The story of riot grrrl in 15 classic albums

The still-vital scene was born in the early ‘90s Pacific Northwest as a direct response to male-dominated punk rock

In the early ‘90s, riot grrrl was born in America’s Pacific Northwest as a direct response to the male-dominated punk scene. Fed up of being pushed into the background, a group of likeminded musicians gradually formed their own underground movement bringing girls to the front. The original riot grrrl manifesto, first printed in the second issue of scene pioneers Bikini Kill’s punk zine, reads: “we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak… Because I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.” From here, riot grrrl was born.

Though the embers of riot grrrl fizzled out in the late ‘90s, its spirit and DIY ethos has stuck around – and has indirectly fed into movements ranging from Afropunk festival and Sista Grrrl, to some of the greatest queercore bands going. Here’s the story of the incendiary punk offshoot in 15 classic albums.

Sonic Youth, ‘Goo’ (1990)

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“What are you gonna do for me?” drawls Kim Gordon on ‘Kool Thing’. “I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?” Released a year before the publication of the riot grrrl manifesto, Sonic Youth’s sixth studio album ‘Goo’ saw Gordon challenging women’s patriarchal roles in society, and dedicating ‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’ – a song about dangerous body image ideals and beauty standards – to the late American musician Karen Carpenter. And though Sonic Youth mined from different sonic territory – rough-sounding musique concrète sound collages, uneasy, spiny guitars and over-dubs– many of the ideas in ‘Goo’ would inspire some of riot grrrl’s leading figures.

One such fan was Bikini Kill’s singer Kathleen Hanna. In the early ‘90s, Gordon went to watch Bikini Kill play a show, and put the band up at her apartment afterwards. As a newcomer trying to carve out a space in the male-dominated punk scene, Kathleen Hanna admired Sonic Youth’s bassist and vocalist for blazing a similar trail. “I was in a punk underground scene dominated by hardcore dudes who yelled mean shit at me every night, and journalists routinely called my voice ‘shrill’, ‘unlistenable’,” Hanna told ELLE. “Kim made me feel accepted in a way I hadn’t before. Fucking Kim Gordon thought I was on the right track; haters be damned. It made the bullshit easier to take, knowing she was in my corner.”

Why it was so influential: In a word, Kim Gordon, a figure who continues to inspire wannabe punk rockers to this day.

Babes In Toyland, ‘Spanking Machine’ (1990)

When Sonic Youth took ‘Goo’ on a European tour, they invited along one of their favourite new bands, Babes in Toyland. Recorded the previous year in Seattle, with go-to grunge producer Jack Endino (Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana) the group’s debut album ‘Spanking Machine’ drew on swampy metal, punk scrappiness, and grungy murk. Though Babes in Toyland never viewed themselves as a riot grrrl band, they accidentally paved the way for the feminist punk off-shoot and shared a few key objectives anyway – ’Spanking Machine’ is filled with zinging one-liners (“crystalline cunt made of mint julep tea”) and opens with a song called ‘Swamp Pussy’. And like the riot grrrls, vocalist Kat Bjelland deliberately played with preconceived notions of girliness, appearing in a frilly pink dress before conjuring up sheer menace: shrieking, screaming, and even speaking in tongues.

Why it was so influential: It pointed a middle finger firmly in the direction of sexist critics who branded women in punk as “whiney.”

Bikini Kill, ‘Revolution Girl Style Now’ (1991)

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In 1991, Bikini Kill played at Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now, named after an Olympia festival – Bratmobile, Kicking Giant and Heavens to Betsy also played – organised by K Records. The band’s drummer Tobi Vall would later describe it as a “a call for all girls to start bands, start ‘zines and participate in the making of independent culture.” A relentless, pissed-off slab of punk, it rages at the abuse and violence that women must endure every day, and it’s also the wildly influential riot grrrl band at their most potent.

Why it was so influential: This early riot grrrl cut succeeded in its mission, inspiring countless other women to start making art.

