Among all the music that the ‘90s brought us, there’s one common denominator—kick-ass women vocalists. From the emergence of grunge to the golden age of hip-hop settling in its place, the ‘90s proved to be a decade where artists expressed the exasperations of womanhood with all of their might.
As women lead singers began to puncture the grunge and alternative genres, pop and hip-hop vocalists poured their soul into their lyrics and beats. Setting the stage for the next century of popular music, the women of the ‘90s left no stone unturned and no subject too taboo to sing about.
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” – Ms. Lauryn Hill
Ms. Lauryn Hill erupted onto the ‘90s hip-hop and R&B scene with the lead single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” from her debut solo album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. Not only did Hill write, produce and record the song by herself, but it also debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100—making Hill the first woman in 10 years to achieve such a feat. Hill’s observational lyrics serve as a PSA to both men and women caught in the struggles of materialism and self-worth. She borrows sounds from ‘60s soul (including the opening riff sampled from Edwin Starr’s “Stop Her On Sight”) and delivers clever rhymes on top.
“No Ordinary Love” – Sade
The ‘90s weren’t always angst and high tempo, as Sade Adu—lead singer of her eponymous band, Sade—showed us. Her 1992 hit “No Ordinary Love” blends intimate lyrics with the sounds of jazz and R&B. In her signature smoky and cool voice, Sade implores her lover to come back, claiming their love is like no other. While the lyrics themselves are heartbreaking, Sade’s smooth and sophisticated vocals leave you hypnotized.
“On & On” – Erykah Badu
In the midst of the ’90s soul revival, Erykah Badu’s debut single “On & On” served as a new and adventurous hybrid to the existing hip-hop and R&B scenes at the time. Like Sade, Badu plays with aspects of smooth jazz and then tops it off with her breezy vocals. As a neo-soul hit, Badu tackles everyday issues of the world in “On & On,” as well as her easygoing outlook that understands the world must keep turning.
“Rebel Girl” – Bikini Kill
As pioneers of the ‘90s riot grrrl movement, Bikini Kill are anything but subtle when it comes to their emblematic feminist hit “Rebel Girl.” The lyrics portray the fluidity of lead singer Kathleen Hanna’s childhood crushes and platonic admiration of the older “cool” girls in her neighborhood. Stuck somewhere between jealousy and infatuation, Hanna belts and somewhat mocks the lines of “Rebel Girl.” Backed up by screechy, punk guitars and punchy drums, “Rebel Girl” is the epitome of ‘90s female rage.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” – Sinéad O’Connor
By the time Sinéad O’Connor released “Nothing Compares 2 U,” she had already established herself as someone who wouldn’t conform to pop music’s standards. She refused to take on the glamorous image her label’s executives pushed on her. Her 1990 hit “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which was originally written by Prince, is nothing short of extraordinary. O’Connor’s stellar vocals in the pop ballad pushed her into the mainstream. However, the mainstream pushed back at her unconventional image and politics.
“Army Of Me” – Björk
While there weren’t too many female vocalists taking on industrial rock in the ‘90s, Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk perfectly executes the niche genre in “Army Of Me.” The lyrics depict Björk’s troubles with her brother after convincing him to take control of his own life. The song itself sounds like a futuristic war anthem, with a strong bassline and plenty of synthesizers. To top it off, Björk’s scornful vocals perfectly complement the ominous lyrics.
“Criminal” – Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple tackles guilt and female sexuality in her hit “Criminal,” which was released as the third single from her 1996 debut album, Tidal. In the song, Apple pleads for forgiveness for using her sexuality to get something. Apple’s deep vocals, especially in the verses, give the song a soulful and bluesy feel. Ultimately, “Criminal” slowly chips away from the taboo surrounding female sexuality in modern pop music.
“Only Happy When It Rains” – Garbage
In a somewhat meta twist, “Only Happy When It Rains” is Garbage’s tongue-in-cheek jab at the ‘90s alternative music scene. The song pokes fun at the self-deprecating and bleak aura of alternative rock at the time, even with Garbage calling themselves out as well. Lead singer Shirley Manson’s incredible vocals would normally dominate the track, but drummer Butch Vig increased the sound of the guitar tracks to give the song a more grunge feel. Nonetheless, Manson’s emotional delivery still pulls through, even if the guitars are bleeding over them.
“Free Your Mind” – En Vogue
En Vogue attack prejudice head-on in their 1992 hit “Free Your Mind.” The dynamic hit mixes the sounds of ‘80s hard rock and the beats of early ‘90s hip-hop. Through the heavy-metal guitar riffs and searing vocals, En Vogue challenge listeners to ditch the stereotypes and preconceived notions they often fall victim to regarding gender, race and sexuality.
“Kool Thing” – Sonic Youth
Had it not been for the awkward interview singer/bassist Kim Gordon conducted with LL Cool J for SPIN magazine, Sonic Youth’s 1990 alternative hit “Kool Thing” might not exist. While Gordon’s interview with LL Cool J revealed both artists were living on different planets when it came to race, gender and sexuality, Gordon was able to expand upon the disastrous interview with “Kool Thing.” With sly references to some of LL Cool J’s works, “Kool Thing” mocks both his and Gordon’s naivete. Through the layers of lyrical irony, Gordon ultimately proves herself as a master of wit.