Part of my ongoing series celebrating Women’s History Month.
Rock and roll remains a man’s world – women make up less than 8% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame membership – but that doesn’t mean women don’t know how to rock. Women may still struggle to be recognized for their contributions, but these trailblazing women have been rocking out for decades.
- Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown and Memphis Minnie
Rock and roll evolved from a combination of blues, gospel, jazz and rhythm & blues – all genres originated by black people. So it’s no surprise that the original women of rock and roll were black. These badass pioneers paved the way for the rest of the women on this list. Tharpe was one of the first artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, heralding the rise of the electric blues; she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. Brown was noted for bringing a pop music style to R&B, portending the popular R&B music of the 60s; she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Memphis Minnie, known as “Queen of the Country Blues”, was a trailblazing guitar player, and her songs have been covered by such artists as Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin; she has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Grace Slick
As singer and songwriter for Jefferson Airplane, Slick was an instrumental figure in the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene of the mid-60s. Airplane’s first album with Slick, the stone-cold classic Surrealistic Pillow, is quintessential psychedelia. “Somebody to Love” is an absolute banger, and “White Rabbit”, the album’s highlight, is two and a half minutes of sheer perfection. The song was purportedly written by Slick in less than an hour, and it’s so good, I even forgive her for “We Built This City”. Slick, along with the rest of Jefferson Airplane, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
- Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin’s career only spanned about three years, but what a legacy she left behind. Though Joplin played the autoharp, her voice was her primary instrument. She could pivot between a lovely mezzo-soprano lilt and a full-on bluesy wail with astonishing ease. Joplin died in October 1970 of an accidental heroin overdose; three months later, her fourth album, Pearl, was released posthumously. Pearl went to #1 on the Billboard album chart and stayed there for nine weeks, and her blistering, beautiful cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” became only the second posthumous #1 single in chart history (fun fact: the first was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”). Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
- Joni Mitchell
The best female folk singer-songwriter of all time, period. A bout of polio when she was nine guided Mitchell toward music. Her early songwriting years yielded hits for other artists (“The Circle Game”, “Both Sides Now”) and garnered her enough attention to record her first album in 1968. Her masterpiece, 1971’s Blue, is one of the best albums by any artist (in 2017, Blue was ranked #1 on a list of the greatest albums made by women); highlights include “California”, “A Case of You” and “River”, a song so gorgeous, Kate Hudson shed unscripted tears in the Almost Famous scene where Penny Lane and Russell Hammond meet. Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
- Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt can play the slide guitar with the best of them, and her bluesy voice can convey a myriad of emotions. Raitt recorded her first album at the age of 22, and her mastery of her craft was evident from the very beginning, but it took her eighteen years – and ten albums – to become a superstar. Nick of Time, released in 1989, was a critical and commercial smash, selling five million copies in the US and winning Raitt an armful of Grammys. It’s now been 50 years since Raitt’s debut; she has maintained that longevity by consistently staying true to herself. Raitt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
- Ann and Nancy Wilson
The only siblings on this list, the Wilson sisters have been rocking together since they saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan when they were kids. Ann’s voice is a force of nature; her full voice is powerful and compelling, and her vibrato is perfection. Nancy’s guitar provides some of the band’s best moments – that opening riff in “Barracuda” is such a killer (she’s also done some beautiful scoring, primarily for ex-husband Cameron Crowe’s films; check out “Lucky Trumble” from Almost Famous). Nancy occasionally sings lead, but usually provides harmonies, and the combination of their voices is simply to die for. One of my favorite songs by the two is their cover (as The Lovemongers) of “The Battle of Evermore”; here’s a live version of it from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in 1995, the year Led Zeppelin was inducted (the Wilson sisters, and the rest of Heart, were themselves inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013).
- Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie
It’s impossible to overstate how massive Fleetwood Mac were in the 70s (Rumours alone has sold 40 million copies worldwide), and they had their greatest success after Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks joined the band (I’ll likely wax poetic about my love for Lindsey Buckingham another time; this ain’t his day). Nicks, with her distinctive voice and her witch persona, got the lion’s share of the attention, but McVie’s contributions to the band should not be overlooked: “Don’t Stop” is as good as anything Fleetwood Mac recorded. Fleetwood Mac were inducted into the Rock and Roll in 1998; Nicks was also inducted as a solo artist in 2019, making her the only woman to be inducted twice.
- Joan Jett
Joan Jett is a rock and roll icon. From her early days with the all-female teenage band The Runaways, she was a superstar. In 1980, after being rejected by 23 labels, Jett formed her own label, Blackheart Records (becoming one of the first women to create her own label) and went on to record some of the most recognizable rock songs of the early 80s , among them “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”, “Bad Reputation” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You”. She’s also a fashion icon; her signature look consists of black hair, black eyeliner and black leather. Jett was inducted, along with her band the Blackhearts, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
- Tina Weymouth
Tina Weymouth joined Talking Heads when David Byrne and Weymouth’s boyfriend/future husband Chris Frantz couldn’t find a suitable bass player for their band; in doing so, she paved the way for future female bassists like Kim Gordon and Kim Deal (more on them in a bit). Weymouth kept the Heads’ rhythm going without flourish, but when she stepped to the forefront, as in the (ahem) killer opening bass riff on “Psycho Killer”, she absolutely dazzled. And her side project with Frantz, Tom Tom Club, produced one of the most original songs of the era, “Genius of Love”. Weymouth, along with the rest of Talking Heads, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
- Debbie Harry
You don’t get much more badass than Debbie Harry, lead singer and co-founder of Blondie, fashion icon and friend of Andy Warhol. Blondie created some of the most iconic music of the late 70s and early 80s, and are credited with recording the first rap song to top the Billboard singles chart (“Rapture”, off their 1980 album Autoamerican, a personal favorite of mine). Harry’s edgy persona and dreamy voice were a significant part of the band’s success, and Blondie just wouldn’t have been Blondie without her. Harry and Blondie were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
- Pat Benatar
Originally trained as an opera singer, Pat Benatar decided instead to be a rock star, and recorded some of the most indelible music of the 80s. Beginning with her debut album in 1979, Benatar was a force to be reckoned with. Strong, confident and sexy as hell, with a powerful three-octave range, Benatar forever changed what rock stars looked and sounded like. Benatar was nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 but was not inducted; she failed to snag a nomination this year.
