[Last week, we ran a piece by Mark Pursell called “This Is Not an Open Letter to Shirley Manson.” It was essentially a response to the Garbage frontwoman’s recent Facebook post about the lack of “piss and vinegar” in modern female pop and rock music. “It was a strange incident in a year that has been strange as a whole for women in music,” Mark wrote, “as creators and performers, and certainly as objects and subjects.” This list is a companion piece to that original story. — Ryan Reed]
In that spirit, here are ten of my favorite records released by women artists this year. Some of them are mainstays of the mainstream fringe; some have mainstream popularity despite their fringe sensibilities. And some are only just beginning to gain recognition. Regardless: Give these records a listen — and tell me that there aren’t women full of piss and vinegar who are out there every day, doing it their way. In alphabetical order:
1) Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Neko Case isn’t hurting for positive exposure. She’s a queen among the independent/alternative rock set, her star ascendant since 2002’s Blacklisted but growing ever brighter since, each new record a meticulously-crafted treasure box of literate, angular songs that only increase the wattage of her brilliance. This year’s The Worse Things Get… is no exception; as usual, Case expertly weaves together her folk, rock, and country influences, and the personal, almost confessional subject matter of the songs comprise a record both gritty and vulnerable, alternately lashing out and self-lacerating. Appropriately for this list, Case tackles the thorny subject of gender on several songs, particularly first single “Man,” though it’s the spooky doo-wop of “Local Girl” that lingers in your mind long after the record’s end.
2) Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
The cover of Sky Ferreira’s full-length debut is a NSFW picture of the singer/songwriter, topless in a shower. However, the image is leagues away from the sexually-exploitative semi-porn one might expect. Ferreira stares balefully out at the viewer, her blonde hair wet and limp. It’s a picture that (purposely) evokes sadness and desperation, despite her visible breasts, and in doing so perfectly encapsulates the record it emblemizes. Night Time, My Time is a searing collection of pop and pop punk tunes whose lyrics are full of anger, weariness, and smirking self doubt, though the melodies and production bubble over with infectious energy. The contrast results in a record that listens like an exorcism, a catharsis of the garbage Ferreira has ingested and endured for the last five years of her turbulent tenure in major-label development hell. On tracks such as “Boys” and “Ain’t Your Right,” she excoriates and exonerates men, often in the same breath, then turns her laser sight on herself on “I Blame Myself.” But the lovelorn resignment of “Heavy Metal Heart” is the album standout.
3) Haim – Days are Gone
The sunshine-through-melancholy spirit of Fleetwood Mac is alive and well in the music of the Haim sisters, who write and perform their own songs and put together this first full-length record with the help of up-and-coming producer Ariel Rechtshaid (who also produced the previous entry on this list by Sky Ferreira). The subject matter is standard — connection and disconnection, relationships and regret — but Haim’s sense of rhythm and their wordy, glottal melodies set them apart, showing that the trio’s love of female R&B artists like En Vogue and Destiny’s Child has informed their folk pop for the better.
4) Lady Gaga – Artpop
Lady Gaga is a divisive figure, but no matter what you think of her, you can’t say that she doesn’t carve her own path and make her own choices about her music and image. And though she is the definition of a superstar, and thus not really in need of the infinitesimal exposure this list provides, her songs and her visuals have always been left-of-center, frequently (though not always) rejecting the standard, porno-for-men Maxim aesthetic of her pop contemporaries in favor of bombast, androgyny, and performance art. As for the new record, it’s a mixed bag — songs like “Aura”, “Swine”, “Venus”, and the title track are some of the most interesting and forward-thinking pop she’s made, while other tracks feel like a regression to her Fame-era days — but never a boring one.
5) Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
If there’s any woman in music who embodies the different dimensions of female beauty and sexuality and how to use them to effect, it’s Alison Goldfrapp. She and her musical partner Will Gregory, working together as the duo Goldfrapp, reinvent themselves with each new record — art-pop, trip-hop, dance, chamber folk, they’ve done it all — and with each record, Alison presents some new facet of herself: sometimes sultry (Black Cherry, Supernature), sometimes ethereal (Felt Mountain, Seventh Tree), and, on newest record Tales of Us, an intriguing mixture of both. Tales evokes the cinematic grandeur of Goldfrapp’s debut Felt Mountain in sound but its melodies and lyrics create an intimate, self-contained world that the listener wants to curl up in and never leave. A slow-paced, thoughtful record, but an extremely rewarding one.
6) Lissie – Back to Forever
Lissie’s sophomore release more than builds upon her excellent debut, Catching a Tiger. Back to Forever is tighter, focused, the songs as lean and honed as the emotions contained in them. Lissie’s early songs and first record bore elements of folk and country; here, those influences mostly fade away in favor of guitar-driven pop rock that brings Stevie Nicks to mind on some songs, and Courtney Love on others. But the record’s personality is wholly Lissie herself, a hard-drinking and hard-loving young woman whose ambivalence about her potential fame, troublesome ex-lovers, and veering emotional state strike the listener with visceral force even as you bob your head to her hooks. She richly deserves wider recognition.
