It’s been a month since the death of exceptional Dolores O’Riordan, who fronted the Irish band, The Cranberries for almost three decades. She was one of the few women that I knew of, who had led rock bands to such great success. I say this as someone grew up on rock music, as someone listened to male voices ring out, distinct from the strums of the guitar and the beats of the drum. There were famous rock singers, like Patti Smith and Sinead O’Connor, but few bands fronted by women. In tribute to O’Riordan and her incredible voice, here are ten of the best rock bands fronted by women.
1. The Cranberries and Dolores O’Riordan
The history of The Cranberries and O’Riordan is less than glamorous. The Cranberries was an Irish band from Limerick originally called The Cranberry Saw Us, and O’Riordan wasn’t even a part of the band originally. O’Riordan joined the band in 1990, and replaced the original singer, Niall Quinn. O’Riordan was a mezzo-soprano known for her deep, powerful voice, and the simple lyrics of her songs. Interestingly, mezzo-soprano is the most popular range for femal singers. However, O’Riordan made it her own, with her lilting, yet powerful voice, and lyrics that were evocative and emotional. She famously sang Linger as a part of her audition with The Cranberries, and went on to front one of the world’s best rock bands for the better part of two decades. The Cranberries took a hiatus in 2003 to pursue their individual careers, and O’Riordan had a fairly successful solo career. The band reunited in 2009, and now after the untimely death of O’Riordan on 15th January 2018, their fate remains uncertain. The Cranberries are most famous for their powerful protest song Zombie, love ballad Linger, and Dreams, another love song; all of which were at least partially composed by O’Riordan.
2. Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie
Stevie Nicks has been called the Queen of Rock and Roll, and rightly so. She is perhaps one of the most successful voices in rock and roll history, having achieved fame, both as a member of the rock band Fleetwood Mac, and as a solo artist. Before Nicks, Fleetwood Mac was already home to (female) keyboardist and vocalist Christine McVie. McVie joined the band in 1970, by which time her then husband John McVie already played for them. McVie is famous for her distinctive high, smoky voice. McVie took a long hiatus from Fleetwood Mac between 1998 and 2014, while Nicks remained in the public eye. Nicks joined the band in 1975, and thus began Fleetwood Mac’s long reign as a pioneer of rock and roll. Rumours, which was released after Nicks (and her then boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham) joined, remains one of the greatest selling albums of all time. Nicks is know for her husky, airy voice, and distinctive folk style, which only adds to her aura. She was also notoriously famous for her sky-high platform shoes, which she wore to compensate for her short stature. She also famously collaborated with Tom Petty on the smash hit Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around. McVie famously wrote the songs Don’t Stop, Over My Head, and Hold Me; while Nicks achieved widespread critical and commercial acclaim for her Dreams, Landslide, and Sara. Both McVie and Nicks also enjoyed successful solo careers. Along with the remaining members of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks and Catherine McVie were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
3. Blondie and Debbie Harry
I’ve always been a little in love with Debbie Harry. She’s gorgeous, for one, and she is very versatile as a singer. She has an incredible range, and has also performed songs from a wide variety of genres, including rap and reggae. In fact, the 1981 hit song Rapture, was the first ever U.S. Billboard no. 1 single to feature rap in its vocals. Debbie Harry and Blondie revolutionised the American punk scene in the ‘70s. Debbie has also had a successful solo career, with hits like In Love with Love, and I Want that Man. Debbie also revolutionised the image of a “blonde”, first by ironically naming her band Blondie (which most people didn’t understand), and also by challenging the idea of what was “strictly feminine” by being a white, blonde, skinny woman who didn’t sing about being a victim of love. Debbie has perhaps spent her entire professional life explaining how she isn’t Blondie, and the band is, but quite in vain. She is known for her energetic, sensual and absolutely captivating on-stage persona, which goes on to reiterate her image as a multi-faceted woman, and a multi-talented singer. Some of Blondie’s most famous hits – Heart of Glass, Rapture, and my personal favourite, One Way or Another were written by Debbie Harry. Blondie and Debbie Harry were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
4. Joan Jett and her Blackhearts
Joan Jett was originally part of the all-female rock band The Runaways, but is best known for her work with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. She has been widely touted as the Godmother of Punk. The Blackhearts became widely popular in the 1980s after their version of the Arrows song I Love Rock ‘n Roll. They also covered Tommy Jones and the Shondells’ Crimson and Clover, which also received widespread commercial and critical acclaim, as did their original I Hate Myself for Loving You. Jett and Michael Jackson sang Light of Day, which was written by Bruce Springsteen for a movie of the same name. Jett has also enjoyed a successful solo career; her Bad Reputation has remained one of the best, and most popular songs. It has been used in movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Easy A, and shows (trailers) like Jessica Jones. Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. In 2014, when Nirvana was inducted, she fronted a performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit with the remaining members of the band.
5. Evanescence and Amy Lee
Evanescence and Amy Lee remain household names for anyone who grew up in the ‘the early 2000’s. Along with bands like Green Day and Linkin Park, they were this generation’s introduction to the world of rock and roll. Unlike the other bands on this list, Evanescence’s line up has changed multiple times, and Lee has been the only constant in the group. Though a mezzo-soprano, Lee has a distinctive voice with a very wide vocal range. She also plays the piano for the band, and has been known to play other instruments like the harp. Lee has sung and co-written most of the bands hits, like My Immortal, Bring Me to Life, and Call Me When You’re Sober.
