Essential Riot Grrrl Playlist - Rolling Stone
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Riot Grrrl Album Guide

Essential LPs from Nineties rock’s feminist revolution

Riot Grrrl Album Guide

Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone’s Album Guides survey an iconic artist’s discography, breaking down their finest LPs into three tiers: Must-Haves, Further Listening, and Going Deeper. We also recommend key tracks from other releases under the heading Choice Cuts.

“What is riot grrrl?” asked a punk zine in 1991. “Riot grrrl is because we girls want to create mediums that speak to us. Because every time we pick up a pen, or an instrument, or get anything done, we are creating the revolution. We are the revolution.” Starting in the early Nineties, young feminists around the world seized the opportunity to express themselves in punk rock, starting bands whether or not they could play, just because they had something to say. As Bikini Kill’s drummer Tobi Vail said, “The significance of our young hearts on fire must not be downplayed.”

The riot grrrl scene became the key influence on the Nineties rock explosion. Just to pick the most famous example, there’s Nirvana — Kathleen Hanna famously spray-painted the words “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on her friend Kurt Cobain’s wall. He turned this into a slightly popular song. The riot grrrls took inspiration from 1970s punk pioneers like the Slits, the Raincoats, and X-Ray Spex. But they were doing something new, and the world was watching. (Who could forget the riot grrrl-themed episode of Roseanne?) The word started to spread. You could hear that influence all over the Nineties pop spectrum, inspiring everyone from Alanis Morrissette to the Spice Girls. Yet it remains a vital force — Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Team Dresch all did superb reunion tours last year, and the most startling thing was how young the crowds were.

Like most punk rock, only way more so, riot grrrl was a mess. Artists liked to work fast and move on, switching from band to band, scattering their great songs on stray compilations and singles and random side projects rather than albums. But that just makes it more of an adventure to go exploring for buried treasure. So here’s a guide to riot grrrl’s essential music. It’s a crucial moment in music history, the single best excuse for itself that punk rock ever came up with, and a timeless model of honesty and independence for all artists in all areas. As Sleater-Kinney would say: Turn it on, turn it on, turn it on.

Bikini Kill, 'Bikini Kill' EP (1992)

MUST-HEAR: Bikini Kill, ‘Bikini Kill’ EP (1992)

In one of their earliest riot-grrrl zines, Bikini Kill issued an invitation that was also a dare: “Find the biggest bitch in town and start a band with her.” Bikini Kill came together in the college town of Olympia, Washington, turning their feminist rage into punk-rock kicks, starting with the motto, “Revolution Girl Style Now!” Their 1991 debut EP was raw but powerful, produced by Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye. Kathleen Hanna snarled about misogyny, abuse, and violence over the feral riffs of “Suck My Left One” and “Double Dare Ya.” “Feels Blind” was her testimony of growing up trapped by gender roles: “I’m the woman I was always taught to be: hungry.” It was hard to find a copy at the time, but it became a word-of-mouth sensation, passed from friend to friend. Listen here.

Sleater-Kinney, 'Call the Doctor' (1996)

MUST-HEAR: Sleater-Kinney, ‘Call the Doctor’ (1996)

The shot heard around the world: three young women making their own heroic noise. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein knew each other from the Olympia scene: Brownstein with her band Excuse 17, Tucker with Heavens to Betsy. But when they played together, something lit up. “It just felt like I had fused with her,” Brownstein told Rolling Stone. “This bolt of lightning had gone from my chest to hers.” Call the Doctor was their story about being young and female in a hostile world: silenced in “Anonymous,” ready to explode in “I’m Not Waiting.” It all erupts in “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” where they lay down a challenge to everything stale and complacent about America, as Tucker yells, “I’m the queen of rock & roll!” Listen here.

