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From Stevie Nicks to Debbie Harry: The 10 greatest frontwomen of all time

Fronting a band takes an immense amount of musical skill, the ability to captivate an audience, and a whole lot of guts—no easy feat for anyone. And for a while, the music scene seemed to showcase only all-male bands who were challenged in taking on those tasks. But when women started to take their place at the front of the gang and under the spotlight, the world found that they not only excelled but did it with more style and grace than ever before seen. 

Navigating the ropes of the male-dominated music industry, and doing it with the utmost mastery and excellence, these women showed the world that being in a band is certainly not a boy’s club. As part of our focus on female representation in the arts, we are bringing you the ten greatest frontwomen of all time. 

As in most male-dominated industries, the rock world was a tough place for women for a long time. Hell, it’s still a tough place to be. But there’s no doubt that without the pioneering women mentioned below, the world would be worse off. Each singer delivered songs and performances that not only matched the men in their field but surpassed them with guts and gusto time and again.

While other notable singers from the music world don’t make our list because of their more prominent singer-songwriter accolades (Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Kate Bush — to name a few), it’s still brimming with talent and the kind of legendary statuses that ensure their names will be in the annals of music history.

10 greatest frontwomen of all time:

10. Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries)

Dolores O’Riordan, the Irish lead vocalist and lyricist for the alternative rock band The Cranberries, wowed the public with her unconventional singing techniques and quickly established herself to have one of the most recognisable female voices in the 1990s rock scene. 

O’Riordan, who sadly passed away in 2018, left an everlasting mark on the world, and was even praised by Irish President Michael D Higgins, who noted the band’s “immense influence on rock and pop music in Ireland and internationally.” 

Her passion and unequivocal vocal performances mean she’s guaranteed a spot on our list.

9. Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie and the Banshees)

Siouxsie Sioux’s contributions to the post-punk genre (among others) are indisputable. Along with her aloof demeanour and impressive musicianship, her signature dramatic cat-eye makeup, red lipstick, jagged hair, and all-black clothing would be imitated for years to come. Simply put, she changed the way a generation behaved.

With a string of UK top 20 singles, Sioux led Siouxsie and the Banshees to mainstream success and proved a force to be reckoned with in her ability to successfully reinvent the band’s sound, from punk to goth to psychedelia. Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio said about Sioux, “Her voice is, in its own right, the common thread through all of it. There is no one who sings like that. And I think there are a lot of people who were influenced by it, but even if you try and sing like her, you can’t do that.” 

Siouxsie Sioux did the most difficult of things and remains both artistically daring and commercially relevant throughout her career.

8. Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders)

Being the founding member, guitarist, lead vocalist, and primary songwriter of the rock band The Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde has proved herself to be an ever-present force in the industry, continuing her legacy well into the twenty-first century.

After spending much of the ‘70s in Europe working odd jobs with a few failed band attempts under her belt, Hynde formed The Pretenders in 1978 and found almost effortless success. 

With her signature choppy fringe, punk attire, and incredible talent, vocally and musically, Hynde’s status as one of the greatest frontwomen ever is a rightful achievement. 

7. Ann Wilson (Heart)

Being a part of the first hard rock band fronted by only women surely guarantees a spot on the list alone. But it’s Ann Wilson’s extraordinary artistry that truly established her. Her incredible vocals in songs like ‘Crazy on You,’ gifted musicianship, edgy appearance, and outspoken nature all lead her to icon status. 

Speaking of navigating through the tough music atmosphere in her prime, Wilson said, “It was darn nigh impossible for women in rock in the ’70s. There wasn’t a mould if you were a woman and you were in the entertainment in the ’70s. You were probably a disco diva or a folk singer, or simply ornamental. Radio would play only one woman per hour.”

Thankfully, her influence didn’t go unnoticed, and in 2013, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Heart — a well-deserved feat. 

