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The 411 Music Top Five 9.24.12: The Top 5 Female Singer/Songwriters

September 25, 2012 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas


To be perfectly clear, “favorite” and “greatest” need not always coincide. It’s nothing to appreciate tremendous talent and accomplishment while admitting someone just isn’t exactly your cuppa. Were the assignment to name my “favorite” five female singer-songwriters, I’d spend hours ruminating over the juxtaposition of Julia Nunes, Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair, Tori Amos and Juliana Hatfield.

Well, why introduce myself to you all with a waterfall of bullshit, right? I’d actually spend hours debating how I’d arrange Nunes, Crow, Phair and Amos beneath Hatfield.

As it stands, the factors of talent, longevity, relevance and influence weigh heavily, and I couldn’t in good conscience call the above the definitive “greatest” just because my iPod betrays a love affair with them all.

5. Tori Amos

See? Perfect example. Amos is a chanteuse and poet who’d rather a dozen honest words that flowed like streams from her fingers make ripples in a little theater full of fans, than build a pop goddess’s reign on the lyrics of writers-for-hire. Whereas pop icons can fade from the heights of their powers, Amos’ delicate touch at the piano, tenderness in her timbre and bare vulnerability in her best songs strikes just the colors of souls she’d want them to in any era. “In the strength of an army, therein lies the denouement” is easily one of my all-time favorite individual lines in any song, but funny enough? My favorite Amos performance is actually a cover of a composition by one of the top two.

4. Patti Smith

She’s more than simply a “punk icon.” She’s much more than merely a trailblazer for women in a genre with testosterone washing over its banks. Sure, she once had a fighting chance to front Blue Oyster Cult back in the early ‘70s, and that’s no small feat. She was no token girls in the boys club – Smith took up the mantle of power-taunting iconoclast and loved it. “Patty Hearst, you’re standing there in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army flag with your legs spread, I was wondering were you gettin’ it every night from a black revolutionary man and his women…” she taunted in a spoken-word invective against the heiress fugitive on the 1974 “Hey Joe/Piss Factory” A-side. On the B-side, there was the soul beneath the bite reliving anger’s rising tide working on a factory assembly line before finding freedom in French literature.

You could judge her book by its cover, if you dared – long as you didn’t say a fucking word when she busted your near-sighted ass in the kisser with it until you saw her with 20/20. Patti Smith paved the road a little bit further along than the swath #3 had cut. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Bikini Kill, L7, Lita Ford, Kim Deal, Kim Gordon and others smoothed it. Avril Lavigne pissed a lake in the middle of it and passed out in it.

3. Janis Joplin

Of course. She’s arguably rock and roll’s most enduring, quintessential symbol of womanly empowerment and raw, screaming soul. For as emblematic as Jimi Hendrix was in the ‘60s of a turning social tide, Joplin was an icon of a woman apart singing “Piece of My Heart,” “Me And Bobby McGee” and other hits with an unabashed outpouring of blues and soul. Joplin took every word and wrenched it from deeper places than any woman before her. There can only be one “first.” Joplin was it.

2. Joni Mitchell

Yep. She’s second. She might very well be the Bob Dylan of female singer-songwriters for her poetic grace and cool spirit. She’s a sensitive soul whose enduring poetry and sense of her times, to borrow William Burroughs’ description of The Naked Lunch, encapsulates “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Still, I just can’t call her “The Greatest.” Who is?

1. Carole King

Yep, I said it.

King is more than an underrated voice of ethereal tenderness and beauty. She’s the definition of a true great singer-songwriter. It’s easy to forget, for how familiar “You’ve Got A Friend,” “It’s Too Late” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” have become as standards, just how long she’s endured. Her album Tapestry topped the charts for 15 weeks starting in 1971, and remained on the chart for the next six years. She wrote “The Reason” for Aerosmith in 1997, but ultimately passed it off to Celine Dion. Tapestry held the record for longest streak holding onto the Number-One spot on the charts by a female artist until Whitney Houston’s “The Bodyguard” soundtrack and Adele’s 21 eclipsed it. She’s a member of the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rosters.

It’s that voice, though. It’s not just the words, but the voice. It’s coffee and cream watching rain drizzle down a window in the middle of the day. Her lyrics are timelessly relatable, never feeling strictly like products of her ‘70s prime of her power. King endures as a singer-songwriter because – not unlike Dylan – it’s something special to hear her performances, but chances are, you’ve heard a million of her songs by other artists without ever realizing it.

Honorable Mention: Carly Simon, Annie Lennox, Amanda Palmer, Ani DiFranco

5. PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey has said in past interviews that her first goal when writing for a new album is to not try and repeat herself, and always go in new directions. Consider that and see how she’s been able to maintain a career that runs almost a quarter-century at this point, and realize how impressive she truly is. Her music has ventured into some diverse categories, including alt-rock, pop, electronica, folk, indie rock, elements of punk…the list goes on, and yet she always seems firmly comfortable in them. Her albums are some of the most critically acclaimed for their respective years and while she may not have the highest chart success, she maintains a steady and loyal fanbase that is frankly smaller than she deserves.

4. Janis Joplin

How can you not include Janis Joplin on a list like this? It is in no way an exaggeration to say that Joplin built the road upon which nearly every woman wanting to rock has traveled since. She had an incredibly powerful voice and a style that will often be imitated, but will likely never be equaled. But what’s more impressive is that as much of an asset as she had in her voice, her lyrical skill was equally impressive. Her talent would of course get tragically cut short, but she left such an impact that forty-two years after her death she is still influencing artists and inspiring women to show they have as much to offer as their male counterparts.

3. Tori Amos

Tori Amos is the voice of a generation of women. That’s not exaggeration or overdramatics; it’s true. In the early 1990s there were a lot of artists who were starting to come into their own; it was a time when pop music had died off and that allowed unique and interesting artists to emerge for people who wanted something different than grunge, rap and the like. Of all of those people, Tori Amos was the most talented, which is why her career has lasted the longest. Her skills with a piano speak for themselves, and she exposes herself like a raw nerve to let her music come forth. You hear it in everything that she does, and it’s fantastic.

2. Stevie Nicks

I love Tori Amos with a passion, but Tori Amos likely wouldn’t be Tori Amos without Stevie Nicks. Stevie set the template that all popular music singers would follow: the Tori Amoses, the Sarah McLachlans, the Sheryl Crows, even the female members of bands of bands like Gwen Stefani and Courtney Love. She made it possible for all of these people to become who they were. Stevie Nicks was (and still is) enthralling to listen to. She is an artist in every sense of the word; she is just an artist whose music happens to be chart successes, as opposed to a chart success whose music happens to be art. There is a huge difference.

1. Joni Mitchell

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, Love Actually, in which Emma Thompson’s character tells her husband, played by Alan Rickman, “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” And frankly, that’s entirely plausible. Joni Mitchell could teach a brick and mortar wall how to feel. She knows how to write, and how to sing, in a way that touches your heart and your soul no matter who you are. She is a poet in every possible sense of the word and is able to do things lyrically that stun me as a writer. I distinctly remember the first time I heard a Joni Mitchell song, and I instantly fell in love. It’s a love that has never shown any signs of abating.

The Final Word
As always, the last thoughts come from you, the reader. We’re merely unpaid monkeys with typewriters and Wikipedia. Here’s what you need to do: List your Top Five for this week’s topic on the comment section using the following format:

5. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
4. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
3. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
2. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
1. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it


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Jeremy Thomas
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