Twenty years later, and about 30 since the movement’s inception, trying to define it still feels fraught. Riot grrrl was always a nebulous concept, a label intended to be adopted and personalized by young feminist punks globally. But by the early aughts, once the revolution had become FUBAR from in-fighting, unwanted media attention, and accusations of racist and transphobic exclusion, it already felt like a dream of the past.
In that sense, riot grrrl was a specific movement born out of a specific moment in time, and a handful of specific places (usually Washington, state and D.C.). It is not a catch-all label for Loud Girl Music, as certain Spotify playlists might lead you to believe. I’ve tried to limit this list to bands who explicitly called themselves riot grrrl during its original iteration, or otherwise fraternized (sororized?) with the scene. For example, bands like Hole and Babes in Toyland were grunge, not riot grrrl, though the former appears on this list because Love wrote a song about the grrrls; Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre, supergroups formed out of the wreckage of the scene, are what we’ll call post-riot-grrrl, and thus not on this list either.
In the spirit of Stopping the J-Word, Jealousy, from Killing Girl Love, this list is non-competitive and “ranked” merely according to a very loose chronological order.
20. X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”
Though not riot grrrl according to the framework I just established, X-Ray Spex are at the top of the list simply because they’re the beginning. In 1977, Poly Styrene was the proto-riot grrrl, just barely 20 years old and baring her braces as she shouted about how “some people think little girls should be seen and not heard.” One of the movement’s deepest shames must be that, despite being indebted to a Black woman, few contributions of Black riot grrrls were properly cataloged. I encourage you to read Gaby Bess’ deep dive on the New York Sista Grrrl Riot scene — whose ’90s music, if online, has escaped my search for it.
19. Bikini Kill – “Carnival”
In 1989, as the story goes, a teenage Kathleen Hanna went to a workshop led by postmodernist writer Kathy Acker. There, she told Acker that she’d started performing spoken word poetry, because she’d spent her life not being listened to and had so much she wanted to say. Acker’s response: Forget that, because no one goes to see spoken word poetry, and just start a band. That advice led her, a couple years later, to Bikini Kill. With their debut cassette, Revolution Girl Style Now!, they established an unambiguously political mission statement. But “Carnival” is early Bikini Kill at its most dynamic: a wild spree through “the seedy underbelly of the carnival” that feels at once like goofy fun (“I’ll win that Motley Crue mirror if it fucking kills me!”) and like a tacit indictment of why a teen girl should have ended up there to begin with.
18. Bratmobile – “Girl Germs”
Bratmobile was no less angry than Bikini Kill, though their songs tended to sound more like “Miss Mary Mack” by-way-of K Records than the gut-punching political screeds of their peers. “Girl Germs” (which shared a title with singer Allison Wolfe and drummer Molly Neuman’s zine) taunts the “superior boyness” of the Olympia, WA punk scene — bopping around like a summer camp singalong until Erin Smith’s grass-stain guitar skids across the skinned-knee chorus.
17. Huggy Bear – “Her Jazz”
Across the Atlantic, the “boy-girl revolutionaries” of Huggy Bear led the charge in the U.K. In 1993, the co-ed quintet gave an instantly legendary performance of their anthemic single “Her Jazz” on the British TV show The Word. In a hot pink wig and a pair of probably the chunkiest creepers to have stomped across this Earth, singer Niki Eliot announced that riot grrrl had gone global. “This is happening without your permission,” she shouted over a wall of feedback — a poke at anyone who disapproved, and a rallying cry to everyone else who wanted in.
16. Bikini Kill – “Thurston Hearts the Who”
One part spoken word, one part playground taunt, one part blood-curdling screaming, “Thurston Hearts the Who” is the sound of riot grrrl distilled to its purest (and, at moments, most cartoonish) essence. Swapping positions, Kathleen Hanna keeps a rudimentary drum beat while Tobi Vail sings on loop, “if Sonic Youth thinks you’re cool, does that mean everything to you?” All the while, Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman reads aloud a condescending review of a Bikini Kill show (“It was sad to see a woman so desperately confused,” she recites, her voice dripping with irony). The whole thing is so outlandish and sonically overwhelming that, as much as you might want to dismiss it as a caricature of riot grrrl pretension, it’s still undeniably provocative three decades later.
