By Molly Steadman
2016 was a rough year for all of us - filled with political turmoil, genocide, celebrity deaths (I don’t think I’ll ever get over Prince), tragedy, and the election of a literal fascist as the President of the United States. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve - though we knew our troubles were not over, at least 2016 was.
It’s hard to focus, let alone create something, in the face of so much difficulty. But the following 10 women worked their asses off to inspire us, uplift us, and give us amazing music, despite everything else going on in the world, and I urge you to pay attention to what they’re doing.
Photo: Nicole Fara Silver
Mitski Miyawaki is one of the hardest-working musicians in the industry right now, and a quick look at the sheer number of shows she performed in 2016 alone will demonstrate that. She’s been putting out studio albums since 2012 - in order, Lush (2012), Retired from Sad, New Career in Business (2013), Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014) and Puberty 2 (released in June 2016).
Her music unavoidably evokes plenty of emotion; it makes you take your feelings and face them head-on. It’s pretty impossible not to listen to Mitski and not feel some sort of emotion. Her music is perfect for crying your way through the days right after a breakup (which I may or may not know from personal experience in 2016). Twitter user @afflictionate hit the nail on the head when she posted in May 2016: “do people actually sing along to @mitskileaks? I thought everyone screams the lyrics while laying face down in a puddle of their own tears?”
Mitski’s tender, heartbreaking music about love lost and her experiences growing up – she was born in Japan and has lived in 13 different countries – is gorgeous and honest. “Your Best American Girl”, from Puberty 2, and its accompanying video, especially, is relatable to a lot of people but was written not as a general statement about race and gender (as many people speculated) but instead about a specific person she was in love with and it just didn’t work out - an experience anyone can relate to.
One of the most important ways a musician can market themselves is through social media, and Mitski is definitely active on the internet - which is part of what makes her feel kind of more like a friend whose shoulder you can cry on instead of a total stranger. Her Twitter account, @mitskileaks, is full of gems like “I just have an aversion to any and all art that’s essentially a guy jerking off and trying to make you believe it is amazing”, “maybe it fucked her up, maybe it’s Maybelline”, and “It is so good to be alone”.
Her internet presence is genuine and earnest, not at all like self-promotion, and that’s my favorite thing about it: her writing is relatable and honest in whatever form it takes. Give Puberty 2 a listen next time you need a really good cry and you’ll see what I mean.
Photo: Shawn Brackbill
Sadie Dupuis has been around for a while - first as frontwoman of the now-defunct Quilty, then most notably as the frontwoman of Speedy Ortiz, who put out an excellent EP, Foiled Again, in June of 2016. The EP features two remixes of the song “Puffer” from their previous release, Foil Deer, which Dupuis says was inspired by swimming at Puffer’s pond in Amherst, MA and listening to Kelis.
In addition to the release of Foiled Again and touring with Speedy Ortiz (I was lucky enough to catch them at Cattivo in Pittsburgh in the summer!), Dupuis also wrote and released a solo pop album, Slugger, as Sad13, which she says she wrote and recorded in about two weeks in a tiny sublet room in Philly in January of 2016.
The video for “Get a Yes” from Slugger is definitely worth a watch, and Dupuis had some wise words to say regarding her album’s release on November 11, two days after the catastrophic results of the 2016 election became final: “Slugger came out today. I expected it to be released in a celebratory moment in which America would be cheering on its first female president elect. Unfortunately, as we enter 2017, the world is in an even scarier place than it was when I wrote this record. Read Shaun King’s timeline on Twitter if you’re prepared to feel truly sad about how the bigotry and violence our country fosters has been emboldened by the results of this week’s election. But I’m hoping those of us on the side of love and progress are ready to fight harder against hatred for the safety of our friends and the safety of our world.”
Dupuis also posted on her Instagram account on the day she was scheduled to host an album release party for Slugger that she would instead repurpose the party into an event for listening to “healing & inspiring” songs, encouraging her fans not to be discouraged in their activism even if they felt sad and paralyzed in light of the election results.
