10 Riot Grrrl Albums Every Music Fan Should Own

The rallying soundtrack to a movement set on normalizing women’s anger and celebrating sexuality

Bikini Kill
Bikini Kill

Editor’s Note: Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about. This time, we celebrate Women’s History Month with a deep dig into the riot grrrl genre.

Emerging from the deep forests of The Pacific Northwest, riot grrrl was a rasping rallying cry at a time when gender norms weighed heavily on the mosh pits and politics imposed itself dangerously on ovaries and queerness. With punk legends like Patti Smith and The Slits preceding them, the emerging DIY feminist punk movement of the ’90s brought with it grievances of the third wavers. Faced with no space in the existing punk-rock scene, attention was turned to tackling sexism and carving out a new underground alternative. A movement of rioting girls who set out to normalize women’s anger and celebrate sexuality began to gain traction.

The term riot grrrl originated in the early ’90s almost as an offhand compliment that got written into Xeroxed fanzines that began to circulate among punk rock and feminist communities first in the Pacific Northwest, then across the country, and eventually around the globe. Early participants deliberately used “grrrl” instead of “girl” to remove the passive association with the word “girl” as well as to display the anger behind the movement, reminiscent of a growl. Due to the founding women’s punk roots and use of shock protest, the public viewed riot grrrl in a more radical light than other feminist groups. The movement encouraged females to become more involved in the male-dominated punk scene, opposed to in the 1970’s, where women were generally only considered “punk” through the association of being a girlfriend of one of the male members of the group. The increasing awareness led to the creation of local riot grrrl weekly meetings that eventually turned into national conventions.

There was a decentralized but effective subculture of activist chapters that organized protests and performances, produced visual art and zines, and also just sat around and talked. And, of course, there were recordings: handmade cassette tapes, small-label 45s, EPs, LPs, and even CDs, all of it. The movement blasted feminism into the future politically, centering the needs of a new generation with affirmative action strategies, sardonic mantras and slogans such as “girl power” and “support girl love.” Riot grrrl became one of the most limber branches of what was declared third wave feminism. Materially, the music was old-school, arguably the last blast of a pre-tech age. The mantra was “do it yourself.” If you wrote a good song, you recorded it as quickly and cheaply as you could, then pressed it up and stuck it inside some cut-up-graphics-style paper, and you didn’t give a fuck.

–Samantha Lopez
Contributing Writer

Hole — Pretty on the Inside (1991)

Hole - Pretty on the Inside

Hole came out swinging on Pretty on the Inside, which was their debut album. Despite the word “pretty” being in its title, the album gained significance for being anything but — and that’s a good thing. Courtney Love’s throaty, wailing vocals delivered lyrics about violence, death, feelings of abandonment, and anger. Musically, each track boasted an uproar of reverb and fuzz, which doubled down on the untethered spirit the album already radiated. These creative choices Hole made were important, especially since the album was released early on in the riot grrrl movement. In a world where women have long been expected to be warm, light, and polished, Hole began their career with an album that brazenly tackled dark subject matter and swapped out melodicism for raw power. Especially since women are so often taught to water down these sides of themselves in order to maintain palatability, Pretty on the Inside is a catharsis. It cracked open the Pandora’s Box of all the thoughts, feelings, stories, and fears women are most frequently conditioned to conceal and expressed them in a way that felt really authentic.. This laid the foundation for riot grrrl bands who would later come along to continue to lift the lid a little further, in their own way. –Lindsay Teske

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “Your everything is mine” (“Garbage Man”)

L7 — Bricks Are Heavy (1992)

L7 - Bricks Are Heavy

L7 was always cool as hell. However, the release of their third LP, Bricks Are Heavy, made 1992 a pivotal year for the band and the riot grrrl movement alike. Delightfully loaded with sludge and vigor, the album saw L7 sink their teeth deeper into a gritter sound and biting lyrics on each and every track. Bricks Are Heavy not only felt like an album where L7 truly came into their own sonically, but a moment where they totally relaxed into the element of unapologetic subversion that was becoming a defining characteristic of riot grrrl bands. The latter can be best exemplified in the set they performed at England’s Reading Festival a mere four months after the album’s release, wherein lead vocalist and guitarist Donita Sparks delivered one of the most infamous moments in rock history. After a technical issue with a speaker arose and the crowd began slinging mud at the band as a result, Sparks retaliated by pulling out her tampon and hurling it into the crowd. Within the year Bricks Are Heavy was released, L7 schooled the world on the fact that women in rock could and should be brash, crass, and bold, which is precisely what their male counterparts had been praised for for ages. –Lindsay Teske

