The idea of “Women in Music” was brought up in a conversation I had with a friend last year. She asked me who were my favourite female artists and why. For as long as I can remember, my appreciation and taste in music by female artists has been somewhat eclectic. I have some obvious leanings towards certain artists in genres like alternative rock and pop rock, but that said I am not afraid to venture outside my comfort zone. (Interestingly, outside my comfort zone generally means adult contemporary, orchestral, folk and country.)
My favourite female artists are not necessarily the ‘best’ female artists of all time. Though, some of them might easily fit into that category. In saying that I have to admit it would have been far easier to look up any ‘best of’ list and include the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bjork, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin here. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to them enough or buy their records, so they simply didn’t qualify for my list despite the fact that they are awesome.
The process of thinking about which artists I like was easy, but narrowing that field down to fifteen for the purpose of this article was difficult. In helping me decide who would make my all-time favourite female artists list, I decided to stick to one simple rule – I have to own at least three or more of their albums. That said, I’d like to think that there is definitely something special about all the musicians mentioned here below. I hope you might agree, but I definitely sense you might be shocked, maybe even bewildered by some of my choices. Enjoy!
No. 15: Fiona Apple.
Our next great generation, the Millenials, can be excused for not having a clue who is Fiona Apple. Whether the rest of us still care or believe that she is relevant is a question that interests me. Of course, I am definitely interested in anything she still has to say, despite the views of some of her harshest critics that she is nothing but a self absorbed drama queen. It is true that she is almost as well known for her emotional problems as she is for her musical talent. It’s hard not to think about that because her music is littered with references to feelings of heartache, sadness, despair and betrayal. Occasionally it makes for hard listening especially Sullen Girl (from her album Tidal), which is about her devastating experience of being raped at the age of 12, in the hallway of her apartment building after walking home from school.
As haunting and moody as she can be, it is ultimately the lyrics of all her albums, complimented by her jazz infused sounds, that makes her truly one of the most empowered female artists of her generation. Alongside Alanis Morrisette and P J Harvey, she is a genius. That is why I like her. That is why she is on my all time list.
Must-Have albums: Sullen Girl (1996), When the Pawn (1999), Extraordinary Machines (2005) and The Idler Wheel…(2012).
Essential tracks: Fast As You Can, Criminal, Sleep To Dream, Paper Bag, O’Sailor, Sullen Girl and Across The Universe.
No. 14: Joan as Police Woman.
I first discovered Joan Wasser aka Joan As Police Woman’s album Real Life in 2007. It was a time when I had just started to explore new music that was different from what I was used to. It was brilliant in so many ways, as it threw caution in the wind. It was happy but sad, yet still engaging with moments of deep or serious thought. From it came a song called The Ride arguably a metaphor for the journey we would take with her in what was an exciting new phase in her life and career as a musician.
Since then, some ten years have passed and it seems Wasser, 48, has no intension of slowing down. On her sixth full-length album Damned Devotion (2018), she sets the bar higher than ever before. It stands as an incredible achievement set against synth beats and hip hop inspired sounds and Wasser’s trademark honesty.
Although I often feel alone in my admiration for Joan As Police Woman, I hope there is an audience out there who feels the same way as I do about Joan Wasser. To me, she is one of most important artists and collaborators of our time.
Must-Have albums: Real Life (2006), To Survive (2008), The Deep Field (2011), The Classic (2014) and Damned Devotion (2018),
Essential tracks: Holiday, Christobel, The Ride, I Defy, Whatever You Like, To Be Loved, Eternal Flame, Damned Devotion, Tell Me and Warning Bell.
No. 13: Kate Miller-Heidke.
Miller-Heidke foray into the music world began at an early age, where she fell in love with singing and musical theatre. Her earliest influences were Joni Mitchell and everyone’s favourite Leonard Cohen. Her first unofficial performances were at home, and perhaps in her bedroom, rehearsing scenes from Les Misérables and The Sound of Music. Later in her teens, she began to make a name for herself with her startling voice and dreamed of a life in the music world. Opera, it seemed, was going to be the vehicle that would propel her there. (In 2005, she made her solo operatic debut.) But then something strange happened to Kate, she had a change of heart. Well, maybe not a change of heart, but a calling from the pop world that was too hard to resist.
With her outrageously beautiful voice, together with her flair for witty humour and poignant insight, Kate has drawn comparisons to, and I’ve read, Tori Amos, but I would definitely say Kate Bush. (Just have a listen to her song Words and hear Miller-Heidke do her ‘Kate Bush – esque’ best.) Though, it almost unfair to compare her to Bush, because Miller-Heidke is extraordinary and inventive in her own right, having released four full length studio albums with her very own unique twist of pop/folk/opera.