Sadie Dupuis is unquestionably a staple of the DIY music scene at this point, definitely deserves a spot on this list for being socially conscious and intelligent in addition to being a super-talented musician, and for proving that making pop music like Slugger, in a time when the United States is falling in on itself, is just what we needed.
Photo: Molly Steadman
Rahne Alexander has been an active member of the Baltimore music and art scene since she moved there from California in 2002, and is certainly one of the hardest-working among the musicians I know, not to mention the Baltimore scene itself. She’s been an integral part of many now-iconic Baltimore institutions like the Charm City Kitty Club (of which she was a founding member)- “a collectively run cabaret designed to foster, showcase, and celebrate creative expression among lesbian, dyke, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and genderqueer individuals as well as our allies”, the Maryland Film Festival (for which she ran operations for 5 years), the Transmodern Festival, the March on Washington Film Festival, Le Mondo, and Wide Angle Youth Media.
Queer Interiors, which is a multimedia installation she created with artist Jaimes Mayhew, was installed at the Baltimore Museum of Art and will be displayed until August 2017; The Baltimore LGBTQI+ Home Movie Quilt (a component of the project) was awarded a Saul Zaentz Fund Innovation in Film and Media grant.
Aside from all of the amazing aforementioned work Rahne has done during her time in Baltimore, she’s also involved in multiple music projects - The Degenerettes, as of 2016, have been around for 12 years! She is also in Guided by Wire with Jack Pinder (of Manners Manners, another great Baltimore band), which is a project that plays exclusively Neko Case and Guided by Voices covers, and recently performed with Laura Cantrell.
My personal current favorite project of hers is Santa Librada, self-described as a “four-piece rock machine from Baltimore”. Rahne does vocals (or, according to the band’s Facebook page, “Words & Attitude”), along with Kelsi Loos, Colleen Pelser, and Sharon Santos. I was fortunate enough to catch Santa Librada performing at an intimate space in Baltimore called Reverb in July of 2016, and got to see their cover of PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me”; Rahne’s power as a performer and the raw energy of her vocals as she collapsed to her knees to wail “Don’t you wish you never met her?” literally brought me to tears, and I wasn’t the only one.
Definitely keep an eye on Rahne and her work. Santa Librada continues to kick ass in 2017 (I got another chance to see them perform at Windup Space in January with Saddle of Centaur), and Rahne is a powerhouse of creativity, talent, and wisdom. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Photo: Dan Hallman
Neko Case has been making amazing music since before I was born, and has been a staple of the “indie” music scene for a long time, performing first as Neko Case & Her Boyfriends (whose song “Karoline” will always be one of my favorites), then as a solo artist and with the New Pornographers. Her voice is iconic and heartbreaking no matter what genre she tackles.
This year, Neko Case teamed up with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs to form case/lang/veirs and create one of the best albums of 2016, hands down. The album is a spectacular combination of effort from all three incredible musicians and is worth a listen (or 20) in its entirety.
Beyond being a ridiculously talented musician, Neko Case seems like a genuinely cool person. She describes herself in her Twitter bio as an intersectional feminist and her internet presence is - like Mitski’s - not really self-promotion so much as honesty, hilarity, and personality. She’s openly discussed her struggles with depression - this interview with The Guardian’s Laura Barton is worth checking out - and she is outspokenly political on the side of the “good guys”; plenty of her recent tweets are devoted to the ongoing struggle at Standing Rock. It takes courage to be outspoken to even a few people, but she does it to 100k followers on Twitter - not especially surprising, considering the way she lays it all out in her music.
Photo: Clare Hewitt
Against Me! is a band that’s been around for a long time - the band formed in Gainesville, Florida, in 1997. I personally was only vaguely familiar with them until singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in 2012, the publicity of which made me realize I’d been sleeping on a really good band for a while. Their sixth studio album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, is excellent.