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “When I get mad and I get pissed/ I grab my pen and I write out a list/ Of all you assholes that won’t be missed/ You’ve made my shitlist” (“Shitlist”)

Babes in Toyland — Fontanelle (1992)

Babes in Toyland - Fontanelle

While Babes in Toyland have reportedly never considered themselves a part of the riot grrrl movement, their influence on it is undeniable, and much of that influence was generated from Fontanelle. Babes in Toyland’s second album was both their most successful and lovably notorious, and this was in no small part down to Kat Bjelland’s larger-than-life vocal performance and imaginative, acid-tongued lyrics (I mean, see below). Coupled with hulking soundscapes that thrash their way into memory, Fontanelle is a ball of power and pure electricity. It not only showcases Babes in Toyland leaning into their creative capabilities full throttle, but played a key role in carving out a distinctive place for a harder and heavier direction within the riot grrrl movement. –Lindsay Teske

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “My name is Gretel, yeah/ I’ve got a crotch that talks/ It talks to all the cocks/ It’s been 12 city blocks” (“Handsome and Gretel”)

Bikini Kill — Bikini Kill EP (1992)

Bikini Kill

Nearly three decades later, fellow Olympia-based Bikini Kill’s debut record still sounds, and sparks, a rebellion. There have been few musical artists who displayed the courage of their convictions as clearly as day as Bikini Kill right off the bat. Bikini Kill were, and continue to be, purposefully defiant and perfectly imperfect. What Bikini Kill did is call bullshit on the patriarchy, bullshit on the death of feminism, bullshit on cultural notions of beauty and womanhood. They expressed the rage of the millions of young women who had experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence and who felt they had no recourse or outlet because society had defined women as “less than,” “hysterical” and “emotional.” I personally caught them at Chicago’s Riot Fest in 2019. The crowd was filled with women and those who identify as women or nonbinary of all ages. It was empowering to say the least. Unlike many of their predecessors in feminism’s first wave (think “abolitionists and suffragists”) and second wave (think “ban the bra and ERA”), they celebrated sexuality as a fundamental form of human expression and connection, regardless of partner gender. –Samantha Lopez

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “You’re a big girl now/ You’ve got no reason not to fight/ You’ve got to know what they are/ ‘fore you can stand up for your rights/ Rights, rights?/ You do have rights” (“Double Dare Ya”)

Bratmobile — Pottymouth (1993)

Bratmobile - Pottymouth

Pottymouth is like the Trojan Horse of riot grrrl albums. Initially, it hits the ear as a series of fun, jaunty tracks with a DIY feel. Yet, woven into the fabric of these tracks is scorching and necessary social commentary. Vocal track “Polaroid Baby” is sung with the cadence of a nursery rhyme yet lyrically reflects back on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were catalyzed by the beating of Rodney King at the hands of local police officers. Another strong example is  “P.R.D.T.C” (punk rock dream come true), which in spite of its dreamy and idealistic title, chronicles a dangerous and codependent relationship. And, of course, there’s “Cool Schmool”, a song that could act as the liner notes for the riot grrrl movement entirely with its highlighting of the grievances that women in rock (still) have to face. Pottymouth held a mirror up to the sociopolitical climate in which women existed both inside and outside of creative circles, making it one of the most essential communicators of the riot grrrl movement’s messages. –Lindsay Teske

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “I don’t want you to tell me what’s so cool/ I don’t want to go back to junior high school/ I don’t want anyone to tell me how thin I am/ I don’t want to die for your fucking candy treats/ Cool schmool” (“Cool Schmool”)

Slant 6 – Soda Pop * Rip Off (1994)

Slant 6 - Soda Pop Rip Off

Slant 6’s first full-length album, Soda Pop * Rip Off, was released in 1994 and is recognized as one of the most defiant and triumphant documents in feminist punk history. The trio got their start in the Washington DC scene, where small labels like Dischord, Simple Machines, and Teenbeat relied more on the distribution of vinyl singles than full-scale albums. Soda Pop * Rip Off is the sort of album one might expect from such scenes. The band’s sound was both innovative and exciting, combining new-wave punk, DC hardcore, and frenetic guitar work into an energizing rush of sound that resembles more well-known groups like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. In all, Soda Pop * Rip Off works almost like a retrospective of a period in the band’s career, collecting major work (including great tracks like “Double Edged Knife” and “What Kind of Monster Are You?”). –Samantha Lopez

