Women artists with characteristics I like about Steely Dan?
September 16, 2019 3:02 PM   Subscribe

Lately I've been binge-listening to Steely Dan, even though my usual taste in music runs more toward spare, angular post-punk. Are there any women artists with qualities similar to the ones I admire in their music -- the obsessive perfectionism, the complex arrangements, the cold, sardonic feel with an occasional hard-earned bit of warmth underneath? In any genre -- doesn't have to be jazz-influenced pop/rock at all.
posted by Ralston McTodd to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Imogen Heap? Here's her duo Frou Frou: Let Go.

posted by Sublimity at 3:12 PM on September 16, 2019

posted by prize bull octorok at 3:12 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Minus the cold sardonic feel, you’re describing Kate Bush and her musical descendant Florence Welch. Perfectionist complex arrangements and sweeping dramatic songscapes but more passion than cool detachment.

Marina and the Diamonds has a different kind of angular glossiness and all the sarcasm and detachment you could ever want, and then some, but not sure about hard earned warmth there. It’s ice cold.

I’d be more a Steely Dan head who caught this stuff by virtue of having a teenaged kid m. My radar might be different from yours.
posted by spitbull at 3:15 PM on September 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

Joni Mitchell
posted by sallybrown at 3:20 PM on September 16, 2019 [12 favorites]

St. Vincent
posted by cakelite at 3:24 PM on September 16, 2019 [11 favorites]

Yeah if you haven’t already taken in Joni Mitchell she’s all that and more. Makes Steely Dan seem like a garage band.
posted by spitbull at 3:30 PM on September 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Give Aimee Mann a try if you haven’t already. Bachelor No. 2 is as good a place to start as any.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 3:39 PM on September 16, 2019 [15 favorites]

Maybe give a listen to Stereolab, whose lead singer is Leititia Sadler. She has solo albums, too.

I think this song might fit your description.
posted by Leontine at 4:17 PM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

If lack of complex arrangements isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker (they’re a bit baroque, but not complex like Steely Dan is complex), Black Box Recorder might scratch your itch. The bits of hard-earned warmth are very fleeting, though.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 4:23 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Rickie Lee Jones hits this spot.
posted by cocoagirl at 4:28 PM on September 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

Laura Nyro

Annette Peacock definitely has the complexity and the perfectionism, but not that cold-sardonic feel. Her standout track is "I'm the One" -- you definitely want to be sitting comfortably with headphones for this one.
posted by hydrophonic at 4:29 PM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Late 80s/90s Edie Brickell, like the Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars album.
90s Tori Amos.
Fiona Apple.
posted by w0mbat at 4:41 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe Jane Siberry or Laurie Anderson? They are very different, but both very precise.
posted by baseballpajamas at 4:51 PM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Laura Nero merits a second mention.
posted by Dolley at 5:30 PM on September 16, 2019

Seconding Saint Vincent and Aimee Mann. Torres and Mitski remind me of Saint Vincent a bit.
posted by ferret branca at 5:45 PM on September 16, 2019

Aimee Mann was the first artist I thought of, but maybe also Janelle Monae?
posted by adamrice at 6:05 PM on September 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

Laura Marling, 100%.
posted by Miko at 6:24 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Going in the opposite direction towards spare, yet still complex, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Juana Molina. You've probably heard of the first two but perhaps Juana is a new name. She's very rhythmic and repetitive. Think of a mix of Bjork and Stereolab, but not really. Explore!
posted by ashbury at 6:33 PM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

posted by Jacen at 6:47 PM on September 16, 2019

Gaby Moreno
posted by j_curiouser at 7:01 PM on September 16, 2019

Hell yes, Juana Molina.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:24 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

School of Seven Bells
posted by capricorn at 8:38 PM on September 16, 2019

Try Rosie Vela's 1988 album Zazu, which featured Donald Fagen on keyboards and Walter Becker on guitar.
posted by misteraitch at 11:33 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend Gillian Welch if complex (and weird) harmonies interest you in the same way that complex arrangements do. In terms of chord structure, etc., her songs are not complicated, but the way she writes the harmony parts for herself and Dave Rawlings (who is a high tenor and has a ton of range overlapping with Welch) is something one can pore over for years.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 5:56 AM on September 17, 2019

The Bird and the Bee
posted by slogger at 6:18 AM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

The sardonic complexities of Steely Dan feel like particularly 'macho' traits to me. That's not to raise them above what might be determined as 'feminine' or whatever, but more to suggest that Steely Dan is the culmination of the 'boys club' bubble that a lot of rock-origin music had become by the 1970s/early 80s.

I don't think that those features, therefore, map particularly well onto female equivalents, not without ignoring much of the privilege and, yes, cocaine fuelled arrogance, that marks that kind of attention to detail. I mean, check out the HUGE list of session musicians Steely Dan worked with. They were 99% male. This is not indicative of anything except how closed off the musical world was (and probably still is in many respects) to talented women. The boys club played their games, and still do, to the exclusion of others. There were undoubtedly countless leagues of extremely amazing, talented female artist who never got the attention they were due in the 70s/80s exactly because of this.

I say all this as a HUGE fan of Steely Dan - really - but I also say it wondering whether that boys club bubble is the key to finding what you want i.e. female artists who pushed back against that, broke ground in spite of it, or created work that critiqued it by being utterly unique and unlikely to ever have been made by men. It's probably also worth mentioning the deep jazz influence of Steely Dan, as that might also lead the way to some answers.

