Recently, Lorde became the first woman since 1996 to top Billboard’s Alternative Songs Chart. That’s right, the chart went an astonishing 17 years without a female atop it. Something is very, very wrong here. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the top of the Alternative Songs Chart was home to a brilliant array of female musicians: Tori Amos, Suzanne Vega, Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor, and Alanis Morissette among them. These women existed alongside pop stars like Madonna and Janet Jackson, carving out successful careers that had little to do with glitz and glamour.
We are a long way from 1994, when Tori Amos, Bjork, and PJ Harvey appeared on the cover of Q Magazine together, each of them a unique force in the music industry. These days, there seems to be little mainstream interest in the kind of confessional, experimental songwriting that the Toris, PJs, and Bjorks of the world created.
I hope Lorde isn’t an outlier and that we enter a new golden era for alternative female artists, especially since there are so many great ones out there. While a few female musicians have received mainstream recognition for boldly original songwriting (Janelle Monae, Fiona Apple, Erykah Badu and Neko Case come to mind), many have not. Here is a list of a few under-appreciated women I believe deserve your attention. Let’s not go another 17 years before a woman tops the Alternative Songs Chart again.
LISSIE: On her recent single, “Shameless,” Lissie sings: “I don’t want to be famous. If I got to be shameless. If you don’t know what my name is, so what? So what?” It’s a blistering statement of purpose on an album full of purpose. The album in question, “Back to Forever,” just came out and it is fantastic. Lissie’s sound might be familiar (second single “Further Away (Romance Police)” is the best Fleetwood Mac song they didn’t write), but the passion with which she writes and sings feels fresh and of-the-moment. And best of all, she doesn’t shy away from writing lyrics that are specific, daring and political. Is there a pop star out there that would write a song about the environmental impact of mining coal from mountaintops? I think not. I hope we make Lissie famous despite her lack of shamelessness. You should know her name.
ANA SILVERA: Ana Silvera is a classically trained musician who incorporates folklore into her songwriting and Britney Spears songs into her live sets. Although that could easily have been a description of Tori Amos, Silvera is entirely her own artist. Her debut album, “The Aviary,” is probably my favorite album of the last two years (and I listen to a lot of music). It is a perfect album, painful and playful, with Silvera using her angelic voice to brilliant effect. The music isn’t easily digestible. It will surprise you at every step with its twists and turns, and merits repeated listens. Silvera’s world might be too esoteric for the mainstream, but there is no reason why she shouldn’t have a following every bit as devoted as Tori’s. Sadly, the album has received very little attention in the United States.
ANNA CALVI: Another Brit, Calvi just released her second album and she has defied the sophomore slump with a record that is even more entrancing than her first. Calvi’s compositions are wildly dynamic. They often start slow and then open up into tempestuous chants. She will make you rock out with fiery songs like “Tristan” (which sounds very PJ Harvey-esque), and entrance you with dreamy songs like “Sing to Me.” Calvi’s instrument is the guitar, which she uses piercingly to communicate her sadness, her desire and her rage. Listening to her new album, “One Breath,” from beginning to end is an emotional roller coaster that may leave you feeling spent, but it’s a ride well worth taking.
BAT FOR LASHES: Bat for Lashes (the stage name for Natasha Khan) is relatively well-known by now. She has three albums, two nominations for the prestigious Mercury Prize, a song on a Twilight soundtrack, and has opened for Depeche Mode and Blur. Even Pitchfork loves her. That said, it’s time for her to stop opening for larger acts and start being the larger act. Khan’s albums are sublime creations, incorporating musical experimentation, theatricality, and unrepressed emotion in a manner that is reminiscent of the great Kate Bush. Her latest album, “The Haunted Man,” is her best: ethereal, raw, and catchy as hell. How songs like “Laura” and “All Your Gold” didn’t top the Alternative Songs Chart is beyond me.
There are plenty of women I can think of to add to this list, including (but not limited to) Laura Marling, Regina Spektor, and Chelsea Wolfe. There is room for all these female voices to thrive in music, despite the press constantly pitting one female musician against another. As Tori bluntly put it in that 1994 interview, “If you think about Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, they were all much more similar to each other than we are. We have tits. We have three holes. That’s what we have in common… It really disappoints me when some sort of competition has to be manufactured for their little minds and fantasies. That’s not growing, that’s not support. There is room for everybody on the planet to be creative and conscious if you are your own person.”