Tragically, women have been relegated to a special interest section of the record store for too many decades. But no longer.
In the wake of a growing feminist movement and greater social equity, more people than ever have been coming around and flocking to the rich tapestry of female musical output.
Diversity reigns supreme, from enchanting ethereal pop to gritty gothic post-punk to slacker ska.
Women have carved out radically exploratory and subversive niches for themselves and a common theme you’ll see in this list is a confluence of music, social activism, and political engagement.
So get engaged – musically, poetically, culturally – and give these formative and daring female rock bands a well-earned listen.
Occurring at the glittering nexus between New York glamour and the gritty underground, Blondie encapsulated all of the allure, effortlessness, and preternatural cool of the Warhol set.
Debbie Harry’s bedroom vocals were at times serene, at times gregarious, but always poised and self-assured.
They were pioneers of the new wave and darlings of the art-house scene with their textured melodies and mature, intelligent party sounds.
They never placed limits upon their innovation, dabbling in reggae, rap, disco, and punk during their multi-decade tenure.
You can’t examine the legacy, currents, and thematic density of the West Coast grunge movement without discussing the poetic majesty of Hole.
Courtney Love has been much-maligned in some circles, which I find radically misinformed. Her legacy as a philosopher-social commentator-subversive icon can be witnessed in any of Hole’s nineties tracks.
Her voice confronts with a disarming poignancy and an emotive urgency – indeed, new listeners to Hole’s canon might be surprised at the raw, unvarnished emotional gravity expressed.
If that doesn’t convince you to put aside your misconceptions, their first album Pretty on the Inside (1991) was produced by legend Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame.
3. The Patti Smith Group
The mysterious, intellectual philosopher-queen of punk and rock, Patti Smith is one of the giants on whose shoulders countless modern artists stand.
She is intimidating in her wisdom, creative prowess, academic curiosity, and social activism – a Renaissance woman who casts a large shadow over her cult followers everywhere.
Her music is sensual, gritty, gothic, and even daresay, hermetic – Horses remains one of the most poetic and meticulously-crafted albums of the seventies.
“Because the Night”, “Dancing Barefoot”, and “Gloria” give new listeners a taste of her high priestess credentials
4. Fleetwood Mac
I’ll confess, I worship at the altar of Stevie Nicks, and while she is not the only outsized talent behind Fleetwood Mac the cult that has grown up around her has given her an almost supernatural aura.
With a bohemian heart and a summer of love sensibility, Fleetwood Mac created uncommonly poignant, tender, intimate songs about love, independence, and self-reliance.
They spawned more hits than there are days in the 21st century and they captured the untamed heart of the post-Vietnam years with a swift luminosity.
Fleetwood Mac is one of the most famous, enduring bands of the 1970s and 1980s that features female vocals.
5. The Supremes
The reigning queens of the girl group and Motown movements in the early sixties, The Supremes are legends of our time.
Diana Ross eventually began a gilded career of her own, but her turn with The Supremes lingers large in the collective imagination.
Their melodies were tightly-constructed, meticulously-paced gems oozing elegance, earnestness, and wistful acceptance of love’s fickle hand.
They remain one of the most critically successful female vocal bands in history with 12 number-one singles on the Billboard 100.
Choose your poison, really, as you can’t go wrong: “Baby Love”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Stoned Love”, and “Love is Like a Heatwave” – your pick.
6. The Go-Go’s
The unmatched empresses of mall culture, The Go-Go’s were starry-eyed, enthusiastic, lively stalwarts of the new wave pop sweeping society in the early 80s.
Their cheerful confections conjure up visions of teenage innocence, neon spandex, suburban car rides with the top down, and breezy times with long-time friends.
Their music was fiercely unpretentious and possessed of an unflinching, vitalizing hedonism and glee – try listening to them and staying mad – the dissonance will drive you, well, mad.
For a sunny day away from the troubles of the world spin “Head Over Heels”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, or “Vacation”.
They remain one of the most famous female bands of all time, and certainly the best female band of the 80s.
7. Sonic Youth
Kim Gordon is often considered the coolest woman in alternative rock, and a cursory examination of Sonic Youth’s catalog will have you sure of the conviction.
She possessed an unruffled, nonchalant cool and a genetic disposition towards all that was edgy, effortless, and creatively vital.
Sonic Youth had a heady dose of je ne sais quoi, a certain intuition about what was covetable and influential without trying too hard.
