Who Was The Best Female Artist Of The '90s?
Rocks Off Sr. was straightening up our office a few days ago, something that happens like clockwork every time Middle Eastern governments start toppling like dominos. In one of the piles and piles of al fresco CDs, we ran across two of our favorite albums of the '90s.
The album that started the whole thing.
Two spins through Cowboy Junkies' Lay It Down and a spin and a half through PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love - it was one of those mornings - later, we had our latest Round Table prompt: Who, in your opinion, was the best female artist (or female-fronted band) of the '90s? Not the most important, or even the most influential - just the best, in one man or woman's opinion. It's probably a tougher question than either one of the others.
For Rocks Off Sr. personally, as Chris Gray, the '90s were not only a time female musicians set a new watermark of success, independence and visibility, but the decade I came of age both musically and sexually. The two are hardly unrelated.
It took me days to come up with an answer I was satisfied with. Sorting out the women who turned me on talent-wise from the ones who turned me on for other reasons was no easy task, and not one I would like to repeat anytime soon. Music is sexy, or it should be. There's a reason the heart is halfway between the ears and the nether regions, I think.
So sorry, Liz Phair. Sorry, Shirley Manson. (Real sorry.) Sorry, Tanya Donnelly and your fellow Breeders the Deal sisters. You were close. As you can tell by now, I tend to go for tough chicks who aren't afraid to speak their minds, know their way around a guitar lick and - although they may be loath to admit it - conceal a kernel of vulnerability underneath that shell.
So eventually it clicked: Although she only made two albums in the '90s, my Female Artist of the Decade could only be Lucinda Williams.
Sweet Old World, released in 1992, abounds in passion, loss and the Southern poetics Williams inherited straight from her father, Clinton-era U.S. Poet Laureate Miller Williams. Six years later, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road is still as close to a perfect album as I've heard to this day.
The notoriously finicky Williams scrapped sessions, sidemen and songs several times, and the difficult, protracted genesis of Car Wheels makes its status as a masterpiece both unusual and understandable. Musically it's untouchable - contributors include Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Gurf Morlix, Buddy Miller and Charlie Sexton - and lyrically, every last line sounds like it could have come from no one else, even when it did (Randy Weeks' rip-roaring "Can't Let Go").
Both nakedly autobiographical and irresistibly tuneful, the title track has been rolling around my head for days now. Shot through with blues of both the happy and unhappy-woman variety, the rest of the album simmers in a steamy climate both sensual ("Right In Time," "Joy") and sorrowful ("Metal Firecracker," "Lake Charles").
For my money, not only did Car Wheels make Williams a role model for contemporary songbirds like Kasey Chambers, Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Borges and Kathleen Edwards (as much as Harris was for her), it did more to put alt-country/Americana on the map as something besides mainstream Nashville's red-headed stepchild than anything by boy bands like Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, Old 97's and Whiskeytown.
Anyone who's seen my CD collection knows that's saying a lot.
For runners-up, I'd have to say L.A. badasses L7 in a walk. The quartet was too heavy for grunge and too grungy to be riot-grrrl, and I had their LPs Bricks are Heavy and Hungry for Stink in my CD player for months on end. Somehow, they also convinced me that sleeveless flannel shirts were a wise fashion decision. For the hip-hop side of the ledger, I'll go with Salt-N-Pepa.
Why? None a yo bidness. I hereby yield the floor to team Rocks Off.