In the hierarchy of internet content, the 20th-anniversary commemoration ranks somewhere between the deep-thinking oral history (see GQ's treatment of Goodfellas and Freaks and Geeks) and a Buzzfeed slide show of "23 Reasons Why [X] Rules!" Sure, such anniversary-based commemorations land with a certain expedience—and a good risk of superficial nostalgia trumping inspired reflection—but done properly, they can cover the sort of territory typically traversed only by obituarists, with none of the depressing death baggage. (Sometimes I feel guilty about how not-sad I will feel about the passing of my beloved Bob Dylan—because what else is going to make America's best writers sit down and summarize their deepest feelings about Bob Dylan?)

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Ultimately, the value of such commemorations comes down to one's level of interest in the work being celebrated, and for me, 2013 has brought the 20th anniversaries of three endlessly commemorable works, each made by a female artist determined to say something new and profound about the oldest story in the book: the life-bestowing, life-enhancing, and occasionally life-ruining entanglements of dicks and pussies.

CUNT IN SPRING

What's left to say about Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair's stunningly masterful debut that gave voice to the millions of women for whom dating meant accepting instructive mixtapes and casual disdain from sexy jerks, while simultaneously rubbing those same jerks' faces in its own musical and lyrical brilliance? Not much, especially after 2008's well- publicized 15th-anniversary reissue (complete with making-of DVD). Nevertheless, the 3,821-word oral history published by Spin pins down some rich specifics about the creation of Phair's out-of-the-blue masterpiece. (Reversing the process used on most recordings, Guyville was created with Phair laying down her rudimentary, highly idiosyncratic guitar and vocal tracks first, with producer Brad Wood fleshing things out with drums and bass and everything else afterward.) And despite her novice status, Phair was defiantly opinionated, firing her first would-be producer because, as she told Spin's Jessica Hopper, "He really felt strongly that he knew more about tasteful music than I did."

Despite her creative defiance, Phair speaks plainly about the pleasure she took in watching her music land on the type of guy whose attentions she'd been chasing for years. Recounting a night in Chicago during the making of Guyville, Phair tells Spin:

I remember some guy had come back to my apartment after the bars closed, and we were going to get high or something, and this happened a lot... They'd be like, "Blah blah my music, I'm going to do this, blah blah." And then I would be like, "Oh, I'm recording a record, too," and they'd be like, "Really?" I'd put it on, and they'd be, like, "Oh my god, you really are recording a record." And that was always a proud moment, because I could blow them away because it was a totally good record.

It's a telling anecdote, because beyond all of Guyville's attention-grabbing sexual bluntness—"I want to fuck you like a dog," "I'm a real cunt in spring," the topless cover shot—the sexiest thing about the record is the artistic accomplishment: the gorgeously complex chord-chime that kicks off "Strange Loop," the long stretch of droney strumming that leads into "Shatter," the talent of a person who can fit her most private thoughts into melodic song structures that feel canonical. That each of Guyville's 18 song-stories could double as plot points for HBO's Girls—"girl gets good head from weird guy," "girl gets hit on by has-been TV actor," "girl gets erotically taunted by male roommates"—is a testament to the record's stature as the holy grail of plainspoken female fuckery.

LICK MY INJURIES

Like Liz Phair, Polly Jean Harvey came to music from a fine-art background. Like Phair, Harvey has no qualms about sexual directness and laying herself bare. (Like Exile in Guyville, Harvey's 1993 release Rid of Me features the artist topless.) But where Phair takes aim at a very specific world of guys (early- '90s Wicker Park alterna-players), Harvey goes after big, mythic game: not men, but Man, and Woman, and sometimes God.

It's hard to convey just how shocking PJ Harvey's Rid of Me was on its arrival, but Spin's David Peisner—in another 20th- anniversary-commemorating oral history—gets at the heart of the matter: "A howling smashup of blues, punk, and Beefheartian avant-garde stomp, Rid of Me felt like an expression of pure, unadulterated id—albeit an id with defiant post-feminist ideals and a sneaky sense of humor." As Harvey tells Peisner, "[In 1993,] I very much wanted to write songs that shocked. When I was at art college, all I wanted to do was shock with my artwork. When I wrote 'Rid of Me,' I shocked myself. I thought, 'Well, if I'm shocked, other people might be shocked.'"

