When Elle King’s “Ex’s and Oh’s” ascended to the top of the Alternative chart a couple weeks ago, King joined a small, select sorority.
Since the founding of Billboard’s Alternative chart in 1988 (originally called “Modern Rock Songs”), only eight women have gone to #1 as solo artists. There was a long stretch, from 1996 to 2013, when no solo women topped the chart.
That’s not to say female voices weren’t heard on Alternative radio. Some female-fronted bands did quite well. Several have gone to the top.
But solo female artists have struggled for recognition. That’s a broader problem for rock radio in general. Over the past quarter century, rock radio has become a less hospitable place for women who want to stand on their own. If she has a regular line-up of men behind her, it’s rock. If she goes solo, her ovaries transform it to pop, somehow.
Not a new phenomenon. But rather than focus on that, let’s take a look at the eight very different women who have topped the Alternative chart over the past three decades.
Alternative Women: Kate Bush
British art rock pioneer Kate Bush was the first woman to top the Alternative chart, in December 1989 (a little more than a year after the chart’s founding). “Love and Anger” was a prototypical Bush song, featuring her signature mix of ethereal vocals, synthesizers and prominent rhythm line. It was an apt fit for alternative radio’s sound at the time and also landed Bush on American dance charts.
While a big hitmaker in the UK, Bush is more of a cult act in the U.S. She has a couple of successful albums, but her biggest American hit is her mid-80s cut “Running Up That Hill.” It was a top 30 pop hit and managed a respectable showing on the Mainstream Rock chart (likely from stations that would be culled out to form the Modern Rock chart panel a couple years later).
Bush’s other best known song in the U.S. is a bit different. “This Woman’s Work” was never an American radio hit. Instead, the gentle, impassioned and hauntingly beautiful song became familiar via its frequent use in films and television. The song has also inspired some well-known covers; R&B singer Maxwell had a big hit with his.
Bush still pops up on Adult Alternative radio from time to time. And though her new releases are rare, they still merit high profile coverage by American music media. Somehow she seems an appropriate godmother for female solo artists in the Alternative world.
Alternative Women: Sinéad O’Connor
Sinéad O’Connor is one of two female solo artists who’s been to the top of the Alternative chart more than once.
She first pulled it off in March 1990, with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the international mega-hit from her second album. The spare, electronic ballad struck quite a chord and hit #1 on pop and rock charts around the world, including in the U.S. The Prince-written song fit O’Connor’s plaintive rasp perfectly.
In the U.S. pop world, that song made O’Connor a one-hit wonder. But next single “The Emperor’s New Clothes” followed its predecessor to #1 on the Alternative chart just two months later. That was a livelier affair, packed with energy and daring and overall more representative of O’Connor’s work. That was also pretty much it for O’Connor on U.S. singles charts.
In the years since, O’Connor has become better known as a controversy magnet. Her albums continued to draw positive reviews, but weren’t big sellers in the U.S. Her work fared better at home, where several singles continued to enjoy moderate success. Determined to go her own way and follow her restless muse wherever it leads, O’Connor is the epitome of an alternative artist.
Alternative Women: Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega was the queen of the neo-folk movement in the 1980s. But from the outset, she also strove to re-define what, exactly, “folk music” was. She embraced the tradition of mixing intensely personal songs with keenly observed portraits of colorful characters, but embraced modern production.
In 1992, Vega had her last notable success on a U.S. singles chart when “Blood Makes Noise” topped the Alternative list. The brief song, filled with distortion and processed vocals, was quite different from what listeners might have expected from Vega, but she’d never really let folk traditions define her anyway.
Vega’s best known U.S. hit remains “Luka,” a #3 pop hit in 1987 that introduced her to a mass audience and really kicked the neo-folk trend into high gear. It was a cross-format smash that had a strong showing on Mainstream Rock (as with Bush, likely from stations that would form the core of the Modern Rock panel the following year).
Vega was the voice of another top five pop hit three years later, when DNA remixed her a capella song “Tom’s Diner” into a dance hit that also landed Vega in the Modern Rock top 10 as a prelude to “Blood Makes Noise.”
Over the past couple decades, Vega has maintained a decent profile in the U.S. Her album sales have trended downward significantly, but she continues to receive attention and good reviews from the mainstream music press. Plus she’s been a concert staple for years, frequently hitting the road for well-received shows.
Alternative Women: Tori Amos
Tori Amos already had three Alternative hits and a pair of multiplatinum albums when she finally hit #1 on the Alternative chart in March 1994. “God” was the fourth single from her sophomore release and was the kind of cheeky, challenging rock that made the singer’s reputation.
She’d previously scored with a trio of songs that showed off her diversity: “Silent All These Years,” “Crucify” and “Cornflake Girl.” Amos’s piano-based, propulsive rock sound set her apart and made her a big star. “God” was the high point of her Alternative chart run.