Against Me! released their seventh studio album, Shape Shift With Me, in fall of 2016, and it’s a solid punk album written from the perspective of a woman who’s arrived at a concrete idea of herself. Against Me!’s lyrics are one of my favorite things about their music, and the lyricism of Shape Shift With Me does not disappoint. “Miles don’t mean much when they always circle me back to you,” from “12:03”, is especially haunting to me. In Laura’s own words, Shape Shift is a breakup album, and 2016 was a year of breakups for me, which might be why the whole thing resonates so much.
Aside from releasing Shape Shift, Laura also published a memoir entitled Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, and wrote an article explaining her decision to title the book with a slur very much associated with transphobia and violence against transgender people -
“Let me put it like this: My arm is tattooed all black. If you see someone with an appendage that is all blacked out, that person has made some seriously questionable decisions in life. I am honest and open about my shortcomings, literally wearing them on my skin. So when writing about them, it seemed appropriate to wear them within the pages beneath the cover bearing this incendiary title.
The word has power, a lot of power. It’s a word most certainly used during murders of transgender people all over the world. It is a universal word of hate. It makes my skin crawl to hear it. I despite the fucking word, just as much as I despise the person I used to be. But I love art and I love free speech and I love words. In art, freedom of speech and expression must be complete and total.”
At the end of the day, it’s obviously her choice how and when to reclaim the use of a slur that is and will likely continue to be used against her, and I think her explanation of her title choice is graceful and eloquent especially considering the amount of criticism she received when it was released. Laura Jane Grace has seemed to me in every interview I’ve read with her to be a person invested in honesty in all aspects of her life. It comes through in her songwriting, it comes through in the excerpts of her memoir I’ve read thus far, and it comes through in her social media presence, too, where she provides little snapshots of her life, describing things like her daughter’s Star Wars toothbrush.
Laura Jane Grace definitely worked her ass off in 2016 like she’s been doing for a long time, but this year, I think people especially took notice. It takes a lot of fucking courage to come out, regardless of who you are, but especially if you’re in a well-known punk band that’s been around a long time. It takes a thick skin to deal with ignorant people’s comments and criticisms, and Laura Jane Grace has done that with grace - and released a solid album and a memoir, too, amidst it all.
Photo: Sabrina Rush
Angel Olsen is a master of spanning genres - her music ranges from country to synth-filled ballads, and somehow it all works for her. She’s put out three studio albums and one EP, but her 2016 release, My Woman, marks the most interesting change in her career so far. She’s spoken in interviews about a fear of being trapped, but the release of My Woman makes it clear that she has a lot in her musical arsenal. Most interestingly, Olsen is vocal about the fact that her music is absolutely her own. She directs her own videos and makes the choices when it comes to the band; she has described herself as “the boss lady.”
Olsen semi-understandably balks at the word “feminist” in reference to her work, but admits that there are definitely feminist aspects to what she does. Her social media presence is part of what makes me agree with her when she describes herself as “boss lady” - more than a few times, she’s taken to Twitter to dispute things she disagrees with from articles or interviews about her, taking the way she presents herself fully into her own hands. “From this point on all future interviews will be answered by friend, hand puppet or drawing.”
It’s refreshing that an artist who’s so critically-acclaimed is also so frank in being the deciding factor for exactly how the public views her, quick to correct things she feels are a misrepresentation of herself. She also has been unafraid to be critical of the misogyny she faces from journalists who asked her questions like “Do you think you’ll lose your male audience?” when she had the audacity to release an album with the word “woman” in the title. Boss lady, indeed.
Photo: John Gentile
Speaking of boss ladies, Sadie Switchblade of G.L.O.S.S. and Dyke Drama had an interesting year in 2016. In her own words, G.L.O.S.S. is “a hardcore band interested in inciting violence” - violence against police, politicians, men, and people who intentionally harm other people. They make music for people who have struggled with institutionalized oppression, and for people who feel like they don’t fit in. G.L.O.S.S., after all, is a band born from the feeling of not fitting in; the acronym stands for Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit, and Switchblade describes never feeling quite welcome in the hardcore scene as a trans woman.
