There are those titans of our music-listening devices, the artists we’ve listened to so many times we’re embarrassed to tell anyone just how many (126 listens to Lauryn Hill’s “I Used to Love Him”? Am I diseased?). Most of the musicians dominating my ears are women. They are, in their myriad ways, saying what I want to hear. They’re the ones whose songs, more often than not, are tied to some specific heartbreaking or otherwise nostalgic thing in my past. I mostly listen to them to go back there, to create the atmosphere of then in the now. There are five who take up so much space in the memory bank that it’s almost impossible to talk about them in any intelligent way: Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom, Lauryn Hill, Fiona Apple. But here are the 10 who are starting to give those ladies a run for their money — 10 that I keep turning to so often, with a fierce loyalty and a little bit of OCD, as if they are the only 10 women out there (besides the big five).
10. Joan As Police Woman
Pop that somehow doesn’t read as pop, that flies under the radar or is just categorized as something else because it’s indie — Joan As Police Woman, aka Joan Wasser, falls into this category. With “Eternal Flame,” the “hit” off her debut album Real Life, she promised some excellent songwriting, and it’s scattered pretty evenly across her three albums. Joan’s biggest influence is soul, meaning most of her songs are about love and are pleasing to the ear, sometimes in unexpected ways. Wasser had also been in a bunch of rockier bands before she created Joan As Police Woman, and that sometimes come through, too. But she might be at her best when she’s just at the piano, as on much of 2008’s To Survive.
9. Hope for A goldensummer
Hope for Agoldensummer: weird name, awesome band. These Georgia sisters, Claire and Page Campbell, who play with a number of other musicians, have put out a ton of albums, usually independently, and their folk sound has gotten bigger and bolder with every one. My favorite is still the very slow-brewing I Bought A Heart Made of Art in the Deep, Deep South. It contains what is probably still their best song, “Malt Liquor,” which starts: “Oh, the best lovers / are the ones who / can never be found / Oh, the best lovers / are the ones who / are never around.” Enough said. Above: a great cover of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” just because.
8. Laura Marling
I had a song lurking in me last summer, and Laura Marling is partly responsible for it coming out. This utterly unique, disgustingly talented 22-year-old Brit is the kind of person you know you’ll be able to rely on for new music for decades. She is a worker bee, brimming with ideas, shy in speech but completely confident in song. It’s inspiring. It will spur you to action (musical or otherwise). Her third album, last summer’s A Creature I Don’t Know, surged well beyond her previous releases, but it also highlighted them. Once you grow to love an artist, you want to hear everything they’ve done a hundred times, even if you’d already been obsessed with the old stuff previously. Everything an artist has done takes on a new sheen to it once they’ve released something new.
My most distinct memory of the Winnipeg-born singer Chantal Kreviazuk is of her snuggling up in a giant chair and walking around some nice old Canadian manse wearing legwarmers, in the video for her single “Time” (see it here), which also features Brittany Murphy, because the song appeared in the movie Uptown Girls. So, yeah, Kreviazuk can be cheesy, like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Dawson’s Creek soundtracks cheesy, but I can’t get enough of her. She’s been releasing albums since the mid-90s, so there’s a lot to delve into. Basically: more cerebral Celine Dion with Shania Twain-level vocal abilities and lots of piano.
6. Emmylou Harris
Maybe the point of Daniel Lanois producing Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball was to get people like me to start caring about Emmylou Harris. Well, it worked. To Harris purists, 1995’s Wrecking Ball probably isn’t the album that first comes to mind, but it was a critics’ favorite and won a Grammy in 1996. Lanois’s preference for far-out electric guitars means the album can sometimes sound like U2 (his biggest client), but that’s, believe it or not, a good thing, and it prompted me to delve deeper into Harris’s (mostly acoustic) catalog. This album is heartbreakingly beautiful, especially “Goin Back to Harlan” and “Where Will I Be.” But is it even country? It may not sound like country, but the stories behind it certainly are.
5. Lia Ices
Lia Ices got her name from the Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn ice-cream shop, Lia’s Ices. No one really knows who Lia Ices is (OK, some people do), but that’s the way she prefers it. Lia Ices recently got a song in the closing credits of a Girls episode, but for the most part you won’t see her performing in big venues or lending her songs to advertisers. Dividing her time between Vermont and Brooklyn, “Lia” makes haunting little folk songs, mostly using the piano. Increasingly her songs have gotten more faraway and reverby, a little Brian Wilsonesque, as with her recently released covers of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Syd Barrett’s “Late Night.” But her first album, 2008’s Necima is a better place to start. Oh, and her videos: each one will transport you somewhere, not quite into this singer’s fascinating head, but close enough.
If Grimes were a drug I’d be happy to be strung out on it, uselessly spellbound, forever. The British Columbia-born one-woman dance party, who currently lives in L.A., held so much promise just in a couple of songs she put out last year and the year before. But was anybody actually prepared for how good Visions would be? It’s an entire universe, this album, as engrossing as a good fantasy novel and unlike anything you’ve ever heard (though you’ll be tempted to try to make comparisons). There’s a cohesiveness to all the songs — Grimes uses as a synthesizer as the basis for most of her songs — but each one has its own distinct mood and atmosphere. And what the hell is she singing? It doesn’t really matter, but it’s fun to guess.
3. Zola Jesus
Speaking of entire universes, Zola Jesus has been creating some herself for a few years, but last year’s full-length, Conatus, her third, is arguably the best universe thus far. You could compare Grimes to Zola Jesus, aka Nika Danilova, but Zola Jesus is harder and more serious-sounding, partly because she has a deeper, opera-trained voice, and perhaps isn’t as interested in escapism or the pure aesthetics of electronic music. She’s also very hard to understand, but Conatus is one of those albums you can play through three times without realizing. It’s that good. As a bonus, everything Zola Jesus does is visually stunning, from videos to live shows to cover art.
2. Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco should really be in my top five. There are only certain DiFranco albums I really love, but to a melt-the-CD extent. DiFranco’s live album, 1997’s Living in Clip, was a gift I received from my older sister in the summer of 1998. She put it on a cassette. I was spending a summer in Nova Scotia with some friends. I was “in love” at the time. Songs like “Overlap” and “32 Flavors” and “Gravel” floored me. DiFranco’s exuberance and optimism on this album exactly captured what I felt that summer: free, safe, loved, happy. Of course, there are many more emotions on the two dozen or so tracks on this double album, but those are the ones I sought out. Anyone who thinks they don’t like DiFranco, or aren’t interested, should give Living in Clip‘s version of “32 Flavors” a try (or just watch the video above).
1. Bat for Lashes
Women artists have a way of “saying what I want to hear,” but Natasha Khan has a way of saying things that I didn’t even know I wanted to hear. Like Tori Amos, Khan doesn’t communicate literally: she’s invented her own mythology to communicate concepts like heartbreak, home and sexual identity. She’s also a deeply comforting presence, especially in a live setting. She is warm, talkative, modest and motherly, which helps make some of her more complex songs seem totally comprehensible and relatable. Khan doesn’t hide behind her stage presence, and she also seems to do everything on her own terms, and has achieved success in doing so. No big-name producers, no massive tours, no hastily released albums. That is a rare thing.