15 Essential Women Punk Icons

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Rolling Stone readers polls are the worst. Remember their “Top Ten Live Acts of All Time,” which was so terrible the entire Flavorpill staff came together to post an alternate list? Well, the aging rock magazine has done it again: Last week brought “Readers Poll: The Best Punk Bands of All Time.” And guess what? Not only did Green Day — Green Day! — take the #1 spot, but there wasn’t a single woman on the list. So, in an attempt to correct this latest grievous error, we have compiled a list of 15 essential women punk icons. Let’s be clear: These are hardly the only noteworthy women in punk. They’re simply the ones we think have absolutely earned a spot in any discussion of the best punk bands of all time.

Patti Smith

Her music might not sound much like what the Sex Pistols or Ramones were doing, but Patti Smith was one of New York’s first punks, her music fusing rock and poetry in a way that helped usher in a revolution. The statement that opens her classic debut album, 1975’s Horses — “Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine” — is as fitting a punk slogan as any. And back in ’79, on a show called Kids Are People Too, she defined the punk movement: “Rock ‘n roll is getting back in the hands of the people. It belongs to the kids again, not the big business guys.” Sounds about right to us. Smith remains a vital force in both music and literature, performing often and publishing a memoir that won her a National Book Award.

Joan Jett

It’s hard to overestimate Joan Jett’s impact on music. While she was still in high school, she played guitar in one of America’s first successful all-female rock bands, The Runaways. Although the band struggled with an exploitative manager, they also gave us some of our favorite proto-punk hits in songs like “Cherry Bomb” and “American Nights.” After The Runaways dissolved, Jett launched an even more successful solo career, churning out such bad-girl anthems as “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Bad Reputation.” In the ’90s, she became known as “the original riot grrrl” and collaborated with Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, L7, and more. These days, Jett is still performing, releasing albums, and running her own Blackheart Records, and independent label she’s helmed since the ’80s.

Poly Styrene

One of the bravest, loudest, and most visible woman of ’70s punk, Poly Styrene formed X-Ray Spex, who gave us one immortal album, 1978’s Germ Free Adolescents. Although the band broke up after the release of that record (and then reunited to play scattered shows and release a second full-length in the mid-’90s) and Poly faded somewhat from the public eye as the years went on, she never stopped making great music. In her solo work, she explored a wide range of genres, from jazz to dance. This year’s Generation Indigo found her fusing electronics with rock for what would become her last album — Poly Styrene died of cancer in April, at only 53 years old.

Ari Up

Ari Up was a woman who needed to be seen to be believed, which is part of the reason we’re so grateful to have had the honor of attending one of her shows. This electric, dynamic musician was only 14 years old in 1976, when she co-founded The Slits with Palmolive. Although they could barely play their instruments in the beginning, the band released a pair of fantastic, rule-breaking albums before splitting up in 1981. Ari Up spent much of the rest of her life in Jamaica, where she further explored the reggae and dub music that so heavily influenced The Slits’ sound. Over the years, she put out a handful of solo albums and collaborations before reuniting The Slits in 2006 and releasing their final record, Trapped Animal. Tragically, like Poly Styrene, she died far too young. Cancer claimed 48-year-old Ari Up’s life last October.

Siouxsie Sioux

Where punk meets goth, there is Siouxsie Sioux, who has been making dark and danceable music since 1976. One of the most prolific musicians on this list, Sioux released 11 studio albums with her most famous band, Siouxsie and the Banshees; she also fronted the more minimal, art-rock Creatures and, since 2004, has been maintaining an active solo career. Sioux’s enduring fame has as much to do with her exotic, Ancient Egyptian-tinged aesthetic as with her hypnotic music.

Lydia Lunch

Lydia Lunch ran away to New York at the age of 16, landing smack in the middle of the blighted city’s experimental art scene. She originally made her punk-rock name fronting the bracing, grating, deeply visceral No Wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in the late ’70s. They never released an album, although the Jerks did put out a pair of EPs and appear on Brian Eno’s legendary No New York compilation and briefly reunited in 2008. Since then, she has had a wildly prolific solo career, in which she’s collaborated with everyone from Nick Cave to Sonic Youth to Michael Gira. Lunch is also a talented writer, actress, and filmmaker who is known for her spoken word performances. Throughout her entire career, the single constant has been her unflinchingly tough, inscrutable personality.

Exene Cervenka

First lady of LA punk, Exene Cervenka co-founded X with then-boyfriend Joe Doe, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake in 1977. Beginning with 1980’s hometown manifesto, Los Angeles, the band took a distinctly literary, noir-flavored approach to punk, delving deeper into American roots music with each new album. Although they haven’t put out a new studio album since 1993’s Hey Zeus! — and Cervenka and Doe haven’t been an item for decades — the band reunited several times after breaking up for the first time in the late ’80s. Cervenka, meanwhile, has also fronted Aunti Christ, The Originally Sinners, and the rockabilly-oriented Knitters. She released her most recent solo album, The Excitement of Maybe, earlier this year.

