Rough Trade Essential: Women in Music

Rough Trade Records

March 8th, 2024


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This International Women’s Day, we join our community in celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women by highlighting favourite Rough Trade Essential albums crafted by inspirational icons in music.

From lyrical prowess to electronic production, queens of punk rock, hip hop MCs and girls with guitars, women have been instrumental in shaping the genres and musical scenes we know and love today.

The earliest pioneers to contemporary icons, these are the women who have had the greatest influence on our appreciation for and adoration of recorded music.

*This list is by no means exhaustive but a considered selection of some of the most enduring artists and new interests influencing our listening habits.

SOPHIE
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Alice ColtraneJourney in Satchidananda (1971)

One of two significant ‘Coltranes’ in the history of jazz, Alice leaves a legacy as formidable as her husband John Coltrane becoming one of the most pioneering Jazz artists of all time with her unique talent. Cascading harp and avant-garde jazz balanced with traditional Indian music. Alice Coltrane’s early 70s record Journey in Satchindanda is a key jewel in her crown, a spiritual journey as cathartic as it is awe-inspiring.

Top songs: Title track Journey in Satchindanda.

Album artwork for Horses by Patti Smith

Patti SmithHorses (1975)

Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine

Patti Smith is the certified godmother of punk-rock. Over the last five decades, her contribution to art has stretched across multiple formats (hello Just Kids) amassing fans from all over the globe and indoctrinating them gladly into her incredible fusion of poetry and music. What’s to say about her 1975 debut Horses that hasn’t been said already? Not much, it’s just that iconic. But expect to hear music and lyrics that have shaped and soundtracked so many of our contemporary music idols, as well as those that came up alongside Smith herself.

Top songs: Gloria, Free Money, Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer(de)

Album artwork for Cut by The Slits

The SlitsCut (1979)

Ten quid for the lot / We pay fuck all

Loyal listeners to our early podcast series Shoplifting will recall this line from the 1979 album as the lead jingle. It was no accident we weaved this glorious nugget into our output, so ground-breaking was the record that it came from – an essential masterpiece that sits right up there alongside punk’s most revered first-born. If we’re talking landmark albums, The Slits‘ debut is a Cut above the rest.

Top songs: Shoplifting, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Typical Girls

Laurie AndersonBig Science (1982)

Beloved avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson is a key female artist to credit for shaping the evolution of electronic music at large. Anderson’s 1982 debut album, Big Science introduced the conceptual artist to the world as a respected composer adept at employing gear both high-tech and homemade in her often violin-based pieces. With instrumentation ranging from tape loops to found sounds to bag pipes, Big Science anticipated the tech-savvy beats, anything-goes instrumentation and sample-based nature of much contemporary electronic and dance music.

Top songs: Born, Never Asked, From The Air, Big Science

Kate BushHounds of Love (1985)

But every time it rains you’re here in my head / Like the sun coming out Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen

Unique, eccentric even, Hounds of Love is Kate Bush‘s strongest mix of controlled musical experimentation and lyrical expression. Considered by many to be her magnum opus, her soprano voice soaring into digital realms with sampled synthesizer and machine-like melodies. Not to mention it’s recent mega-rise after Runing Up That Hill featured prominently in Series 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things.

Top songs: Running Up That Hill, Hounds of Love and Cloudbusting.

“Hounds Of Love is a complete work, by a complete artist. A true treasure, you’re hard pushed to discover greater.”

– Jamie Moir, Rough Trade

Find out where Rough Trade Buyer Jamie Moir ranked Hounds Of Love in his complete ranking of her ten brilliant studio albums.

Album artwork for Debut by Björk

BjörkDebut (1993)

There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behaviour

Having emerged as a child star in her native Iceland, beginning to record music from the age of 11, Björk released Debut. 17 years later, the record that established her as a true pop maverick. Drawing from an eclectic variety of styles and marrying off-kilter melodies with futuristic textures and percussion Björk set a blueprint for contemporary techno and acid house.

