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Ana Popović performing at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival last year.  (Photo: Getty Images)
Ana Popović performing at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival last year. (Photo: Getty Images)

Contemporary music’s women du jour

Six women making ripples across five genres of modern music. These are rock, blues, folk, pop and metal’s essential stars

There’s a Spotify playlist called Women of Rock. It has 93 songs, which can go on for nearly 6 hours if you play them non-stop—and it’s a hugely satisfying list. For me, these songs evoke a surprising mix of emotions. One moment you are on a deeply nostalgic trip, time-travelling back to 30-40 years ago with songs by the likes of Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin, Blondie or Joan Jett, and then, before you know it, you are listening to contemporary singers such as the late Amy Winehouse, Florence Welch (of Florence + the Machine) or Laura Pergolizzi (who goes by LP as a musician).

Back and forth that playlist goes, mixing the familiar and the forgotten, but also bringing new undiscovered surprises and artists that you had never heard before or those whose work you hadn’t spent enough time exploring. The Women of Rock playlist inspired me to make my own list of women musicians—mostly contemporary—whose songs and albums have become a part of my regular listening fare. Unlike Spotify’s mammoth, all-you-can eat buffet of women rockers, my list is a short one. I picked women musicians from five genres—blues, rock, pop, folk and metal—who, at least at this point in time, have essential spots on my playlists. So here goes.

Rock. If I had to choose just one woman in the genre, I would pick Kim Gordon. The former Sonic Youth bassist is 66 and her new album, her solo debut, No Home Record, came out last autumn. Along with her former colleagues at Sonic Youth, including her ex-husband Thurston Moore, Gordon has been one of the biggest influencers of modern music since the early 1980s. But her solo album, which is eccentric and uncompromising, takes it to an entirely different level—uncommonly tuned guitars, experiments with electronics and lyrics that comment on everything, including materialism, politics and gentrification. Gordon’s solo effort is not an easy record to listen to but it is one that pushes the boundaries of modern rock music like few others.

Blues. Unlike rock, where it was easy to zero in on Gordon, there are two musicians that I would pick for blues. Ana Popović, 43, is a Serb by birth but lives in the US. A strikingly fiery guitarist, Popović’s music is like a strong caffeine shot of the blues. Her 2016 album, Trilogy, with 23 songs, is the one to pick. While Popović’s passionate style is all over the album, there are bonuses: Pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph and blues guitar maestro Joe Bonamassa appear as guests on a couple of tracks.

There’s another guitarist and singer that I would choose in this category. Finland’s Erja Lyytinen was ranked among the top 30 blues guitarists last year by Guitar World magazine, along with greats such as Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Derek Trucks. Still little known outside hard core blues circles, Lyytinen, also 43, has a melodic voice and an impeccable guitar playing style. She has won many accolades for her 11 studio albums and live gigs. To check her out, listen to her interpretation of the blues standard It Hurts Me Too, from her 2014 album, The Sky Is Crying. Chances are you will stick on and listen to the entire album.

Pop. I don’t know whether it would do justice to classify Lana Del Rey as a pop singer (some critics call her style baroque pop; others call it noir pop) but if any singer has the ability to blend the pop culture of the mid-20th century with today’s sensibilities, it is Del Rey. Her literate lyrics and cinematic style combine with the moods she sets: a complex amalgam of sadness and romance, but also the glitz of high life. Her latest album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, is probably the best example of how Del Rey, 34, is able to mix the darkness of despair with the light of hope. But her entire discography of six albums (a seventh is expected this year) is worth exploring.

Folk. Some people call Big Thief’s music alternative or indie rock. But I think their music fits the folk genre best. At the heart of the band is the exquisite songwriting by lead singer and frontwoman Adrianne Lenker. And her style of singing: Lenker, 28, has a delicate, almost fragile, voice when she emotively delivers her intimate lyrics. Since their debut, in 2016, Big Thief already have four albums out. They burst upon the scene with their debut album, Masterpiece, and quickly garnered fans worldwide. But it is their latest, Two Hands, with which they prove their authenticity and the ability to combine intimate lyrics with forcefully intense music. Lenker could be folk music’s future.

Metal. If your tastes veer towards the heavy stuff, such as metal, you might have heard the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish. Symphonic metal combines the hard driving guitar and drums of heavy metal with a full orchestra and fuses elements of classical music, often including female vocalists. Tarja Turunen, 42, a former singer of Nightwish, is a soprano who is as adept at singing with heavy metal bands as she is with a classical orchestra. Gifted with a vocal range of three octaves, Turunen’s versatility is evident in her solo albums. For her classical-oriented work, check out 2015’s Ave Maria En Plein Air, but for the heavier stuff, listen to 2019’s In The Raw. You might, like me, wonder why you hadn’t discovered her before.

THE LOUNGE LIST

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Sketch Artist’ by Kim Gordon from ‘No Home Record’

2. ‘She Was A Doorman’ by Ana Popović from ‘Trilogy’

3. ‘Doin’ Time’ by Lana Del Rey from ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

4. ‘Paul’ by Big Thief from ‘Masterpiece’

5. ‘Dead Promises’ by Tarja Turunen from ‘In the Raw’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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