Debbie Harry

Blondie’s Debbie Harry is among the most recognizable — and commercially successful — faces of CBGB-era New York punk. (The gorgeous ex-Playboy Bunny is certainly among its most photogenic alums.) Quickly expanding beyond their small, local scene and sound, she and her band mates incorporated pop, hip hop, disco, and reggae into their music, scoring a career-defining hit with 1978’s Parallel Lines. Since Blondie’s break-up in 1981, Harry has released five solo albums, collaborated on a slew of different projects, and acted on film and TV. (We love her as Velma Von Tussle in John Waters’s original Hairspray. These days, Blondie have reunited and released their latest album, Panic of Girls, in July.

Kim Gordon

Bassist. Singer. Fashion designer. Artist. Actress. One half of indie rock’s most venerable (and adorable) power couple. However you know her, Kim Gordon will always be one of the coolest women in rock. Most famous for her three uninterrupted decades as the throaty whisper at the heart of Sonic Youth, Gordon has also done a number of side project that are worth your time: She, Julie Cafritz of Pussy Galore, and Boredoms’ Yoshimi P-We have put out a handful of albums as Free Kitten, and in the late ’80s, she and Lydia Lunch formed Harry Crews with drummer Sadie May, resulting in the album Naked in Garden Hills. Perhaps most importantly, Gordon has been a tireless voice for women in music, supporting the riot grrrl movement, co-directing The Breeders’ “Cannonball” video, and helping to launch Hole’s career.

Courtney Love

Speaking of Hole! Love her or hate her, Courtney Love was the most important woman in that very ’90s punk offshoot, grunge. Wildly controversial throughout her entire career, Love has given us one classic album (Live Through This), three pretty damn good ones (Pretty on the Inside, Celebrity Skin, and Nobody’s Daughter), and another that we’d be better off forgetting (yup, it’s America’s Sweetheart) — as well as a few solid acting performances. She is erratic, imprudent, mentally imbalanced, and sometimes jarringly profound, like a giant, ravenous female id set loose on American popular culture. As for which side of the debate we come down on, well, isn’t it obvious? We love her.

Kathleen Hanna

You can’t bring up riot grrrl without mentioning Kathleen Hanna, its most identifiable (if also a reluctant) spokesperson. She helped kick off the movement in 1990, when she co-founded Bikini Kill with Tobi Vail. For nearly a decade, the band toured the country meeting young women, distributing feminist zines, and singing about taboo subjects like sex work and abuse. Around the turn of the millennium, Hanna released a lo-fi dance-punk album under the name Julie Ruin, and the project eventually evolved into the more ambitious Le Tigre. Outside of music, she has been instrumental in preserving riot grrrl’s legacy, speaking about the movement and contributing her papers to NYU’s archive. Recently, Hanna has reimagined Julie Ruin as a full band, re-enlisting Bikini Kill’s Kathi Wilcox. Their first album is due out early next year.

PJ Harvey

It’s impossible to classify Polly Jean Harvey: Her earliest albums were raw and guttural, their dark lyrics and growl-to-shriek vocal range practically creating a genre of their own — if their unbridled experimentalism and anger don’t qualify as punk, then we’re not sure what does. Over the years, Harvey has mellowed a bit, gravitating to the calmer waters of the indie-rock world and releasing everything from gothy Nick Cave collaborations to 2007’s spare, quiet White Chalk. Her newest album, the harder-rocking Let England Shake, is among our favorites of the year.

Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein

Fact: Riot grrrl alums Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein formed Sleater-Kinney in Portland, OR in 1994 and released seven albums before breaking up in 2006. Opinion: Sleater-Kinney never put out a single bad album. We are hard pressed to find even one of their songs that we don’t like! From “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” to “Get Up” to “Oh!” to “Modern Girl,” Tucker and Brownstein, along with drummer Janet Weiss, made some of the most compelling and technically dazzling punk of all time. And both are still deeply involved in music. While Tucker put out a low-key solo album last year, Brownstein (who has also spent time as an NPR music critic and co-stars in IFC’s wonderful Portlandia) will put out her debut release as part of Wild Flag next month.

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto is a punk rocker for the 21st century. Her band, Gossip, melds punk, dance, pop, and gospel into appealing anthems of female, queer and fat liberation. She’s a thrilling performer and scarily talented singer who’s entirely comfortable in her own skin — and that, as far as we’re concerned, is what punk is really all about.