7) Lorde – Pure Heroine
Not since Fiona Apple burst onto the scene with 1996’s Tidal has a teenage singer-songwriter come bounding out of the gate with such accomplishment and such ferocious, single-minded purpose as Ella Yelich-O’Conner, whom you may know better as Lorde. Hype is a troublesome byproduct of entertainment-as-commodity, so it’s always deeply satisfying when that hype is matched or surpassed, and Lorde’s full-length debut, Pure Heroine, does the latter. Yes, The Love Club EP was a promising, precocious initial sally, and yes, “Royals” lit up the airwaves as an early-autumn smash, but none of this could have prepared us for Pure Heroine itself. Lorde’s songs — their articulate lyrics full of beautiful concrete images and wry one-liners, their melodies swinging from straight pop to something approximating electro R&B, their beats shimmering and somnolent by turns — take you aback because they don’t sound quite like anything you’ve heard before, and at the same time like a classic record you’ve always loved. Line by line, song by song, Lorde’s astounding record accomplishes that most difficult of tasks: It is at once happy and sad, a reveling in the glory of the moment coupled with the sweet, melancholy awareness that all of this is transient, and will all too soon be gone, or may be gone, already. A tie for my favorite record of the year with Vienna Teng’s Aims (#10 on this list).
8) Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
While we’re talking about women musicians whose music doesn’t sound like anyone else’s, we have to bring up Laura Mvula. I first heard about her when the video for her single “That’s Alright” made the rounds on the blogosphere earlier this year. Even as a single song, it struck me as an assured, independent statement from an artist who, though new to the scene, seemed self-possessed and very much in control of what she wanted her music to sound and look like. The full-length debut, Sing to the Moon, contains 11 more songs that leave the same impression. Mvula’s melodic sensibilities are organic and natural but always surprising, swooping in unexpected directions before plopping you down again in a traditionally-hooky chorus or bridge, and the lush orchestrations enhance the novelty of these songs while also reinforcing their difficult-to-classify, almost genre-less quality.
9) Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Identical twins Tegan and Sara Quin have been putting out excellent indie-rock records for well over a decade, and the back-to-back releases of If It Was You and So Jealous in the mid-Aughties expanded both their following and their musical palette. It would be a crime, however, to talk about the best records released by women artists in 2013 and not mention the duo’s Hearthtrob, which came out this past January and, due to the passage of time, may not be on many people’s “end of the year best” radars. It’s on mine, though. For Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara gave their poppier instincts full rein, and the result is an adrenaline-fueled smorgasbord of towering power-pop. The riffs are big, the hooks are bigger, and it all sparkles from under a sheen of glossy but not sterile production from pop heavyweights Greg Kurstin and Mike Elizondo. Do yourself a favor and revisit this record as 2013 comes to a close; you may find yourself dancing in your driver’s seat.
10) Vienna Teng – Aims
It’s fitting that the final record on this list is the one that is tied (with Lorde’s Pure Heroine) for my favorite of the year. Like Tegan and Sara, Vienna Teng has been putting out records for over a decade. Her early work showcased her intricate piano stylings and poetic, introspective lyrics, drawing comparisons to Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan. Over the years, though, Teng forged her own path. Her songs grew riskier and stranger, her lyrics plumbing subjects as varied as ghosts, Hurricane Katrina, high fantasy, domestic terrorism, reincarnation, political optimism, immigration reform, and the nature of compulsive/addictive behavior. Then, in the wake of her 2009 record, Inland Territory, she announced that she would be taking a break from music in order to pursue a dual-Master’s degree in global sustainable enterprise from the University of Michigan. The time off and the shift in intellectual focus seem to have worked some kind of magic for Teng, because now, four years later, she’s released Aims — not only the pinnacle of her artistic achievement thus far, not only my (tied for) favorite record of 2013, but also that most unusual and tricky of all animals: protest music that isn’t preachy.
You might think that taking the concerns of global sustainable enterprise and funneling them into songs would yield dry, didactic results. On the contrary: the first half of Aims tackles contemporary American concerns about corporate overreach, environmental exploitation, and personal responsibility in songs that positively crackle with warmth of emotion and fire of purpose, and which somehow avoid devolving into plaintive whining or accusatory saber-rattling. “Level Up” is a truly epic call to action that makes the spine straighten, the resolve steel; “In the 99” brings the fight to the 1%. Throughout, Teng never loses the sweeping sense of melody or the poetic wordplay that are her trademark. It’s a delicate balancing act, but she pulls it off with as much aplomb and seeming lack of effort as an acrobat dancing across a high wire. In the second act, things grow more personal — “Oh Mama No” addresses Teng’s (or someone’s) mother and the inevitability of losing her, “Flyweight Love” the lightness of a romance that binds but does not burden — but the standout track is the a capella “Hymn to Acxiom,” in which a ghostly chorus of Tengs sing from the perspective of the corporate machine, envisioning a future under their control, seducing the listener with promises of personal attention and empathy before, in the bridge, revealing their intent to design the listener “a perfect love or…lust,” a need specifically tailored to them that only the Machine can fulfill. “Now we possess you,” the hundred Tengs sing, in an emulation of sacred music that is so beautiful it makes the subject matter and sentiment all the more chilling. It is science fiction, protest, and breathtaking hymn all in one. It is the most stunning song of the year on the most stunning record of the year. Run, don’t walk.