Female-Fronted 2017: A Guide to This Year’s Best Music Made By Women

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2017 has been regressive in more ways than I can count. Despite an oppressive political landscape and a constantly-overwhelming news cycle, it’s also been heartening to watch people band together in the face of bigotry, and hatred.

This feeling of resistance has also bled over into art. We’ve finally got a legitimately great female-led superhero movie as well as multiple strong female-centered TV shows (Orange, Veep, Kimmy Schmidt, The Mindy Project, Broad City, Take My Wife). More germane to this blog; the same shift can also be felt in this year’s music. Alongside 2017’s many excellent female-fronted albums, this past month Cardi B become the first solo female rap artist to top the Billboard charts since 1998. Whether it’s a movement or just a sign of the times, we’re witnessing an undeniable change in our culture.

Chalk it up to the political climate, toxic masculinity, or whatever term you prefer; lately I’ve been feeling “over” hyper-masculine music. Maybe it’s a byproduct of a free TIDAL subscription or seeing 20+ concerts in 12 months, but this year I’ve been exposed to a wider variety of music than ever before. Projecting myself onto machismo music has carried me far in life, and that type of music still has a place in my heart (and my iPod), but it’s been connecting with me less and less as time goes on.

I’ve also gotten away from this testosterone-fueled perspective because the alternatives feel infinitely more refreshing than an imitation of something I’ve heard a dozen times before. Even within typically-masculine genres like hip-hop, we now have people like Young Thug and Kevin Abstract who are slowly (but actively) dismantling long-entrenched negative tropes of the scene. This year I’ve found solace and comfort in these unique takes on the human perspective.

Serendipitously, 2017 also happens to be an incredible year for women in music. From vibrant radio bops to hazy bedroom indie, we’ve seen an absolute barrage of impeccable releases this year from female artists. So I wanted to highlight some of the projects that I’ve found myself coming back over and over again. These artists are making some of the freshest, most unique, and lived-in records of recent memory, so let’s take a moment to celebrate these creators and make a toast to new perspectives in art.

Julien Baker

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Funnily enough, one of my favorite discoveries of 2017 turned out to be an album from 2015. I’ve already detailed my affection for Julen Baker’s Sprained Ankle in this loving write-up from earlier in the year, but in short, I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to discover it. Baker’s debut record has been lingering with me all year like a specter. I’ve read interviews, watched live performances, and my Julien Baker-related obsession will likely peak when I see her live this December.

Julien Baker has already had an eventful 2017 as she signed to Matador Records, released a haunting 7-inch, and is currently revving up to drop her Sprained Ankle follow-up Turn Out the Lights. I’m willing to admit her music has now fallen into utterly un-objective fandom territory for me, but even the three songs she’s released this year have been spectacular, and I’m fully expecting her album to worm its way onto my end-of-the-year list. Baker’s brand of somber folky slowcore has a way of hooking directly into my brain and violently wrenching on my heartstrings. I’ve already got my tissues stockpiled for her upcoming October 27th release, and I fully expect to cry in public at her concert in December.

Angel Olsen

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This November singer/songwriter/guitarist Angel Olsen is treating us to a career-spanning album of loosies, B-Sides, and rarities. I’ve already expressed my love for 2016’s My Woman (which landed at #5 on my end-of-the-year list for 2016), and if Phases’ first single is any indication, we’re in for an equally-great collection of moody guitar-centered folk tracks.

Japanese Breakfast

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Japanese Breakfast is the Philadelphia-based solo project of Michelle Zauner. In 2016 she released the grief-stricken 25-minute LP Psychopomp which featured a collection of tracks written in the wake of her mother’s battle with cancer. This year’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet essentially acts as an update. A group of 12 adventurous tracks that offer an honest depiction of what happens after the most important person in your life passes.

Aside from the personal update, Soft Sounds finds itself standing musically above Psychopomp thanks to improved production and added fullness of her now-honed backing band. All of these pieces come together neatly for a more fleshed-out, but less personal album than her debut. The tracks range from saxophone-laden danciness (Machinist) to Roy Orbison-esque balladry (Boyish), but Michelle’s personality shines through each and every moment, making for a hopeful space-themed journey.

