Punk Rocker
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The 10 Best Women-Led Punk Bands

Though women co-pioneered punk rock, women’s bands have often slipped beneath the radar of many critics, pollsters, and everyday fans. Here are the ten best.

Picking and honing 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 Spex, 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 the 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.

10. Slant 6

Featuring members of the Washington D.C. gem Autoclave, Slant 6 were a tuneful titan of punk’s third wave, just as their 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 they were 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 they transmit artful adaptations with spry surges, keen authenticity, and restless reclamation. Sometimes the tuneage is vexing (“Retro Duck”), or bare-knuckled jazz-noise (“Inzombia”), but Slant 6 also offer 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.

9. Lunachicks

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. Still, 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.

8. Gore Gore Girls

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, soul punk urges, and soaring back-up vocals. Meanwhile, 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.

7. The Red Aunts

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 doesn’t 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 a song but turn back on themselves in a gurgle of something deeper, like a blowout trauma or musical pathology. “I’m Crying” sets such signature sound into motion, but try “Suerte” if you desire less corrosive forms.

6. Bikini Kill

As an accidental leader of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill’s reputation often preceded them at times. Still, the group’s records document their 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 their 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 were also a rocking tour de force that summoned talent, resilience, and riotousness in an indelible mix. Bikini Kill’s post-break-up bands — like singer Kathleen Hanna’s venture Le Tigre — also evoked bracing and inventive soundscapes, but they never quite conjured the same vein-bursting thrills.

5. The Raincoats

From their use of rustic stringed instruments (violins foreshadowing the Mekons’ 1980s ventures?) and off-kilter vocal harmonizing to their rushed ramshackle pop and Velvet Underground frenetic noise grooves, the Raincoats proved they were fertile enough to find potency in the past and present eras. They never killed their idols: they re-invented them, like their wistful basement punk-funk exploration of the Kinks’ gender-bending classic rocker “Lola”.

With plentiful smarts, they wielded powerful anti-rockers like “Fairytale in the Supermarket”, easily drifted into arty netherworlds in “You’re a Million” and “Family Treet”, and brandished skittering dub on “Baby Song”, but they never felt overly pretentious and unwieldy. One could dance and gyrate to “Balloon/Balloonacy” or zone out to the jazzy “Rainstorm”, content that boredom was not on the menu during a fitful session with this band.

4. The’s

I found it difficult to pass up the bubblegum punk of Shonen Knife. Still, this disorderly trio, the’s, manic and maniacal for many years, is like a heavy dose of adrenaline that never dissipates. Perhaps best known for guest appearing in Quentin Tarantinos’s Kill Bill cranking out the adrenalized “I’m Blue” (by the Ikettes) and borderline slo-mo psychobilly “I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield”, the band are much more than kitschy fodder for cinema. They truly represent bona fide roots-rock ribaldry and raucous reinvention, from the wild, twangy surf of “Jane in the Jungle” to the rolling thunder and cat-scratch vocals of “Guitar Date”.

Of course, they offer up more languid fare for the beach jet-set, such as the oozing, Shirelles-inspired “Dream Boy” and “It’s Rainy”, which allow listeners to tiptoe into intimate dances. They also pay fiery homage to their faves, like the boisterous “Hanky Panky”, distortion-drenched “Green Onion”, and unbound “Great Balls of Fire”. By walloping listeners with nitroglycerin-laced numbers like “Hey! Mashed Potato, Hey!” and the rockabilly riot “(I’m Sorry Mama) I’m a Wild One”, they make rock ‘n’ roll feel ductile and ageless, like a time-out-of-time democratic formula for fun.

3. Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney forged an irascible, deft style, creating a singular musical trajectory that made a whole generation of writers swoon along with the audiences. Even the group’s later period work The Woods (2005) retained plenty of potency and unbridled diversity. Yes, Bikini Kill produced frenetic and fecund Riot Grrrl templates, but this trio, spanning two decades, committed long and hard to its unconventional blend of frenzied vocals, antsy twist-n-turn drumming, curlicuing guitars, and anything-goes structure. They became the one, the only.

Early fare like “Dance Song ’97” feels like pumped-up, scalding versions of LiliPUT and Kleenex. Meanwhile, the slightly Kim Gordon-shaded “Get Up” is moody and mercurial, and the band’s layered, soaring, and terrifying beauty “Jumpers” offers swaying lulls and explosity in equal measure. Lastly, “One Beat” feels like a percussion-drenched literary duel between singers/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. The trio always felt like they were on the verge of vanishing into their brand of inventiveness.

2. LiliPUT/Kleenex

This combo easily proved that punk’s switchboard could be turned on anywhere in the world, even the frozen climes of Switzerland, where they slew doldrums and sexism with their fierce brand of anxious, shrill, fierce, and sometimes screeching pop-punk. “Ü” feels like a Dada-poem set to riffs by a 1960s frat rock band, though with brittle aluminum guitar. The group’s penchant for minimal one-word song titles is legendary (“Nice”, “You”, “Igel”, “Türk”, “Krimi”), as if punk songwriters lacked the time or patience to squander syllables on such unnecessary writerly conceits.

Atomized anarchic urges such as “Split” unload plentiful noise partly indebted to the style of Lora Logic. “Ain’t You” eerily echoes Crass during its femme powerhouse Penis Envy period, while the trebly “Madness” feels like a long-lost relative to Sleater-Kinney. Spewing out songs that seem to jostle the hard, gray, empty streets of their homeland with pulsing panic rhythms and righteous inflammatory anger, this band resemble a rock ‘n’ roll decontrol project with concept-art winks. Meanwhile, for some easygoing, almost nursery-like gibberish, “When the Cat’s Away” is playful and free-spirited, while the taut, jittery “Thumblerdoll” awakens dance floors with barely disguised surf-punk.

1. The Slits

This unit represents one of the most shambolic, dizzyingly unkempt, and alluringly anarchic of the first wave of British punk that re-molded the parameters of pop music. The Slits effortlessly combine equal portions raw echoey dance floor reggae and dub, bursting tribal-stomp beats, exploding punk shards, updated Bertolt Brecht vaudeville wit, and even American soul classicism. (Ah, the sweet sounds of “Heard Through the Grapevine” given a messy jungle freneticism and caterwauling vocals). From “Shoplifting” to “Typical Girls”, the Slits set in motion a whole female-punk aesthetic of sorts that critics still debate.

Perhaps they offered an inchoate incomplete style, perfect imperfection, or a Do-It-Yourself amalgam all rendered with ardent artful finesse. For sure, their method is their madness. They delivered punk hits by delivering slanted and enchant modes. If underground music ever needed a muse that reified, collapsed, and smashed inherited musical genres, the Slits were the spear and spirit.

This article was originally published on 21 June 2012.