Regardless of your music taste, coming up with a list of the influential artists of this past decade is relatively easy. The White Stripes, the Strokes, Kanye West, Animal Collective and a few ‘90s holdovers like Radiohead and Jay-Z would certainly make the list. These were just a few I could rattle off in about 30 seconds. However, as I gazed at this list, I started to wonder what was wrong with it. It was lacking…something.
Not to generalize: Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) is on the short list for “Artist of the Decade”, and artists like Neko Case and Cat Power have made some of the best albums this decade. But compared to the breadth of female trailblazers that broke out in the ‘90s, this decade has come up somewhat on the short end. And as a result, popular music in general has suffered from this.
When I was making my “Decade’s Best” list ten years ago, I could rattle off nearly a dozen female artists who made a significant impact on popular music without batting an eye. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Lauryn Hill, Lucinda Williams, Courtney Love, Missy Elliott, Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey and Björk for starters. With this decade, I was struggling to list six that emerged in this decade. Yes, after a few minutes of research, I could easily list a dozen heavy hitters this decade, but in the ‘90s, female artists were often overshadowing their male counterparts.
Take the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll for example. For those unfamiliar, it is a poll comprising 500 critics’ “Best of the Year” selections. In the ‘90s, four of the ten top albums of the year were by female artists (1993’s Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, 1994’s Live Through This by Hole, 1995’s To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey, and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams). Total number of top albums awarded to a female musician in this decade by the Pazz and Jop poll: zero.
This exclusion has surfaced on several notable “Best of the Decade” lists. Pitchfork and AV Club’s Top 10 did not have a release from a female artist or a female-fronted band. Paste’s list is a notable exception as Gillian Welch (Time (the Revelator)) and M.I.A. (Arular) made their top ten list.
It would be foolish to dismiss the relative male dominance of these lists as sexism. Albums that have received multiple mentions, such as OutKast’s Stankonia, Radiohead’s Kid A and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells deserve to be mentioned based on their own merits. But for a genre (mainly indie) that prides itself in progressiveness, it’s hard not to hearken back to Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, an album Phair said was in part recorded as a response to the male-dominated Chicago indie/alternative scene.
The ‘90s saw such a flood of high-profile releases by female artists that the movement spawned the massively successful Lilith Fair. That movement even produced a bit of a backlash as critics hoped edgier artists like PJ Harvey, L7, and the Breeders would share the roster. What made the ‘90s such as huge decade for female artists? Why didn’t it carry over into this decade?
The answer could just be coincidence. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Björk, Luscious Jackson, Hole, Garbage, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill all released albums that were critical and commercial hits around the same time. With such a wealth of talent, it sort of produced a “perfect storm” of great albums by female artists. Whether this coincidence can happen again is anyone’s guess, but I sure as hell hope next decade we’ll see a similar storm form.