In 1991, the Bikini Kill Zine 2 was published and the world of Riot Grrrl was born. What began as a foundational manifesto for a new DIY scene turned into a revolution as a new generation of feminist musicians stopped accepting the “beergutboyrock” status quo and started making their voices heard. As loudly as possible. Riot Grrrl sent a ripple effect through culture with an influence that can be seen today in the proliferation of zines, pro-inclusivity spaces and plenty of sharp, hard-rocking all-girl bands to carry the torch. Below are the pioneers of the musical genre that felt it was about time they got girls to the front.
It only feels fitting that Bikini Kill’s debut opens with distorted amp feedback giving way to Kathleen Hanna shouting, “We’re Bikini Kill! And we want revolution! Girl-style now!” The record serves not only as an introduction to Bikini Kill as a band but Riot Grrrl in general. While the EP doesn’t contain their signature single (“Rebel Girl”), it still acts as an early soundboard for the trio’s anger toward the patriarchy, trying to empower their marginalized peers on “Double Dare Ya” (“Dare ya to do what you want / Dare ya to be who you will”), while also bringing awareness to the issue of constantly dismissed sexual assault “Suck My Left One, (“Why are all the boys acting so strange / we’ve got to show them we’re worse than queer”). And if the album wasn’t counterculture enough, it also boasts production by Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye, making it a necessary addition to any punk collection.
Named after a road in Lacey, Washington (the interstate exit sign is an Instagram fave), Sleater-Kinney is considered by fans and critics to be Riot Grrrl royalty. Frontwoman Corin Tucker formed the band with then-girlfriend Carrie Brownstein after her main band, Heavens to Betsy disbanded, and the two recorded their debut one night while on vacation in Australia. Although most of the song’s themes feel personal (many of them chronicle the endings of relationships) Tucker’s intentionally harsh and manic vocals turn their emotional vulnerability on its head, shifting them from defeat to anger. From refusing abusive relationships on “How to Play Dead,” to toxic codependence on “Be Yr Mama,” and ending relationships over rumors on “Slow Song,” Sleater-Kinney synthesizes negativity into raw energy and dismisses the victim-mentality in favor of just kicking sorrow’s ass.
After getting a recommendation from a male friend to listen to the Ramones for songwriting inspiration, Bratmobile decided to skip that, since they conceded that most male rock bands already sounded so similar. Consequently, we got the mean, punky-poppy, cathartic debut Pottymouth. Accurately named, it’s their uncensored take on social issues. In addition to one of their biggest singles “Cool Schmool,” a rejection of popularity and trendiness (as the song opens, they gleefully shout “We’re so cool, yeah yeah, we’re so cool. Fuck you! Cool schmool!”), the album also features a delightfully unhinged cover of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” Bratmobile may have never liked the Ramones, but they still knew what good music was.
Team Dresch: Personal Best
Team Dresch was uniquely positioned in the Riot Grrrl movement at the forefront of the queercore scene. A hardcore punk band with pop sensibilities, they spoke primarily about the LGBTQ experience, with brash and unashamed song titles like “Fagetarian and Dyke,” and “Screw the Christian Right.” Lead vocalists and songwriters Kaia Wilson and Jody Bleyle crafted concise and honest accounts of their experience being queer in their small hometowns while also managing to keep their musicality; Personal Best is filled with tight, melodic riffs and restrained drumming that serve as a technically sound foundation for lyrics like “Well how do I do / not good / fuck me / I spent the last 10 days of my life not getting any sleep.” And to really bolster their punk credibility, the entire 10-track album clocks in under 25 minutes, with not a single note wasted.
Before Courtney Love became synonymous with Kurt Cobain conspiracies, Larry Flynt biopics and that infamous 1996 MTV VMA’s moment, she was the unsettled, babydoll dress-clad frontwoman for Hole. Their second album, Live Through This, is an exploration of the dark side of beauty, imagining attractiveness as a prison rather than a power. On “Violet,” she’s beautiful but unlovable; on “Doll Parts,” not beautiful enough. “Asking For It” positions beauty as an excuse for assault, an almost exhausted examination of a victim-blaming culture (“If she was asking for it / Did she ask you twice?”). Love may never be heralded as a guitar virtuoso, but her ability to accurately express the consequences of society’s view of women make Live Through This an emotionally charged classic.
