As a writer, one spends a great deal of time in front of a computer. And since computers are perpetually connected to the Internet, it means one’s most addictive distractions are ever-present. For me, that’s YouTube.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I told myself that I was just taking a three-and-a-half minute break to listen to a song. One song. It will serve me well to re-charge my creativity battery and give me that push I need to finish the next chapter. Three hours later, I find myself in the middle of a documentary on The Partridge Family (kids, ask your parents). Well done, cyber pied piper.
It happened again recently. I made the innocent mistake of watching the video for Shawn Colvin’s Sunny Came Home. With YouTube set to ‘autoplay’ another song started as soon as one song ended. I went for a long ride through 90’s music, mostly songs written and performed by women. As I listened, it struck me that some of the best songs written and performed by women were created in the 90’s. It was a golden decade of female creativity.
Sure, the 60’s gave us Carole King, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and in no way do I mean any disrespect to these legends. Examining the work of female songwriters of the 90’s though gives us a glimpse into a time when it all seemed to come together for them. The writing was taken to a new level, a higher one on which female creativity came into its own and flourished.
Women were reaching into themselves and our collective psyches to find places we hadn’t before explored, at least not so well nor with such honesty and emotion. Not only did the decade produce some of the best songs of the rock era, it became the soundtrack for young songwriters hoping to follow in the footsteps of their childhood idols. Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Amy Lee, and more all spent their formative years listening to the songs and artists below. While they certainly learned and honed their craft since then, there just doesn’t seem to be a collection of songs in a short amount of time since the 90’s that can be considered comparable.
With that said, here are the top ten songs from the 90’s borne of women. They are in no particular order with the exception of numbers 1 and 2, which I believe represented the zenith of the collected works.
10. Natalie Merchant – Wonder
Exploring not the struggles of special needs individuals but their beauty, Merchant delivers a beautiful take on life and avoids trashing the subject with political pleas and demands. She decided to zig while others zagged. I ‘wonder’ if this song could even be written today without an industry exec or even the artist demanding some sort of political dig at someone or something.
9. Tracy Chapman – Fast Car
Has there ever been a better, more descriptive portrait of life, love, hope, and disappointment in urban America than this song? Chapman packed a novel’s worth of emotion and story into this simple yet powerful song.
8. Sarah Mclachlan – Angel
There has been no better expression of what so many have felt at least once in their lives — despair to the point of suicide — than this haunting, emotive song.
7. Suzanne Vega – Luka
Go ahead and try to make an insightful, heartfelt song about child abuse while at the same time crafting a catchy melody. Again, we see a woman’s ability to get around the obvious and explore a topic from another more emotionally charged point of view.
6. Paula Cole – Where Have All the Cowboys Gone
A creative, yet simple plea for a return of the traditional male while at the same time lamenting his failures. Out-of-the-box and unique.
5. Meredith Brooks – B*tch
Sorry. I can’t change the title. A song which may very well have enraged hardcore feminists is a welcome one by not only women who, if they can’t see empowerment in the lyrics, at least some sense of relief from its honesty, and men who are just happy to say, “Finally. All we wanted was acknowledgment.”
4. Shawn Colvin – Sunny Came Home
Colvin’s ability to remain vague in the lyrics while still tossing out enough red meat for those feeling victimized by something is quite a feat. Everything about this song is great — lyrics, instrumentation, production, and even the video. Powerful song.
3. Lisa Loeb – Stay
I probably could have filled the entire list with Loeb’s songs. A graduate of Brown University with a degree in comparative literature, it’s no surprise that she has a unique ability to squeeze every bit of meaning out of every word and lyric, while being a master of weaving words into a Rembrandt-level work of art while nearly every other writer is content with paint-by-numbers. Her other songs, such as I Do and Do You Sleep? could easily be substituted here.
2. Jewel – You Were Meant For Me
Here, too, this artist’s work could fill this list. Jewel is a brilliant, creative songwriter that elevated not only women but the art form itself. The loss or ending of a relationship is often paralleled by the process of the loss of someone through death. The same stages exist, denial being one of them. There has never been a better song about the denial stage than this masterpiece.
1. Alanis Morissette – You Oughta Know
Ask any writer how hard it is to capture raw emotion and they will tell you of the hand-wringing and the sleepless nights of trying over and over again to get it right. As Jewel captured the denial phase of loss above, Morissette explores the anger phase and takes it to level: expert. The only other song that comes close to capturing raw emotion is U2’s Like A Song and even that favorite of mine plays second fiddle to Morissette’s masterpiece. What makes the writing of this song so incredible is that Alanis was only 19 years-old when she penned it. Artists in their 60’s would have difficulty exploring their life experience to find such honest emotion. Quite a feat.
So, what do you think? Did I get it right or are you shaking your head thinking I’ve lost my mind? Any songs that you think should be here?