“As a music nerd, I just had to follow my heart, and my heart was those beats that were happening in England. And maybe what I’m understanding more and more as I get older, is that music like Kate Bush has really influenced me.”
Björk

Top songs: Human Behaviour, Big Time Sensuality, Venus As A Boy

Album artwork for Dummy by Portishead

PortisheadDummy (1994)

Give me a reason to love you / Give me a reason to be a woman / I just wanna be a woman

Beth Gibbon’s captivating voice brought the spectral sounding electronica of Dummy to life, and her complex lyrics are an anchor for the success of trip hop pioneers Portishead. The lead singer leaves all audiences spellbound, a voice that is as haunting as it is beautiful, after 30 years with the band, the singer is a renowned figure in music and one of the most unique female vocalists of all times.

Top songs: Sour Times, Glory Box, Roads

Album artwork for The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill CD by Lauryn Hill

Lauryn HillThe Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1997)

Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again / You know I only say it ’cause I’m truly genuine / Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem

A letter to all woman to stand up for their worth and a statement against black oppression. The insightful The Miseducation from female Fugee, Lauryn Hill, will go down in history as one of the greatest hip hop albums ever made. An accolade which few female artists are attributed. Hill’s rapping is as equally strong as her singing, but the most memorable aspect of this album is how every woman can resonate with its writing – whatever their preference of genre.

Top songs: Doo Wop (That Thing), Ex Factor, Lost Ones

Album artwork for Baduizm by Erykah Badu

Erykah BaduBaduizm (1997)

Well I guess I’ll see you next lifetime / Maybe we’ll be butterflies

The first lady of neo-soul. Erykah Badu crafts her own magical philosophies in Baduzim – a brilliant eccentricity and soulful jazz and hip hop vocal stylings, Badu took the world by storm in 1997 with Baduizm, winning the Grammy for Best R&B Album and On & On taking the award for best female R&B vocal performance. A significant album setting the blueprint for contemporary neo soul / R&B singer-songwriters who carry on experimenting with the genre, such as Solange, Noname and Liv.e.

READ NOW: Rough Trade Essential Funk and Soul

Top songs: Next Lifetime, On and On, Appletree

Album artwork for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea by PJ Harvey

PJ HarveyStories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)

Does it have to be a life full of dread / I wanna chase you round the table, I wanna touch your head / This is love, this is love

The scope, bravery and originality of PJ Harvey makes her a key example of a female artist who has helped shift alternative rock music and leave a huge mark on the scene. The staggering album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is a natural evolution from the darker and more intense sounds of her earlier albums. Rhythmic muted guitar, layers of reverb and ethereal background vocals by Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey cements herself as one of modern rocks most convincing modern rock artists.

Top songs: This Mess We’re In, Beautiful Feeling, This Is Love

Cat PowerThe Greatest (2006)

Once I wanted to be the greatest / two fists of solid rock

Cat Power’s strength lies in her heartbreakingly raw style of songwriting. Her 2006 album The Greatest says it all, as she sings in the title track: “Once I wanted to be the greatest / two fists of solid rock.” The album artwork adds to this testimony, featuring two golden boxing gloves on the cover. More soul than sock with a hole whilst singer-songwriter blends rock, folk and blues with a raw nerve which rightfully elevates her to an established position in the American alt-rock scene.

Top songs: Living Proof, Willie, Where is My Love

GrimesVisions (2012)

Oh, baby, I can’t do / Oh anything to help you / ‘Cause I am working to the bone / And you know, and you know / You’re gonna have to play alone

The angelic space princess made first contact with us earthlings through the futuristic communication network MySpace but she really made her intentions clear in 2012 with the album Visions. Dark and ethereal synth-pop that could only have been cooked up in an inter-galactic enchantress’ cosmic ritual – a heady concoction of Berlin nightclubs, Japanese peace gardens and interdimensional wormholes.

Top songs: Circumambient, Be a Body, Genesis

Album artwork for Capacity by Big Thief

Big ThiefCapacity (2017)

Do what you want with me / Lost in your captivity / Learning capacity / For make-believing everything

If art proves that power is vulnerability, then Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker is one of the most powerful voices in music today. This much was clear from the release of breakthrough albums Capacity, where Lenker’s voice and lullaby-like melodies jar against distorted noise and dark, provocative lyricism to create an album that is both uncanny and enveloping. With three Grammy nominations for the band, Lenker is on course to be one of the greatest front women in the alternative rock scene.