Bikini Kill, 'The Singles' (1998)

MUST-HEAR: Bikini Kill, ‘The Singles’ (1998)

The definitive Bikini Kill document. Like so many other punk hell-raisers, Bikini Kill thrived best in the concise format of the two-minute vinyl blast, and The Singles collects the bombshells they kept dropping until their 1997 split. “Rebel Girl” is their anthem — “in her kiss, I taste the revolution” — with producer and fan Joan Jett blasting away on guitar. The Singles also has Jett and Hanna playing the old clapping game “Miss Mary Mack,” along with the wild romps “I Like Fucking,” “I Hate Danger,” and “New Radio,” where Hanna rants, “I’m the little girl at the picnic/Who won’t stop pulling her dress up.” The Singles is one of punk’s most exhilarating artifacts. Listen here.

Bratmobile, ‘Pottymouth’ (1993) —

FURTHER LISTENING: Bratmobile, ‘Pottymouth’ (1993)

Bratmobile found their noise in the political and musical possibilities of the playground chant: “Girl germs! Girl germs! Can’t hide out, they’re everywhere!” They made some of the era’s fiercest and funniest singles, with Allison Wolfe dropping one-liners over Erin Smith’s surf guitar and Molly Neuman’s drums: “Cool Schmool,” “Queenie,” “Kiss and Ride.” (Wolfe and Neuman did the influential zine Girl Germs; Smith’s zine was Teenage Gang Debs.) Pottymouth is their lo-fi debut album, with “P.R.D.C.T.” (“Punk Rock Dream Come True”) and a gender-flipped bash at the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” Bratmobile have kept it up with various bands since then, from Cold Cold Hearts to Sex Stains. These days Wolfe does her essential podcast, I’m in the Band, interviewing female musicians. Listen here.

Team Dresch, 'Personal Best' (1995)

FURTHER LISTENING: Team Dresch, ‘Personal Best’ (1995)

These Portland queercore pioneers were way ahead of their time, which is why they’re more legendary than ever now. Donna Dresch played in Dinosaur Jr. and Screaming Trees before starting Team Dresch with Hazel’s Jody Bleyle and Adickdid’s Kaia Wilson, at a time when it was tough for queer kids to find each other in the punk scene. As Bleyle said, “We started the band because it was like, ‘I want to hang out with some gay people.’” Personal Best is an agonizingly real snapshot of LGBQT youth, summed up in “Fagetarian and Dyke,” which confesses, “I spent the last 10 days of my life ripping off the Smiths.” Captain My Captain was equally excellent, especially “Uncle Phranc,” a tribute to finding queer role models for your chosen family. (“She told me not to fuck with straight girls/She told me not to take pills” —good advice then and now.) Team Dresch just released a new protest song, “Your Hands in My Pockets.” “You can never get away from the sound of a woman who loves you,” Wilson explained last year. “That’s our band. Our band is the woman who loves us.” Listen here.

Sleater-Kinney, 'Dig Me Out' (1997)

FURTHER LISTENING: Sleater-Kinney, ‘Dig Me Out’ (1997)

Nobody expected Sleater-Kinney to top Call the Doctor; in the Nineties, making two great albums in a row was considered tacky. But S-K got even better when they found their punk-rock-dream-come true of a drummer, Janet Weiss. Dig Me Out is their most brazenly confident music, as Tucker and Brownstein trade off vocals in a thrilling rush. The songs are about breaking up, breaking out, breaking free. “One More Hour” is all romantic torment (Tucker and Brownstein were briefly a couple), while “Turn It On” and “Words and Guitar” sound fired up to take on the future, as Tucker yells, “Take the noise in my head/Come on and turn it, turn it up!” Listen here.

Le Tigre, 'Le Tigre' (1999)

FURTHER LISTENING: Le Tigre, ‘Le Tigre’ (1999)

After Bikini Kill signed off with Reject All American, Kathleen Hanna formed Le Tigre with zine writer Johanna Fateman and indie filmmaker Sadie Benning. Their November 1999 release took everyone by surprise — a fresh burst of inspiration, full of synth-pop beats and playful girl-group vocals. “Deceptacon” will be blasting on dance floors forever, with the timeless question: “Who took the bomp from the bomp-a-lomp-a-lomp? Who took the ram from the rama-lama-ding-dong?” “Hot Topic” is a shout-out to a few of their heroes, with all three women yelling out names over a Motown-style drum loop: “Gertrude Stein!” “Yoko Ono!” “James Baldwin!” “Sleater-Kinney!” “Billie Jean King!” Listen here.

