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The 1960s was widely considered the Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll… for men. Sure, there was Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, but even the greatest female rockers of that era were treated more like curiosities rather than royalty.
Although Stevie Nicks, Debby Harry, Joan Jett, and others blazed a path for female-fronted rock groups in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that women rockers finally reached their peak.
Ground-breaking artists like Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani, and Björk ushered in the modern rock era, shaking up gender roles and inspiring generations of women (and men). Here’s a rundown of ten female rockers who blazed a trail through the ’90s.
10. Courtney Love
Courtney Love embodied everything the ’90s was about. With her ratty bleached hair, thrift-store dresses, and nasty heroin habit, she was a middle finger to the ’80s. The former stripper was crowned the Queen of Grunge after marrying grunge god Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, but she found her own stardom with her band Hole’s 1993 breakthrough album, Live Through This. The outspoken, controversial Love would become tabloid fodder as many blamed her for Cobain’s 1994 suicide. Love redefined what women in rock could be: a smart, unhinged drama queen who could command a stage, spit on you, and still look good in a wedding dress.
9. Gwen Stefani
If Love was rock’s bad girl, Gwen Stefani was the ’90s era’s girl next door. Before The Voice star became a household name, Stefani was “just a girl” from Orange County. Her Betty Boop voice, rock star stage presence, and anthemic music that spoke to teens who felt trapped in the suburbs carried No Doubt from kitschy ska band to a sonic powerhouse that sold out arenas worldwide.
There has never been anyone quite like this Icelandic pop provocateur whose intense, intimate, and experimental look and sound could only be defined as “Björk.” We first became aware of the singer/ songwriter as a member of indie darlings The Sugarcubes in the late ‘80s, but that was just a teaser to what she would evolve to in the ‘90s when she reinvented the music video with futuristic mini-films like “Human Behaviour” directed by Michel Gondry.
7. Kim Gordon
In the ‘90s, all the cool boys wanted to be with Kim Gordon and all the cool girls wanted to be the Sonic Youth bassist. Combining fashion magazine cover style and punk zine looks and attitude, Gordon was a fierce feminine force who formed Sonic Youth with then-husband Thurston Moore. The ’90s power chord couple never scored a major hit, but their artsy New York garage rock sound spawned the likes of The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
6. PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey is a rocker’s rocker. The English queen of alt-rock established a cult following with a string of albums over a five-year span: Dry (1992), Rid of Me (1993), and To Bring You My Love (1995). They earned her critical acclaim, including numerous Grammy Awards, and made her a Rolling Stone cover girl. Her autobiographical tales on sex and relationships paved the way for vulnerable pop feminists like St. Vincent, Lorde, and Taylor Swift.
5. The Breeders
The Spike Jonze directed “Cannonball” music video was the Shawshank Redemption of ’90’s MTV, seemingly always playing no matter what time of day. What started as a side project for Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal, her sister Kelley Deal, and Throwing Muses Tanya Donelly, turned into a career-defining hit record in 1993’s Last Splash. Although the alt-rock band never scored another chart topper, they’ve managed to keep the “Cannonball” rolling; they reunited in 2012 for the 20th anniversary of their trademark album and dropped a new album, All Nerve, earlier this year.
Sleater-Kinney is one of those indie bands you name-drop in a record store to impress the judgmental vinyl gatekeeper. The all-girl trio (Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss) play balls-to-the-wall music with an uncompromising punk rock ethos that drew comparisons to Fugazi and Bikini Kill. They notoriously shunned major record labels, but Brownstein ironically achieved mainstream success post-Sleater Kinney for her hilarious work on the Emmy-winning IFC show Portlandia.
3. Shirley Manson
Shirley Manson was more James Bond villain than Bond Girl. The Scottish singer-songwriter was a made-for-MTV rock star with shocking red hair, a vinyl wardrobe, and an emotive voice that could both seduce and scare the shit out of you. Garbage was a studio band who plucked Manson from obscure alt-rock group Angelfish and put her front and center. The gamble paid off in a big way as their self-titled debut went on to sell four million copies, spawning hits such as “Stupid Girl,” “Only Happy When it Rains,” and “Queer.”
2. Dolores O’Riordan
The late Irish singer Dolores O’Riordan had a distinct voice that either stirred your soul or made you turn the radio dial. The Cranberries were a staple of ‘90s music with a number of hits (“Zombie,” “Linger,” “Dreams”) centered around O’Riordan’s angelic voice which was undeniably powerful and fragile, enchanting yet grounded.
1. Liz Phair
Few artists in the ‘90s made a bigger splash on the music scene than Liz Phair with her 1993 album Exile In Guyville. The critically-acclaimed debut was named by Rolling Stone as one the 500 greatest releases of all-time and earned Phair a devoted following that still thrives today. Matador Records just released a 25th-anniversary retrospective set Girly-Sound to Guyville, that includes remasters of Phair’s 1991 Girly Sound demo tapes.