Top songs: Mary, Capacity, Mythological Beauty

READ NOW: Big Thief In Profile

Album artwork for Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides by Sophie

SOPHIEOil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (2018)

I hope you don’t take this the wrong way / But I think your inside is your best side

SOPHIE‘s debut album Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides on Transgressive Records was the next step in the late producers incredible and unorthodox career. SOPHIE was a pioneer of a new latex-pop sound, a fascinating production technique, of synths that fizz like pop rocks with sugar-sweet pop vocals. A voice for the transgender community, dedicated to breaking down cultural binaries in music and crafting electronic dance tracks which freed femininity, SOPHIE was a visionary talent whose legacy will live on.

Top songs: It’s Ok To Cry, Immaterial, Faceshopping

Album artwork for El Mal Querer by Rosalia

RosaliaEl Mal Querer (2018)

Even if the night is not beautiful, Oh God! / I am going out, to the street / I won’t waste one more minute thinking about you

A revolutionary approach to music, the Spanish singer draws on a bounty of influences on the hypnotic El Mal Querer, blending the traditional flamenco sound from her Catalan heritage with Justin Timberlake and Arthur Russell samples. Carrying the sound of Spanish history whilst speaking to a modern R&B audience, Rosalia is one of the most exciting new female figures in music.

Top songs: Malamente, Maldición, Bagdad


Honourable Mentions….

Genre-defining legends
Elizabeth Fraser of
Cocteau Twins fame has influenced contemporary shoegazers like Beach House to heavier bands like Slowdive and Ride with her psychedelic, woozy and captivating vocal style. The deadpan icy beauty of Nico’s voice and her work with The Velvet Underground was a pioneering moment in the evolution of Goth. The enigmatic Stevie Nicks, stands as a singular presence for women of rock, outside of the legendary Fleetwood Mac. A trailblazer for modern music, Sinead O’Connor will be forever remembered for her courageous nature, beautiful songwriting and advocacy for social change. Helen Folasade Adu CBE (known professionally as Sade) is the icon and namesake of the British soul band Sade, establishing herself as one of the most successful female figures in music history.

Established contemporaries
A fully realised artist, Solange’s music is a beloved voice representing womanhood, building a distinctive visual identity, guided by her love and eye for visual art. A rich new voice in pop and R&B, Raye draws on her musical roots in the church and gospel, and at just the age of 26 Raye has made BRIT’s music history, winning six of the seven prizes she was nominated for and Album of the Year at the 2024 BRIT Awards. Also clearing up with awards success is Mercury-Prize winning artist Little Simz, the British rapper honours and uplifts Black women and community with her music, with a strong pen game that makes no compromises. Writing for Beyonce and Rihanna, Jersey musician SZA was snapped up by TDE in 2013, the label famously known for its flagship artist Kendrick Lamar and has been storming to success ever since. Dominating pop realms and the dancefloor, the likes of Charli XCX, Rina Sawayama and Dua Lipa continue to reign.

Snail Mail aka Lindsey Jordan’s diary confessions and jangly pop-punk are the high watermark of adolescent heartbreak which can’t go unnoticed in the indie scene. Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker inspire a generation of fans with their friendship-driven supergroup boygenius. Delivering a rollercoaster of intense and soft rock Wolf Alice have captured a cult indie rock fronted by Ellie Rowsell. Rising from Melbourne’s scuzzy punk community Amy Taylor has propelled Amyl and the Sniffers to be one of the best punk bands of recent years, with a feminist drive.

Rising Stars
Leeds rockers English Teacher are fronted by a vital voice in Lily Fontaine. XL signed John Glacier is on our radar as a fresh new voice in experimental rap. The Last Dinner Party mark themselves out as the sound of 2024 with their strong camaraderie and unique goth-glam style. DIY experimentalist Allie x turns heads with a fresh alt-pop sound, inspired by the technology and hedonism of the early 80’s new wave scene.

On The Rise: The Last Dinner Party | Rough Trade
The Last Dinner Party

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