Slant 6, 'Soda Pop Rip Off' (1994)

GOING DEEPER: Slant 6, ‘Soda Pop Rip Off’ (1994)

Slant 6 had all the flash you’d expect from a power trio named for a legendary Chrysler muscle-car engine. So much of the early riot-grrrl culture came from the cross-country kinship between Washington, D.C., and the Pacific Northwest: Slant 6 held up the capital city’s end with grooves like “Time Expired,” goofing on Nuggets-style Sixties garage rock but with a sense of menace. Christina Billotte had been in the pioneering Autoclave, along with Helium’s Mary Timony. She talks tough (“You think you’re Robert De Niro/And you feel I add up to zero”), but her guitar talks even tougher. Listen here.

Heavens to Betsy, 'Calculated' (1994)

GOING DEEPER: Heavens to Betsy, ‘Calculated’ (1994)

Even before Sleater-Kinney, Corin Tucker had her own unmistakable voice, in her confessional duo with drummer Tracy Sawyer. Heavens to Betsy wasn’t afraid to go all the way there — “My Red Self” is still the greatest rock song ever written about surfing the crimson wave. (“What is the color of shame? Is it red? Blood, blood red?”) Their one and only album, Calculated, peaks with “Axemen,” about a high school girl who doesn’t want to go to the pep rally. Tucker reaches a kind of frenzy as she chants, “I’m going crazy! Do you wanna watch? Do you wanna come?” Listen here.

Lois, 'Infinity Plus' (1996)

GOING DEEPER: Lois, ‘Infinity Plus’ (1996)

If you made a rainy-day mixtape in the Nineties, you were legally required to include at least one Lois song. With her acoustic guitar, tea cup, and wry grin, Lois Maffeo seemed like the scene’s wiseass auntie, with songs that could sting your soul (“Capital A”) or crack you up (“Indie,” which is DIY in both a musical and sexual sense), or both. She had an Olympia band called “Courtney Love,” which seemed like a clever idea until somebody else got famous using that name. (Snail Mail is fond of covering their 1990 B-side “The 2nd Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”) Her most riot-grrrl album might be 1995’s Strumpet, with members of Bratmobile and Team Dresch, but she topped it with Infinity Plus, a lost Nineties classic of heart-shredding balladry, including her Elliott Smith duet “Rougher.” Listen here.

Sleater-Kinney, 'The Woods' (2005)

GOING DEEPER: Sleater-Kinney, ‘The Woods’ (2005)

Something started to get weird about Sleater-Kinney’s live shows. They started to jam. They’d always had an unabashed classic-rock jones, covering Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.” But they really unleashed their megaheavy psychedelic side on The Woods, right up to the 11-minute climax “Let’s Call It Love.” Brownstein’s stripped-down ballad “Modern Girl” became a theme song, with the sad refrain, “My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day.” (It also gave a title to her acclaimed 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.) Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus after The Woods but returned 10 years later with No Cities to Love. Brownstein also found the right vehicle for her satirical wit in her comedy show with Fred Armisen, Portlandia. On their 2019 tour, even without Weiss, “Entertain” and “The Fox” roared as loud as ever. Listen here.

Mecca Normal, “I Walk Alone” from 'Mecca Normal' (1986)

CHOICE CUTS: Mecca Normal, “I Walk Alone” from ‘Mecca Normal’ (1986)

A shocking sound in the Eighties: Vancouver poet Jean Smith walks down the street, over David Lester’s skeletal guitar. All she wants to do is walk alone, so why does she have to take her life in her hands? Rock dudes always love to brag about walking alone, from Whitesnake to Green Day, but nobody’s ever made it sound scarier. A huge influence on Bikini Kill and all that followed. Listen here.

