Many of these women were “firsts” in their fields; some players, interpreters and performers, all were in “girl groups”. What that term means will vary from person to person, but no one can deny the fascination, genres aside, of women possessing glamor, talent and ambition coming together to execute those three principles. I love girl groups, one of them actually put me on the professional writing path I occupy now; that is a story for another day. Without too much fanfare, I extend my 10 favorite girl group recordings, thus far.
The Bangles: Doll Revolution (Down Kiddie / Koch, 2003)
Line-Up: Susannah Hoffs, Michael Steele, Vicki Peterson, Debbie Peterson
Synopsis: The Bangles jangled back into the scene in 2003 after calling it a day with 1988’s Everything (Columbia); all four women had kept busy on multiple musical fronts. As a unit it had been over a decade since they’d collectively worked together. Doll Revolution had the Peterson sisters, Hoffs and Steele back in the groove as if no time had passed since Everything. However, their fourth LP wasn’t an exercise in 1980’s nostalgia; Doll Revolution was raring and reflective, tempered by their “Paisley Underground” roots and a tasteful “now” sheen. Those harmonies, still mint and intact, made “Nickel Romeo,” “Stealing Rosemary” and the lead single “Something That You Said” welcome entries into the Bangles discography.
[Watch / Listen to “Something That You Said“]
The Emotions: Flowers (Columbia, 1976)
Line-Up: Wanda Hutchinson, Jeanette Hutchison, Sheila Hutchison
Synopsis: In the 1970’s, the black girl group was a bountiful stock; an assortment of established and fresh women were making sound waves on the R&B and pop charts. One such grouping included the sister act The Emotions; their gripping, airtight vocalizing fit right into the disco modernity that had taken hold of R&B’s reconfiguration. Within that frame, The Emotions unleashed their Flowers LP that blended ethereal hymns (“We Go Through Changes,” “God Will Take Care of You”) with driving, but refined dance stylings (“I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” “No Plans For Tomorrow”); to say the results were eclectic would be a huge understatement. Flowers finally propelled The Emotions to the commercial victory that alluded them on their past three albums that preceded their fourth affair.
[Watch / Listen to “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love“]
En Vogue: Funky Divas (eastwest, 1992)
Line-Up: Cindy Herron-Braggs, Terry Ellis, Maxine Jones, Dawn Robinson
Synopsis: Another textbook example on how an R&B act can crossover to a pop audience without losing their home turf (i.e.-credibility); the Oakland, California quartet’s second album was bigger, bolder and badder than their debut. Where Born to Sing (eastwest, 1990) focused on their voices only, Funky Divas let their singing shine alongside music that was just as active: “Hip-Hop Lover,” “Free Your Mind” and “What Is Love” had the ladies getting it on, musically speaking. Their second reworking of James Brown’s “The Payback” (an R&B / hip-hop sample staple) after “Hold On”, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” became one of their signature hits. Even when En Vogue’s personnel ills escalated in their ensuing years, they continued to record top shelf work (see 2004’s Soul Flower, 33rd Street). Funky Divas is a firm favorite of both 1990’s R&B fanatics and girl group aficionados.
[Watch / Listen to “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)“]
The Go-Go’s: Talk Show (I.R.S., 1984)
Line-Up: Gina Schock, Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey
Synopsis: The Go-Go’s reached critical mass with their internal friction by this time, but rock’s first female outfit landed a third home-run with their junior LP. Talk Show built on the rock ‘n’ pop gains of Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S., 1981) and Vacation (I.R.S., 1982); the contents of Talk Show sang out, lyrically, from an obvious sense of longing and melancholy only glimpsed before. In short, The Go-Go’s were growing up on Talk Show; despite the joyful “Head Over Heels,” you had the ponderous “Capture the Light” and “I’m With You” that balanced the recording. After their dissolution, The Go-Go’s had several high-profile reunions, one such reuniting birthed their fourth album God Bless the Go-Go’s (Beyond, 2001); Talk Show is the versatile and emotional showcase of the four recordings they’ve released.
[Watch / Listen to “Head Over Heels“]
The Pointer Sisters: Energy (Planet, 1978)
Line-Up: June Pointer, Anita Pointer, Ruth Pointer
Synopsis: After the glossy, if transitional Havin’ a Party (Blue Thumb, 1977), June, Anita and Ruth, sans sister Bonnie and the Blue Thumb label, joined forces with producer Richard Perry and his up-and-coming imprint, Planet Records. Their first recording, in a long, fruitful creative courtship with Perry, Energy put forth a soulful collection of rock ‘n’ roll covers that presented the Pointers as the definitive female group of musical reinvention. From the roiling “Happiness” to the chamber-like “Dirty Work,” the Pointers were unstoppable in this newest incarnation; they truly outdid themselves with the smash from the record, “Fire”. The Pointers would trek through the remainder of the 1980’s on this inventive streak.
