The idea of “Women in Music” was brought up in a conversation I had with a friend a few months ago. She asked me who were my favourite female artists and why. For as long as I can remember, my appreciation and taste in music by female artists has been somewhat eclectic. I have some obvious leanings towards certain artists in genres like alternative rock and pop rock, but that said I am not afraid to venture outside my comfort zone. (Interestingly, outside my comfort zone generally means adult contemporary, orchestral, folk and country.)
My favourite female artists are not necessarily the ‘best’ female artists of all time. Though, some of them might easily fit into that category. In saying that I have to admit it would have been far easier to look up any ‘best of’ list and include the likes of Tori Amos, Bjork, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin here. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to them enough or buy their records, so they simply didn’t qualify for my list despite the fact that they are awesome.
The process of thinking about which artists I like was easy, but narrowing that field down to fifteen for the purpose of this series was difficult. In helping me decide who would make my favourite female artists list, I decided to stick to one simply rule. I had to own a minimum of three albums of any given artist. That said, I decided to rank them in terms of how they inspired and influenced my music listening habits. I’d like to think that there is definitely something special about each of the artists mentioned from here on end. I hope you might agree, but I definitely know you will be shocked, maybe even bewildered by some of my choices. Without any further ado, this is part one (of five) of this series.
No.15: Liz Phair
Something tells me I am going to get in trouble talking about the unapologetic indie-rock rebel Liz Phair. Anyway, here we go….
Hailing from the north side of Chicago, a twenty something Phair had her heart set on a career in fine arts. When things didn’t work out, Liz’s fascination in underground indie rock led her to start writing songs. She recorded a four-track tape that soon found an audience among Lo Fi enthusiasts and before long she was given a $3,000 advance to record an album. The result was 18 breathtaking tracks about a woman’s song-by-song answer to the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street (1972).
Like most guys I was caught up in the grunge explosion of the early 90’s, but not blindsided enough to notice the sublime fuck-you spirit of Liz Phair. She arrived stirring up shit, like a cat among the pigeons, into an alternative music culture predominately made up of guys. Almost overnight she became the spokesperson for a new generation of women in the early 90’s, when her debut studio album Exile in Guyville (1993) gained incredible momentum on the charts. Her message was clear and to the point, she wanted to talk about men and relationships and often in the most graphic way. (Her most famous song ever is arguably Fuck and Run.)
“I have looked all over the place/ But you have got my favorite face./ Your eyelashes sparkle like gilded grass/ and your lips are sweet and slippery/ Like a cherub’s bare wet ass …/ ‘Cause you’re a human supernova/ A solar superman./ You’re an angel with wings of fire/ A flying, giant friction blast.” – Supernova (Liz Phair)
She took what she talked about on Guyville and amped it up significantly on her follow-up album Whip-Smart (1994). It’s fair to say, many conservatives cringed at the thought of another Phair album that delivered more of the same. Some observers even likened her form of social commentary on sex to that of a shock jock. But while many conservatives cringed, the rest of us got it, especially young women. In short, Phair was writing songs that girls could relate to, even if it was occasionally sexually explicit.
In the years that followed many critics and fans accused her of selling out. She had transformed herself from an alt-rock’s feminist pioneer into an indie pop princess. Personally, I don’t see her generally assumed ‘betrayal’ of her fans as anything but as a nature break or evolution of the times. Everyone expected her to continue on in the same vain, but Phair didn’t have that same vision anymore. She reinvented herself, leaving the nineties behind for a more pop friendly existence.
No. 14: Fiona Apple
Marking the end of 2016, Fiona Apple performed an impassioned version of her Anti-Trump Christmas parody “Trump’s Nuts Roast on an Open Fire”, at a benefit concert for North Dakotas Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose attempts received much publicity for trying to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. At the end of her song, in empathic fashion she screamed, “Donald Trump, fuck you!”
Being provocative is only one of Fiona Apple’s many moods. She is also sometimes described as mournful and sultry. Enigmatic comes to mind too. But one of the more unkind descriptions of her is as an unhinged melancholy songstress.
I can see why someone might easily think that, she isn’t backwards in coming forward. You see this is her greatest strength as a songwriter and social commentator. If she has something on her mind, she says it. Almost twenty years ago she used her MTV platform where she accepted an award for Best New Artist to call the rock world “bullshit” and today she is still ruffling feathers.
Our next great generation, the Millenials, can be excused for not having a clue who is Fiona Apple. Whether the rest of us still care or believe that she is relevant is a question that interests me. Of course, I am definitely interested in anything she still has to say, despite the views of some of her harshest critics that she is nothing but a self absorbed drama queen. It is true that she is almost as well known for her emotional problems as she is for her musical talent. It’s hard not to think about that because her music is littered with references to feelings of heartache, sadness, despair and betrayal. Occasionally it makes for hard listening especially Sullen Girl (from her album Tidal), which is about her devastating experience of being raped at the age of 12, in the hallway of her apartment building after walking home from school.
