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10 Trailblazing Female Musicians


Dividing musicians by their gender isn't progressive, but regressive; making females a 'special' case is condescending and ghettoizing. But, as long we're stuck with embarrassing 'Women in Rock' lists —where Joan Jett is apparently the ne plus ultra of lady musicians, and essentially-anonymous non-entities like D'arcy Wretzky are hailed for merely showing up— then let's do it right. Here are ten trailblazers: pioneering musicians who broke down barriers, pushed sound in new directions, and challenged traditions. This isn't a list built on tokenism, but on merit, a collection of legends and iconoclasts who merely happen to be women.

1. Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins was a 19-year-old singer and folk-music enthusiast when, in London in 1954, she met legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Soon after, she was traveling through the Deep South of America, making field recordings of hillbillies and bluesman. A diligent student, Collins became a repository of folksong, both English and American, and grew into a towering, definitive figure in the folk revival. She mixed old forms with new (1964's jazzy collaboration with Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes) and employed ancient, archaic instruments to critique modern Britain (1969's legendary Anthems in Eden). For Collins, cataloging oral musical traditions was a fiercely political act, putting history back in the hands of the people.

2. Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire

In 1959, as a 22-year-old music school graduate, Delia Derbyshire applied for a studio-recording position with Decca Records, only to be rebuffed on the grounds that they didn't hire women. She ended up at the BBC, instead, and became a pioneering practitioner of electronic music, tape experiments, and field recordings. Much of her work wasn't glamorous —she toiled making incidental music and themes for TV— but, in the studio for countless hours, Derbyshire was like a scientist in her laboratory. Her work ranges from the iconic theme for Doctor Who, to a creepy collection of musical interpretations of others' dreams ("The Dreams"), to a '68 LP with her electro-psychedelic outfit White Noise, who presaged the work of bands like Stereolab and Broadcast by decades.

3. Patty Waters

Patty Waters
Without wishing to diminish her entire body-of-work, Patty Waters' place on this list —her musical legacy, in so many ways— comes down to one song: her legendary 14-minute take on the traditional folk-song "Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair." Waters was only 19 when she rolled tape (for 1966's Sings) on her incredible rendition, in which she matched the improvised jazz-trio tumult of her band with an unbelievable array of whispers, slurs, and otherworldly, wraith-like wails. At one point, she sounds more like a kettle whistling than a human singing. Waters' use of her voice as insane, expressive instrument —unglued from mere lyrics and language— was groundbreaking, and the song set a new benchmark for works of radical reinterpretation.

4. Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono

The most demonized woman in music history wasn't, herself, simply a musician. But that's why Ono, an inter-disciplinary artist exploring the intersections of different media, was a pioneer. Blamed for the break-up of The Beatles —history somehow overlooking fame, wealth, ego, grudges, and heroin— she was made hated villain, and mocked for her practice of conceptual art and embrace of the avant-garde. At best, Ono is regarded as a kook whose fame (or infamy) is disproportionate to her actual work. Which, whilst true, doesn't lessen the fearsome power of the Plastic Ono Band's Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, whose screeching vocals and improvised noise blazed a trail picked up by future figures of female power like Diamanda Galás, Meredith Monk, and Sonic Youth.

5. Nico

Nico's reputation is as ingénue, a drugged-out former model man-handled by high-minded conceptualists Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. When left to her own devices, after all, she drifted into a downward spiral, her life ending with the obligatory overdose. But for all Christa Päffgen's personal failures —and anyone who's seen the dispiriting documentary Nico Icon knows they're many— there's no denying that her idiosyncratic music is entirely her own. Playing a droning harmonium and singing in her tuneless Teutonic moan, Nico's radical recordings —1969's The Marble Index and 1970's Desertshore— obliterated the cultural expectations of the beautiful belle, exploring a terrifying soundworld on the border between life and death.

6. Catherine Ribeiro

Catherine Ribeiro

French chanteuses were supposed to hold audiences enraptured with their feminine allure, a performative practice in keeping with notions of women singers as pretty and sweet. But Catherine Ribeiro casually, comically destroyed such stereotypes. Though schooled in the works of Piaf, the singer used her monstrous voice —all unalloyed vibrato and powerhouse projection— to stage highly-theatrical song-dialogues exploring folklore, war, politics, and gender. Ribeiro worked in league with husband Patrice Moullet —and the band Alpes— on a run of albums that pushed psychedelia and prog-rock to new extremes. Her 1972 masterwork Paix is essentially two side-long songs on which Ribeiro sounds less like chanteuse, more like the high priestess of shamanic psychedelia.

7. Brigitte Fontaine

Brigitte Fontaine
In 1968, Brigitte Fontaine —stage actress, poet, vocalist, rebellious princess of the Parisian art underworld— met Areski Belkacem, a French-born Algerian. It proved a fated match: the lovers would make 11 albums together, exploring new aural frontiers as they mixed Dada with psychedelia, chanson with North African folk, electronics with tribalism, free-jazz with freak-out. Though she'd cut her musical teeth as a kind of thinking man's yé-yé girl, Fontaine grew to be a fierce, fearsome figure, delivering her radical, razor-sharp poetry —which took the scalpel to countless cultural institutions— in a half-sung whisper of ironic sweetness. From 1969's Comme à la Radio to 1977's Vous et Nous Fontaine continually defied cultural expectations of female musicians.

8. Patti Smith

Patti Smith

The pre-eminent poet of American punk-rock is an undoubted legend, in both underground and overground circles; a veritable rock'n'roll saint whose greatness can't even be denied by the masculine establishment. The legend of Patti Smith is two-fold: forged by her fiery debut album, 1977's Horses, and then burnished over four decades of unbowed independence, refusal to compromise, and seeming inability to make a bad record. But her influence is less about her LPs, more about her life. Smith embodies notions of womanhood seemingly in opposition —androgynous rocker and mother; raging voice-of-protest and poetic romanticist— and, in such, challenges both cultural and musical ideas of what females are allowed to be.

9. Poly Styrene

Poly Styrene

When Marianne Elliott-Said saw The Sex Pistols perform in 1975, she was inspired to start her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. At a time in which white-power party the National Front was on the rise, her mere presence —18, braces on teeth, half-Somali, female— was provocation, but Elliott-Said went out of her way to be confrontational. She 'branded' herself Poly Styrene as a commentary on consumerist culture and music-as-commodity, and X-Ray Spex's debut single (1977's immortal "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!") equated mass-marketed images of women with shackled oppression. X-Ray Spex's sole LP, Germ Free Adolescents, proved endlessly influential, Poly's poignant politics and broadside voice authoring the blueprint for the riot-grrrl movement.

10. Björk


In 2008, Björk wrote an open letter decrying the credit given to her male collaborateurs. "The work I do on the computer gets credited to whatever male was in 10 meter radius," she spat. Though Björk had worked with amazing musicians from Mark Bell to Matmos, she was always in charge: as writer, as producer, as conceptualist, as the driving force behind an unbroken string of groundbreaking albums. From 1993's Debut, Björk has made radical, experimental pop music, working avant-garde elements —electronic sound, sampling, songs assembled from bizarre components— into melodic form, whilst singing in an idiosyncratic, utterly-unique wail that is hers and hers alone. She's, needless to say, no man's puppet, more the most singular solo act of the past 20 years.

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