Dee is one of my oldest friends. We grew up in basically the same neighborhood in Milwaukee and went to the same magnet arts schools from elementary to high school. We've seen each other very little since graduating high school, but our continued friendship is one of those success stories of Facebook. She is a great writer and currently a professor at Fitchburg State University. She plays the viola and the piano. Back when we were in-the-flesh friends she was a thoughtful, funny, slightly self-effacing, and completely one-of-a-kind lady. I have no doubt those attributes have only deepened. One day we'll get to actually spend some time face to face! Until then, like you, I'll just follow her on the Twitter, check out her blog, and read some of her writing here and here.
My twin five-year-old daughters demand we listen to music and not people talking on NPR, so I flip through the radio in my fourteen-year-old car. The first song I get is some tenor crooning about how he doesn’t want it to end or something. “No,” one of my girls says. “I want to hear a woman singing.” I turn the station and there’s some other guy with an affected country twang singing about drinking and girls. Both girls behind me whine, “No! Find a woman!” Station after station, some tenor (and yes, always tenor) is singing or some nonchalant guy rapping. The only woman I happen upon is too bubblegum for me, so we finally end up on a classical station.
This list is ultimately for my daughters, but also for all the others who want to hear women. I gave myself only two stipulations: 1) The lead vocalist must be a woman and 2) The song must not compromise the integrity of that vocalist or any woman at all. Like my music taste, the list is eclectic. Forgive me.
Billie Holiday – April In Paris - I’ll start with one of my favorite songstresses, Billie Holiday. Known for her ability to connote feeling through vocalization (people who knew her marveled how she moved lyrics into poetry and spoke as she sang), I chose a song that exhibits this ability beautifully: “April in Paris.” The wanting and rush of feeling at the end of “April in Paris” is palpable. This is fleeting love, this is a moment lost in a whimsical place.
Xenia Rubinos – When You Come - Xenia Rubinos’ voice shocked me awake one weekend morning while helping with breakfast and listening to NPR. Sonorous and emotive: I stopped and listened. Really, my whole family stopped and listened. When the rhythm came in, syncopated and funky, I knew I would be downloading her album. So happy I did—it’s one of those rare LPs I can listen to from beginning to end, some songs two or three times. This song plays with melody and rhythm in novel ways. The beginning of the song begins with looping the phrase, “Could you ask yourself.” Next, the drums and very rhythmic keyboards come in a drunken, progressive waltz. The lyrics of this song are bold and sexually free, for example, “I like it when you come home and make love to me like you’ve seen something new” and “I prefer to keep pretending you are the sweet thing I made you out to be,” redefining what an amorous relationship is. Rubinos uses her voice as both a melodic and percussion instrument and plays liberally with what can be done with her voice. It is something to behold.
Björk – Sacrifice - No list of women vocalists can be replete without Björk. I had a hard time coming up with just one song, so for the sake of timeliness, I decided to pick a song from one of her latest albums, which still proved difficult. I chose “Sacrifice”. The sublimity is probably not lost on anyone, and “Sacrifice” is exemplary in this awe of nature. Vocals and music begin immediately, only Bjork’s singing over the spectrally wavering notes of the sharpsichord (an odd and twenty-first century instrument). Her singing realizes the lyrics aptly: a contemplative conversation. The first time this duet is corrupted is when a number of voices joins at the lines “now her desires are repressed/ arrows in the flesh.” From there, the ensemble voices continue, but with fluidity, and the lead vocal taking liberties to deviate from a written line. Again, there is change. This time, with the lyrics, “now she regrets the whole thing/ a delayed reaction” with a low rumble which eventually explodes into a frantic drumbeat that muffles both vocals and sharpsichord. We move quickly back to the two parts of lead vocal and sharpsichord when the lyrics offer advice for reconciliation (“Build a bridge to her”). Finally, she ends with these wooing syllables from the chorus. Gorgeous piece.
Patti Smith – Blue Poles - “Blue Poles” is on Patti Smith’s Peace and Noise album. I listened to the album continuously in college and years later, when in grad school working on my comps, which partly covered working class fiction, I kept listening to this song (also a title of a Pollack painting).
The song is a letter written to the speaker’s mother, recounting the perils of her group looking for work during the Great Depression and announcing the death of “Hal.” Like any delivery of bad news, Hal’s dying is hidden near the end of the song—it’s worse news in a lot of bad news: the dust, no rain, had to leave the dresses you made and, oh yeah, Hal died.
Her voice is classic Patti Smith: warm and soulful. She shapes what goes on in this song with a practiced control of vibrato and reservation. The music is as simple as it needs to be and like Smith’s singing, is reverent.