Suddenly, though, G.L.O.S.S., a band who quite clearly opposes the politics of corporate music and all that comes with it, received an unexpected amount of attention in the media this year. Some of it stemmed from an incident in fall of 2015, in which the mediocre shoegaze band Whirr posted a slew of transphobic tweets about G.L.O.S.S. that caused Run for Cover Records to immediately drop Whirr from the label. The media attention was definitely not undeserved; G.L.O.S.S. pretty much stands alone in the hardcore scene, and the representation of smart, talented trans women making powerful music and being politically outspoken is incredibly refreshing in a world awash with shitty, derivative bands like Whirr, which I won’t even link to, because they’re boring.
In September of 2016, G.L.O.S.S. was offered a $50,000 record deal from Epitaph, and caused a pretty good amount of attention by turning it down, with the reasoning that, since Epitaph is owned by Warner Brothers, the band could not ethically partner with them and “enrich corporate music,” choosing instead to self-release their first full-length album (when they do release it, which hasn’t happened yet). This definitely makes good on Sadie’s own words about wanting to be a band that generates a movement rather than generating revenue. It’s a bold political move that demands respect.
Though the politics of G.L.O.S.S. are what the band is all about, the music certainly doesn’t lean on them. I don’t listen to a whole lot of hardcore, so G.L.O.S.S. is not my usual cup of tea, musically, but it doesn’t matter. G.L.O.S.S. makes awesome music, and they don’t really care whether you like it or not.
Sadie Switchblade also released an album, Up Against the Bricks, under her solo project, Dyke Drama, that’s a little less heavy. It includes an excellent cover of Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad.” According to Sadie, the album was recorded in a garage in Shelton, WA, on “broken and borrowed gear”, proving that she doesn’t need a corporate record deal or even fully functional gear to make music that sounds great. I can’t wait to hear G.L.O.S.S.’s full-length when it comes out.
Photo: Tangents of Bill
I first heard of TT the Artist during an unpaid internship I held in Baltimore while I was attending MICA, during which I retouched some promotional photos my “boss” had taken of her. Then a few years later I happened upon her performing “Pussy Ate”, solo, last at a show that had consisted of mostly white male-fronted rock bands. It was really fun watching her perform - I think the song translates way better live than it does in the video I linked to, because she has such a captivating presence. She doesn’t need dancers around her or really anything; the first performance of hers that I caught was literally just her and a mic, and it was great.
After seeing her bounce around yelling “I just want my pussy ate!” it was surprising when I read this article about her on the Baltimore Sun’s website, describing her extremely religious Florida childhood during which she was only allowed to wear dresses that fell below the knee and was only allowed to listen to religious music and Disney soundtracks. Her family prayed for hours daily at a Pentecostal church while TT (whose real name is Tedra Wilson) listened to rap in secret, beginning to write her own raps in high school. She headed up north to Baltimore to attend MICA and stayed there after graduation, becoming a staple of the Baltimore club scene.
As of right now, TT the Artist doesn’t have a record deal, but she did release her first full-length album in April 2016, and even without a record deal has managed to gain a pretty good amount of attention beyond the Baltimore club scene. She was featured on the Diplo track “Dat a Freak,” which was in turn sampled by Jennifer Lopez for her track “Booty.” Working with Diplo helped her gain some important relationships in the music industry, and her release of Queen of the Beat in April 2016 got her some well-deserved attention. Baltimore is a city that has faced a lot of struggles, and TT’s voice is an important one- she described Queen of the Beat as a “celebration of women power and an homage to women of color in the media who have broken boundaries and continue to defy the odds.” She remains active in the Baltimore music scene and will most likely continue to do so. In her Twitter bio, where she states “I Make Club Bangerz,” she’s definitely not lying.
Photo: Autumn de Wilde
Jenny Lewis, like Neko Case, has been a staple of “indie” rock for a long time - Rilo Kiley, with whom she rose to fame, formed in 1998 (with Blake Sennett, who, like her, was a child actor before pursuing music). She was also a member of the Postal Service (her voice was criminally underused in Give Up, but that’s a story for another time), and released three solo albums: Rabbit Fur Coat with The Watson Twins, Acid Tongue, and The Voyager. She also released an album with Johnathan Rice as Jenny & Johnny.
