Women Of Alternative Music
A ranking of the top ten women in alternative music today. Among the criteria that went into the ranking are musical talent, success, and originality. There are countless other women who have, whether through their music or through less visible work, left their mark on alternative music.
The following is a ranking of the top ten women in alternative music today. Among the criteria that went into the ranking are musical talent, success, and originality. There are countless other women who have, whether through their music or through less visible work, left their mark on alternative music.
1. Shirley Manson
Shirley Manson and her band Garbage are riding high on top of the alternative music world. After their innovative, mold-breaking self-titled debut album went quadruple platinum, Shirley and the boys returned in 1998 with “Version 2.0,” which duplicated the success of “Garbage” and earned the band several Grammy nominations. In between their two albums, the band contributed “Number One Crush” to the platinum-selling “Romeo and Juliet” soundtrack, and more recently the band performed the title track for the James Bond movie “The World is not Enough.” Shirley Manson is simply an incredible vocalist and songwriter, and is also backed by one of the best groups of musicians and producers ever assembled. The other members of Garbage are often forgotten, but it is their instrumental parts and production that lend the band’s music its original flavor. Manson has the kind of enchanting, spellbinding female voice that demands comparison with the great Stevie Nicks, who rose to fame as Fleetwood Mac’s lead singer and has gone on to a successful solo career. Manson’s vocals slice through the instrumental foundation her band mates lay in such a way that the two parts are inseparable- the vocals and the instrumental parts mesh to an extent rarely seen in alternative music. Manson is also the charismatic mouthpiece for her band. She is the center of attention wherever Garbage goes, and her band mates seem content to let her stand in the spotlight while they put their full effort into their music. Shirley Manson is the driving force behind one of alternative music’s most innovative, creative and popular bands, and is far and away the most successful and talented female alternative musician today.
2. Monique Powell
Some people know Save Ferris and their music well. Some have never heard of them. Some liked them sometime around 1998 and have forgotten about them. In 1998, Save Ferris was at the forefront of the ska movement, with a hit single and a platinum album. Their song “Come on Eileen,” was one of the defining songs of the yearlong ska revival that was the flavor of the month two years ago. Their “It Means Everything” album sold over two million copies, and the band toured as part of the Horde Tour. But despite her band’s success, lead singer Monique Powell could not escape Gwen Stefani’s shadow. In 1998, Stefani’s shadow was more like an eclipse. She was the poster child of the ska movement, and no singer, male or female, could outshine her. But in the two years since, Powell has earned her place as one of the most talented female musicians on the alternative scene by changing nothing at all. Ska is not hot anymore. Take No Doubt’s new “Return of Saturn” album as an example. There are no horns. Ska bands have done one of two things in the last two years. They have died away (like Reel Big Fish) or changed their sound (like No Doubt). But Save Ferris has survived. Their sound has remained the same energetic, horn-driven ska that made them famous. Their “Modified” album, released in 1999, is a masterpiece. Powell’s energy makes Save Ferris one of the most exciting and unique bands making music today. She is ably backed by her band mates, but Powell is the driving force behind the band that is now single-handedly keeping ska part of mainstream alternative music.
3. D’arcy Wretzky
The Smashing Pumpkins are on the short list of alternative superbands. Few alternative groups have enjoyed more success or produced as much great music as the Pumpkins. The Smashing Pumpkins are in the same league as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Live and Metallica. Of these great bands, the Pumpkins are the only one that has ever counted a female among its members. D’arcy Wretzky has played bass on all the Pumpkins’ recordings, but left the band following the completion of their “Machina: The Machines of God” album. Wretzky is probably the most successful female alternative musician ever, although not the most visible. For the Smashing Pumpkins’ entire history together, Wretzky was about the only stable member. She had to contend with Billy Corgan’s Sam’s Club-sized ego, James Iha’s envy of Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin’s drug problems. It was no wonder she left the band; rather, it is a miracle she held out so long. Wretzky is the least visible Smashing Pumpkins member, largely because she is the only one who is not a complete idiot. Through her contributions to the Pumpkins’ music, Wretzky has immortalized herself in alternative music history.
4. Gwen Stefani
As mentioned in relation to Monique Powell of Save Ferris, Ska experienced a Renaissance around 1998. The leaders of this ska revolution were No Doubt, a California band that finally reached fame and fortune after more than ten years in obscurity. Their horn-driven ska sound landed on mainstream radio at a time when the record-buying public was growing tired of the remnants of the grunge revolution of the early nineties. No Doubt expanded the horizons of the alternative genre, and their lead singer, Stefani, deserves much of the credit. She wrote the edgy, self-exposing lyrics that made songs like “Just a Girl” and “Sunday Morning” hits. Her greatest achievement on the album “Tragic Kingdom” was the song “Don’t Speak” (which, ironically, was the least ska-like song on the album.) “Don’t Speak” is a soul-searching anthem that made its way onto radio stations of almost every format. In terms of radio play, it is one of the most successful alternative songs ever. No Doubt’s 2000 album, “Return of Saturn” shows the band’s newfound maturity and self-confidence. The album is less like ska and more like mainstream guitar-driven alternative music. The band’s sound has changed with the change in the general public’s taste. But Stefani’s contributions, both in lyrics and vocals, are again outstanding. Stefani has proved herself to be a talented vocalist and an even more talented lyricist.