6. Janis Joplin (Big Brother and the Holding Company)

A Texas girl with the soul of a beat poet and an incredible bluesy voice, Janis Joplin is one of the most remembered artists in the history of rock ’n roll. Coming off the back of the polished 1950s, Joplin won audiences over with her unconventional, hippie appearance and unbelievable chops. But this natural brilliance didn’t come without its tribulations. 

After a failed stint in the Haight-Ashbury district in 1963, she moved back home and continued singing, which eventually attracted the attention of San Francisco-based psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Leading the band into legendary territory with songs like ‘Summertime’ and a performance at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Joplin is remembered today as one of the most influential frontwomen ever. 

5. Joan Jett (The Runaways and The Blackhearts)

Founding member of The Runaways, Joan Jett paved the way for all punk rockers; with her bold move to come out with songs like ‘Cherry Bomb’ amid the disco-crazed ‘70s, she cemented a spot in the collective consciousness.

Taking a cue from glam rockers like T. Rex’s Marc Bolan and making the style her own, Jett is the epitome of a successful bandleader. 

With their risqué subject matter and stage attire, which included the young girls sporting lingerie and Jett in her signature red jumpsuit, the band was certainly ahead of their time. Now, they are appreciated more than ever, and Jett is noted for her brilliant and trailblazing contributions to the punk rock genre. 

4. Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane)

A key figure in San-Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, summer of love psychedelia, Grace Slick was undoubtedly one of the pioneers for women in rock ‘n’ roll and a daredevil antagonist too.

Performing with bands The Great Society, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship, she navigated a tough male-dominated musical climate with ease. 

“I shaved my legs, but I talked like a truck driver,” she said. But it was her incredible vocal talent and entrancing aura that established her in the end, creating psychedelic tunes such as ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to Love,’ which become instant smash hits because of her genius.

3. Diana Ross (The Supremes)

Diana Ross is impossible to overshadow with her old Hollywood-esque charm and divine energy, which makes having her unbelievable chops even more captivating. Beginning her career with iconic Motown group The Supremes, she played an instrumental role in catapulting the group into stardom and making what is still of the world’s best selling girl groups to date. 

Rock Journalist Robert Christgau said about Ross’s contribution to The Supremes, despite their strictly curated image, “They were transcended with the vivacity that is Diana Ross’ great gift. No matter how she is stylized, no matter what phony truism she mouths, this woman always lets you know she is alive.” 

There’s no doubt that Ross deserves her spot on our list as one of the queens of the band world.

2. Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac)

In 2021, Stevie Nicks’s sudden resurgence in popularity with the younger generation only further cements her status as a timeless icon. But as effortless as she makes it seem, Nicks’ lengthy career began with years of obscurity and intense work.

Since her early days with Fleetwood Mac, she has enchanted audiences with her flowing shawls and mesmerising vocals. Friend and collaborator, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, encapsulates this best. “Stevie is strong-willed,” he says. “And at the same time, she’s vulnerable and fragile. And that’s a really great combination. She became this icon for girls – and probably most guys in the Seventies wished they had a girlfriend like Stevie Nicks.”

With a hard-rocking yet dreamy range of hits, Nicks proved that women can be vulnerable, feminine, and serious rock ’n rollers— all at the same time. 

1. Debbie Harry (Blondie) 

Coming from a background of being a waitress, secretary, go-go dancer, and even a Playboy Bunny, no frontwoman has completely shattered notions of what it means to be a rock ’n roller than Debbie Harry.

Using the name she got catcalled as to her advantage “Blondie”, the band quickly captivated audiences, with most credit due to their star player— Harry with her bleach blonde hair and androgynous style. Harry has always been an advocate for women’s rights and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. “The only place left for rock to go is toward more girl stars. There’s nothing left for men to do,” said Harry in an interview. “There’s bound to be more male stars, but they can’t express anything new.”

Her impressive vocal range, innovative style, and fearlessness on the stage, often prowling like a caged animal, make her one of the most notable, fascinating and beloved, frontwomen of all time.

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