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.