15. Heavens to Betsy – “Axemen”
Despite the hostile reception riot grrrl faced from the start, its message still found its way to the girls who needed it. One of them was Corin Tucker — who would eventually be known for Sleater-Kinney, but in the early ’90s was still only a student at Evergreen State College, where she found kinship in the scene’s early days. After bluffing her way onto a bill in 1991, she started Heavens to Betsy with her childhood friend Tracy Sawyer. “Axemen,” off their only record, Calculated, is riot grrrl epitomized: teenage girls raging against the privileged suburban machine.
14. Excuse 17 – “I’d Rather Eat Glass”
Meanwhile, Carrie Brownstein was also getting her start in Olympia, sharing guitar and vocal duties with Becca Albee in the queercore band Excuse 17. The trio — Curtis James was recruited from Seattle to play drums — lasted only a couple years; “I’d Rather Eat Glass” is off their second and final record, Such Friends Are Dangerous. They frequently played alongside Heavens to Betsy and, naturally, after each group’s respective dissolution, Brownstein and Tucker quickly fell into place together as Sleater-Kinney.
13. Emily’s Sassy Lime – “Bait and Switch”
After sneaking out to see a Bikini Kill and Bratmobile show in L.A., teenage sisters Wendy and Amy Yao started the band Emily’s Sassy Lime with their friend Emily Ryan. Scattered throughout the SoCal suburbs — Amy went to art school in Pasadena while Wendy, still in high school, lived with their parents in Irvine, and Emily in Calabasas — the trio were forced to write songs over the phone, and generally forget practicing altogether. The result was even more lo-fi than the typical riot grrrl product, defiant in its bratty amateurishness. “We get shit for being annoying…” Emily told a local paper in 1996, “but why should we shut up?”
12. Skinned Teen – “Pillowcase Kisser”
Inspired by Huggy Bear and the American riot grrrls, teenage trio Skinned Teen led a hot and fast existence, lasting only a year. But in their wake they left behind the 1994 masterwork Bazooka Smooth! Standout “Pillowcase Kisser” is snappy, snotty, and often rhythmically out of time: “You know you’ll never get far / Living your life like some super porno star,” the grrrls all seem to shout in unison, further shrouding the little-known band in mythical mystery.
11. Skinned Teen – “Ex-Boyfriend Beat”
Part of what set Skinned Teen apart from their influences was their prescient use of samples. “Ex-Boyfriend Beat” sounds like a prediction of Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill project Julie Ruin, its poppy beat overlaid with punky spoken-word vocals. In that sense, the short-lived band proved more sonically nuanced than most of the riot grrrl acts who, relatively speaking, long outlived them.
10. Raooul – “Anna Joy”
One of the youngest of the riot grrrl bands, each member only 14 years old, this Bay Area quintet was also one of the rowdiest. Active only in 1993, they released two records: the seven-inch Fresh and Nubile and a split with Skinned Teen called Jail-Bait Core. The former features an obnoxious cover of “Summer Nights” from Grease and a song about “having” Richie Bucher (the artist who drew Green Day’s Dookie cover) that either inspired or mimicked a Skinned Knee song. But if a nine-minute EP could have a standout, it would be opener “Anna Joy.” Like a “Typical Girls” updated for the ‘90s, they take turns brattishly screaming lines like, “We aaaall loooove Nirvana!” and “We all smoke POT!”
9. Free Kitten – “Revlon Liberation Orchestra”
Kim Gordon and riot grrrl had a symbiotically influential relationship. In Sonic Youth, she had been an inspiration for the movement; after its inception, she quickly became one of its most outspoken celebrity champions. (Sonic Youth often shared bills with Bikini Kill and, in 1994, recruited Hanna to dance around in their “Bull in the Heather” video.) Her side project Free Kitten started as a joke about New York’s experimental improv scene, but it clearly employed some of the tropes of riot grrrl. In 1995, their second record, Nice Ass, featured the funny and intentionally amateurish-sounding “Revlon Liberation Orchestra,” in which Gordon and Julie Cafritz (of Pussy Galore) rap in unison over a drum machine loop. “I used to be a nerd; now I’m a Revlon girl,” they flatly brag.
8. Hole – “Rock Star”
“Rock Star” (originally titled “Olympia” but mislabeled on Live Through This) is not riot grrrl, but about riot grrrl. “Well, I went to school in Olympia / And everyone’s the same,” she mocks on the iconic album’s closer. Courtney Love’s relationship with the movement was fraught to say the least. To some, it may seem like the narcissism of small differences. People wonder what the difference between bands like Hole and Bikini Kill is, and it’s hard to explain — not because it’s so intricate, but just because it seems like it should be obvious. Riot grrrl was, at least aspirationally, an egalitarian political and cultural movement; Courtney Love is just a rock star. Though her specific experience of femininity has been the throughline in much of her music, the fact that she’s a woman is basically beside the point. Which, in a sense, was its own kind of revolution.