Half Waif

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Half Waif is the icy electronic side-project of Pinegrove’s resident keyboardist Nandi Plunkett. This year she’s found a voice speaking out against the internet (and the music industry’s) inherent sexism, but Half Waif’s form/a EP is all the proof you need that she’s a musical force all her own.

Often taking a more dark and honest approach than Pinegrove’s good-spirited group-based cheeriness, Half Waif allows Plunkett to explore deeply-personal stories and exercise the demons of her past. With disarming vocals, swaying melodies, and sprawling instrumentation, form/a is one of the most unique EPs this year.

Camp Cope

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Camp Cope is a trio of Melburnians creating emotionally-punchy emo rock. In 2016 they released an impeccable self-titled debut that tackled everything from relationship nostalgia to police brutality, all in a little over half an hour. It’s a record of forward momentum, and  Georgia Maq’s unmistakably Australian accent adds a unique tinge to the band’s already-memorable songs.

This year they’ve signed to Run For Cover, released a split with Cayetana, and done an Audiotree session. As they rev up for a tour, it’s unlikely we’ll get a sophomore album from them this year, but it seems like these girls are poised to segue this momentum into something really special within the next year.

Snail Mail

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Out of the dozens of concerts I’ve seen this year, a select few have resonated with me deeply, and Snail Mail is one of them. The first time I’d heard of the band was minutes before they were about to take the stage as Girlpool’s second opener. I stood in the crowd, about ten feet from the mic, enjoying my beer and reserving my prime spot for the main act. As Snail Mail took the stage and played their first song, I became slowly disarmed. The singer couldn’t have been older than twenty (she wasn’t) but every song shimmered with a level of maturity and hazy emo malaise.

I found myself hanging on every word, losing track of time, and as soon as it started, it was over. Before their set ended, the bassist and drummer stood and disappeared backstage, leaving frontwoman Lindsey Jordan alone with the crowd. Illuminated by a single spotlight, it was her, a guitar, a mic, and a crowd full of silent people. She played “Anytime,” a (still-unreleased) wandering emo ballad in which she guides you, at first by hand, then by force, deeper into your own emotional rabbit hole.

To put it simply: I was awestruck. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen all year. The band has recreated this (to an obviously less personal degree) in their 2017 Tiny Desk performance which dropped the same day the band announced they were signing to Matador records. It’s spectacular, inspiring, and a little jealousy-inducing that this 17-year-old is achieving artistic heights that I could only dream of, but I am so glad to have been here on the ground floor. Snail Mail’s growth will only be exponential from here on out, mark my words.

Diet Cig

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High kicks, pom-pom earrings, and pictures of doggos. These are just a few of the characteristics that make New York-based Diet Cig a compelling duo. Aside from an infinitely-goofy and endearing social media presence, the band puts on one of the most energetic live shows I’ve ever witnessed. Fueled by nothing but pop-punk ferocity, guitarist and singer Alex Luciano slides across the stage, jumping, kicking, and diving off equipment all while Noah Bowman lays down a steady beat on the drums.

Their 2017 debut album Swear I’m Good At This opens with a humming guitar and a heart aching delivery as Luciano details her teenage attempts to sleep with a guy that shares her name. Within a minute the album quickly whirs into top speed and remains there until its final notes. Their confetti-filled Tiny Desk session captures their on-stage charm and energy quite well and earned the band a deserved spot in a New York Times profile over the summer.  

BABY!

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The emphatically-named BABY! is a Florida-based pop-punk group helmed by Kaley Honeycutt. Fittingly enough, the eternally-hair-dyed Orlandoan released her debut album Sunny, F . L., at the tail end of summer. The record is a breezy marriage of intimate bedroom pop vocals and delicate shimmering instrumentation.