They perfected the fuzzy guitars, dizzying feedback, and inaudible vocals that began to seep out into the alternative and shoegaze scenes into the late eighties and nineties.
8. No Doubt
Before Gwen Stefani was a mainstream pop icon, she was the sassy, exuberant, and spirited slacker heart of No Doubt.
No Doubt brought a breezy, nonplussed, ska flavor to pop-punk and they maintained a loyal allegiance to the sunny authenticity of California.
Their beats were addictive, their instrumentals were complex and laden with colorful and unexpected flourishes, and Stefani’s bubblegum vocals coalesced to create a completely fresh musical experience.
I still consider Tragic Kingdom to be one of the best albums of the alternative rock genre of the nineties, and it’s hard to pick a favorite track.
9. The Pretenders
Chrissie Hynde is rock royalty and has a fan base that could form its own densely populated country if given the chance.
Her voice is laced with emotive gravity, pathos, anguish, and charm, leaving listeners in a labyrinthine place of strange and surreal musical encounters.
The Pretenders pioneered a lucid, academic take on downtown punk, with a sensuous introspection that could have listeners reeling and heading to therapy.
I still consider “Back on the Chain Gang” one of the most tender, haunting rock songs of the seventies.
10. The Cranberries
Irish icons The Cranberries will always be a staple of pub nights, karaoke sessions, and heartfelt drives, particularly in light of Dolores O’Riordan’s tragic, untimely death in 2018.
O’Riordan had an angelic voice that could plunge into the most haunting melancholy or into the most boundless hopefulness.
It’s rare for an alternative pop ditty to bring tears to your eyes, but The Cranberries can do it in a pinch – but before you think they do their best work with disconsolate themes, consider their raunchy, gritty staple “Zombie”.
11. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
Joan Jett is a household name with a roadhouse reputation – audacious, unrefined, and assertive to the core.
Jett was a visionary with her own custom-made philosophy on life, and she was unapologetic in the face of norms, conventions, and niceties.
She not only borrowed from the wealth of rebel without a cause tropes, but she also enriched the subculture with her own creative expansion and experimental verve.
And, ultimately, her songs are downright provocative, rowdy, bar-room gems, ready for replay at the crustiest dive you know to the wildest hockey game.
12. Florence and the Machine
It’s hard to find a lusher, more emotive, more velvet-tinged voice than that of British-born Florence Welch.
She does to vocal cords what Eddie Van Halen does to the guitar – transforming it into an instrument of uncommon resonance and impact.
Their pop music is art-house in tenor and indie in spirit, elevating songs of love, loss, and personal transformation into postmodern poetry.
They take a bohemian, ethereal approach in aesthetics and sound: give “You’ve Got the Love”, “Hunger”, and “What Kind of Man” for a calm, introspective good time.
13. Siouxsie and the Banshees
Gothic, romantic Siouxsie transformed what was possible within the burgeoning dark side of the new wave in the late seventies and early eighties.
She was ethereal, enigmatic, and elusive, with the aesthetic of a shade coming back from the echoes of the past.
Their experimentation and eschewing of convention positioned them within the growing post-punk sensibility emerging as people craved a more art-house, elevated approach to traditional rock motifs and tropes.
Their 1978 album The Scream is evocative, eerie listening and established them as one of the best female-led bands of all time.
14. The Shangri-Las
The reigning queens of the teen tragedy and melodrama subgenre of the sixties pop movement, The Shangri-Las were soapier than Coronation Street and a whole lot more fun.
They sound saccharine-sweet to our wearied modern ears but they were considered rebels at the time, and they cultivated their “bad girl”, “wrong side of the track”, working-class credentials at every turn.
Their solemn spoken-word narratives are corny nostalgic bliss.
Is anything more delightfully campy than indulging your own sorrow and self-indulgence alongside “Leader of the Pack”, “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”, “Train to Kansas City” or “Remember (Walkin’ in the Rain)?”
15. The Bangles
The consummate eighties new wave darlings, The Bangles brought an approachable, playful, energetic joie de vivre to the male-dominated genre.
Formed in the heady and debauched Los Angeles of the early eighties, their songs were pure, un-self-conscious, riotous fun.
They never descended into solipsism or dreariness, maintaining an admirable allegiance to the gospel of cheeriness and cheek.