7 Year Bitch, ‘Sick ‘Em’ (1992)

Equally ferocious, 7 Year Bitch’s debut grounds its anger in a murk of swampy metal and searing one liners. Formed in Seattle in 1990, the band named themselves after the ‘50s romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch, a film about a married man who begins fantasising about infidelity. And ‘Sick ‘Em’ they shift the narrative onto women, often colliding potent lust with a liberal dollop of ridicule. On ‘Knot’, vocalist Selene Vigil revisits a horrifying make-out session with visceral precision (“With your mess of slobbering lips, with dribble in my brow”) while ‘You Smell Lonely’ threatens a man with instant flaccidity. “Knew what I was thinking / Your dick it would be shrinking,” Vigil snarls. And on highlights ‘No Fucking War’ and ‘Dead Men Don’t Rape’, 7 Year Bitch rail against rape culture and violence. All in all, it’s a short, sharp shot of riot grrrl brilliance. After finishing ‘Sick ‘Em’, 7 Year Bitch went through a number of enormous losses as a band, confronted with the deaths of their guitarist Stefanie Sargent, and close friend and The Gits membre Mia Zapata, later channelling these traumas into more cathartic punk brilliance.

Why it was so influential: Riot grrrl meets swamp metal, and a wicked sense of humour. What could be better?

L7, ‘Bricks are Heavy’ (1992)

Formed in 1987, L7 pre-date both riot grrrl and grunge by several years – but their incendiary third album ‘Bricks are Heavy’ (produced by ‘Nevermind’ producer Butch Vig) overlaps with both of these genres. Though L7’s music was perhaps less pointedly political, ‘Bricks are Heavy’ shares its DNA with many of riot grrrl’s leading acts – ’Diet Pill’ targets damaging beauty standards, while the panting, thrashing ‘Wargasm’ satirically depicts masturbation over violence unfolding on the news. “Body bags and dropping bombs,” Donita Sparks sings, “The Pentagon knows how to turn us on.” Like Sonic Youth, L7 fit into the riot grrrl story as influential precursors. in 2017, Sparks told SF Weekly that witnessing the rise of riot grrrl take hold felt like an affirming moment. “It was a feeling of fucking finally there are some fucking role models out there,” she said.

Why it was so influential: Years before riot grrrl, L7 blazed their own trail through male-dominated punk and led the way.

Heavens to Betsy, ‘These Monsters Are Real’ (1993)

Long before forming Sleater-Kinney, Corin Tucker’s unmistakable vocal – raw, powerful and expressive – was the driving force behind her first band Heavens to Betsy. The band immediately became embedded in Olympia’s scene after playing their first ever gig, alongside many of riot grrrl’s key players at Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now. Their 1992 split single with fellow Olympians Bratmobile is an essential listen, and arguably one of the most essential riot grrrl records going – but for a fuller taste of what Heavens to Betsy are all about, start with their ‘93 EP ‘These Monsters Are Real’. While many of their peers summoned bite and menace through thrashing guitar lines, songs such as ‘Me & Her’ are built on sparse bass-lines – as Tucker sings of love and hate intermingling, you can almost hear her pain.

Why it was so influential: Not only did Heavens to Betsy lead to the formation of Sleater-Kinney, the band is also a huge part of the riot grrrl mythology as a whole.

Bratmobile, ‘Pottymouth’ (1993)

Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe originally met in women’s studies classes at the University of Oregon – where they quickly noticed they would get ‘shushed’ for calling themselves girls. “Part of [riot grrrl] was almost a rebellion against academic feminism,” Wolfe told Rolling Stone in 2016. “I was like ‘Well, what about people who really are girls age-wise – why can’t we reclaim words and use them ourselves, how we want? And why are those stories and realities and experiences of young girls invalidated by so much of them as well as the rest of the world’,” she recalled. “A lot of what we were doing was kind of trying to bring in something that wasn’t academic and just be like, ‘Well, this is feminist too.’”

