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Punk Rocker
Photo: Image by christa renee from Pixabay

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.

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 5.6.7.8’s

I found it difficult to pass up the bubblegum punk of Shonen Knife. Still, this disorderly trio, the 5.6.7.8’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.

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