Signed to ex-Japanese Breakfast’s Yellow K Records, BABY! is a prime example of killing it in a local scene. From touring the east coast to hand-making shirts and buttons, Honeycutt is an exemplar of an old-school punk DIY mentality wrapped in a sunny Floridian package.

Lorde

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You’d have to have been living under a soundproof rock to have not heard Lorde’s chart-topping “Royals” back in 2013. After making waves with her (nearly-undisputed) song of the summer, she went six-times platinum and then dropped her debut album Pure Heroine, all by the age of 17. After years of touring, writing, and working on other projects, Lorde simply took some time away from the spotlight to live her life.

In 2017, four years after she first introduced herself to the world, Lorde returned to music, ready to reflect on the remainder of her teenage years. She paired up with Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff and released Melodrama, a markedly more mature and thoughtful record. This highly-anticipated sophomore album utilized real instrumentation and found Lorde grappling with a recent breakup. With 11 tracks stretched over 40 minutes, Melodrama offers a wide variety of explosive sounds centered around grounded slice-of-life stories from the worldly New Zealander. It also happens to contain some of the most infectious, ear-wormiest tracks of the year and has slowly crept up against E•MO•TION as one of my favorite pop albums of all time.

Girlpool

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Often categorized as “folk punk,” Girlpool is a duo comprised of Cleo Tucker on guitar and Harmony Tividad on bass. The two swap instruments and share vocal duties, which led to the creation of their one-of-a-kind debut Before the World Was Big. This year they added a drummer, second guitarist, and released Powerplant, a more full-bodied follow-up.

The dynamic between the two remains strong as ever, and once the opening track “123” clicks into place, it’s clear the drums are there only to support our two leads. They get dark on tracks like “Soup” and eventually send the listener off smiling with “Static Somewhere.” I personally think the band lost a little bit of personality in going from just guitar and bass to adding drums, but there’s still some great charming moments on this record.

Jay Som

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Melina Duterte is a 22-year-old Polyvinyl signee who first made waves in 2016 with her excellent debut Turn Into. This year, amid seemingly-constant touring, she’s already released her official follow-up Everybody Works. The album is packed with clear-eyed songs that depict a single life on an ever-shifting scale. Sometimes zooming down to interpersonal levels, other times peeling back to the cosmic scale, Everybody Works is a crystallization of Duterte as a human. The penultimate title track drills the album’s immensely-catchy title into your head, serving as the first hit of a one-two punch, followed by an epic 7-minute closer that will leave you breathless.

Courtney Barnett

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Courtney Barnett is an indie rocker from Australia who charms the listener through witty self-deprecation. Her debut album, 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit gained her attention for her deadpan delivery and slacker approach to writing. Sometimes I Sit is wall-to-wall memorable tracks that range in topics from biting punk to suburban settling and environmental helplessness. The album quickly became a critical darling, and Barnett earned a well-deserved spot on many end of the year lists.

This year, Courtney Barnett has released one well-received one-off single and has an upcoming collaborative album with equally-mellow pier Kurt Vile. Seeing how their slacker rock styles commingle this fall will be a treat.

Haim

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After releasing one of the best pop albums of 2013, Haim has returned to shake up the musical landscape with Something to Tell You. With more of a retro sound than their debut, the three sisters pull influence from Stevie Nicks, The Eagles, and even Michael Jackson at certain points. The songs on Something to Tell You rattle on in a way that evokes an old Chevy: it’s got a little bit of dust and grit on it, but that dirt is just the countryside, there’s still a shiny hard-working body underneath it all.

Kacy Hill

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G.O.O.D. Music’s resident female vocalist, Kacy Hill is a dreamy redhead with an incredible voice and a singular vision. Her 2015 EP Bloo first gave the world a taste of her offering, but this year’s Like a Woman is a sensual, slow, and occasionally violent exploration of the singer’s sexuality and what it means to be “a woman” in 2017. Alongside the album’s launch, Hill played up the sex angle with multiple steamy music videos and a pornographic parody website dirtylittleredhead.com. On Twitter, she’s just a goofy personality that seems genuinely awestruck and appreciative of her fans.