[Watch / Listen to “Fire“]
Salt-N-Pepa: Brand New (Red Ant / Island, 1997)
Line-Up: Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa), Deidra Roper (DJ Spinderella)
Synopsis: The three years between Very Necessary (Next Plateau / London, 1993) and its follow-up Brand New had Salt-N-Pepa keeping up with the times as they’d always done. Female hip-hop had changed its face and grown considerably, this was in due part to Salt-N-Pepa’s pioneering work. Flashier (Missy Elliott), glamorous and gruff (Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown) emcees had supplanted their preceding hip-hop mother figures. In spite of this, Salt-N-Pepa’s Brand New was on par with the efforts from the stated new clique of female rappers; granted it wasn’t as profane, but it could bounce (“R U Ready?”) and flow (“Do Me Right”) like no one’s business. Their last record to date, it remains a lost gem of its period.
[Watch / Listen to “R U Ready?“]
Sister Sledge: All American Girls (Cotillion, 1981)
Line-Up: Joni Sledge, Kathy Sledge, Kim Sledge, Debbie Sledge
Synopsis: One of the many acts hurt in the disco backlash of the early 1980’s, Sister Sledge bravely continued recording in the face of such adversity. Their fifth LP, All American Girls, showed the Sledge’s ready to cut their soft serve soul with a (black) new wave edge; a mix of guitar, synth bites and their resplendent harmonies was a killer combination. The segued, three-pronged attack of the titular cut, “He’s a Runaway” (their tribute to the fallen Bob Marley) and “If You Really Want Me” had the Sledge’s rocking, rolling and vibing with the best of them. There were quieter moments on the project as well: “Next Time You’ll Know” and “Happy Feeling”. The album didn’t stop their commercial descent, but slowed it; removing its chart context, All American Girls was a great platform for Sister Sledge’s versatility.
[Watch / Listen to “All American Girls“]
Spice Girls: Spiceworld (Virgin, 1997)
Line-Up: Victoria Beckham, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell, Melanie Chisholm
Synopsis: Recorded and released when “Spice Mania” began its full swing, the Girls kept their wits and turned in an album more musical and ambitious than their debut. Lean, but filling the Girls took their audience across their own pop globe; from the carnival wall of sound of “Spice Up Your Life” to the Pointer Sisters Blue Thumb-era inspired jazz of “The Lady Is a Vamp”, the Girls were at their vocal and lyrical best. Demonstrating pop’s great transformative power, Spiceworld defied the sophomore slump and sounded unlike anyone else hustling in the music scene in the late 1990’s.
[Watch / Listen to “Too Much“]
The Supremes: Touch (Motown, 1971)
Line-Up: Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrell
Synopsis: By 1971, The Supremes had worked themselves into a comfortable, but creative space. Diana Ross’ departure in 1969 had been not only a blessing for her, but her former groupmates Birdsong and Wilson. Now, along with Jean Terrell, they’d come out full force in 1970 with Right On and New Way, But Love Stays (Motown); Touch introduced a totally new side to The Supremes saga. The album era of the 1970’s had been an advantage to The Supremes, nowhere was this more apparent than Touch; its sensitive and reticent mood gifted gravitas to songs like “Happy Is a Bumpy Road” and “This Is the Story”. Over the course of the long player, The Supremes’ rich three-part vocalizing soothed and soared with vitality and believability; the final entry for this line-up had them go out on an unbelievable high.
[**Listen to “Love It Came To Me This Time“]
TLC: CrazySexyCool (LaFace, 1994)
Line-Up: Tionne Watkins (T-Boz), Lisa Lopes (Left-Eye), Rozanda Thomas (Chilli)
Synopsis: Eager for something that wouldn’t lose the urgency of hip-hop, but would leave a lingering timelessness, CrazySexyCool achieved those goals. All three young women showcased their particular talents on the LP; beyond its run of singles, which included the horn doused cool of “Creep” and the hip-hop soul fable “Waterfalls”, the album contained no filler. The stinging “Switch” and a capable cover of Prince’s dark soul sapphire “If I Was Ur Girlfriend” were just some of the fantastic non-single moments of CrazySexyCool. TLC even cajoled Phife Dawg, a member of the iconic NYC hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Quest, to reprise his lyrical nod to them (and En Vogue) from their Midnight Marauders LP (1993, Jive) on a reworked introduction to CrazySexyCool. TLC’s second record continues to weave its magic 19 years after its release.
[Watch / Listen to “Creep“]
[Editor’s Note: **There were no visual clips that I could find of the Terrell/Birdsong/Wilson line-up of The Supremes performing material from the Touch LP. Majority of the records discussed are in print, physically and digitally. However, The Supremes Touch, The Go-Go’s Talk Show and Sister Sledge’s All American Girls are only available through online sellers, as their physical editions are no longer available. See music retailers for details. Artwork created by Andrew Bird.-QH]