Other people were. Between the aggressively perverse sound mix (soft very soft, LOUD VERY LOUD, all but demanding multiple mid-song volume interventions) and the unhinged shrieking that closes the track, "Rid of Me" cemented Harvey's stature as an artist driven by impulses beyond the experience of the majority of contemporary musicians. On Rid of Me, the title track was just the beginning. What followed was an astounding collection of songs, almost all composed of the same limited ingredients (guitar, bass, drums, vocals, recorded live in the studio by Steve Albini). At first, many of these songs sound suspiciously alike, building from a scratch of percussive guitar into raw explosions of noise, with a good number of them channeling intense agony, communicated through the triumvirate of Harvey's guitar, voice, and fearless performance-art tendencies. On paper, it sounds repellent. In truth, it's Harvey's masterwork, and one of the greatest rock records ever made.

The first half of Rid of Me pummels the listener with a series of lurching mid-tempo compositions, weirded up with complex time signatures and Harvey's seemingly endless willingness to Go There, lyrically, vocally, emotionally. (Legs are severed, scabs are scratched off, and in "Rub 'Til It Bleeds," Harvey's wildest banshee howl resolves itself in a suddenly soft, effortlessly controlled "I was joking.") As the tracks line up, the structural similarities reveal themselves, as does the purpose of this similarity. After the fifth track that leads back to the same insistent, obsessive scritch-scritch-scritch that builds to a lose-your-shit explosion, you get it: This is how it goes.

As with many of the best of the best albums, Rid of Me comes with a dazzling second-half sprint, with the abruptly triple-speed "50ft Queenie" storming into a run of songs that find Harvey assuming a variety of mythical positions, from Tarzan's mate ("Me-Jane") to the Garden of Eden's Eve ("Snake") to that lady who rolls her eyes when you stick your dick in ("Dry"). Individually, the songs kill. Cumulatively, they're overwhelming, until Harvey slows things down with the (still brutal) finale, "Ecstasy." And lest you think all of Rid of Me's sex happens on a symbolic plane, just listen to the music. No one's ever interacted with a guitar like PJ Harvey.

FEEL SO GOOD, I'M GONNA CRY

Like Rid of Me and Exile in Guyville, Janet Jackson's 1993 release janet. is obsessed with sex and features a cover photograph of the artist topless. The similarities end there. Because while Liz Phair was chasing cool jerks and PJ Harvey was conceptually pegging Casanova, Janet Jackson was busy fucking—in bed, in her head, in the car, "Any Time, Any Place."

At the time of its release, janet. was presented as an international pop superstar's declaration of independence—thematic territory Jackson had covered reasonably well with her two previous releases. This time, Jackson made it deeply personal, crafting an album drunk on a highly specific sexuality. This wasn't Liz Phair's postmodern discussion with the male sexuality presented in the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. or PJ Harvey's mythic horror orgy—this was one woman writing about what it feels like to have the man you love slide his dick in you exactly the way you like it. And to anyone tempted to consider janet.'s achievement purely physical, I present the lyrically ingenious "That's the Way Love Goes," wherein Jackson repurposes a "que sera, sera" lament into a play-by-play of being wonderfully, wonderfully fucked.

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In 1993, Jackson's lived-in sexuality was a revelation. It was also a knockout answer to the question that plagued every pop superstar in the late 20th century: How does one distinguish oneself in a world that contains Michael Jackson? Janet Jackson's awesome answer: have a richly satisfying sex life. BURN.

What the two decades since its release have made clear is that no one has ever captured actual sexuality as well as Jackson does on janet. Madonna's lust is mythic; she wants to fuck the whole world (or at least wants the whole world to want to fuck her). Same with Prince, who's undoubtedly good at everything that can be done in a bed but has that weird God shit running perpetually underneath. On janet., Jackson's celebrating actual sex she's actually having, and she makes something sleek and gorgeous and resolutely sane out of it. In 1993, I couldn't be bothered with a concept as obvious as "Sex feels good." (I was 25, and to my mind, "good sex" was what happened whenever you got someone to have sex with you.) In 2013, when I understand more about all the would-be hindrances to the execution of good sex, janet. sounds like a triumph. recommended

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