April 2014: Golden Age for Women Musicians?

In my "Best of 2013" post back in January, I asserted that we are in a golden age for music made by women. Happily, this inspired some back-and-forth in the FB music discussion group I belong to, with some parties questioning whether this time is any better than any other for women in music. Kevin argued that "these things go in cycles," offering up the early '90's as an equally auspicious time, with artists like Belly, Ace Of Base, The Cranberries, Stereolab, Shakira, Shania Twain, PJ Harvey, Aimee Mann, Liz Phair, Bjork, Juliana Hatfield, The Breeders, Bikini Kill, etc.

On the other side of the cynicism spectrum, Kaleb posited that it's not a "golden age," but only because that term implies an end to itself, and  that what's happening now is nothing short of a complete paradigm shift, an "an era when a critical mass of women are doing their thing without being required to seek approval from mostly-male gatekeepers." Kaleb's point is really one manifestation of a broader phenomenon, in which the freedom of the internet has essentially deposed the former kings of the music industry, theoretically (hopefully) for good. Eric asked, "Has the current musical landscape been leveled and democratized such that we don't have to rely as heavily on gatekeepers of taste?" For me, the answer is clearly "Yes." 

While this is all interesting, my point was at its heart much simpler. Regardless of your conclusion about what gates have or haven't been knocked down, or what technological/political changes in the music industry have taken place to create opportunities for women in music - women around the world are clearly making some of the most exciting, diverse, confident contemporary music.

Of course, there's a slight chicken/egg factor to my theory. Since my musical tastes have a pronounced soft spot for female voices, it may be that I just naturally gravitate toward their music and have unwittingly skewed my own very-unscientific survey. On the other side of things, though, I noticed that the skeptics in the group have tastes that (not coincidentally, I would argue) skew towards metal and punk, which remain dominated by male voices.

While this month's playlist is not chromosamally exclusive, it weighs heavy on the homogametic side of things (i.e. the XX).  I think these extraordinary musicians make a case for my theory way better than whatever crackpot ruminating I can summon. Enjoy. ~ Josh

Ex Hex – Hot and Cold Mary Timony's long career actually provides evidence for both my argument and Kevin's, spanning from the band Helium in the early '90's, to the recent all-lady supergroup WILD FLAG, and this new project. I wish I could write songs like this, so clearly drawn and direct. Exactly what it is. Great guitar tone. Equal parts assertive and playful. The video's pretty great, too, and equally unfussy - with professional weirdo Ian Svenonius brilliantly cast as the frustrated Romeo.

Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains – La vérité I really try not to be too creepy about seeing what my friends are listening to on Spotify, but recently I noticed that Steve was on a serious Phish tear and I couldn't help but call him immediately and bark "Phish? Really?" Even though I think he understood why I felt compelled to call him out, he tried a couple days later to retaliate by making fun of me for listing to this "really funny Frenchy music." Of course, he quickly followed with "Actually it's not bad." Not bad indeed. This album grows on me every time I listen.

Alsarah & The Nubatones – Habibi Taal This has been my go to music for at least the last month, satisfying both my "work-time" music needs (i.e. - not too distracting) and "listening-time" needs (i.e. - interesting and engaging). I've been attracted to the sound of the oud for a long time, but hearing it in the context of the east-west fusion this album so adroitly negotiates really highlights its potential "funkiness" (for lack of a better word). In addition to being a fantastic singer, Alsarah is clearly an intellectual force to be reckoned with - a cosmopolitan border-blurrer and trained ethnomusicologist, whose soulfulness and wit are on exhibit in her short tribute to the band's oud player Haig Manoukian, who died this month. Politically engaged, truly original soul music for the 21st century.

Ghostpoet – Season Change In keeping with my Damon Albarn crush letter from last month, I've been swimming around in this collection of collaborations between American and British musicians and young Malian musicians. The album is the continuation of an Albarn-organized project that aims to bring African and UK/American artists together, including a rail-tour of Britain by a group of musicians from Africa.

There's so much great stuff on the album, I struggled deciding which track to pluck. The timeliness of the main refrain here was just too appropriate for this month, when winter fought tooth and nail to stick around.

Latyrx – Watershed Moment I'm taking my Merrill Garbus worship to new heights this month. She produced and is prominently featured on this great track from these Oakland all-stars. Instantly recognizable, Gift of Gab's voice is like the vocal manifestation of MSG, making everything around it taste better. I'm not super familiar with Lateef and Lyrics Born, and am not sure who's doing what, but the plurality of rapping styles and voices keeps the song sailing by, continually refreshed with something unique and cool. And Merrill sounds great, as usual.