“Shove” from 'Smell the Magic' (1990)

CHOICE CUTS: L7, “Shove” from ‘Smell the Magic’ (1990)

The great L.A. grunge queens were fellow travelers while riot grrrl was happening. (Donita Sparks also set new records for onstage misbehavior at a U.K. festival where she tossed a tampon at the hostile crowd.) This 1990 Sub Pop single vents the urge to shove the entire world out of your way: “My neighbors say I jam too loud/America thinks I should be proud.” L7 still keep it real, with their recent Scatter the Rats. Listen here.

Fifth Column, “She Said Boom,” from ‘All Time Queen of the World’ (1990)

CHOICE CUTS: Fifth Column, “She Said Boom,” from ‘All Time Queen of the World’ (1990)

Fifth Column started in the 1980s as collective of queer Toronto art students, set to smash the patriarchy. (An early album title: To Sir With Hate.) “She Said Boom” is their classic ode to a graffiti tagger. By the time they released 36C in 1994, they’d become part of the scene they’d helped inspire. As Caroline Azar said, “‘She said boom’ are three simple words that, for us, mean being responsible for your own pocket-size revolution.”

7 Year Bitch, “Dead Men Don’t Rape,” from ‘There’s a Dyke in the Pit’ compilation (1992)

CHOICE CUTS: 7 Year Bitch, “Dead Men Don’t Rape,” from ‘There’s a Dyke in the Pit’ compilation (1992)

A point-blank manifesto from the Seattle band, and a highlight of the classic seven-inch EP There’s a Dyke in the Pit, which also featured Bikini Kill and Tribe 8. 7 Year Bitch made a searing appearance in the 1995 teen drama Mad Love as the band Drew Barrymore sneaks out to see —perhaps the most Nineties scene in any movie. Listen here.

Huggy Bear, “Her Jazz” from 'Taking the Rough with the Smooch' (1993)

CHOICE CUTS: Huggy Bear, “Her Jazz” from ‘Taking the Rough With the Smooch’ (1993)

“This is happening without your permission,” Huggy Bear announce in this U.K. broadside — an early example of bands around the world tuning in to the riot-grrrl spirit. “Her Jazz” was the Brighton band’s split single with Bikini Kill’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah,” calling for “girl/boy revolution.” Listen here.

Mary Lou Lord, “Some Jingle Jangle Morning,” single (1993)

CHOICE CUTS: Mary Lou Lord, “Some Jingle Jangle Morning,” single (1993)

No rage or noise here — just a wistful folkie voice strumming her heart out, with Bikini Kill’s Vail and Wilcox as well as Donna Dresch. “Some Jingle Jangle Morning” captures how it feels to stumble through your twenties, seeing sunny people go dark on you, watching your old friends fall apart or drift away. (“They’ve all moved to Seattle or L.A.” — too real.) It’s the Gen X answer to “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” Listen here.

Excuse 17, “Sevenwhateverteen,” from the 'Periscope' compilation (1994)

CHOICE CUTS: Excuse 17, “Sevenwhateverteen,” from the ‘Periscope’ compilation (1994)

Carrie Brownstein’s first band was this pop-punk trio, releasing two promising albums before Sleater-Kinney blew up. Their best moment: “Sevenwhateverteen,” from the crucial YoYo comp Periscope, a deceptively catchy lament for a girl who loves you only when her boyfriend’s not around.

 

C.W.A. from the 'Stars Kill Rock' compilation (1993)

CHOICE CUTS: C.W.A., “Only Straight Girls Wear Dresses,” from the ‘Stars Kill Rock’ compilation (1993)

The C in “C.W.A.” does not stand for “closeted.” “Only Straight Girls Wear Dresses” is a filthy spoken-word poem over a cheap beatbox and Casio synths, flipping the era’s stereotypes about queer culture with a tale of butch/femme romance. Listen here.

