Canadian voice defined the 90s for many girls. Girls rocked once more, and Morissette was god - literally. OK, so maybe that was just Dogma, but remember that time she stood in the street naked?
Craig Hlavaty: There were so many others that showed promise but had spotty or minimal output past their big bangs. I wish Alanis Morissette had another angry album in her. Sheryl Crow turned in workable roots-rock, but time will have to tell what her ultimate mark will be. Coming up in the '90s listening to mostly angry grunge ladies and comely country crooneresses, my array of choices is not small: Ani DiFranco, everything Kathleen Hanna touched.
My pick has to be PJ Harvey herself, who meshes Iggy Pop's solo work with her own witchiness and sexuality in strange permutations with each album. Her five-album '90s run, beginning with 1992's Dry and closing with '98's Is This Desire?, also included one of her lesser-known works like the Rid of Me sessions laid bare in 4-Track Demos. Plus, she covered and massacred, in a good way, Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." 1995's To Bring You My Love was genuinely scary, and made for a good headphone record.
My favorite Harvey album, though, for sheer catchiness and riffs, is Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, released in October 2000. Plus, she worked with Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan on some Desert Sessions projects and solo albums. And she's got this odd-looking face that you can't help but want to grab and kiss. It's the nose and lips, man. Let Beavis and Butt-Head watching "Down By The Water" rest my case.
Jef With One F: The group I always loved was Artificial Joy Club, fronted by Sal (Louise Reny). Sure, they only put out one album, Melt in 1997, but oh my god it was such a good album. I simply could never understand why they didn't break out to be a huge success. First off, Sal was hotter than Shirley Manson ever dreamed of being.
Second, there is not a bad track on that album. The lead single, "Sick and Beautiful" is just waiting to be rediscovered by every debauched reality show soundtrack. Hell, there has never been a song more suited for the current image of fame. It's the anthem of train wrecks and orgies.
There's nothing but gold from the rest of the album. The last track is a soft-rock tribute to a neighbor murdering his wife and putting her out in the garbage. The whole album is like that. At first it plays like typical '90s girl-rock angst, but just a little closer look shows you that the whole project was a lopsided grin against a world that was even then spinning out of control. It's laughing in the face of horror, whistling past the graveyard where the Woodsboro Baptist Church of the Divine Shithook is protesting, pick your analogy.
Now Sal's up in Canada doing cover songs. Meanwhile, Katy Perry walks the world taking up valuable FM dial space. Sal, if you can hear me, there's at least one music journalist in Houston carrying the torch, baby!
Matthew Keever: Best female-fronted '90s band? I've got two words for you: Zaaahhhhhmbay, Zaaahhhhmbay!! The Cranberries are, without a doubt, my favorite. And according to guitarist and co-songwriter Noel Hogan's Twitter account, the group is currently working on a new album, too. Excited, much? Yes, please.
I'm looking forward to the tour on which the band will promote the upcoming album... and the nostalgia they'll bring with them.
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Brittanie Shey: Courtney Love. In spite of becoming a caricature of herself, in the 1990s she was one-half of one of the most influential musical couples in the history of rock. She brought riot girl into a national spotlight, was the first female rock musician I remember hearing on the radio (at my ripe old age of 13) and led me down the rabbit hole (pun intended) of alternative music, feminism, and women who rock.
Like Michael Jackson in his later years, I don't even consider current Courtney Love to be the same person as Live Through This-era Courtney.