10 essential alternative ’90s bands fronted by women you should know
The '90s were chock-full of absolute icons, and no, we're not referring to the Princess Diana Beanie Baby or JNCO jeans when we say that. From Nirvana to *NSYNC, pop and grunge ruled the airwaves. However, it seems like some women-fronted acts don't get nearly enough credit for all of their contributions to the music scene of the decade.
We are here to remind you of 10 essential acts that you should know for shaping the '90s music scene with riot grrrl screams, grunge guitar licks, instantly recognizable choruses and more.
Read more: 10 vocalists who brought a unique sound to the 2000s scene
You know and love Courtney Love and her work in Hole. The grunge outfit began in 1989 and gained mainstream success in 1992. Hits such as "Doll Parts" and "Celebrity Skin" expressed their angst and longing to be understood by a partner, the world and everything in between. Love is an inspiration to many modern alt singers, including Heather Baron-Gracie of Pale Waves, who hopes to make '90s-sounding music similar to Hole in future releases.
Garbage are best known for their hit "Stupid Girl," originally released on their debut. Shirley Manson led the iconic group starting in 1993, alongside Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig. Their debut self-titled LP arrived halfway through the decade in 1995 and spent 81 weeks on the Billboard 200. That was just the beginning, as the group would go on to win multiple awards, rank even higher in the music charts and appear on multiple network television shows, including Saturday Night Live. Other hallmarks that marked their incredible rock presence included "Queer" and "Only Happy When It Rains."
L7 first came onto the scene in the mid-‘80s but truly burst into the spotlight once the new decade rolled around. Founding members Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner called themselves L7 because it was a way to say “square”—something the quartet definitely aren't. These women put out their self-titled debut in 1988 and made a splash in the rock realm with the release of 1990’s Smell The Magic, a Sub Pop record that brought both the label and the band a great deal of success. 1992’s Bricks Are Heavy is recognized as one of the best and most iconic rock albums of the decade. They worked hard during this whole 10-year period, subsequently releasing Hungry For Stink (1994), The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum (1997) and Slap-Happy (1999). They took a well-deserved break in the early 2000s via a touring hiatus and made their glorious return in 2014. No surprise, they're just as hilarious, rebellious and show-stopping. They show the world that women can do anything they set their minds to, especially when it involves making classic, headbanging tracks. As if their music and stage presence weren't cool enough, they are also actively pro-choice and founded Rock For Choice, a concert and women’s rights group that fundraised donations to help those suffering from anti-abortion violence and clinics that were bombed in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
This British quartet dominated the airwaves in the '90s with their blend of raw heavy rock, bluesy guitar strums and haunting alt vocals. Lead singer Skin describes their music as "clit-rock" which is defined as "an amalgam of heavy metal and Black feminist rage." Skunk Anansie debuted with their 1995 record Paranoid & Sunburnt, and blew up even more with their 1996 LP Stoosh featuring their most-streamed hit to this day "Hedonism." Their 2012 release Black Traffic featured such heartbreaking songs as "Sad, Sad, Sad" in honor of their late drummer Robbie France. Skin is an incredible role model for young people everywhere inside and outside of the music fandom, sharing that it's necessary to stand up for what you believe in. She also made incredible solo music after the band's initial split including Fleshwounds (2003) and Fake Chemical State (2006).
Straight from the West Coast, Sleater-Kinney began as a side project in 1994. Original duo and remaining members Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker named the band after a local road near their practice space and started it as a side project. Brownstein, a member of Excuse 17, was inspired by Heavens To Betsy, a riot grrrl project featuring Tucker. After the bands broke up, Sleater-Kinney took center stage in their lives, releasing their debut self-titled album in 1995. They experienced several lineup changes as far as drummers go, but Janet Weiss served in the band longer than the other musicians who played alongside Tucker and Brownstein. Tucker’s voice is an embodiment of ‘90s indie rock and had a huge influence on the genre as we heard it in the 2000s and beyond. Throughout the decade, the band would go on to release Call The Doctor (1996), Dig Me Out (1997) and The Hot Rock (1999). The duo are still making music and are definitely a band with a slow-and-steady burn. Their most recent release from 2019, The Center Won't Hold, is everything both longtime and brand-new fans could want: raw riot grrrl vocals, rock riffs, experimental indie sounds and the like.