In April 2016, Lewis’ new band, Nice as Fuck, performed for the first time at a Bernie Sanders rally. The trio is made up of Jenny, Erika Forster from Au Revoir Simone, and Tennessee Thomas from The Like. They released their self-titled LP in June of 2016, and surprised people by not really doing much to promote it. They do not have a publicist, and didn’t do a lot of press or interviews to promote the album. The album itself is pretty sparse, described by the band as “chill breakup tunes” (like Mitski, handy to me in 2016).
It might seem to some as though Jenny Lewis didn’t really work her ass off with this album - it’s only 25 minutes long and definitely a pretty stark contrast to her other work, especially her most recent release, The Voyager, which is super-polished and produced, but I think it’s actually proof that Jenny Lewis can do just about anything - from lush, gorgeous ballads like the title track from The Voyager to sparse DIY-sounding stuff like “Door” from Nice as Fuck. Plus, the band debuted at a Bernie Sanders rally, and the bits and pieces of commentary they’ve made publicly about the band prove them to be politically conscious and active in a time when it’s imperative that anyone in the public eye do what they can to protest the atrocity happening in the United States White House. The lyrics from “Guns” speak for themselves: “I don’t wanna be afraid / put your guns away / There are children dying every day / put your guns away.”
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Photo: Molly Steadman
Pretty much anyone who knows me is aware how I feel about Marissa Paternoster (I love her - that’s my arm), but her spot on this list is definitely well-deserved. Paternoster, like Mitski, is notoriously one of the hardest-working musicians out there; between Screaming Females and Bad Canoes, she was on tour for nearly all of 2016. Music is her full-time job and that comes through in all kinds of ways - Screaming Females (who she plays guitar and sings for, along with “King” Mike Abbate on bass and Jarrett Dougherty on drums) are a band that work their asses off to put on an amazing show no matter what kind of crowd they’re performing for.
Paternoster is a captivating performer and an insanely talented guitarist with a gigantic voice. She doesn’t need a guitar in her hands to perform, though - touring with Bad Canoes this summer, she screamed and rolled around on the floor with no shoes on, upside down, covered in a blood-like red substance that, when asked after the show what it was, she replied “Just berries!”
There are an impressive number of releases from all of Paternoster’s projects - Screaming Females have seven studio albums and one live album, Noun has four (one of which, Forgotten Grin, has a 34-song track list), and Bad Canoes has three (She’s Too Strong was released in June of 2016).
It’s worth noting that, while she was creating all of this music, doing all of this touring, and making all the artwork and merchandise for Screaming Females and noun - as well as her own artwork (she had a solo gallery show that opened in Philly a few days into 2017), Marissa has been dealing with chronic pain that, at one point, was severe enough that Screaming Females had to cancel shows during their tour promoting Ugly. She made a comic about it, published on the Screaming Females blog, and started using a more ergonomic guitar strap that attaches around the hips instead of the shoulders.
With all the touring and creating, it’s incredible that Marissa found the time to put together a gallery show of her artwork and managed to be active on social media to promote her various endeavors, usually with her own artwork for show flyers. It’s also worth noting that, in person, she is kind and personable, even right after performing a physically demanding, intense show. I was lucky enough to catch a handful of her shows with Screaming Females and Bad Canoes in 2016, and at one, I stood next to a couple of high schoolers, orthodontia and all, smiling hugely at the mere fact that they were standing so close to their idol. They kept yelling out to her while she was setting up her pedalboard - clearly busy - but she took the time to talk to them and gave them her guitar pick after the show. She made those kids’ night.
Paternoster also designed a t-shirt in 2016 that reads “Gut Fascists” with an image of Donald Trump being disemboweled, and Screaming Females donated 100% of the sale proceeds (as of January 4, over $2,000) to Planned Parenthood.
It’s been rumored that Screaming Females are gearing up to release another album in 2017, and I absolutely cannot wait to hear it. Somehow, they just keep getting better and better.