Hole – Never Go Hungry - Since I’m crazy about working class issues, I was crazy about “Never Go Hungry” the first time I heard it. I know: Courtney Love is sometimes a mess and she doesn’t always sing in tune, but I dig her. I like lots of her songs and I love that she continues in spite of a spiteful public.
This song is an anthem. You can sing along to it. You can sing along to it after having a few. You could play it on any instrument without knowing how to play an instrument. “Oh I don't care what it takes my friend / I will never go hungry, go hungry again / Oh and I don't care what I have to pretend / I will never go hungry, go hungry again.” Then when she allows herself to bellow out over the acoustic guitar chords, it’s with the triumphant lines, “And the phoenix she rises, she is sure to descend/ She will never go hungry, go hungry again.” The friggin’ flag is still friggin’ there!
Hey, this is the closest Love will come to Scarlet O’Hara. A torn dress? Lack of jewels? Here is a symbolic finger to the celeb world and all its fans.
Whitney Houston – It's Not Right But It's Okay -
A tragic figure who is also a role model regardless of her failings, Whitney Houston also had some anthem-esque songs. I’m adding “It’s Not Right” because of its call for independence and its invitation other women to stand up to trifling men. There’s a history of songs like this, such as Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” but “It’s Not Right” has the amount of everywoman (see how I did that?) in it to make it a rally cry. The video even has a group of women milling around Houston singing the chorus. This is a collective fuck-you to assholes. And though it’s an angry song, it’s happy in that she’s out of there. She’s done with it. Leave your key, dude!
Man, I miss her voice. To describe it here would be not a disservice, but useless. We know it. She was a singularity.
Missy Elliott – Work It - Independence doesn’t have to be separate from men, though. Missy Elliot has fun with sexuality in lots of her songs, but “Work It” is fun to listen to, though at the end the whole thing kind of falls apart (some borderline politics there, too). The 1980s throwback and the reverse samples are indicative of her playful style, and there’s enough booty bass to make you want to drop it.
Beth Orton – Ted's Waltz - If I had a traditional wedding, I probably would have used “Ted’s Waltz” as our song. Okay, maybe not; the idea of a traditional wedding sickens me. Still, this is a precious love song. “Since I first met you / I found the love I lost / It's just like you / looks just like you” and “See the way you are / feel the way you move / so deep, so cool / you burn through it all” crooned out in Beth Orton’s scratchy, innocent alto. I always want to hug when I hear this song. Maybe even waltz. Then I want to listen to it again. This is a celebration of the “you” in this piece, completely focused and sincere.
Besides the traditional feel of the waltz, where the bass and the drum keeps the time, the song is aesthetically pleasing because of Beth’s oscillation from one octave to the next, giving it a dance-like quality.
Warpaint – Beetles - Whenever I have a deadline, “Beetles” by Warpaint comes to mind. It doesn’t really follow for me to think of it, but still, when I feel especially overwhelmed (that’s probably hyperbole) I’ll sing the lyrics to myself: “I’m not prepared” and “why can’t I just get it together?” I could have chosen a more recent song from this all female band, but this one came to mind: the funky little drum hook at the beginning then the weird vocal effects before Emily Kokal comes in with her girlishly bold voice. Also, that groovy bass line—simple but right on. Try not dancing when listening.
The Breeders – Doe - Since this list is really for my twin daughters, I thought I should have some of The Breeders here. But I couldn’t decide on “Full on Idle” or “Doe.” Though “Doe” is the older one, I chose it because it’s just a quick little song that takes on a lot in just over two minutes. It’s fast, it’s kind of poppy and kind of punk, and Kim Deal’s soft and sultry singing contrasts in just the right way with the music and the lyrics.
Goldfrapp – You Never Know - Last on this playlist is Goldfrapp, the British electronic pop duo and the song “You Never Know.” Alison Goldfrapp’s soprano begins the piece with a repeated high E flat for each word: “How long now? / Too long now.” The music is almost sparse, but there’s incidental sound throughout. Eventually, the song crescendos with violin, noise, and Alison Goldfrapp attacking those marcato notes. It’s so fun to watch live—musicians enjoying themselves and a Marlene Dietrich-esque Alison Goldfrapp leading the group.
There are so many great female voices I’ve left off this list—Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Siouxsie Sioux, Jill Scott, Sade, Grace Slick, Grace Jones, Joni Mitchell, Shania Twain, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Ella Fitzgerald, Amy Winehouse, Cat Power, and gads more. These songs just so happen to be in my current record revolution. Also, these are songs I know my daughters can deal with (the instrumental version of “Work It” because duh!).
--DeMisty D. Bellinger