Lana Del Rey

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Existing on the periphery of the pop music scene for over a decade, Lana Del Rey has steadily been making some of the most interesting pop music since 2010. Unflinchingly tackling topics like domestic abuse and drug addiction, Lana’s music is often a touch too edgy for radio play, but she’s garnered a sizeable audience since 2010 through a deft understanding of social media and several iconic breakout tracks like “Video Games.”

Her 2017 release Lust for Life finds her, for the first time ever, on the cover of her album smiling. Hair adorned with flowers, this happier Lana finds herself circling familiar topics like summer, and spontaneous beach trips, but manages to add some interesting wrinkles. Featuring guest appearances from the likes of Sean Lennon and Stevie Nicks, Lust for Life also seems to be grappling with some bigger, more existential issues like entertainment in the face of destruction and her own image. The record ends up being a nice offering of sultry, self-contained tracks that expand the world and mythos of miss Del Rey while leaving just enough to keep us hooked.

Paramore

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After releasing some of the most important female-fronted emo albums of the 2000’s, Paramore could have gone anywhere. After various lineup changes, a couple monster mainstream hits, and soul-draining complicated legal battles, Hayley Williams decided to ditch the hair dye and embrace a vibrant 80’s throwback vibe. Featuring more engaging and personable songs, After Laughter is a colorful and cheery listen. Anyone paying close attention to the lyrics will quickly notice that the album’s joyful filter is simply a facade used to mask the uncomfortable personnel issues that the album tackles. Despite the lyrical bait and switch, Laughter ends up being a breezy and joyful listen, as long as you don’t spend too much time with the lyric sheet.

St. Vincent

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Indie rocker and multi-instrumentalist St. Vincent has too much on her mind. The other-worldly guitar-player won a Grammy in 2014 for her excellent self-titled album that saw her assume the role of a “near-future cult leader.” St. Vincent (whose real name is Annie Clark) has been relatively quiet in the years since her last record, but in the lead-up to her upcoming Masseducation, Clark has rebranded herself as a straight-haired, plastic sex symbol. Perhaps pulling from her stint as a horror director early in the year, St. Vincent’s forthcoming album seems poised to dismantle institutions and send her on a years-long tour.

SZA

Much like Kacy Hill, SZA is the resident female artist of California-based Top Dawg Entertainment. Since 2012 she’s been releasing a string of quality PR&B mixtapes, gradually building a fanbase and expectations for her full-length debut. Featuring Blonde-esque instrumentation and more relationship strife than you can shake a stick at, SZA’s Ctrl is a bright, sexy, and honest portrait of a 20-something who just can’t seem to get things right but has all the best intentions.

Taylor Swift

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Controversy seems to follow Taylor Swift around like the Coppertone dog. After a highly-publicized lawsuit, an exposing series of Snapchats, and too many beefs to count, the undisputed queen of pop is back with… something. Forecasted by a social media wipe and “dark” rebranding Reputation sees Swift at her most aggressive to date. Seemingly out for blood, this new sound springboards off her 1989 full-pop sound, updating things to be a little bit more modern. While I found “Look What You Made Me Do” to be an initially repulsive song, the video helps add a much-needed layer of context and rich visuals that make the song better retroactively. Whether it’s good or not, Reputation is bound to be one of the biggest and most-talked-about albums of the year, and will undoubtedly dictate Swift’s place in the pop culture landscape for years to come.

Tiger’s Jaw

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After the departure of every other band member, pop-punk iconoclasts Ben Walsh and Brianna Collins have returned with Spin, a record proving that they still have much to say. While Tiger’s Jaw is primarily sung from the perspective of Ben, “June” marks the first entirely-Brianna-helmed track in the band’s discography. The song provides a nice sunny break in an otherwise homogeneous and similar-sounding record and earned the band some well-deserved attention after a few years away from the spotlight.

