Taking a good, hard look beyond cute chicks with ukuleles, sirens who provide airy harmonies to their leading men, and glitter-addicted Madonna remakes, we tried to find the women who are taking songwriting and performing to brave new levels, defying genres, and providing the most original, inspirational voices for this generation's female listeners. Taking the torch from artists like Tori Amos, Bjork, PJ Harvey, and Kim Gordon (to name a few), these women are out there singing their hearts out with awe-striking sincerity and not giving a fuck about fitting in.
1. Amanda Palmer
No one seems to exemplify the fiercely independent, fearlessly strange singer/songwriter more than Boston's Amanda Palmer. Since the self-titled album with the Dresden Dolls (Palmer and her drummer, Brian Viglione) to her most recent project, Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, she has sung about the struggles of rape victims, transgender psychology, mental illness, child abuse, abortions, and backstabbers, and through all that, she's managed to interlace the serious subjects with tongue-in-cheek songs like "Coin-Operated Boy" and the hilarious "Shores Of California." From the beginning, Palmer established herself as an avant-garde performer, often bringing in cabaret acts like Meow Meow to participate in her riotous live shows, drawing on intricately designed black-pen eyebrows and wearing her signature striped tights, and producing music videos that ought to win awards (see: the NSFW-ish vid for "Want It Back"
). Whatever Palmer decides to sing about, she'll do it in a way that bares her soul and kicks your ass.
Listen: "Runs In The Family"
2. Florence Welch
Florence + The Machine (led by Welch) has been surprising us since we first heard their harp-laden fantasy rock anthem "Cosmic Love." Despite the upbeat, poppy sound of their first single, "The Dog Days Are Over," their albums have been full of dark, brooding confessions and earth-shattering orchestral instrumentation (see "Howl" and "Drumming Song" off their debut). Welch's most recent album, Ceremonials
, broke major ground when it turned out to be all about Virginia Woolf and drowning. Yes, we're used to this from obscure singer-songwriters who don't break Top 40, but Florence + The Machine has enjoyed huge commercial success ("Seven Devils" has haunted us since it was featured in a Game of Thrones
preview), which makes us think the world is ready for more.
3. Karin Dreijer Andersson
Known best for her work with her brother Olof as The Knife, Karin is unapologetically strange, with her twangy, otherworldly voice and dreamy performances complete with tribal face paint. The Swedish singer/songwriter has cited Sonic Youth, Kate Bush, and Le Tigre as influences, and her solo project, Fever Ray, allowed her to explore the fairyland of her mind in dark, bumpy jungle electronica to which we're still dancing. This spring, The Knife is returning from their 7-years hiatus, and from what we've heard so far, Shake The Habitual
is going to feature even more of Karin's signature high/low double vocal mix that first freaked us out (in the best way) on Deep Cuts
. As far as we're concerned, Andersson is the queen of indie cool, and the priestess of futuristic electronica that somehow feels like it came from deep within the woods.
Listen: "When I Grow Up"
4. Emilie Autumn
Classically trained violinist Emilie Autumn has been playing her own brand of "baroque industrial" for the past decade, singing about Ophelia, Juliet, the Lady of Shalott, Lolita, oh, and a group of women who break out of a Victorian asylum and go on a rampage to exterminate all men. She is quite vocal about mental illness in women, especially on her most recent album, Fight Like A Girl
, which tells the story of said asylum. Songs like "Take The Pill" and "Opheliac" detail her struggle with bipolar disorder and medication, sometimes in a way that's downright terrifying to listen to. Emilie's live shows are like a distorted nightmare vision of a Victorian cabaret, and though her bracing, brash techno is not everyone's cup of tea, theatrical songs like "Girls! Girls! Girls!" and "Thank God I'm Pretty" are crowd-pleasers, even for newcomers to the Asylum.
Listen: "Time For Tea"
5. Karen O
With three successful albums under her belt with her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the hit single "Maps" on Rock Band, and lots of attention for her recent cover of "Immigrant Song" with Trent Reznor in The Hunger Games
, Karen O has had one hell of a decade, and she's still going strong with her band's fourth record, Mosquito
, coming out this spring. Her surrealist lyrics, badass (often leotard-clad) stage persona, and characteristic yelp have made her into a Bowie-meets-riot-girl rock star. Through all that fame, though, she's maintained an elusive artsy attitude that's kept the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beloved in the indie category and admired by critics. Whatever she sings seems to morph into a larger-than-life battle cry of dirty city streets and glamorous debauchery.
6. Lana Del Rey
Elizabeth Grant aka Lana Del Rey is a David Lynch-approved lounge singer transported from another era who seems to say what's on the modern romantic's mind and has been categorized as "sadcore." Sure, one could say that Lana Del Ray is basically an amalgamation of Joni Mitchell, Madonna, and Nancy Sinatra, all wrapped up in a pretty package and ready to sell. But we're going to go out on a limb and say that she's brave as hell, that she means what she sings, and that in a generation of pop singers who seem to believe without irony that the only option for this generation is party 'til we die, she's painfully aware of the dangers of the "live fast, die young" philosophy, of the virgin/whore dichotomy, the Lolita fantasy, and the patriarchy. When she idealizes the American dream and romanticizes heartbreak in song like "Ride," "Born To Die," and "Blue Jeans," she does so with poetic sensitivity that can slip right past the radar of a casual listener. Especially in an age obsessed with nostalgia (see: Instagram, beards), it's refreshing to see an artist who embraces times gone by with unapologetic angst. We can't wait to see what she does next.
Listen: "Blue Jeans"