Joni Mitchell (often cited as an influence on Steely Dan) and Kate Bush have been mentioned above. Nina Simone as a genius jazz musician and lyricist, especially in her more critical/political work. I would also add Laurie Anderson to the list of women who worked against, or in spite of, all the macho stuff I mention above, and retained their very own sardonic wit and musical complexity. More recently, maybe Nellie McKay would fit, though her music isn't really my style. Joanna Newsom is a genius and although not sardonic, can write humorous lyrics that compliment her incredibly rich musical tapestries.

I could reel off names of female artists whose work is complex, clever, witty, critical etc. (Bjork, Portishead, Goldfrapp, Camille, Beach House, Sia, Micachu and The Shapes...) but that particular sardonic and obsessive quality you are looking for, for me, comes from the boys club bubble, and is going to be pretty hard to find replicated outside that bubble. Going deep into the boy bubble, you'll find yourself at Frank Zappa very quickly, and from there the sardonic-jazz-rock energy really takes over.
posted by 0bvious at 6:36 AM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

I agree with all the mentions of Joni Mitchell, but you want a few specific albums. Hissing of Summer Lawns might be the place to start — it's the clearest match for the specific kind of obsessively tight jazz/pop hybrid that Steely Dan did. Hejira is looser and more sprawling but still jazz-flavored, and has amazing bass playing from Jaco Pastorius. Mingus is even more experimental but has easily the best band she ever played with, including Jaco Pastorius again and also Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

Earlier than those albums, she was making great experimental music, but it was still more folk than jazz. Later than them, stuff goes farther into pop and also gets more and more uneven, though the good stuff is still good.

(Re: 0bvious's theory, Joni Mitchell was very invested in being an honorary member of the boys' club, and also in being honorarily Black, in ways that were kind of fucked up but that probably did contribute to driving her towards this sort of intellectual, technical jazziness in the 70s.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:22 AM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

Maybe the self titled album from supergroup case / lang / veirs? Its more folksy and at turns doo- wopy than jazzy but the combo of the three has a lot of interplay between their individual sounds and its the interplay that makes me think maybe a steely dan fan would dig it.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:47 AM on September 17, 2019

Also, this is a little left field, but a lot of Lorde's lyrics have the same raised-eyebrow view of social hypocrisy that I associate with Steely Dan. Otherwise she probably won't do it for you, though: good production and songwriting, but not as complex or as hyperperfectionistic as you're probably looking for.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:10 AM on September 17, 2019

Joni's "Court and Spark" might be an even closer equivalent. Also check out Rickie Lee Jones' "Flying Cowboys," produced by Walter Becker and featuring many of the Dan's regular collaborators.
posted by Clustercuss at 8:58 AM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Bossa nova guitarist Rosinha De Valença plugged in in 1970 and cut a track with a riff that might sound a little familiar.

Joyce is another artist with a jazz/pop sound, this time coming from a bossa nova background. Visions of Dawn, with it's psych rock influences, would be a great one to start with.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:25 AM on September 17, 2019

Maria Schneider is a jazz composer/bandleader you should check out.
posted by tman99 at 10:18 AM on September 17, 2019

Maybe Helium or some of Mary Timony's solo work.
posted by lisa g at 2:41 PM on September 17, 2019

I don't think that there is anything else quite like Steely Dan, they have that unique combination of slick sardonic weirdness.

But I'd also add to recommendations for Laura Nyro, subtle complex songwriting, with some rather mercurial lyrics. Her live piano recordings are quite interesting.
posted by ovvl at 6:48 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

this might work or might not, but you definitely should check out early Throwing Muses and Kristin Hersh solo albums. All the precision you could ever ask for, and some seriously biting lyrics (esp. on the solo stuff.)

Plsu, if you've never experienced Throwing Muses before this thread, you should regardless. Truly original.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:44 PM on September 17, 2019

Warpaint: Disco//Very - Keep It Healthy, Love Is To Die
Sometimes, The Slits: Typical Girls
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 6:06 AM on September 18, 2019

Also: Aimee Mann
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 6:13 AM on September 18, 2019

Carla Bley, maybe Belle & Sebastian, maybe Thalia Zedek
posted by SystematicAbuse at 11:47 AM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding Rickie Lee Jones, who probably comes the closest to being a canonically correct answer. All the albums are good, so start with either of the first two (Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates).

Azita is a solo Drag City artist who often consciously echoes Steely Dan, Fagenisms and all. Try her album Life on the Fly for the most obvious example of this.

Also seconding Aimee Mann, at least in terms of vocal affect and use of irony. I think Lost in Space is her strongest album.

The Fiery Furnaces were a sister/brother duo, fronted by vocalist Eleanor Friedberger, if that's close enough. They don't sound too jazzy, but share a lot of the attitudinal stuff you mentioned. Check out the Allmusic review of Blueberry Boat for a lengthier description of the vibe.
posted by rollick at 6:24 AM on September 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Aldous Harding. Her 2019 album, Designer, is great!
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 2:01 PM on September 24, 2019

Carla Bley doesn't quite do the slick Dan soul grooves, but she does complex jazz arrangements, with odd & quirky lyrics for the parts that have vocals.
posted by ovvl at 6:25 PM on October 14, 2019

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