Carly Rae Jepsen

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Taylor Swift may be the reigning queen of pop, but for my money, Carly Rae Jepsen should be the one on that throne. As we all remember, in 2012 each member of the human race was forced to listen to “Call Me Maybe” at gunpoint, and thanks to the song’s oversaturation many listeners came to either actively disliked Jepsen or assumed she was a one-hit-wonder. 2015’s E•MO•TION was a critical success and a commercial failure, but to this day remains one of the best pop albums ever recorded. Lovingly detailed in Max Landis’ 150-page dissertation, CRJ is an artist of darkness and surprising depth. After expelling the rest of the E•MO•TION-era work with a B-sides album, Jepsen dropped a single early in the year that snatched wigs the world over. The fact that a single song invigorated me this much and made such relative waves only excited me more for her next album. Hopefully this time the world sees the light and comes back around to the Canadian goddess because she deserves to be listed up there with the greats.

Phoebe Bridgers

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Finally, for the sake of some kind of bookending, Phoebe Bridgers is an LA-based indie folk artist much akin to Julien Baker. Despite a disarmingly-goofy social media presence, Bridgers’ Big Lebowski-referencing debut Stranger in the Alps is a heart-breaking, foggy, first-person recounting of individual experiences. The album has already received co-signs from Hayley Williams, Tiger’s Jaw, Julien Baker, Best Coast, Dan Campbell, and Grimes. She’s currently tearing it up on a tour War on Drugs, but I expect this album to show up on a good number of end of the year lists. If you want to hear a unique collection of stories on heartbreak, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Stranger.

Additional Artists

This ended up being way longer than I originally intended, but the above albums are some of my favorites this year. There have also been some other great releases this year that I just don’t have the time, knowledge, or words to detail as lovingly as the ones above, so for the sake of keeping this relatively brief, here’s a quick-hit version of some other kickass female artists who dropped some great albums this year.

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• Beach House: The dream pop duo follow up their excellent 2015releases with a collection of equally-listless B-Sides and Rarities.

• Feist: After a fluke pop megahit in 2007, Feist hits a new artistic peak with the guitar-drenched Pleasure.

• Cayetana: The self-described “boisterous Philadelphians” released a sophomore album of 12 punchy rock tracks.

• Banks: After an alarmingly-sexy 2014 debut, Banks seems to be ramping up to a new album after dropping two steamy singles this year.

• Jetty Bones: Clearly-delivered indie rock that transparently showcases the struggles of one person’s life.

• Mannequin Pussy: The band revisits their blistering 2016 breakthrough album in an explosive 14-minute Audiotree Session.

• The Japanese House: On her fourth EP as Japanese House, Amber Bain serves up four hypnotic synth-drenched love songs.

• Daddy Issues: Grunge isn’t dead, it’s just been lying dormant until bands like Daddy Issues arrived to bring it back to life.

• Who Is She?: A Seattle-based supergroup consisting of members from Lisa Prank, Chastity Belt, and Tacocat who combine powers to create infectious pop-punk songs dripping with 2000’s-era nostalgia.

• Torres: Three Futures is a mature and careful album that finds Mackenzie Scott at the helm, steering the ship more sure of herself than ever.

• Charly Bliss: On Guppy Charly Bliss is a charming mess of broken humanity featuring the unmistakable vocal stylings of Eva Hendricks.

• Alvvays: The antisocial Canadian indie group utilizes fuzzed-out instrumentals and rich layering to create an enchanting and memorable indie experience.

• Small Circle: backed by three members of Sorority Noise, this Marissa D’elia-fronted emo supergroup effortlessly created one of the years most hard-hitting and emotionally-impactful albums.

• Marika Hackman: I’m Not Your Man begins with the welcoming sound of laughter and immediately launches into a tale of infidelity. The rest unfolds from there.

• Sheer Mag: This summer, the jangly and soulful rock group finally unleashed their long-awaited full-length Need to Feel Your Love.

And

There you have it. You take the good with the bad, and for all that 2017 has taken from us, it’s amazing to see artists and creators like the ones above adding some beauty to the world. Theirs is a perspective that’s sought, appreciated, loved, and needed now more than ever.