5. Melissa Arf Der Maur
Melissa Arf Der Maur is one of the most talented female alternative musicians of the last decade. But few have heard of her, and that is not likely to change. Her rise to fame is impeded by neither a lack of talent, nor by a lack of success. She will never be famous because she associates herself with some of the largest egos in the music world. She is a former member of Hole, and played on their multi-platinum “Celebrity Skin” album. But, any member of Hole knows that Courtney Love does not share the spotlight. She has since left Hole to join the Smashing Pumpkins, who are headed by an even bigger egomaniac. Billy Corgan’s economy-sized ego leaves almost none of the spotlight for his band mates, and aspiring egomaniacs James Iha (the Pumpkins’ guitarist) and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums) take up what is left. Arf Der Maur is the new member, and has yet to play on a Pumpkins album. Unless you are a die-hard Pumpkins fan or an avid follower of music industry news, you don’t know that D’Arcy Wretzky even left the Pumpkins, much less who replaced her. But Arf Der Maur has extraordinary talent as a musician, and deserves recognition for her talent and success.
6. Beth Leibling
Who is Beth Leibling? Well, she is the bassist for the band Hovercraft, who describe their music as “atmospheric instrumental” music. You still don’t recognize the name? That’s because she is not an outstandingly important musician. But she is an outstandingly important figure in the history of alternative music. Are you confused yet? Okay, I’ll tell you why Beth Leibling is important. She is married to Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam. She was with Eddie during his days as the frontman for the San Diego band Bad Radio, and has been along for the entire history of Pearl Jam. Her band has toured occasionally with Pearl Jam, but that is not particularly significant. She is important in Pearl Jam’s history, and thus in the history of alternative music as a whole, because she is the stable, calming force in Vedder’s life. He is a notoriously unstable and volatile individual, but Leibling has served as a calming influence in his life, especially in the last half decade. Her influence has kept Vedder and Pearl Jam out of trouble and at the forefront of alternative music. Leibling also works in Pearl Jam’s publicity office, and would-be interviewers must go through her to gain access to the band. Her notorious stinginess is a product of her husband’s disdain for the press, and her upholding of the band’s wishes makes Pearl Jam one of the toughest bands for members of the press to gain an interview with. Without Leibling, Pearl Jam could have fallen apart long ago. Vedder could have gone off the deep end without her. If either of these had happened, the history of alternative music would have been dramatically altered.
7. Julie Daniels
There is only one difference beteen Julie Daniels, the lead singer of the now defunct Star 69, and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt: Gwen Stefani is famous. Julie Andrews has the same powefuly, borderline angry female voice that Gwen Setefani has popularized. "Eating February," which Star 69 released on Live's "Radioactive Records" label, is a one of the most complete albums I have ever heard. There are no bad songs. In today's music world, artists deserve a commendation for producing an album that can be enjoyed from start to finish rather than an album with two hits and ten earsores. The highlight of "Eating February" is "I'm Selfish," the soul-purging musical confession of someone who asks for acceptance of her self-centered and self-destructive lifestyle. "Eating February" represents one of the best if not the best alternative record with female vocals. If Julie Andrews has an equal, she is Shirley Manson of Garbage. Star 69 is no longer together, but we can hope that Julie Daniels will find her way into the limelight either as a solo artist or with a new group.
8. Verucah Salt
Verucah Salt is probably the most important all-female group of the 1990’s. Their “Eight Arms to Hold You,” released in 1998, was a good album cast in the alternative mold. They toured extensively with Bush, opening for Gavin Rosedale and company on their “Razorblade Suitcase” tour. But, despite their moderate success and fame, Verucah Salt has never been able to overcome their simple lack of talent. They are just not a musically gifted group. Give them credit- they have done a lot with very little. But they will fade into the same “Where are they Now?” category as Blondie and Heart.
9. Courtney Love
Courtney Love has had a huge impact on alternative music. Unfortunately, her impact has been a mostly negative one. She is at least partially responsible for the death of her husband and Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, one of the founding fathers of the alternative genre. Her personal accomplishments with her band Hole have been less than impressive. She is a miserable lyricist and a mediocre at best singer and guitarist. Her band’s two albums, “Live Through This” and “Celebrity Skin” were written mostly by Cobain and Smashing Pumpkins’ lead singer Billy Corgan, respectively. But, she is the poster child for female rockers in the modern music world. And for this she deserves to be on this list.
10. Sarah McLachlan
Okay, maybe Sarah McLachlan is not exactly alternative. But, if the working definition of the term depends on the music played on alternative radio, McLachlan just squeaks by. “Building the Mystery” received significant airplay on alternative radio stations across the country, thus qualifying McLachlan. Her influence on music in general has been enormous. Her Lilith Fair brought female music to the forefront of American popular culture. Never has there been a more dramatic (and unexpected) changing of the guard than in the summer of 1998 when the Lilith Fair took in a larger profit than Lallapalooza. McLachlan has contributed to the world of alternative music by providing a stage for female groups like the now defunct Luscious Jackson to enter the mainstream. Although her contribution to alternative music is small compared to her effect on music in general, it is still significant.