During her 20 years with No Doubt and throughout her ongoing solo career, Gwen Stefani (born October 3, 1969) has effortlessly bounded across every genre barrier, becoming one of the most successful women in rock and a pop icon. Along with No Doubt, she ignited the ska boom in America and outlasted its bust to reinvent herself with each new decade. While she’s racked up plenty of multi-platinum hits, Stefani has always gone with her musical gut, and made the pop world follow her lead. From collaborating with everyone from Prince to The Neptunes and Elvis Costello, Stefani brought her love of reggae, 80s pop,and new wave into the mainstream while grunge still reigned. More than just a force of personality, Stefani’s emotional honesty and ear for melody have been shaping modern pop music since her 90s debut. Here are the 20 best Gwen Stefani songs, from both her time in No Doubt and her solo career.
20: “Trapped In A Box”
No Doubt’s metaphorical take on TV addiction served as their debut single in 1992, revealing a band still figuring out what direction to head in. A sum of the group’s influences, Eric Stefani’s 2-Tone ska fused with Stefani’s animated vocals and Tom Dumont’s frantic soloing to make for a pretty wacky affair, but it was the perfect showpiece for their manic energy on stage.
19: “Early Winter”
Stefani continued her genre- (and producer-) hopping on The Sweet Escape, her 2006 follow-up to Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Amid the skeletal Neptunes beats (“Yummy”) and Akon-assisted doo-wop (“The Sweet Escape”), “Early Winter” sees Stefani return to the kind of confessional power-pop she excelled at. Co-written by Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley, the break-up ballad puts Gwen’s vocals to the test – and, in turn, she delivers one of the best songs of her solo career.
18: “One More Summer”
In the 11 years following No Doubt’s Rock Steady album, Stefani launched a fashion empire, started a family and spawned a solo career. When the group reunited for Push And Shove, it was as if no time had passed. They returned to their SoCal ska roots and their unabashed love of 80s pop on “One More Summer,” a wistful break-up anthem that sounds even better in the acoustic version featured on the deluxe album.
17: “I Throw My Toys Around”
By 1998, No Doubt was a soundtrack fixture, and thanks to the Rugrats movie, they got to work with one of their idols, Elvis Costello. Co-written by Costello and his former wife, Cait O’Riordan, “I Throw My Toys Around” juxtaposed Dumont’s scratchy riffs against Stefani’s breathy vocals over a nursery-rhyme melody. Costello also assists with vocals, making “I Throw My Toys Around” sound like an Attractions B-side.
Before vocal effects became standard fare in pop music, Stefani had been contorting her voice into various warbles, coos, and shouts ever since “Trapped In A Box.” On the ska-flavored “Bathwater,” she gets even more theatrical as she sings about literally bathing in relationship baggage.
15: “Rock Steady”
After all the armchair psychology of Return To Saturn, Rock Steady saw No Doubt return to the kind of reggae-ska sound they excelled at. Nowhere was this more apparent than the album’s title track, a chilled-out dub cut that neatly wraps up the record thematically, as Stefani takes stock of relationships – personal and with the band – that have weathered all the storms, remaining rock steady.
Even No Doubt’s party record, Rock Steady, had its share of earnest ballads, including the Yazoo-inspired “Running.” As on the album’s title track, Stefani sings about going the distance in relationships, instead of focusing on the first flush of love, showing how her songwriting had matured. The synth riff alone keeps you coming back.
13: “Hey Baby”
“Hey Baby” keeps the party going on Rock Steady with its propulsive dancehall beat and guest toast from Bounty Killer. As the only girl in No Doubt, Stefani sings about all the backstage antics that she witnesses on tour, creating her own call-and-response retort. Released as a single, it broke the Top 10, becoming the group’s biggest hit since “Don’t Speak” hit No.1 in 1996.