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “What do you want of me?/ Rip off! Thief!/ Rip off! Thief!” (“Soda Pop-Rip Off”)

Team Dresch – Personal Best (1995)

Team Dresch - Personal Best

Portland queercore pioneers Team Dresch were way ahead of their time, which is why they’re more iconic than ever now. Formerly in Dinosaur Jr. and Screaming Trees, Donna Dresch started Team Dresch with Hazel’s Jody Bleyle and Adickdid’s Kaia Wilson at a time when it wasn’t easy for queer kids to find each other in the punk scene. As Bleyle said, “We started the band because it was like, ‘I want to hang out with some gay people.’” Team Dresch confronted real issues — bigotry, oppression, religion, self-worth — with a sense of conviction and immediacy that lays to waste everything in their path. For an album that lasts less than 25 minutes, Personal Best is a draining, relentless experience. It explodes on contact, the cumulative result of years of pent-up anger, frustration, and desperation finally allowed release. –Samantha Lopez

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “Well I do what I do and I don’t need you/ To tell me what’s in/ And tell me who is cool” (“Freewheel”)

Excuse 17 – Such Friends Are Dangerous (1995)

Excuse 17- Such Friends Are Dangerous

Fellow Pacific Northwesterners, Excuse 17, recorded a glorious punk rock racket far more polished and catchier than the band’s promising, self-titled debut. Nearly every track seethes with an overwhelming sense of urgency, and from the opening whiplash crash of “5 Acres” to the more subtly moving “She Wants 3-D,” it’s an album full of violently emotional catharsis (check out the startling centerpieces “This Is Not Your Wedding Song” and “The Drop Dead Look”). Often mesmerizing in the chaotic call and response between vocalists Carrie Brownstein (yes, that Carrie Brownstein) and Becca Albee, Such Friends Are Dangerous is a swan song that only hints at what could’ve followed. Of course, as many fans of the Pacific Northwest scene know, what would follow for guitarist Brownstein is the wildly successful and talented Sleater-Kinney trio. –Samantha Lopez

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “Every time I speak to you/I see your lies don’t shine through/Every line you babble spoils/So get away from me because I hate your guts.” (“Watchmaker”)

Sleater-Kinney — Dig Me Out (1997)

Sleater-Kinney - Dig Me Out

Hailing from Olympia, Washington, Sleater-Kinney are pioneers in the riot grrrl movement. At its core, Dig Me Out is an album leading listeners through vigorous emotional strains — and the tension implodes on nearly every track. The record was released just barely a year after the bomb-hitting Call the Doctor, but the trio somehow managed to upstage themselves with Dig Me Out. This is the record where they first teamed up with Janet Weiss, and the change only did amazing things for them. This album shows a sense of confidence. Sleater-Kinney were still an underground band when this record came out; Call the Doctor was a critical hit, but still wasn’t smashing numbers, and the band had shifted from a tiny indie label to a less tiny indie label. Dig Me Out is an album that will always push first into people’s minds when they think of the band, because it’s the record where everything first clicked for them — the record that marked their territory as a defining rock band in American history. –Samantha Lopez

Best Grrrl Power Lyric: “Find me out, I’m not just made of parts/ Oh, you can break right through this box you put me into” (“Heart Factory”)

Le Tigre — Le Tigre (1999)

Le Tigre - Le Tigre

Shortly after Kathleen Hanna fired up trio Le Tigre upon Bikini Kill’s initial disbandment, they dropped their self-titled debut album. Released in 1999, Le Tigre injected sounds and styles into the movement that hadn’t been as heavily associated with it before. For example, “My My Metrocard” carries the sonic buoyancy of early ‘60s pop (all while, in a delicious display of juxtaposition, name-checking Rudy Giuliani for being “such a fucking jerk”), and “Slideshow at a Free University” is almost solely electronic. Despite the air of fun experimentalism the album exudes, Le Tigre packs a weighty lyrical punch. “Hot Topic” recognizes scores of game-changing women by directly naming them against an effortlessly infectious beat. Riot grrrl’s roots in rock are important, since it is a genre sector where female artists tend to disproportionately face aversion. Nonetheless, as music began to further evolve at the turn of the millennium, Le Tigre broke the mold by exemplifying that the energy of the riot grrrl could be just as exuded in spirit as it could in sound. –Lindsay Teske

Best grrrl power lyric: “Carol Rama and Eleanor Antin/ Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneeman/ You’re getting old, that’s what they’ll say/ But don’t give a damn, I’m listening anyway” — (Hot Topic”)