Let's start by saying this: Calling a year "good for women in music" is fairly ridiculous. What that phrase translates to is usually more like "I can name three lady songs from this year!" or "Beyoncé made an album this year!"
Summing up a year as particularly kind or unkind to female musicians marginalizes the performers all over again. No one anywhere, ever, says a year was particularly good for men in music, or straight people in music, or cis-gendered folks in music. There was a metric ton of great feminist music this year, which is remarkable because feminist music is the best, not because it's unusual that it was great for 365 days in a row.
In celebration of the constant flow of stellar feminist music to the world, date be damned, my end-of-the-year Top 10 is in musical discoveries (ranked in no particular order). Most of the artists here are new to me, but had released one or two albums before 2013; some are new to the scene entirely. All of them would have made it a great year for women in music, if I believed in such a thing.
1. Sharaya J
It's incredibly difficult for me to write about Sharaya J without a ZOMG preceding her name every time. She's signed to Missy Elliott's Goldmind label, she's only released three singles over the past three years, and there's no sign yet of a full-length album. Which gives us ALL THE ROOM IN THE WORLD to hope. Every Sharaya song is an event—flamboyant, creative, cocky, effortlessly trendsetting. She's working from the Missy Elliott playbook, in other words, which would be irresistible on a molecular level even if she WEREN'T rapping with a distinctly oppositional gaze. But she is, so resistance is entirely futile. Her lyrics are specifically female-centric and she uses her videos to queer the expectations an audience might have for a rap performance. (Eg. is this about to be a gang intitiation...or a seriously intense Double Dutch competition?) Sharaya is all swagger, even when her first video, "BANJI," is deliberately, hilariously low-fi. She can be dancing on a loading dock and she's still making a scene. My 2014 New Year's Resolution is to have a Sharaya album in my hands by the end of it. Check out "BANJI" below.
2. Gaby Moreno
Singer-songrwriter Gaby Moreno was new to me when I saw her at SXSW this year. I was enchanted immediately. I missed four shows in order to stay longer and hear the rest of her electric-bluesy set, which brought in bossa nova rhythm and a rousing horn section, proving as fluid stylistically as Moreno is linguistically. She's been recording since 2009, but this year's outstanding Postales is her first global release (prior albums were independent or dropped only in Europe), and, I hope, initiates phase one of her world domination. Hear "Ave Que Emigra," Moreno's ode to her native Guatemala, below.
3. Kacey Musgraves
I wrote about Kacey Musgraves for the first time right after her major-label debut record Same Trailer Different Park came out in the spring and I haven't stopped talking about her since. Neither have lots of people. She's nominated for four Grammys, tying Taylor Swift and Lorde for most-nominated female artist. So she's not especially underground, but that's what makes her so exciting: she's a mainstream country artist pushing the edges of her genre's envelope. She's taking homophobia, small-mindedness, fat-shaming, and slut-shaming to task, and she's doing it with Nashville dollars and glitz backing her. 2013 was, in short, the year of the Musgrave. Here's the single that got folks talking, "Follow Your Arrow."
Speaking of not-so-underground newcomers in 2013, it turns out I wasn't alone in my love of Lorde this year. I wrote about her for the first time in September, after a summer of mainlining "Royals." She's young, she's smart, and she's got an outsider's refreshingly critical eye on the sparkle and opulence of fame and fortune. Let's hope she keeps it as her star rises. Here, once more, with feeling, is the video for "Royals."
5. My Midnight Heart
In November, Electronic avant-pop band My Midnight Heart released my favorite EP of the year, setting the stage for what I hope will be one of my favorite LPs of 2014. Singer Angélica Allen's voice fills the void created when 1980s and 90s Whitney Houston became 2000s Whitney Houston, and adds a darker, distinctly millennial layer to the mix while doing it. The dream of 1987 is alive in MMH, and I, for one, don't want to be woken up. Here's the EP's title track, "Chest of Hearts."
C H E S T O F H E A R T S by MyMidnightHeart
6. Mélissa Laveaux
Canadian singer and guitarist Mélissa Laveaux released her second full-length record early this year, but her December EP Memory is a Strange Bell was the first I'd heard of her. Her rootsy, scratchy vocals are a force alone, but I was most drawn to her percussive guitar playing. Her music is subtle, but wants for nothing. Bombastic performance would smother Laveaux's intimate lyrics, and detract from the nuance of her playing. Here she is performing "Pié Bwa," a re-imagining of Billie Holiday's canonical anti-lynching masterpiece "Strange Fruit," from the perspective of the hanging tree.
7. Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen would have made this list based purely on the title of her forthcoming second album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (out in January). But what might actually makes her my favorite discovery of the year is the record's contents. She's singing devastating songs and maintaining eye contact while she does it. Instead of wallowing, Olsen introduces a new vocabulary with which to experience heartbreak. Her voice blooms in a silky mid-range, and the music backing her ranges from crunchy garage rock to acoustic whisper. It's all flawless. The album's first single is "Forgiven, Forgotten."
Okay, this is cheating. I found out about rapper, writer, and spoken-word artist Dessa in 2011, but she released a new album this year, Parts of Speech, and not putting it on my top 10 list I wrote would be immoral. Dovetailing nicely with my obsession with Parts of Speech, I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel with her for NPR Music in October, followed immediately by her coming to Austin for Fun Fun Fun Fest. If Dessa's powerful lyrical delivery is new to you, I envy you the discovery. Here's "Fighting Fish," my favorite track from Parts of Speech.
9. V V Brown
I reviewed singer-producer V V Brown's new album Samson & Delilah for the Food issue of Bitch, and couldn't keep my mouth shut long enough for the review to go to print before I told everyone how much I loved it. "The Apple" contains the year's best insult to an ex ("You're not the apple of my eye," delivered with enough scorn to put the judgiest in-laws to shame), and the whole record bristles with dark, disconcerting electro-pop I played on repeat for months. It's still what I put on in my headphones if I have somewhere I need to walk to quickly, driven as I am by the thumping low end and Brown's deep, compelling voice. Have a listen to "The Apple," below.
The Apple by V V Brown
10. Julia Weldon
In November, Bitch hosted the world premiere of the video for "You Never Know," the second single from Brooklyn singer Julia Weldon's latest album Light As A Ghost. The video is gorgeous; shot on the coast of Maine, it tells the story of Weldon's poignant burial at sea surrounded by her real-life loved ones. The record, though, was the star for me. Weldon is a thoughtful, relatable songwriter, and her delivery is plaintive without being melancholy. Her thoughts for our world premiere preview on her own gender politics and how they factor into her musical persona were equally eloquent, making her both an artist and a person I'm excited to hear more from in the new year. Here's "You Never Know."
What were your favorite musical discoveries this year? Let us know in the comments!