Indeed, they never took themselves too seriously, even in the throes of their retro-classic ballads.
For a taste of the best female musicians of the eighties, one can’t overlook the masterpieces “Manic Monday” and “Eternal Flame”.
16. Dum Dum Girls
Lush, poignant, sultry art-rock/shoegaze that’s the equivalent of vocal velvet – intrigued?
Their name might sound riot grrrl-esque but no – it is an homage to both The Vaseline’s album Dum Dum and Iggy Pop’s song “Dum Dum Boys”.
Dum Dum Girls are mysterious, experimental, philosophical, and terribly glamorous at every turn, speaking of matters of the self and soul with uncommon beauty and candor.
“Coming Down” is arresting in its haunting melodic register and delicate instrumentals while “Bedroom Eyes” is gothic and bewitching and strangely tender.
They are the female Jesus and Mary Chain or War on Drugs, and carry on the best of the shoegaze tradition – they don’t get the hype they deserve.
Bohemian darlings of the post-Summer of Love subculture, Heart came out of Seattle with a folk-tinged hard rock sound, sultry vocals, and razor-sharp choruses.
They’ve sold over 35 million albums with their seductive, raunchy hits like “Crazy on You”, “Barracuda”, and “Alone”.
They had a high-voltage, over-the-top sound and they never shied away from excess, indulgence, and theatrics.
They were like a glam, slightly more tame Def Leppard and are one of the best female bands of the seventies and eighties.
18. The Crystals
One of the defining acts of the girl group craze in 1960s New York, The Crystals were sugar, spice, and romantic bleeding hearts with a talent that hasn’t lost any of its romantic appeals.
They combined themes of loss, abandonment, and unrequited love with a cheerful, swinging, melodic touch.
Their songs speak right to the heart, allowing us the freedom to put aside our masks and allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotional currents that we often yearn to express.
The songs “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “He’s a Rebel”, and “Mashed Potato Time” is on my sophisticated dinner-for-one playlist and I have no shame in saying so.
Cooler-than-thou, I always see Metric as a lighter, electronic garage redux of Sonic Youth – they just have that flawlessly covetable silhouette and insouciance.
Their fingers were certainly on the pulse of the early noughties electro-indie scene and they incorporated many of the conventions of the genre into their synthy, sweet ‘n sour sound.
Emily Haines has a voice that can play in the gutter just as easily as it can soar to the stars with hallucinatory high notes.
With a blend of pulsing drums, tambourines, and heady vocals, theirs is an enticing, enchanting listening experience.
20. Tegan and Sara
Early noughties indie-rock mainstays, Tegan and Sara encapsulated the campy, kitschy, electronic-tinged sound that began to emerge from within the NYC Garage and electro-indie movements that were picking up momentum post-2000.
Their vocals are emotive, raw, and complex – lending a hipster-approved patina to pop-electro-rock anthems.
They are forever experimenting with different genres, collaborating with trance icons like Tiesto one day and producing visceral synth ballads the next.
“Closer”, “Feel it in My Bones”, “Walking With a Ghost” and “Back in Your Head” are the best entry points into their canon.
21. The Runaways
The Runaways encapsulated all of the best tendencies of rebellion, restlessness, non-conformity, and self-reliance.
They made a cult out of the tenets of individualism and hedonism, bucking the norms of respectability and deference to live their most emboldened, self-assured lives.
While their short-lived career only spanned four years starting in 1975, they have cemented a long-lasting legacy in the annals of early punk.
Strangely enough, their hit “Cherry Bomb” made them a sensation in Japan and China, where their songs are still popular for karaoke to this day.
Garbage was kind of like a sleek, rowdy nineties iteration of The Smiths, which is my delicate way of saying that they basked in moodiness, misery, and plain-old discontent with ironic zeal.
No one could accuse Shirley Manson and friends of being uplifting, but that wasn’t their wheelhouse, anyways – they reveled in darkness and misanthropy.
Straight out of Madison, Wisconsin by way of Scotland, they encapsulated all of the unpolished, raw, and unflinching tendencies of the broader grunge movement.
Their eponymous 1995 debut was packed with industrial-strength guitars and urgent wails – a great listen for a rainy day.
They are one of the best female-led bands of the nineties.
23. The Chiffons
One of the best early sixties girl groups to come out of the American pop explosion, listening to The Chiffons from the vantage point of the 21st century is an exercise in nostalgia and sentimentality.
