Long before the internet made making connections easy, the riot-grrrl movement was an astonishing web of grassroots networking. Initially growing out of a community of like-minded women authoring feminist fanzines, riot-grrrl marked the moment in which these polemicists put down their pens and picked up guitars. Drawing from punk's original spirit, they used do-it-yourself idealism and progressive politics to create their own form of protest music. Though the riot-grrrl movement only really lasted for the first half of the '90s, here are ten albums from across a quartet of century that fly under the one feminist flag.
In 1991, when the riot-grrl movement was just kicking into gear, the debut album by snotty UK punks X-Ray Spex was released on CD for the first time ever, with their all-time killer single "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" tacked onto the end. Though it came from an entirely different era to riot-grrrl, Germ Free Adolescents serves as a spiritual forebear to almost everyone below. X-Ray Spex's lead singer Poly Styrene —all charismatic caterwaul and anti-establishment sloganeering— was a huge influence on Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and Heavens to Betsy's Corinn Tucker. Listening to sarcastic songs as "I'm a Cliché" and "I'm a Poseur" from the vantage of hindsight, it's like Poly Styrene is sowing the seeds of a whole sound in every pissed-off yelp.
3. Huggy Bear 'Taking the Rough with the Smooch' (1993)
"We're Bikini Kill," yelped Kathleen Hanna, "and we want Revolution Girl Style Now!" So opened the band's self-titled 1991 EP, and so opened the floodtides of the riot-grrrl sound. Sounding obnoxiously angry and provocatively amateurish, Hanna and her cohorts thrashed out disenfranchised anthems fast and furious. Their revolution recast punk anew; rage amplified via three chords, cheap fidelity, and irrepressible energy. The noisy, distorted, rough-as-guts recordings —first their debut, then a split EP with Huggy Bear, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah; the two then compiled onto 1994's The CD Version of the First Two Records— show a band bristling with a sense of righteous indignation; mad as hell and out to change the world.
Anyone who considers Heavens to Betsy as some historical footnote —merely the band that Corin Tucker was in before going on to form Sleater-Kinney— clearly hasn't listened to Calculated. The one and only LP for the Olympia-born duo is dragged along by Tucker's red-raw, wildly-untrained wails; which pull the slow, sludgy, often-dirgy songs along in all their crunchy, over-driven guitar noise and hard-pounding drums. Eventually, in Sleater-Kinney, Tucker would hone her voice to a sharpened, precision weapon, but here she wields it as blunt instrument; literally yelling at the establishment, at injustice, at the patriarchy until she's red in the face. Sure, it's a little adolescent at times, but, then again, so is rock'n'roll itself.
When 'alternative music' was mired in its post-Nirvana, major-labels-cutting-ranks malaise, Sleater-Kinney burst out of the Pacific Northwest with this, their third LP; finding effusive critical praise and a rapidly-growing crossover profile. Where early albums, including 1996's awesome Call the Doctor, found former Heavens to Betsy leader Corin Tucker and foil Carrie Brownstein making mad tangles of detuned guitars, on Dig Me Out their songs went from off-kilter to anthemic. The third S-K LP came blessed with straight-up pop-songs as catchy as "Little Babies," "Dig Me Out," and "Words and Guitar," and its invariable success lead it to being regarded by many as the end of riot-grrrl as self-contained, insular movement.
Made up of members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, The Frumpies consisted wholly of riot-grrrl royalty, even if their run of singles —collected, together, eventually, on the posthumous CD Frumpie One-Piece— flew well below the pop-cultural radar. Essentially a songwriting vehicle for Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail, The Frumpies played a scuzzier, looser, more raggedy form of rock'n'roll than even their riot-grrrl peers (who were hardly a shrine to tightness to begin with). Where their musical day-jobs were steeped in fury, The Frumpies seemed like the downcast flipside; cuts like "Fake Antagonism Rules, Okay" unspooling with a smirking lethargy that suggested a group of musicians tired of forever fighting the good fight.
When they arrived in a sweaty heap of belted-out blues vocals and scrappy Southern riffs, all recorded at levels well into the red, dancefloor-friendly garage-rockers The Gossip introduced themselves as the first of a second wave of riot-grrrl acts. Growing up in backwoods Arkansas, powerfully-piped vocalist Beth Ditto and weird hipster guitarist Brace Paine (stage names, natch) obsessed over old Huggy Bear records and K Records singles, and, come 18, they moved to Olympia like pilgrims heading to Mecca. After a debut EP for K and a stint opening for Sleater-Kinney, the trio's first LP, That's Not What I Heard, introduced a band boldly crusading for female/queer rights a decade after riot-grrrl's first flourish.
Though Erase Errata were clearly influenced by the riot-grrl movement —by its feminist agenda, its queer politics, its DIY ideals— they sound unlike anyone else on this list. Instead, they drew from the hectic, herky-jerky, atonal ways of no-wave; making a spastic, scratchy racket whose compositional dissonance created a sense of permanent tension. Where early riot-grrrl records were wholly committed to their crusades, Other Animals was a different beast; the surety of the '90s lost in a new-millennium seemingly defined by its unceasing anxiousness. Refusing to rest and rarely daring to stick to either traditional meter or harmony, Erase Errata's debut disc delivered a set of songs to keep listeners on eternal edge.