From the brat-punk spirit of Bikini Kill to the sludgy riffs of Team Dresch, these are the albums that kickstarted a subculture
Riot grrrl: arguably the coolest musical subculture in the history of musical subcultures. Influenced by the female punk trailblazers of previous eras (Patti Smith, Poly Styrene, The Slits, The Runaways, Lydia Lunch), riot grrrl stuck two middle fingers up to gender stereotypes, embraced an attitude-packed DIY ethic and crammed the 90s full with unbridled guitar noise and political activism.
These days, the comet trail of the movement is everywhere, from the pummelling drum beats and treacle-thick riffs of punk trio Skinny Girl Diet to the handmade zines that sit within sweaty basement venues and the fearless activism of bands like Pussy Riot. And that’s without mentioning the new wave of feminist Tumblr girls using the web to forge their own identities with a cut-’n’-pasted aesthetic and attitude reminiscent of our favourite rebel icons. To celebrate the original riot-grrrl pioneers of the 90s, we’ve put together a list of must-have musical essentials for anyone who feels like shoving a boy out of a mosh pit and reclaiming the word ‘SLUT’.
BABES IN TOYLAND – FONTANELLE (1992)
As the 80s folded into the 90s, Babes in Toyland burst out of Minneapolis like a lightning bolt on a hot day. And while they never associated themselves with the riot grrrl movement, many have looked towards their thrashing guitar and bile-fuelled screams as imperative and hugely inspirational to the scene. The ferocious Fontanelle wasn’t the three-piece’s first record, but it would prove to be their most-loved, most successful record. “You got this thing that follows me around, you fucking bitch well I hope your insides rot,” shrieks singer Kat Bjelland in opener “Bruise Violet” over thick, sludgy riffs and propulsive drumbeats, starting as she means to go on in album fizzing with angst from start to finish.
BIKINI KILL – YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH (1993)
Really, any one of Bikini Kill’s three albums could be considered essential listening (Revolution Girl Style Now! (1991), Pussy Whipped (1993), Reject All American (1996)), but it was Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, their side of a split LP with London grrrl punks Huggy Bear, that really thrashed up a storm, and not just because it included the still-iconic punk-feminist anthem “Rebel Girl”. It’s an album full of the band’s essence: all raging, irreverent sneers and explosive power-chord slashes. It’s also got a killer opening in “White Boy”, a track about rape culture. “Slut rocker bitches walking down the street, they’re asking for it, they may deny it but it’s true,” a boy comments, as his whining voice gets gradually drowned out by razor-sharp guitar noise. “I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you!” Hanna screams back, her voice a perfectly sarcastic taunt.
BRATMOBILE – POTTYMOUTH (1993)
According to riot grrrl legend Jen Smith (of Rastro! and The Quails) it was Bratmobile’s trailblazing musician Allison Wolfe that first coined the term riot grrrl after proclaiming that she wanted a “girl riot” in hometown Washington DC, and then lending the name as a title to her zine. Vernacular aside, Bratmobile only released one album in the 90s and it ruled. With its single-stringed surf-punk riffs and quick-fire tempo, Pottymouth stood apart from its grungier, more hard-skinned contemporary efforts. The album was also born out of some advice given to them by a male musician, who said they should listen to the Ramones. “Something in me clicked,” Wolfe explained. “Like, OK, if most boy punk-rock bands just listen to the Ramones and that’s how they write their songs, then we’ll do the opposite and I won’t listen to any Ramones and that way we’ll sound different.”
TEAM DRESCH – PERSONAL BEST (1995)
From the thrashing, shit-kicking album opener “Fagetarian and Dyke” to the airtight melodies of “She’s Crushing My Mind” and the chainsaw riffs and fast, furious vocals of “Growing up in Springfield”, the debut album of queercore icons Team Dresch acted as a deliciously menacing call to arms against oppressors of all kinds. Personal Best also spawned a new wave of radical DIY girl punks who explored and criticised society’s oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. It’s a style and attitude that still exists today via Trash Kit, Gossip, PWR BTTM, and every other band that wants to do it their way, put a middle finger up to hetero-norms and make a lot of noise.
SLEATER-KINNEY – DIG ME OUT (1997)
The memoir of Sleater-Kinney’s badass guitarist Carrie Brownstein (Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl) might have reignited our obsession with the fearless trio, but it was their third album Dig Me Out that really sealed the deal. Tapping into the raw heartbreak and survival of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s relationship breakdown, as well as the visceral anger surrounding oppression, gender stereotypes and male dominance, Dig Me Out was (and still is) both radical and painful. And although the album emerged a handful of years after riot grrrl had peaked (the band didn’t identify with the movement), the themes and style of the band owes plenty to the less clean-cut versions of what came right before them.
Read our DA-Zed guide to riot grrrl here