- Chrissie Hynde
As the founding member, guitarist, lead vocalist and songwriter of the Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde is one of the most influential women in rock and roll, and an all-around badass. Confident and cool as shit right from the start, with a deep growly voice, Hynde started out with a bang – the Pretenders’ 1980 self-titled debut, with its smash hit “Brass in Pocket”, an ode to female empowerment, heralded the arrival of a superstar. Hynde is a survivor, moving past drug and alcohol use, and the premature deaths of two of her bandmates, to create some of the most iconic music of the 80s. Hynde and the Pretenders were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
- Kate Bush
Kate Bush has always defied categorization, but art-rock is an appropriate moniker for her innovative combination of eclectic melodies and unconventional, often literary lyrics. Bush was just nineteen when her debut album, The Kick Inside, was released. The lead-off single, “Wuthering Heights” went to #1 on the British charts. Bush was wildly successful in the UK but failed to catch on in the US until 1985, when she released her fifth – and best – album, Hounds of Love. And while Bush plays piano and keyboards, her main instrument is her voice – with a four-octave range, Bush can go from a child-like whisper to a bloodcurdling shriek. Bush was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 but was not inducted; she is nominated again this year.
- The Go-Go’s
The Go-Go’s started life as an LA punk band in 1978, and switched to their signature power pop-new wave sound once their lineup of Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Charlotte Caffey was complete. The Go-Go’s were the first all-female rock band to write their own music, play their own instruments AND top the Billboard album chart. Beauty and the Beat, their iconic 1981 debut, is one absolute banger after another. One of my favorite Go-Go’s songs is “Cool Jerk”, off their second album Vacation; give it a listen to hear killer solos from drummer Schock and bassist Valentine. The Go-Go’s have finally been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame THIS year, after 15 years of eligibility.
- Siouxsie Sioux
It’s hard to explain just how much my world opened up when I discovered goth music in the mid-80s, and the main reason why is Siouxsie and the Banshees. Impossibly cool, with a raw yet commanding voice, Siouxsie Sioux exemplified the sound that helped me survive my adolescence. Sioux’s version of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”, off the Banshees’ 1984 album Hyaena, is quite possibly my favorite cover of all time, retaining the song’s original psychedelic sound yet making it utterly her own. Sioux has never been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but she’s too cool for the Hall of Fame anyway.
- Kim Gordon and Kim Deal
Not to diminish the accomplishments of these two by lumping them together, but they have so many things in common – bass players named Kim, in iconic bands of the post-punk era. Kim Gordon, co-founder of Sonic Youth with ex-husband Thurston Moore, and Kim Deal, bassist and co-lead vocalist (with Frank Black) of the Pixies, are two of the most badass female rockers of the last forty years. Sonic Youth and the Pixies helped pioneer the scuzzy post-punk sound that presaged the grunge movement, and Gordon and Deal were a big part of that sound. For proof, listen to Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” or the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”. Deal also founded another iconic band of the 90s, the Breeders, during a Pixies hiatus. Sonic Youth have been nominated twice for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but have not been inducted; in one of the biggest snubs (THE biggest?) in the history of the Hall of Fame, the Pixies have never even been nominated, despite influencing a generation of artists from Nirvana to Radiohead (both of which have been inducted).
Björk is another artist who defies categorization; eclectic, avant-garde and experimental are all adjectives used to describe her unique blend of pop, trip hop and electronica. Her dynamic, somersaulting voice is unlike anything else you’ve heard. From her early days with the Sugarcubes (if you’ve never heard it before, do yourself a favor and listen to “Birthday”), through her magnificent solo work, Björk is authentic and audacious, and I love her for it. Björk has never been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Liz Phair
Self-assured, refreshingly candid and delightfully foul-mouthed, Liz Phair made her entrance into the music world in 1993 with Exile in Guyville, one of the finest debut albums in history. Spare and unpretentious, Exile inspired countless imitators, but Phair is a one-of-a-kind. Phair has not been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; her foray into more overt pop in the 2000s may keep it that way.
- Courtney Love
Though her personal life tended to overshadow her career, there’s no denying that Courtney Love belongs on a list of badass female rockers. Live Through This, Hole’s breakthrough album, was released on April 12, 1994 – four days after Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, was found dead from a shotgun wound to the head. The timing was unfortunate, because Live Through This is one of the best albums of the 90s, blending grunge riffs with stripped-down, structured melodies. Listening to Love sing “Someday you will ache like I ache” in “Doll Parts” could crack your heart open. Hole has not been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Some other badass women who rock:
Readers – who are YOUR favorite badass women of rock?