And their playful ‘93 debut album ‘Pottymouth’ wastes no time in raging against those who objectify and underestimate girls: “Admit it,” challenges the opening line of the entire album, “innocent little girls turn you on don’t they?” Further down the line, Bratmobile played the first ever Ladyfest in 2000 – it’s now a global celebration of DIY feminist arts, with events all over the world.

Why it was so influential: ‘Pottymouth’ helped to refine what riot grrrl was all about – namely, shunning academia and adopting a do-it-yourself attitude.

Slant 6,  ‘Soda Pop Rip Off’ (1994)

It’s fitting that Slant 6 borrowed their name from a Chrysler car engine – drawing on a love of ‘60s pop and garage-rock, punk bands like The Wipers, and surf rock, the Washington D.C band’s first album careers along like a clapped-out old convertible screaming down the Pacific Coast highway. Before forming Slant 6, the band’s Christina Billotte used to play in various bands with men – eventually, they grew fed up of being spoken over, and joined Autoclave with Mary Timony (another riot-adjacent icon who later formed Ex Hex and Wild Flag) and then formed Slant 6. ‘Soda Pop Rip Off’ shares some of her previous band’s mathy sensibilities – it’s both menacing and melodic in a scrappy, angular kind of way – and often takes down the male-dominated punk scene they encountered earlier on. “I walk into a room, and I get the once-over from you,” Billotte sings on ‘Don’t Censor Me’, “but who are you to decide who I shall be, and what I should do?”

Why it was so influential: It combined riot grrrl’s bite with straight-up pop-rock rippers.

Sleater-Kinney, ‘Call the Doctor’ (1996)

Prior to joining forces, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were both embedded in the riot grrrl scene – Tucker fronted Heavens to Betsy, while Brownstein was a member of Excuse 17. The two bands toured together, and collaborated on the 1995 compilation ‘Free to Fight’ – and ultimately the duo ended up starting Sleater-Kinney together to continue the project. Though the band gradually drifted in other directions, the band’s first three records share a lot of overlap with riot grrrl’s DIY ethos – Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled debut was recorded during an all-nighter in Australia. And their second album ‘Call the Doctor’ takes that same raw energy and concentrates it even further: raging against boredom, working crap jobs, violence against women and patriarchal society in the process.

Why it was so influential: Possibly one of the first post-riot grrrl records to stem from the scene, ‘Call the Doctor’ paved the way for a whole new wave of likeminded but distinct bands.

Le Tigre, ‘Le Tigre’ (1999)

By 1998, Bikini Kill had split and their peers had begun to fray off into different musical directions. Shortly after Bikini Kill parted ways, Kathleen Hanna started a new solo project, Julie Ruin, and found herself in need of a backing band. Enter Le Tigre – initially a project with Johanna Fateman and Sadie Benning, and later, JD Sampson. On their self-titled album, the sociopolitical thrust of Bikini Kill warps into new, electro-clash fuelled shapes – it’s less a riot grrrl album and more a classic that might not exist without it.

Why it was so influential: It proved that riot grrrl is less about sound, and more about spirit.

Gossip, ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ (2005)

In 1999, Gossip singer Beth Ditto moved to riot grrrl’s birthplace from her hometown of Arkansas, and began fusing feminist punk with mangled southern blues. Like Le Tigre, they took the key elements of the genre and took it to new, exciting places – the title-track of their breakthrough third album ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ was aimed at former US president George W. Bush’s attempt to make same-sex marriage illegal. And Ditto’s always been inspired by the ethos of riot grrrl – nothing is too kitschy or quote-unquote uncool to have fun with. “I always call it a riot grrrl proverb, but it was a slogan: dork equals cool,” she told DIY in 2017. “That changed my fucking life: ugly equals beautiful; wrong means right.