Like many of the best Gwen Stefani songs, “Ex-Girlfriend” evinces her stylistic range, as punk, hip-hop and rock collide into one. Like a scorned ex-lover, the song’s energy stops and starts before it explodes into roaring guitars and a massive, singalong chorus. The anime-inspired music video directed by Hype Williams also made it a fixture on MTV.
11: “What You Waiting For?”
Across No Doubt releases and her solo work, each album cycle saw Stefani take stock of her personal and professional life, and her solo debut was no different. Working with 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry, Stefani conquers writer’s block and gives herself a proverbial kick in the ass on this meta, dance-pop hit.
10: “Hollaback Girl”
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the cultural staying power of Stefani’s smash solo hit, “Hollaback Girl.” Doing her best Toni Basil, Gwen claps back at her detractors, with a chorus of hypewomen and a cheerleader chant that scaled the charts and made for one of the most recognizable Gwen Stefani songs of all time.
If this twitchy new wave track sounds at odds with the rest of Return To Saturn, that’s because it was originally recorded for the cult 1999 teen film about LA rave culture, Go. With ex-Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison producing, “New” showed off No Doubt’s musical chops thanks to a fierce rhythm section in bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young, and Gwen’s urgent vocals delivered over skittering synths.
8: “Underneath It All”
When she wasn’t busy pogoing around to No Doubt’s adrenalized ska, Stefani could deliver swoon-worthy melodic-pop hits like this Rock Steady cut. Co-written by Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, “Underneath it All” features genuine island flavor thanks to a feature from Lady Saw and production by reggae veterans Sly & Robbie.
As the opener to Tragic Kingdom, “Spiderwebs” set the stage for the kind of relationship drama that would dominate the album. Another Stefani and Kanal joint venture, it’s the catchiest song about phone-stalking or “a telephonic invasion” to date.
6: “It’s My Life”
No Doubt wear their new wave influence on their sleeve just as easily as they do with reggae and ska, and their unabashed love for groups like Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys was evident from the moment “Just A Girl” hit the airwaves. Their faithful cover of the 1984 Talk Talk single ‘It’s My Life” did the UK pop-auteurs justice and, if anything, introduced Mark Hollis’ classic to a hungry new audience.
5: “Just A Girl”
While Gwen Stefani was no riot grrrl, she managed to craft one of the best feminist rock anthems of all time. At first, she deploys a purposely cloying vocal to intonate her “girlish” helplessness before fully unleashing, making ‘Just A Girl” one of – if not the best – Gwen Stefani solo songs.
As the spiritual sequel to “Don’t Speak,” “Cool” proved that Stefani still excelled at the kind of reflective pop that made No Doubt stars, even after going solo. Even years after their romantic break-up, Kanal and Stefani’s musical chemistry had anything but cooled.
3: “Simple Kind Of Life”
The rock world wasn’t ready for a concept record about insecurity and biological-clock concerns in 2001, but Return To Saturn has aged remarkably well, and much of that is thanks to this track. Like many of the best Gwen Stefani songs, ‘Simple Kind Of Life” features sincere displays of vulnerability over pop-rock hooks. Not many pop songs delve into the specific female dilemma of maintaining your artistic independence with starting a family, and Gwen does it with aplomb.
2: “Sunday Morning”
As far as break-up albums go, Tragic Kingdom ranks among the best, gifting us tortured and bitter pop gems like this. As soon as Young’s thundering drum solo kicks in, the song picks up steam, with Gwen turning into a snarling frontwoman, delivering a powerhouse vocal performance.
1: “Don’t Speak”
How’s this for a silver lining? Your seven-year relationship comes to a dramatic end, but you pen one of the most enduring rock ballads of the 90s and launch your band to superstardom? ‘Don’t Speak” saw Gwen flex her lyrical skills and turn in her most impassioned vocal performance. Following the song’s spectacular success and Stefani’s rising profile, it doubled as a metaphor for the somewhat tense relationship between singer and band, expertly dissected in the music video.
Article originally published on uDiscoverMusic.com.