When male-dominated grunge kicked ’80s hair metal to the curb in the early 1990s, it also opened a door for women to finally play a different role in the music industry. Whether it was Riot Grrrls forcing third-wave feminism to the front; Fiona Apple letting it be known that teenagers have more to talk about than being rubbed like a genie in a bottle; or Liz Phair — posturing as “6-feet-1 instead of 5-feet-2” — standing tall in a scene of pretentious guys, the women of ’90s alt-rock claimed alpha dominance. Sex talk wasn’t just not taboo, it also wasn’t veiled in the lyrics of PJ Harvey and Phair. (Kim Deal’s “Divine Hammer” is another story, whether you think it’s about finding a greater purpose or a greater lover, or those are one and the same.) Helium’s Mary Timony ventured into those most dude-centric of genres, prog and medieval fantasy. And Courtney Love reclaimed the bad-girl imagery of witch and shrew — not to mention “victim” — with a vengeance. Here are 10 ’90s alt-rock albums by women that left an indelible impression.
PJ Harvey – Rid of Me (1993)
A farm girl turned art student, Polly Jean Harvey burst seemingly out of nowhere with her debut, Dry, in 1992. But it was her second effort — the pungent, bloody-rare raw and overpowering Rid of Me — that really kicked down the door for a wave of females unwilling to play nice with music-business stereotypes. Relentless touring, coupled with the pain of a break-up, had apparently led to something of a nervous breakdown for the singer, who retreated from London to the seaside to write the record. Harvey has said she was living next to a carnival at the time, reading the gothic impolitesse of Flannery O’Connor and listening to Howlin’ Wolf and the Pixies. She takes all those influences and wrings them out like an old rag. “50 Ft. Queenie” is a hurricane of Delta swamp blues and neon B-movie melodrama. On the title track, she starts off sonically crouching in a corner, then jumps out of the shadows to scare every fleeing man: “You’re not rid of me!” She tries on and revitalizes tired personas — Tarzan’s girl (“Me-Jane”), swaggering male (“Man-Size”), even Bob Dylan (a raucous cover of “Highway 61 Revisited”). Recorded by Steve Albini without any varnish, it is jolie-laide indie rock: unashamedly ugly and all the more beautiful for it.
Icelandic, blessed with an otherworldly voice and unafraid to wear a swan on the red carpet, Björk has long been a punchline for the mainstream: shorthand for the kind of manic pixie dream girl people love to roll their eyes at. But that’s hugely discounting how much Debut, her first solo record after leaving The Sugarcubes, set trends that last to this day. Influenced by the space-dream atmospherics of Brian Eno and Kate Bush, she translated that cerebral experimentalism into something highly accessible: equally at home on the dancefloor as a coffee shop, an art-gallery party as the superspanet. There are optimistic interpretations of straight-up house music (“Violently Happy”), acid house (“Crying”), techno (“Big Time Sensuality”), fusion-jazz (“Venus as a Boy”) and Afro-pop (“Human Behaviour,” which also samples Brazilian piano legend Antônio Carlos Jobim). Björk also embraces her love of jazz for an unironic cover of the standard “Like Someone in Love” and by employing saxophonist Oliver Lake and harpist Corky Hale. Credit the assist of clubland producer Nellee Hooper, but the magic here is made by the elfin wonder that is Björk.
Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville (1993)
After recording a demo in her childhood bedroom in suburban Chicago, under the moniker Girly-Sound, Liz Phair signed to Matador Records without a face-to-face meeting and then went into the studio with producer Brad Wood — having barely ever played in public. It’s that hubris and naivete that made her debut album such a wonder. Someone who knew better, or who had been shot down by heckling crowds, might never have reached for a piercing falsetto on the lyric “I’m a real cunt in spring” (“Dance of the Seven Veils”) or dispassionately intoned “Every time I see your face/I get all wet between my legs” (“Flower”). Phair has both said that the album is a response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and a reaction to being sidelined in Chicago’s early ’90s indie-rock scene that was dominated by art-school dudes in blue-collar drag. (The term “Guyville” was also the title of a song by her pals Urge Overkill.) More than anything, though, it’s the sound of true empowerment: letting women know it’s OK to flex, fake it ’til they make it, make threats they’re not sure they can back up and dream of having more.
The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
The Breeders started as a side project for Pixies bassist Kim Deal to switch to guitar/lead vocals and collaborate with her guitarist twin sister, Kelley; by this, the band’s second full-length album, it was her main gig. Released a year after the Pixies broke up (only to reunite in 2004), Last Splash is fascinating evidence of just how much quirky heart and soul Kim contributed to that band. Here, she and Kelley are absolute adventure-seekers. They amplify the whine of a sewing machine through a Marshall on “S.O.S.” and distort Kim’s vocals by having her sing into a harmonica microphone on the now-classic “Cannonball.” That song — a beautiful slice of weirdness that snake-charmed its way onto radio — is brought to pulsing, groovy life by Josephine Wiggs’ ultra-warm bass lines (see also: the way the bass entwines with hip-shimmy guitars on “Saints.”). Kim’s voice is a singular, mind-boggling feat: sugary sweet, but with a saccharine tang; it might be most perfect on the pert bounce of sexual metaphor “Divine Hammer.” All in all, Last Splash is the definition of joyful noise.
Hole – Live Through This (1994)
Picked over by conspiracy theorists, prematurely saddled with huge expectations and remaining to this day a lightning rod for controversy, Live Through This has become a totem for the public circus that was frontwoman Courtney Love’s life at the time. By 1994, she was public enemy No. 1 to those who blamed her for her husband Kurt Cobain’s downfall. The couple were tabloid fodder, struggling with — and, in Cobain’s case, overdosing on — drugs and temporarily losing custody of their daughter. When Cobain committed suicide a week before the record’s release, Live Through This became a text to be pored over. (The tragedy attached to the album continued when bassist Kristen Pfaff died of an overdose just two months later.) Hole’s major label debut — its title taken from Scarlett O’Hara’s “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” speech from “Gone With the Wind” — was quickly plagued by rumors that Cobain had secretly written the songs. That story that has been discredited by those who worked on the record, which comes on like Love’s pure id. Alternately viewed as poseur, heroine and casualty, she plays that last role by casting herself as a victim of witch trials in the songs “Softer, Softest” and “Plump” — which mocks the way she and Cobain were portrayed in the media (“I don’t do the dishes/I throw them in the crib”). “Asking For It” is about Love being stripped of her clothing while crowdsurfing at her own show. “Rock Star” sneers at the Riot Grrrl scene she felt snubbed her. And has there ever been a more Courtney Love lyric than “I want to be the girl with the most cake” from “Doll Parts”?