Why it was so influential: Thanks to those infamous Skins trailers, it hooked a whole generation on queer-minded punk.

Tamar Kali, ‘Geechee Goddess Hardcore Warrior Soul’ (2003)

If riot grrrl was lacking in one thing, it was intersectionality – when we look back on the genre’s history now, it is a story largely told through the contributions of white women in bands. It’s also a continuation of representation in punk as a whole being overwhelmingly white. In response, James Spooner released the film Afro-Punk in 2003, examining the lack of dialogue around race in punk music. It would go on to inspire Afropunk festival – an annual celebration of music, film, fashion and art made by Black creators. The Afro-Punk documentary also featured a performance by Tamar Kali, a musician who helped to kickstart the Afropunk movement, and founded Sista Grrrl Riots.

Speaking Unpublished Zine earlier this year, Kali said of riot grrrl: “I didn’t think it was exclusive, but it didn’t feel inclusive to me. I didn’t see myself or my story, and so that’s why Sista Grrrl came about later on – out of other women of colour that I knew who were punk rock and navigated that scene and had similar feelings about it. Sista Grrrl was my response to riot grrrl because it just felt super white.” Her 2002 EP ‘Geechee Goddess Hardcore Warrior Soul’ is a great place to start. With its colliding gigantic metal riffs and curling guitar solos with soaring vocals, it’s no wonder Kali has described it as ‘hardcore-soul’.

Why it was so influential: Kali went onto help establish a whole movement.

Wild Flag, ‘Wild Flag’ (2011)

It’s fair to call Wild Flag a Pacific Northwest supergroup – the band’s made up of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, Autoclave and Ex Hex member Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole of The Minders and Quasi drummer Janet Weiss (also Sleater-Kinney’s former drummer). Though they’ve now disbanded, Wild Flag left behind an absolute ripper of a self-titled record – which draws on everything from ‘60s girl group pop to murky garage, and mangles it up to create something fresh.

Why it was so influential: It proved that supergroups don’t always need to dabble in nostalgia.

The Julie Ruin, ‘Run Fast’ (2013)

Not to be confused with Kathleen Hanna’s solo project, The Julie Ruin are instead a fully-fledged band formed by the former Bikini Kill singer in 2010. Combining wincingly sour synths with curling surf rock solos – nearly all set to a relentless pace – their debut ‘Run Fast’ bridges the gap between Le Tigre and Bikini Kill. “Girls like us don’t give a shit,” Hanna chants atop scmaltzy ‘80s synths on ‘Girls Like Us’, “girls like us pick up the hot handles, and burn our hands and we get over it.” Elsewhere Hanna pays playful tribute to the legacy of riot grrrl. “They’re making feminist fanzines in Bushwick right now,” she observes on ‘Kids in NY’. “There’s still a lot to say,” interjects her bandmate Kenny Mellman.

Why it was so influential: One of riot grrrl’s key players addressing the next generation of punks – what more do you want?

Big Joanie, ‘Sistahs’ (2018)

It’s no surprise that Big Joanie have been called up to support everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Bikini Kill on tour – as far as the vague riot grrrl revival goes, they’re one of the best bands out there. And their 2018 album ‘Sistahs’ is a must listen – start with the demonic recorder squeaking at the centre of ‘Eyes’ and stay for the simple, but ridiculously effective chants at the centre of ‘Token’. “All of my friends are white,” sings Steph Phillips, “but you, you’re different / And you, you’re special.” As she once told Wire: “The song is about middle-class white people who all have the same type of friends except for one lone black person who they then tokenise.”

Outside of the band, Adeyeri volunteers with Girls Rock London – an organisation working to help women, girls and trans and/or non-binary people to start up bands and play music. And alongside Adeyeri, lead singer Steph Phillips also helps to run Decolonise Festival (a London-based festival, as explained on its website, “created by and for punx of colour”.

Why it was so influential: Because it’s bound to be remembered as classic of 21st Century punk in years to come.

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