7. Slant 6 – “Don’t You Ever”
After the breakup of her pre-riot grrrl band Autoclave in 1991, D.C.-based Christina Billotte started playing occasional shows with a newly relocated Bratmobile. The following year, after the band moved back to Olympia, she started her own called Slant 6. Already a skilled guitarist, Billotte led the band in a more technically proficient and traditionally structured direction than most of their riot grrrl contemporaries. Still, they were similarly short-lived, and, after releasing two full-lengths on Dischord, broke up while touring the U.K. with Fugazi.
6. The Frumpies – “Intertube Tomorrow”
The Frumpies — which featured three-fourths of Bikini Kill plus Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman — were active on and off throughout most of the ’90s as a side project. By the end of the decade, after Bikini Kill disbanded in ’97, The Frumpies returned as a more central effort and released the record Frumpie One-Piece on Kill Rock Stars. The band was less overtly political than Bikini Kill, and even Bratmobile. “Intertube Tomorrow,” a minute-long indie pop jingle about missing faraway friends, is lighthearted and buoyant, like an inside joke to break the tension of a serious conversation.
5. Julie Ruin – “The Punk Singer”
“In Bikini Kill, I was singing to an elusive asshole male that was fucking the world over, and I was allowing other women to watch me do that. And I really wanted to start directly singing to other women,” Hanna said in the 2013 documentary about her, The Punk Singer. This was the seed of the solo record she made on the heels of the band’s breakup, under the pseudonym Julie Ruin. With a Roland Drumatix drum machine bought for $40, Hanna recorded the album entirely by herself in her bedroom, taking a more personal focus than the wide-angle activism of her previous work.
4. Vandemonium — “People Are Scary”
The Seattle “bitchcore” band Vandemonium were late-stage riot grrrl, and they signaled a shift from the earnest politics of the early movement to a less self-serious sensibility. With the same DIY ethos of the grrrls before them, their 1999 debut, Get in my Van, hit on girl haters, corporate sluts, and societal decay at large (“Who are you to call me crass? / Nutrasweet comes out your ass!” shouts frontwoman Cookie Puss on “People Are Scary”).
3. Gravy Train!!!! – “All the Sweet Stuff”
At the tail end of riot grrrl, Oakland’s Gravy Train!!!! helped shepherd the movement into the ironic, sleazy aughts. The four-piece, formed in 2001, was fronted by Chunx (aka Heather Jewett) and Funx, with backup from Hunx (Seth Bogart, later of Hunx and His Punx) and Junx (Brontez Purnell, now known as the author of books like 2021’s 100 Boyfriends). With electroclash songs about sippin’ St. Ides and the dangers of fad dieting, the band toured with Bratmobile in 2002 and Le Tigre a couple years later. Their last record, 2007’s All the Sweet Stuff, carried the torch of the movement’s most fun-loving elements.
2. Bratmobile – “Cool Schmool”
Thirty years after riot grrrl’s inception, it’s been revived and rehashed over and again — notably with the Rookie Magazine, Tumblr-wave feminism of the 2010s, and again in even bigger fashion when Bikini Kill reunited for a string of immediately-sold-out shows in 2019. Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” is riot grrrl’s de facto anthem, but as it’s become the mainstream music cue for third wave feminism, it’s started to feel no more radical than a “Nasty Woman” tote bag. Bratmobile’s “Cool Schmool,” however, is equally anthemic — and just as fun and heart-thumping as it was when I first heard it as a teenager.
1. Bikini Kill – “Outta Me”
One of Bikini Kill’s best songs is one of their most overlooked. In two and a half minutes, “Outta Me” packs in more emotional nuance than the band usually left room for. Riot grrrl has meant, and continues to mean, many things to many people. But when I think about the central tension of being a woman trying to move through the world, “bein’ in love,” “bein’ in hate,” and just feeling fucking bled dry often seems like the right way to put it. But that’s probably just how everyone feels. “Outta Me,” in its bittersweet efficiency, transcends riot grrrl, it but also sort of defines it — if anything ever could.