Their only album, Calculated, was somehow both heavy and minimalistic, with basic guitar lines undercutting Corin Tucker’s oscillating whispery vocals and full screams. While her later band Sleater-Kinney would eventually veer into more socio-political territory, Heavens to Betsy’s debut feels like Tucker’s first foray into that arena. From “Donating My Body to Science,” an early “my body, my choice”-type of chant (“If you dissect it, you can control it / if you name it, you can own it.”) to “White Girl,” a reflection on her own privilege, (“But I won’t change anything / unless I change my racist self.”) Calculated feels like an honest cross-examination of a dark world that keeps it feeling, for better or worse, fresh and continually relevant.
L7’s formation preceded the Riot Grrrl genesis by a few years but they remain an influential and integral part of the scene. Their third album, Bricks are Heavy, carried their biggest single, “Pretend We’re Dead,” and shifts between general political critique on “Wargasm,” (“Body bags to dropping bombs / the Pentagon knows how to turn us on”) to personal anger on “Shitlist” (“Shitlist / Of all you assholes / who won’t be missed”) while maintaining the sinister energy of Metallica-esque riffs and frontwoman Donita Sparks’ perfectly jaded monotone. L7 would later go on to be known for a controversy that’s truly as feminist punk as it gets—after a festival crowd grew restless as the band had technical difficulties, Sparks took out her tampon onstage and threw it at the crowd, shouting “Eat my used tampon, fuckers!” Keep Bricks Are Heavy handy when feeling the urge to win a fight. Bonus points if you pick it.
7 Year Bitch: Sick ’Em
Much like L7, 7 Year Bitch is one of the trailblazers of the Riot Grrrl movement. Maybe the most aggressive on this list, singer Selene Vigil’s scratchy, snarling voice never quite sounds like singing as much as it does a low, maniacal scream. Sick ’Em is an album that could only be described as “brutal,” drenched in churning, twisted late-’80s metal riffs. It could pass perhaps as an Ozzy deep cut if the lyrics weren’t so specific to the feminine experience. On “Knot,” Vigil sings “I’m amazed at the rage in me,” and that epiphany serves as the through line of the album. Songs like “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and “No Fucking War” belie the prickling energy of a band that would have been content to watch their world burn, and fairly so. The world of Sick ’Em is pure hell, but more than anything, this is an album of what it means to go through hell and survive.
Lunachicks can also be filed under the Riot Grrrl legacy category. Formed in 1987, the band was influenced by classic glam rock bands like Kiss and MC5. Their 1990 debut, Babysitters on Acid, is rich with glam metal riffs, a punk rock edge and Theo Kogan’s distinct, growling vocals. More CBGB than art school, they combined overtly graphic lyrics about sex and relationships with a screw-you attitude toward the male gaze. From “Octopussy” (inviting partners down to the “coral reef hidden by” her “pussy sheath”) to “Makin’ It (With Other Species),” the album is a gleefully off-kilter warpath through their world at large. A John Waters-level fascination with kitsch and camp, they even dedicate a song to pop culture’s misfit teen idol with “Jan Brady” (“Polyester plaid bell bottoms / I ain’t no trash!”). Despite breaking up in the late ’90s, Babysitters on Acid still put a switchblade into the bubble of glam-metal machismo and paved the way for Riot Grrrl bands to come.
A true supergroup, Free Kitten was created by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz. Even though Free Kitten was intended to be a side project, Nice Ass proved to be a completely realized full album, an artsy, experimental record with moody, down-tuned riffs marching alongside Cafritz’s restrained shouts. Ever aware they were two women in the noise rock scene, the album keeps a cynical sense of humor under its raw edginess—“Proper Band” mocks the oft-used way men cut women in music down (“Check out our guitar sound / Big amps make rock tight!”), while “Secret Sex Friend,” pokes fun at what men value in their sexual partners (“My secret sex friend / she can do a backbend!”) Though the band eventually turned toward their respective main projects, Nice Ass will always remain the eccentric, intellectual cousin of the Riot Grrrl family.