Emily’s Sassy Lime, “Hello Yucko” from 'A Slice of Lemon' compilation (1995)

CHOICE CUTS: Emily’s Sassy Lime, “Hello Yucko” from ‘A Slice of Lemon’ compilation (1995)

SoCal teenage sisters Amy and Wendy Yao decided to form a band after getting in trouble for sneaking out of the house to see Bratmobile and Bikini Kill gigs. Emily’s Sassy Lime (dig that palindrome name) had their own fantastic style of fractured brat punk. “Hello Yucko” is their kiss-off to a loser dude, sneering, “Hang your head in shame/You’re all the same.”

Move Into The Villa Villakula

CHOICE CUTS: Sleater-Kinney, “More Than a Feeling” from the ‘Move Into the Villa Villakula’ compilation (1995)

An early B side, vandalizing the Seventies stoner classic by the band Boston. They seize the riff that soundtracked countless Camaro rides back in the day, but play with the words, rewrite the tune, twist it into their own fragile confession: a brilliant piece of classic-rock revisionism. Listen here.

Kathleen Hanna, “I Wish I Was Him” from the 'Rock Stars Kill' compilation (1994)

CHOICE CUTS: Kathleen Hanna, “I Wish I Was Him” from the ‘Rock Stars Kill’ compilation (1994)

Teen indie prodigy Ben Lee wrote this ode to the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando. (The ultimate Nineties compliment: “He even understands the words to Pavement songs.”) But Hanna gives it a whole new level of gender irony, in the sly way she sing-sighs, “He thinks he can be a girl better than me.” Listen here.

Various Artists, “Target Practice” from the 'Free to Fight' compilation (1995)

CHOICE CUTS: Various Artists, “Target Practice” from the ‘Free to Fight’ compilation (1995)

Free to Fight was more than an album — it was “an interactive self-defense project” released on Candy Ass Records, involving comics, poetry, and stories of sexual violence, as well as songs by Heavens to Betsy, Excuse 17, Lois, and others. “Target Practice” is a blunt lesson in fighting back, with voices chanting, “Eyes, knees, groin, throat!”

Julie Ruin, “Radical or Pro-Parental,” from 'Julie Ruin' (1998)

CHOICE CUTS: Julie Ruin, “Radical or Pro-Parental,” from ‘Julie Ruin’ (1998)

After Bikini Kill, what would Kathleen Hanna try for an encore? This eccentric electro-twitch solo record under the name Julie Ruin, inspired by French feminist theorist Helen Cixous, as well as the B-52s. Listen here.

Cadallaca, “Pocket Games,” from 'Introducing Cadallaca' (1998)

CHOICE CUTS: Cadallaca, “Pocket Games,” from ‘Introducing Cadallaca’ (1998)

The members of Sleater-Kinney were cranking out songs faster than the band could record them, so all three kept busy with side hustles. While Brownstein formed the Spells with Mary Timony — they’ve got a dynamite version of the Who’s “Can’t Explain” — Tucker formed this band with Sarah Dougher on Farfisa organ. “Pocket Games” is a mighty power ballad about a messy goodbye at the airport. Listen here.

Wild Flag, “Romance” from 'Wild Flag' (2011)

CHOICE CUTS: Wild Flag, “Romance” from ‘Wild Flag’ (2011)

After Sleater-Kinney fans had pretty much given up hope, two-thirds of the band suddenly burst back to life with their marvelous new band Wild Flag. Brownstein and Tucker joined Helium’s Mary Timony for “Romance,” yelling, “Sound is the blood between me and you.” They make it sound like a credo they’ve spent their lives living up to. Listen here.

gSP, “Social Death,” from 'gSp' (2017)

CHOICE CUTS: gSP, “Social Death,” from ‘gSp’ (2017)

The name is pronounced “girlSperm,” as “Theme from girlSperm” helpfully lets you know. A trio of lifers from Bikini Kill and Skinned Teens show everyone how it’s done, with guitar squalls over Tobi Vail’s rock-steady beach-party drums. “Social Death” is about refusing to give up on life, forcing yourself to leave the house and show up places — the same struggle riot grrrl was always about. As the old song says: Resist psychic death.

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