Bikini Kill are the ultimate riot grrrl group that led the way for modern women to scream and share their fierce, rebellious side with zero apologies. Helmed by Kathleen Hanna, the act have inspired other women to go into music and reject traditional gender roles and societal norms through such anthems as “Rebel Girl” and “Feels Blind.” They allowed punk to be accessible and relatable to all young people across genders, allowing them to embrace being independent, free-spirited and angry. Tracks such as “I Like Fucking” didn’t just rock. They were clear indicators to young people that sexuality is OK and natural, which was an especially healthy message back when ‘90s classrooms were riddled with fear-based sex ed lessons. Olympia’s favorite all-girl band will always be hailed as queens of the riot grrrl scene. Revolution Girl Style Now, among their other records, continues to serve as the foundation where many punk, grunge and alt artists learn to criticize gender norms, politics and more. In fact, "Rebel Girl" was an inspiration to Amy Poehler's new film Moxie, which explores feminism in the modern age.
The Breeders may have never existed without Pixies and Throwing Muses, as Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly started this particular band as a side project (originally called Boston Girl Super-Group). Ultimately, the side project led to a full-time ‘90s rock phenomenon, with the most current lineup comprising Kim and her twin sister Kelley Deal, Josephine Wiggs and Jim Macpherson. The band’s debut LP, Pod, became an instant classic of the decade, and Kurt Cobain even cited it as a record that changed his life. The year 1993 offered even greater success upon the release of their sophomore LP, Last Splash, featuring their most popular track “Cannonball.” Amid lineup changes and hiatuses, the band remain icons. They're still performing and sitting atop the indie-rock throne. In fact, they even did their own NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2018.
The ska rockers fronted by Gwen Stefani set a precedent for women in the '90s. No Doubt released their debut self-titled album in 1992, but mainstream success truly arrived in 1995 with the release of Tragic Kingdom, featuring "Just A Girl" and "Don't Speak." To this day, Stefani's voice is instantly recognizable, and her immense range is what many try to replicate but few can nail. The singer did go solo in 2004 after the release of 2001's Rock Steady and found success as a judge on The Voice in the 2010s. However, the group reconvened to release their 2012 LP, Push And Shove, but haven't hinted at any releases since. While they do occasionally play shows together, their future remains uncertain. Despite not knowing if we'll see them again, at least we have their amazing albums to hold close, no matter the year.
You'll never forget Dolores O’Riordan's haunting vocals when she sings one of the most famous ‘90s rock songs to date, “Zombie.” Beyond this Cranberries smash hit, the band boast a whopping eight studio albums containing other favorites such as “Dreams,” “Linger” and “Ode To My Family.” Beyond her voice, O’Riordan was a major proponent of certain fashions that we still enjoy today, such as wearing Dr. Martens and sporting pixie haircuts. Later in life, she also used her status to lend a hand to humanitarian programs and fight for child’s rights. The late Irish singer had a solo career in addition to the band, putting out two albums, Are You Listening? and No Baggage. Though she passed far too soon in 2018, her activism, honesty and style remain a major part of the modern alt space.
Babes In Toyland
Originally formed in 1987, this all-girl trio started their musical journey in Minneapolis, sharing hard-rock guitar riffs, riot grrrl chants, aggressive lyrics and face-melting choruses. Babes In Toyland's music actually grabbed the attention of Sonic Youth, who took the group on tour, boosting them into stardom and expanding the horizons for women in hardcore scenes. From Spanking Machine and Fontanelle to Painkillers, Nemesisters and beyond, Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, Clara Salyer and other short-term members put their mark on the decade and did it in an intense, loud way that we surely won't forget.