6. No Doubt and Gwen Stefani
Gwen Stefani co-founded No Doubt way back in 1986, and has served as its lead vocalist since. No Doubt became popular because of its distinctly different sound, as compared to the other rock bands of the era. The band’s music was more upbeat and preppy, as opposed to the darker, more punk-inspired rock bands of the era. During the bands hiatuses, Stefani’s single career blossomed, and she became (and remains) one of the most critically and commercially successful singers. Stefani has a wide musical range, and an energetic presence on stage. While No Doubt’s music remained primarily in the rock genre, Stefani’s solo albums draw inspiration from old-school pop, and other genres including rap and reggae. She pushed No Doubt to critical and commercial acclaim with songs such as Don’t Speak, Trapped in a Box, and Hey Baby. As a solo performer, Stefani became famous for songs like Rich Girl and Holloback Girl. Stefani is also a coach on the reality show The Voice.
7. Paramore and Hayley Williams
Paramore is the newest (youngest?) band on this list; and since its inception in 2004, it has been led by lead vocalist Hayley Williams. Williams also occasionally plays the piano for the band. Williams is a soprano, with a high, but versatile singing voice. Like Lee in Evanescence, Williams has been the sole constant member of the band throughout the years. Williams remains markedly different from the other ladies on this list because of her Christian faith, and her image as a non-smoker and non-drinker. With Paramore, Williams has written and sung the Grammy-winning Ain’t It Fun, as well as smash hits That’s What You Get, and Pressure. Williams also famously collaborated with rapper B.o.B. on the Grammy-nominated Airplanes, which features on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time.
8. Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick
California-based Jefferson Airplane was a psychedelic rock band that paved way for psychedelic rock in the USA. Grace Slick replaced founding member and vocalist Signe Anderson in 1966. Slick’s powerful voice propelled Jefferson Airplane to fame and applause. The band headlined the most famous music festivals of the time, at Woodstock, Altamont, and Monterey. Slick in particular, was responsible for influencing the psychedelic bent of the band, which used to focus more on a folk-rock style of music. This cemented Slick as one of the pioneers of psychedelic rock, and one of the best rock and roll voices in history. After the split of the band in the early ‘70s, Slick, along with Paul Kantner and other band members formed Jefferson Starship in ’74. The band underwent further changes in the ‘80s, and after Kantner left Jefferson Starship in ’84, Slick continued to perform with the other members of the band, now known as Starship. The classic lineup of the band reunited in ’89, with an album, and a subsequent tour. With Jefferson Airplane, Slick famously wrote and sang White Rabbit and Mexico. She also provided vocals for Somebody to Love and Volunteers. Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
9. Hole and Courtney Love
Hole is one of the world’s most successful female-fronted rock bands. Their most famous line up consisted of Courtney Love on the vocals, Eric Erlandson on the guitar, Kristen Pfaff on the bass, and Patty Schemel on drums. After her suicide, Pfaff was replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur. (Auf der Maur currently plays for The Smashing Pumpkins.) Hole’s ticket to success was mostly based on Love’s powerful vocals, and her vastly feminist lyrics. Love has been a very volatile media figure, because of her marriage to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, and also her controversial live performances, both of which critics have called “uninhibited”. Though Love considers herself more of a guitarist than a singer, her distinctive vocals have given her powerful lyrics more of a voice, so to speak. After the band disbanded, Love began a successful solo career; she also tried to start a female rock supergroup, and wrote her memoir, Dirty Blonde. The band reunited in 2010, and later disbanded again, in 2016. During her time at Hole, Love famously wrote and sang Doll Parts, Miss World, and Malibu.
10. Siouxise and the Banshees and Siouxsie Sioux
Vocalist Siouxsie Sioux and bassist Steven Severin formed Siouxsie and The Banshees in 1976, as a part of the London punk scene. Their music evolved, and they soon became more focussed on a sort of gothic rock music. They primarily influenced later bands that began producing new-wave and alternative music. Their songs were largely bold and uninhibited, sometimes with dark lyrics and music, dealing with topics like suicide, mental illness, and sexual abuse. The Banshees disbanded in ’96, and Sioux, with drummer Budgie, became known as The Creatures. Sioux began a successful solo career in 2004. Sioux has also sung with other punk and post-punk artists like Morrissey. Sioux is an animated live performer, and that coupled with her versatile vocal range make her perhaps one of the greatest rock singers to have ever lived. With The Banshees, Sioux wrote and recorded Spellbound, Hong Kong Garden, and Peek-a-Boo; and Right Now with The Creatures.
Of course, there have been many, many more female voices in the world of rock and roll, like solo artist Sinead O’Connor, the multi-talented “punk poet” Patti Smith, as well as duos like the Swedish group Roxette and the synth pop group Eurhythmics. There are cover bands like Lez Zeppelin, which is an all woman, lesbian, Led Zeppelin cover band. There are hundreds of women who have contributed to rock and roll, to make it what it is today, and still hundreds who continue to do so. These are some of a very large, talented group.