Thereafter, Amos made music that was more and more challenging, often confusing critics and casual fans while endearing her all the more to her core audience. She’d rack up another three platinum albums and a fourth that went gold. Several more singles would find a home on Alternative radio, while others flirted with Adult Pop and Adult Alternative; her 2002 hit “A Sorta Fairytale” topped the Triple A chart and just missed the Adult Pop top 10.
Amos has continued releasing albums, following ever-surprising stylistic paths and concepts. Her platinum days are behind her, but she remains a revered figure in American music who has inspired many singers that came after her and her tours consistently draw devoted crowds.
Alternative Women: Alanis Morissette
Alanis Morissette holds the record for most Alternative #1s by a female solo artist. The first three singles from her seminal Jagged Little Pill not only became big Pop and Mainstream Rock hits, they all topped the Alternative tally between July 1995 and March 1996. “You Oughta Know,” “Hand in My Pocket” and “Ironic” are iconic mid-90s hits that scored big on a global scale.
But rather than a harbinger of greater things to come for women in rock, Morissette was more the canary in the coal mine. Her gritty, heavy style was in line with the emerging rap/rock and hard rock trends that were taking over both Alternative and Mainstream Rock formats in the mid-90s. Styles that not only didn’t have many female practitioners, but which were often sexist, if not outright misogynistic.
Morissette played that game rather well on Pill, but rock trends were already turning away from her. Mainstream Rock embraced her first three singles, but the rest of Pill’s big hits didn’t register there. She’d have more success with Alternative radio for another couple years, but after “Thank U,” the lead single from her follow-up album, Alternative seemed done, too.
That left Morissette to carry on as an Adult Pop and Adult Alternative artist, something she’d do successfully for several more years. Her profile has remained higher internationally, but in the U.S. she’s mostly been pushed to “heritage artist” status. Which is unfortunate, but her mid-90s run stands as a testament to what women in rock can accomplish when given the opportunity.
Alternative Women: Tracy Bonham
Many of the factors that affected Morissette applied to Tracy Bonham as well. Under different circumstances, her June 1996 #1 Alternative hit “Mother, Mother” would have been the start of a strong run at rock radio. Instead, it became a fluke hit for an artist whose profile has otherwise remained puzzlingly low key.
“Mother, Mother” was a great rock blast. The snarled “everything’s fine” in the chorus brought some gritty, lo-fi swag to a format that needed it. But unfortunately, after Bonham’s three-week reign, it would be 17 years before another solo female artist topped the chart.
As for Bonham herself, after her left-field success, she retreated to the indie world. She’s continued to release new music and tour, but has been flying under the radar for years. Which, actually, makes her something of an Alternative archetype: at its best, Alternative radio was known for random hits by worthy artists who otherwise didn’t have much of a mainstream profile.
Alternative Women: Lorde
Women didn’t entirely disappear from Alternative radio over the next 17 years. Female-led bands like Hole and Evanescence managed #1 singles and other female-led groups scored significant airplay. But the same trends that infected Mainstream Rock made Alternative not a welcoming place for solo female artists. That had already begun to change by 2013. More bands with female voices were heard on the format and Adele’s mega-successful singles from 21 cracked some Alternative playlists. But it took a teenager from New Zealand who hadn’t even been alive the last time it happened to secure an Alternative #1 for a female solo artist again.
In September 2013, Lorde’s distinctive “Royals,” a minor key, subtly rhythmic ode to embracing shabby chic, capped a great summer run by hitting #1 on the Alternative chart. Its unfussy aesthetic sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time, which used to be the point of Alternative formats. Lorde settled in for a long ride atop the Alternative chart, while topping the U.S. pop chart and becoming a global smash.
Lorde’s follow-up singles have continued to do well at Alternative while her full-length debut album went platinum in the U.S. and sold strongly worldwide. Lorde scored a modest hit with “Yellow Flicker Beat,” her contribution to the Mockingjay soundtrack, indicating her crossover success hadn’t dulled her rock instincts. Fans now are waiting for her proper sophomore album and there’s no indication Lorde won’t continue to have a home at Alternative radio.
Alternative Women: Elle King
Like many other recent Alternative successes, Elle King’s rise to #1 is a reflection of the strong influence the Adult Alternative radio has had on its parent format over the past few years. King broke there with her gutsy, rollicking “Ex’s and Oh’s,” dripping with attitude and swagger. It’s a fantastic song that caught a lot of listeners off-guard and then burrowed in.
In addition, the song is crossing over to a variety of Pop formats. Mainstream Rock hasn’t bitten yet, but if programmers would listen with an open mind, they’d see how ideal King is for their playlists. Keep an eye on King, she has all the hallmarks of someone who’s going to be around awhile.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on September 24, 2015.