Kim Deal – Wish I Was The Pixies release a new album this month, and even before seeing The Chicago Reader's summation of it ("deflating") I was in no rush to put it in my ears. (Pointing out Deal's absence from the current incarnation of the Pixies, the article rightly identifies her as "the Pixies' heart and soul".) For the most part, I think most bands have a finite shelf-life when it comes to making music. I've learned to be wary of comebacks, no matter how much I love a band's old stuff. Bands break up for reasons, and unless someone dies or something, those reasons are probably good ones.

As an alternative, I stumbled on a collection of cool homemade sounding singles from Kim Deal. I'd bet good money this is all her playing, and you can tell. Despite a strong penchant for plainness, Kim Deal really has a sound. There's something so warm and intimate and soothing about this music. Just on the right side of dull. I also highly recommend The Amps, a one-off side project whose only album came out in 1995.

Gillian Welch – Look At Miss Ohio While spying on Gabe's listening earlier this month I was very pleasantly surprised to see Gillian Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest show up. I loved that album to death when it came out, and,  although I'd enjoyed her music before, the virtuosity and heart of its austere, stripped-down, two-pony show really pushed me over the top. Her absence from Spotify has been a real sore point, and I've been looking to fill the void with some vinyl versions. Then, suddenly here was her whole catalogue. This track comes from an album I hadn't heard before, and I love hearing her with these kind of drums. Who am I kidding, this song could have been constructed from a list of my favorite things - roomy drums, dobro, slow and loose tempo. As time goes on, I've started to make peace with the fact that this may be the sound closest to my heart.

Quilt – Arctic Shark I think I heard about this band from the All Songs Considered dudes. So warmly psychedelic. I haven't got the slightest clue what she's singing about.

Tree Party – Helmer Aakvik: The Old Man and the Inland Sea My FB group buddy Kaleb threw this track in a "Best of 2013" list he shared with us. The whole album from this Minneapolis outfit is filled with songs written about true local stories around the state. With the support of a grant from the Minnesota States Art Board, the band traveled around eliciting stories from people and turning them into songs. I haven't quite got all the details of this one yet, but I'm getting there. I can imagine how awesome it must feel to be one of the story-tellers hearing your tale in song for the first time. Truly music for the people!

The Coathangers – Dead Battery This Coathangers song has blossomed for me in the company of these other songs. Listening to their whole album several times, I  had fixed them somewhere in the mediocre section of my taste. In a short burst though, operating as a sort of palette-cleanser to the the other music here, it tickles my ears every time. There's something so fundamentally confrontational about this music. Meridith Franco's bass playing at first sounded amateurish, but every time I listen to this song it sounds more and more brilliant. Slippery and undulating beneath the jaggedness of the other instruments and vocals.  I guess some music just works better in small doses?

Yuna – Hanging On - Bonus Track This music sits precariously close to my saccharine threshold, but I'm so tickled by the idea of a Muslim woman from Malaysia making this kind of music that I'm fine with it. Of course, these kind of token biographical details aren't really that crucial to the music itself, and it's clear that there's a lot more to Yuna than these two facts. Still, the charming unexpectedness (unexpected charm?) of her background does help distinguish her for Western audiences. And it's nice to have pop culture contribute a positive counterbalance to the negativity it tends to paint Muslims with these days. Musically, there's

Dorothy Ashby – Essence Of Sapphire Exquisite. Everything about this sounds good to me. The way it's recorded and mixed, the playing. Especially the playing. The rhythm section seems to add a little bit of extra sand to the mix, maintaing a gritty counterpoint to the harp's innate prettiness. It's really interesting to hear an instrument so sonically similar to a kora or other African harp playing in such a distinctly American way. I'll definitely be digging into more Dorothy Ashby, partly to figure out why she's not more known.

Tune-Yards – Wait for a Minute I read somewhere that Merrill Garbus took singing lessons to prepare for this album. Before hearing this I would have bet good money that this would be an exercise in futility. How could she possibly become a better singer? But, I think she has. The range of textures she's incorporating has obviously expanded. She's so cool.

Sisyphus – Rhythm of Devotion The seemingly incongruous pairing of rapper Serengeti, the overachieving Sufjan Stevens, and the quietly brilliant Son Lux creates something surprisingly coherent and totally unique. The naturalness of transitioning from Serengeti's bark to Sufjan's slacker croon is shockingly logical. Through the whole album, you can spot sections that are clearly in one of the trio's wheelhouses, but the way those pieces have been stitched together into a unified sonic palette is masterful.

Boston – More Than a Feeling I don't know why or how it happened, but I woke up with this song in my head one morning and discovered (MUCH to my surprise) that the whole album was the perfect morning soundtrack. Later, when I talked to Steve about it, he told me how important the album had been to him when he was a kid. Crazy.