Picking and honing down a Top Ten list is never easy, especially when grappling with previously under-documented subjects like women in punk. Though women co-pioneered the genre, forming the indelible face and sound of the underground singing for the likes of the Bags, the Avengers, X-Ray Sex, Blondie, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, majority-female bands have often slipped beneath the radar of many critics, pollsters, and everyday fans. My plan here wasn’t to list a definitive “must-have” compendium of records to seize and sell but to foster discussions about key, even breathtaking bands armed with desire and dedication.
Parameters do shape the choices. Some bands seem overly obscure (Neo Boys, Dishrags, Pink Section), a touch too mainstream (Go-Go’s, Donnas, Hole, and Pandoras), glam or hard rock (Runaways, L7), or disco and dance-oriented (the Gossip, currently with eight million YouTube watchers). Those bands, I argue, are superlative, despite not appearing on the list.
Other inclusions might have stirred accusations of nepotism; for instance, half of the Mydolls—art-core Texans that have conjured poetic and stylized underground music since 1978—play in a band with me. So, I decided not to cross that line. Furthermore, I attempted to reconcile a cross-section of genres, which may not satisfy all readers. The annoyed ones should scribble their own lists, or even better, jump-start bands and fanzines to keep the Do-It-Yourself ethos alive and well.
Featuring members of the Washington D.C. gem Autoclave, Slant 6 was a tuneful titan of punk’s third wave just as its label Dischord became home base to more “mature” post-punk outfits, such as its predecessor Fire Party. The group embodies a haunting reverse invasion of culture by delivering gutted rock ‘n’ roll as one-part homage to the bands it was reared on while making the retrofitted music feel genuine, disassembled, and filtered through new webs of experience. The stripped down, cutting “Babydoll” pops and punches, becoming agile, destructive, mad, and fixating at times. Slant 6 operate in svelte mode, reinforcing clear-cut formulas, similar to many garage punkers, but its transmits artful adaptations with spry surges, keen authenticity, and restless reclamation. Sometimes the tunage is vexing (“Retro Duck”) or bare-knuckled jazz-noise (“Inzombia”), but Slant 6 also offers up the choppy, primal, and perfectly quirky “Don’t You Ever” and swelling, upheaving “What Kind of Monster Are You?” In all, a power trio antidote to East Coast math rock.
The Lunachicks were a peculiar New York City breed of punk that looked back to grimy Gotham and channeled the likes of Wendy O. Williams (the Plasmatics) and also foreshadowed the punk-as-camp style of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the Toilet Boys. They never offered stripped-down punk Ramones formula; instead, single songs like “FDS” wielded muscular rock ‘n’ roll, operatic gestures, scat and funk vocality, and Jimi Hendrix guitar interludes. As such, the Lunachicks were a prime pastiche of cunning power, strong smoldering style, humor and jest, and dramatic speed and thrust. While the Riot Grrrls were making manifestos, the Lunachicks were donning whacky outfits, making records jocular as comic books, reeking like the Dictators on methamphetamine, and scaring the hell out of people expecting cliché underground rock babes. Sure, both schtick and shock-value undercoated their stabs at punk fame, but they certainly packed heavy-duty musical pistons under their hood, proving they were as skilled, aggro, and sly as any other act occupying the city’s tough streets.
Perhaps one of the greatest under-rated garage bands on the planet, the Gore Gore Girls emoted 1960s pop charm and panache, Detroit mayhem rooted in the Stooges and MC5, and wily Tina Turner suss. To balance light bubblegum AM radio fare like “All Grown Up”, they unleashed the grind of “Pleasure Unit”, the guitar attack of hip-swaying “Casino” and “Voodoo Doll”, and the swaying soft punch of “So Sophisticated”. Their fuzz-rock “Little Baby” was made for sweaty dance floors teeming with drippy hair pomade, tight tarnished clothes, and sloshy Budweiser. Cheeky, retro, and rootsy, they produced airtight Yardbirds-inspired instrumental jams like “Hammer Stomp” at the drop of a hat. “Loaded Heart” pumps with huge the Who Live at Leeds riffage, whupass soul punk urges, and soaring back-up vocals, while the slow fuzz stomper “You Lied to Me Before” reeks of salty leather and murky nightclubs where pained lovers bury miseries in dusty records and empty glasses.
The Red Aunts take punk’s usual gesture of power, like off-kilter meaty drum beats and whirlwind bass lines, and coil them tightly, making the entire sound quirky, art-damaged, loose, and resonant with a constant Stooges rock lust core. They seemed to peak on Salt Box and Ghetto Blaster. Their power does not skim off surfaces or touch at a distance. It plows into the cerebral cortex and foams in the ears. Rough segues only puncture things further, producing no bourgeois beginning or end to songs. The whole effort feels ricocheting and mesmerizing, so unlike the taxidermized smoothness of most bands seeking an audience. Instead, listeners become immersed in the band’s narrative spins, unlimited high-pitched yelps, propulsive beats, varied time signatures, and throbbing bass brouhaha. The howls often attempt some resemblance and signature of song, but turn back on themselves in a gurgle of something deeper, like a blow out trauma or musical pathology. “I’m Crying” sets such signature sound into motion, but try “Suerte” if you desire less corrosive forms.
As an accidental leader of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill’s reputation often preceded it at times, but the group’s records do document its full-bore commitment to creating crunchy, anthemic, and swaggering punk rock. To do so, Bikini Kill offered old-school lyrical venom indebted to X-Ray Spex and the Runaways (surfacing on “Rebel Girl”, produced by Joan Jett), gender-minded politics, queer agitation, and unwavering commitments to DIY roots, similar to UK-based compadres Huggy Bear. Even playground chants morph into fierce onslaughts (“Demirep”), while slower dirge-pop outings like “Feels Blind” hint at restless visions. Though its diatribe Revolution Girl Style Now certainly inspired a whole generation to cut’n'paste fanzines, rent halls, grasp guitars, and fight the power of hegemony and dominant culture norms, the band was also a rockin’ tour de force that summoned talent, resilience, and riotousness in an indelible mix. Bikini Kill’s post break-up bands—like singer’s Kathleen Hanna’s venture Le Tigre—also evoked bracing and inventive soundscapes, but they never quite conjured the same vein-bursting thrills.
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