16 Essential Garage and Lo-Fi Rock Albums by Women
© Brigitte Engl/Redferns
Since 2000, bands like Sleater-Kinney and Mitski have pushed guitar-driven rock into new realms.
There’s something comforting to garage rock. On a surface level, there’s an inherent satisfaction when you hear chaotic guitar riffs emanate out of the speakers in a way that can only be described as familiar, maybe even familial. You’ve been in a garage band before, you’ve had friends that have set up their amps and kits on that cement slab where cars should go and they all try to capture that frenetic energy of growing up. It’s immediate, raw and powerful. And while you definitely have known (or been in) a couple of garage bands in your youth, there’s no mistaking when true artistry shines through the head banging, fuzz-drenched fun.
Over the last 16 years, a fair few albums have risen to the top of the reverb ranks to be considered essential. A ton of our favorite LPs from the garage, lo-fi and surf rock revivals are dominant and thoughtful releases by awe-inspiring women.
Following in the spontaneous footsteps of The Shaggs, the fearless tread of Patti Smith and the rebellious past of Bikini Kill, female artists and female-fronted bands have been expanding the genres of guitar and surf rock for a new generation. With ever-shifting genre definitions (please tell us where the definitive line is drawn between general indie rock, garage rock, lo-fi pop and more is because we can’t find it!) and mounting issues of discrimination, artists like Frankie Cosmos, Courtney Barnett and Colleen Green are standing up with clear messages and points of view that cut through all the fuzz.
All this week in LA, RBMA Radio is championing these brilliant women and musicians on a special live daily broadcast entitled Fully Amped. Here, we double down on this appreciation and present to you a list of essential LPs to add to your collection if you’re addicted to harmonies, reverb, surf guitar or anything in between.
1. The Julie Ruin, "Run Fast" (2013)
Kathleen Hanna’s shrieks are synonymous with fiery and poignant rock and roll. She pioneered the riot grrrl movement/genre with Bikini Kill, pushed new wave to new heights with Le Tigre (press play on "Deceptacon" for an instant shot of energy) and bared her soul within her lo-fi bedroom tapes as Julie Ruin. Her debut album with The Julie Ruin — a full band version of her solo releases — blended Hanna’s past musical lives together into an eclectic collection of self-confident, synth-drenched anthems.
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Fever to Tell" (2003)
In 2003, the music industry was still trying to find it’s footing in a post-“Is This It” world. There was no doubt that garage rock’s revival was in full swing, but the major players were still to be determined. Then, like a bat out of hell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their explosive debut album "Fever to Tell." While The Strokes had the effortless cool factor down pat, this New York trio had the charismatic and brilliant Karen O as their fearless leader. On tracks like "Y Control" and "Date with the Night," her banshee yelps pierce through Nick Zinner’s steady guitar lines — energizing an entire generation of rockers to bang their heads just a little bit harder.
3. PJ Harvey, "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" (2000)
The 21st century started with Britney Spears’s "Oops! ... I Did It Again" and PJ Harvey’s "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea." In the middle of the album’s first track ("Big Exit"), Harvey’s voice soars as she sings "I just feel like it’s the end of the world." On the surface, she’s speaking about the chaos of society in 2000 (Remember, we were only a couple of weeks away from electing George W. Bush to the presidency), but she’s also empathizing with all the music fans displaced by the already ultra-poppy aughts. Equal parts The Pretenders, Alanis Morissette and Nick Cave, "Stories" was essential to heralding in the garage rock revival.
4. La Luz, "Weirdo Shrine" (2015)
Seattle’s La Luz has been spreading the good words and vibes of surf rock since 2012, but last year they released their impeccable sophomore album. Drenched in fuzz and reverb — not a surprise with Ty Segall as producer — "Weirdo Shrine" flips the doo-wop surf guitar genre on its head. Underneath the angelic harmonies and analog dreaminess is a troubled lyrical darkness tackling the emotional and existential abyss that we face each and every day. Heavy.
5. Ex Hex, "Rips" (2014)
It’s definitely redundant to say, but there really isn’t a better way to express it: Ex Hex’s 2014 debut LP, "Rips," really does just rip. It tears down the stereotypes of what garage rock can be with sleek, poppy bangers including "Don’t Wanna Lose" and "Hot and Cold," all while staying true to the genre’s unwavering commitment to exposing the raw nerve of adolescence.
6. Courtney Barnett, "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit" (2015)
When the world first heard Courtney Barnett, everyone fell in love with her clever word play in her 2013 single "Avant Gardener." But even as she mentions within that breakout song, there’s a lot more to Barnett than meets the eye — her guitar playing is just as clever. And on her official debut full-length, Barnett’s controlled chaos is exciting. She tears up tracks like "Elevator Operator," "Dead Fox" and "Pedestrian at Best" all while disarming the listener with her simple, yet sophisticated lyrics on topics ranging from friendship issues to the finality of death.