Her musical output has been relatively rare over the last twenty years since she first exploded onto the music scene, and this is in a way a reflection of her emotional state. In short, she spent many years in between albums fighting her own inner demons and studio heads. She has released albums in 1996, 1999, 2005 and it took seven years for her fourth album The Idler Wheel (2012) to be released. In connection with her last album, the hyper critical Apple didn’t want her work to be made a mess of amid corporate dishevelment. As a fan of Apple, I have come to realise that it is worthwhile to be patient and ride out the highs and lows with her.
By the way, it’s probably important to mention that her music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. To best describe it, Jazz pop or Art pop come to mind. The majority of her music is also piano driven in attitude and executed in her famous subdue (contralto) vocals.
“Once my lover/ Now my friend/ What a cruel thing/ To pretend/ What a cunning way/ To condescend….” – Shadowboxer (Fiona Apple)
Among Apple’s many highlights, her songs Sleep To Dream and Shadowboxer from her album Tidal (1996) caught my ear early before Criminal controversially made her a huge star and not necessarily for the right reasons. (Critics slammed her video for not promoting a healthy body image for young women. She appears exposed as a rail-thin temptress.) I am also quite fond of her Beatles version of Across The Universe, which appeared on the film soundtrack for Pleasantville (1998). The music video is actually quite cool too. For someone with such a sullen pout it is amazing to see her smile so often throughout the video.
Her 1999 album When the Pawn Meets the King… (The entire title is in fact a 90 word poem) contains many wonderful songs (too) that are reflective of her previous work Tidal. Outstanding are Limp, Paper Bag and Fast As You Can. The latter is so catchy and upbeat, led by a Jazz Pop rhythm that you almost forget that the song is about unstable relationships.
One of the criticisms my friends have about Apple’s music is the heavy reliance or feature of her piano work. But this is what makes her special. Take for example Parting Gift from Extraordinary Machine (2005), it is simply beautiful, just Apple and her piano. It is a devastatingly wonderful for a bitter break up song!
The mere fact that she is back more recently with The Idler Wheel… (2012) makes the songs on her fourth album even more bitter sweet to listen to. It is stark in contrast to her previous releases but that is ok. I just love Every Single Night her first single in years, in which she seems to howl, growl and cry, all at the same time!
As haunting and moody as she can be, it is ultimately the lyrics of all her albums, complimented by her jazz infused sounds, that makes her truly one of the most empowered female artists of her generation. Alongside Alanis Morrisette and P J Harvey, she is a genius. That is why I like her. That is why she is on my list.
No. 13: Florence Welch
The stunningly beautiful Florence + the Machine frontwoman, Florence Welch, with her outrageous costumes and dress sense, is surprisingly the most acclaimed female artist of recent memory. She possesses one of the most remarkable voices that you just simply can’t ignore. Her style of music, a mix of soul and avant-garde indie rock is truly a breath of fresh air. Her ability to also transcend different genres of music makes Welch instantly one of my favourite female artists.
Looking back through her catalogue (so far), along with songs dealing with the usual matters of the love and heartache, there are also less likely subjects covered like death and redemption. Her debut album Lungs (2009) stands out as my favourite record, but I have come to really appreciate her latest offering How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (2015) almost as much.
That said, I have to admit, a lot like Fiona Apple, it is hard to sometimes listen to Florence Welch because she very often seems to lay her soul on the line through her songs. For instance, Welch sings in Ship to Wreck, the opening track of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Did I build this ship to wreck?” You can literally feel her anxiety, frustration and sadness as she reels you into her world.
In real life, Welch used to drink heavily before she appeared on stage during every performance. Her drinking habit became a way of life on the road, until she had a near breakdown. In short, she pulled herself together, gave up drinking and focused all her energy in becoming a stronger person.
“Happiness, hit her like a train on a track/ Coming towards her, stuck still no turning back/ She hid around corners and she hid under beds/ She killed it with kisses and from it she fled/ With every bubble she sank with a drink/ And washed it away down the kitchen sink…” – Dog Days Are Over (Florence + the Machine).
To truly appreciate her multilayered song craftsmanship, and matched by that booming and often soulful voice, there are a handful of truly amazing songs you MUST listen to. Without getting carried away (and simply naming her entire back catalogue) – Dog Days Are Over, Never Let Me Go, Cosmic Love, You’ve Got The Love, and Delilah, are five musical standouts that are repeatedly played on my stereo. Dog Days Are Over is a sentimental favourite that introduced me to Florence + the Machine. It is catchy and uplifting. Never Let Me Go builds and boils over, as one of the finest rock ballads of recent years. Cosmic Love is bold and daring with all of Welch’s unique grace and glory. You’ve Got The Love is simply anthemic. Finally Delilah encapsulates all that is brave and fearless in a Florence + the Machine song. Fusing themes of faith, love and forgiveness, Welch is at her vulnerable best as a songstress. It stands currently as my favourite Welch song.
Check back later for Part 2 of this series, which will feature my favourite artists from 12 to 10.
Photo credits: The image of Liz Phair is by flickr user Stratopaul and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. While Fiona Apple performing in New York, 2012 is licensed and under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. Finally, the image of Florence Welch is by flickr user Jason Persse and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.