However, in the last few years, Kate surprisingly returned back to the theatre. She was commissioned by Opera Australia to compose a new opera, where she focused all her energy in writing an opera based on the children’s book by John Marsden called The Rabbits. It won 4 Helpmann Awards including Best Score (in 2015), which cemented her status as arguably Australia’s most versatile artist. More recently with her husband Keir Nutall, they also composed the music and lyrics for the smash hit ‘Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical’. But what I am most excited about lately are the rumours of her impending return back to the recording studio.
Must-Have albums: Little Eve (2007), Curiouser (2008), Nightflight (2012), and O Vertigo! (2014)
Essential tracks: Words, Space They Cannot Touch, Caught In The Crowd, The Last Day On Earth, Can’t Shake It, Ride This Feeling, Sarah, O Vertigo and You’ve Underestimated Me, Dude.
No. 12. Alanis Morrisette.
Some of my closest friends occasionally still ask me why I listen to Alanis nowadays. “Come on Rob, she made one outstanding album, that’s it!” Even more frustrating is how still today people like to pigeonhole her as That 90’s Angry Chick. Usually I just smile to such a cop-out statement, and at other times I like to point out that, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) and Under Rug Swept (2001) were also great albums. In fact, I think that Junkie is better than its predecessor. It is filled with moody ballads and mid tempo tracks with the honesty and vulnerability Morrisette could only get away with.
On the subject of Angry Chick, I sigh and roll my eyes. But you know what? I understand why people say that. It’s a perception that has dogged her throughout her career all because she wrote You Oughta Know. She is far from being a man-hater. As an advocate of female empowerment, she is unapologetic and a proud feminist. And so she should be. I think that if you asked her about her views on men you would be surprised to hear that she believes men have a place in her world. Putting music aside, this is one of the reasons why I am interested in what Alanis is up to nowadays. But the occasional nostalgic blast from the past, by listening to my favourite Alanis songs, doesn’t hurt either.
Must-Have albums: Jagged Little Pill (1995), Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) and Under Rug Swept (2001).
Essential tracks: All I Really Want, You Oughta Know, Thank U, Head Over Feet, Hands Clean, Uninvited, Ironic and Hand In My Pocket.
No. 11: Kate Bush.
Kate Bush is anything but cool. Yet despite her oddness, particularly her brand of pop music, she hit a strange accord with me early in my teens. The first ever Kate Bush song that I heard was from her third album Never for Ever(1980) called Babooshka. My sister played it to death and for a while it drove me crazy. Years later I heard Running Up That Hill on the radio and I fell in love with Kate Bush. Just simply the haunting mood of the song struck an accord with me, and I even convinced my mum to buy me Hounds of Love ( 1985), secretly tucking it amongst my Kiss albums.
In my opinion, Kate Bush is one of the greatest female artists of all time. Seriously, most artists would die for a back catalogue so widely diverse and original in concept like Kate Bush. Interestingly, like Fiona Apple, Kate records at snail pace when it suits her. It’s something she didn’t intentional set out to do, but it definitely made her fans savour the moment when eventually a new album was released.
Must-Have albums: The Kick Inside (1978), Never For Ever (1980), The Dreaming(1982), Hounds of Love (1985) and The Sensual World (1989).
Essential tracks: The Man With The Child In His Eyes, Withering Heights, The Sensual World, Breathing, Running Up That Hill, Sat In Your Lap and Babooshka.
In Part Two of this series , we’ll be profiling ‘My top favourite female artists of all time’ from 10 to 6. Stay tuned! In the meantime, here below is a wonderful performer, who just missed out on my top 15.
Rising star Lisa Mitchell.
The amazing thing about my relationship with Lisa Mitchell (so to speak) is that I am filled with gratitude that I don’t have to refer to her as that artist from Australian Idol. I was oblivious to the whole Idol phenomenon, and its reincarnations nowadays, as The Voice and The X Factor. The idea of judging music in a sideshow circus doesn’t sit well with me. To me, she is simply just someone who came along musically into my world at the right time and filled my head with melodies that were unusual, definitely not mainstream or the alterative music scene I was used to. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise how much I liked Mitchell’s indie pop folk debut album Wonder (2009). Her soft girly vocals in particular hit an accord with me, but more than that it was the maturity of her lyrics that held me captivated. Though more recently, synthesisers, electronic beats and gritty bass sounds largely replace Mitchell’s signature sounds of piano and acoustic guitars on her latest album Warriors (2016).
Like Kate Miller-Heidke, I cannot recommend Lisa enough to a new listener who might be interested in a singer songwriter who is so brutally honest about her songwriting and what inspires her. That said, I have no doubt that, as long as she stays true to herself, I imagine it won’t be long before she breaks into my all-time favourite female artists list.