7. Sleater-Kinney, "One Beat" (2002)
Olympia, Washington’s Sleater-Kinney (Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss) have been championing excellent garage rock since the early '90s with their frayed, driving riot grrrl albums, but in 2002 they released one of their tightest and most thought-provoking albums ever. "One Beat" spoke authentically to their personal struggles—ageing, motherhood—as well as the fear, confusion and anger surrounding a post-9/11 world.
8. Frankie Cosmos, "Zentropy" (2014)
Greta Kline (aka Frankie Cosmos) has been making lo-fi garage rock since 2011, but a couple of years ago, she honed her craft on the accessible and addictive "Zentropy." With layered harmonies and effective distortion ("Leonie," "School"), Kline somehow is able to make the slapdash genre of garage rock delicate and fragile.
9. Bully, "Feels Like" (2015)
Alicia Bognanno’s guttural screams on Bully’s debut LP "Feels Like" are powerful, especially when hidden behind an immense pile of messy blonde locks. The frontwoman/sole songwriter for the Nashville-based grunge band demands your attention with her voice and uses it to its fullest potential. Clocking in at less than 30 minutes long, "Feels Like" is a quick shot into Bognanno’s heart and soul — and it’s a captivating place to be held.
10. Best Coast, "Crazy for You" (2010)
Not since The Beach Boys (and maybe The Eagles, but we refuse to truly acknowledge them) has there been a band that has been so successful at capturing the sound and feeling of southern California. Fronted by Bethany Cosentino, in 2010 Best Coast released their sun-soaked debut LP full of echoing guitar riffs and light, easy vocals in a charming murk — June gloom, maybe? — of fuzz. "Crazy for You" sounds like it was recorded in a garage that opened directly onto the beach.
11. Mitski, "Puberty 2" (2016)
Mitski’s freshly released fourth LP, "Puberty 2," expands the world of garage, lo-fi rock through its nerve-striking lyrics. Opening the album with the haunting "Happy" — a track complete with purposefully reckless jangly guitar and hazy vocals — Mitski leaves the listener in an exposed and jarring position, which is just where she wants you. "Puberty 2" marries the lush, fuzzed out sonic landscape of today’s garage and surf rock with the lyrical sophistication and personality of folk rock’s legendary songstresses like Joni Mitchell.
12. Hinds, "Leave Me Alone" (2016)
No one is having more fun than Hinds. The Spanish quartet takes shots on stage, chats with their fans like their long lost siblings and has captured the hearts of every magazine and blog across the world. Their debut full-length, the playful "Leave Me Alone," dropped earlier this year and embodies the carefree aura of great garage rock; simple and endearingly plucked guitar riffs and free-for-all sing along choruses abound.
13. Deap Vally, "Sistrionix" (2013)
"Gonna take a walk of shame / Baby I don’t feel no blame / Cause I got places to go / But I got no change of clothes." The third track on Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards' debut album as Deap Vally is the reverb-heavy, mischievous yet powerful "Walk of Shame." It’s only one of 11 tracks on "Sistrionix" that projects modern-day womanhood with the respect and raw power it deserves. Listen to the duo on Fully Amped on Friday at noon PT.
14. White Lung, "Paradise" (2016)
White Lung’s fourth full-length is a rapid-fire, wailing guitar-heavy sonic assault. And it’s near perfect. "Paradise" throws everything from synths to Wall-of-Sound texture at its listener and everything sticks. Songs like "Below," "Dead Weight" and "I Beg You" channel the frenetic energy of Bikini Kill and early X albums — making them fresh and refined for a new generation.
15. Dum Dum Girls, "Only in Dreams" (2011)
Handclaps, warbly surf-guitar riffs and '60s girl group musical breakdowns are found at every turn on Dum Dum Girls's sophomore album. Lead by Dee Dee, the Los Angeles quartet embraces the angelic harmonies and rose-tinted glasses optimism that their hometown affords them. Turn on mid-album stunner “In My Head” to feel the sand between your toes and the wind whipping through your hair.
16. Colleen Green, "Milo Goes to Compton" (2010)
LA songstress Colleen Green’s debut album brilliantly embodies the essential familiarity of a great garage rock album. Part of that is from the fact that she did absolutely everything on this record, including self-releasing it. On cassette. The other reason that you might feel comfort when listening to the brilliantly named "Milo Goes to Compton" is that the LP is noisy and gauzy, rough ("Good Good Things") and sweet ("Nice Boy (I Want A)") all at the same time. These seemingly conflicting sounds come together into a sonic primordial ooze that is alive and mutating, allowing the one-woman production to grow and feed off of her own sonic contradictions.