Their songs covered the whole litany of heartsick themes popular in early pop: rejection, aimless crushes, unrequited love, and melancholic yearning.
Their music bespeaks a more innocent, wide-eyed time before the cynicism and alienation of the 20th century took hold.
Go for an excursion into the past with “Tonight’s The Night”, “He’s So Fine”, and “One Fine Day”.
24. Pussy Riot
A name that precedes them, Pussy Riot is a creative, feminist, and political sensation from Russia – you may not be familiar with their sound, but you’ve surely seen their name plastered across headlines.
More than performers they are concept artists, activists, and theatrical guerilla icons.
Their brand of punk rock is fervently provocative and tackles many of Russian society’s holy cows: Putin, LGBT rights, feminist ascendancy, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Russian media’s branding of them as sacrilegious iconoclasts and dissidents has only cemented their cult appeal to legions of outspoken, radical punk lovers everywhere.
25. The Ronettes
There’s a theme here, I wonder if you can suss it out: girl group, check; early sixties, check; New York City origins, check; themes of melodramatic heartache and innocent candor. Check!
The Ronettes had candor in spades, transforming cookie-cutter themes of love and romance into whimsical, generous gems that evoke truth and sincerity even in our cold dating app culture.
Newly in love or forever alone? “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You” won’t fail to foster some warm fuzzies.
26. Indigo Girls
Folksy alternative crooners Amy Ray and Emily Saliers brought their Georgia roots to the rock world of the early nineties, establishing themselves as mainstays of a more down-to-earth niche finding its footing in the embers of the excessive eighties.
Both performers are lesbians who incorporate environmental, feminist, Native American, and political causes into their lyrics and public activism.
Their music is lush, downtempo, soothing, and serene in turn – just what you want for a social justice-minded, cozy afternoon.
They have an enduring legacy and are immensely popular in freethinking, folksy circles.
27. Bikini Kill
One of the originators of the riotgrrrl movement, Bikini Kill was unapologetic, intransigent, and subversive as hell.
With raunchy lyrics not designed for polite company, they were the OG nemesis of pearl clutches everywhere.
Formed in Olympia, Washington in the heart of grunge territory, these gals took a decidedly punk rock turn with their anti-authoritarian ethos.
Their unflinching feminist lyrics and frenetic, restless performances garnered them underground street cred and helped female anger and rage find its well-deserved voice.
Their 1993 debut album was called Pussy Whipped demonstrating their unwillingness to play nice with hecklers and critics alike.
28. Four Non-Blondes
Downtempo, flannel-wearing, black coffee-drinking college radio-worshipping lovers unite.
Four Non-Blondes put the alternative in alt-rock, eschewing creative traditions.
They were witty, tongue-in-cheek, and playfully incorrigible – even their name was a dig at being outside of the sunny California mold.
For a band with only one album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! They have an outsized impact on the granola-wielding tribe of Gen X’ers who kept their debut on the Billboard 200 for 59 weeks.
You know them for their pub rock classic “What’s Up” but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find yourself unwittingly charmed.
Straight out of the rain-soaked Olympia, Washington Sleater-Kinney got their start in the atmospheric, counter-culture days of 1994.
Known and well-loved for their liberal, environmental, and feminist politics, they have incorporated social justice into their cultural repertoire.
They began as dyed-in-the-wool riot grrrls but quickly found their home in a folksier indie-rock world, where they remain to this day with the 2021 release of their tenth album Path of Wellness.
In 2015 music critic Tom Briehan of Stereogum called them the greatest rock band of the last two decades.
30. Veruca Salt
You know you’re in for a cheeky, unconventional ride with a band named after that bratty character from Willy Wonka.
Venturing upon a different tide was just what Chicago-based post-grunge rockers Veruca Salt did with ease and verve.
Enthusiastic, originally-crafted hits like “Seether” and “Volcano Girls” took over the mid-nineties airwaves.
In fact, music magazine Paste regards “Seether” as the tenth-best grunge song of all time.
Best Female Rock Bands of All Time – Final Thoughts
Feeling dizzy with all the options when it comes to the best female bands of all time?
Feeling that special thrill all music lovers get when they lift back the veil and encounter the promise of transcendent songs, transformative melodies, and rousing instrumentals?
Wait no longer- your new fave bands are waiting for you.