With more than 20 recorded albums of original music and countless collaborations with legends such as Prince, Bruce Cockburn, and Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco’s catalog is expansive. Both DiFranco and her music can be described as punk, honest, powerful, unapologetic, and at times, even jarring. DiFranco launched her music career at the age of 14. Four years later, she started her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which has allowed her to answer to no one but herself.
Although she has enjoyed some commercial success with songs featured in major movies, DiFranco is an indie artist at heart. Constant college tours built her a following from the ground up, and even as her music eventually reached the masses through magazine exposure and coverage on MTV and VH1, she stayed true to herself and her fanbase by remaining on her own label, which became successful enough to sign other artists such as Andrew Bird.
DiFranco’s music also embodies her commitment to social activism. Her lyrics are raw, often blunt, and she uses both her art and her platform to support causes she believes in. Most important, DiFranco offers an unabashed honesty in her music, and her fans feel connected through her intimate revelations. With all these qualities in mind, here are the 11 best Ani DiFranco songs.
Nestled in the second half of DiFranco’s ninth studio album, Little Plastic Castle, “Swan Dive” is a slow and uneasy build up to a steady beat. The staccato introduction that repeats throughout the verses holds its own in contrast to the regularity of the chorus. DiFranco’s rhythmic push/pull, which mimics the lyrical dynamics, creates a palpable tension that leaves the listener cheering for the narrator, while also worrying for her safety. As DiFranco sings, “Gravity is nothing to me, I’m moving at the speed of sound, I’m just going to get my feet wet, until I drown,” one wonders if she needs permission to fly or someone to protect her from herself.
“Shameless” appears on DiFranco’s seventh and most critically acclaimed album, Dilate. When she wrote and recorded this song in 1996, bisexuality was hardly recognized, let alone discussed in pop music. Her lyrics as always are unapologetic, and the driving beat and almost-growling delivery of the words let the listener know that DiFranco is not interested in anyone’s opinions or criticism. As she sings about coveting another man’s wife, she delivers the lines, “Just please don’t name this / Please don’t explain this / Just blame it all on me / Say I was shameless.” Ever the outsider, DiFranco offers no apologies for herself and doesn’t feel she owns anyone. This song inspired many of her contemporaries and successors to follow suit.
While DiFranco has a strong and gritty voice, she also has a softer, melodic side that shines on this track from Little Plastic Castle. The accompaniment is stripped down to acoustic guitar with light percussion and brush drums, underscoring a simple message of acceptance. Lest anyone think this song is proof that DiFranco has lost her edge, as she sweetly sings about catching her beloved in a lie, she dips back into a direct and cutting lyric: “Just give up and admit you’re an asshole / You would be in some good company.” Her almost breathy delivery shows a more vulnerable side of her voice that reminds the listener that DIFranco is still as human as ever.
In 2001, DiFranco released the double album Revelling/Reckoning. “Garden of Simple” the third track, opens with a syncopated guitar melody, played with one of DiFranco’s alternate tunings, that allows her to provide a bass line without featuring any other instruments. The double album is mostly acoustic and full of socially conscious narratives, including this retelling of a dream. All of the lyrics are written lower case, much like an E. E. Cummings poem, and while DiFranco’s signature voice conveys deeply personal lyrics, the double album looks beyond interpersonal relationships and offer her fears for the planet and society. She sings, “Science chases money and money chases its tail / And the best minds of my generation can’t make bail.” Revelling/Reckoning was released in April, just five months before September 11, and one can’t help but marvel at how prescient they really were.
This sweet American anthem opens with a melodic banjo tune that carries throughout the entire song. Sandwiched between the psychedelic “Angel Food” and the torch song “Everest” on DiFranco’s 1999 album, Up Up Up Up Up Up, “Angry Anymore” provides an uptempo inspiration to understand the motivations of those who raised us and to help us let go of our youthful baggage. DiFranco appears to side with her father in these lyrics, which would give any mother pause to hear: “But now I’ve seen both my parents / Play out the hands they were dealt / And as each year goes by / I know more about how my father must have felt.”
Many came to know DiFranco’s music through Alana Davis’ cover of this song in 1997. But while it gave DiFranco more mainstream success than her previous work, the constraints of pop radio forced Davis to jettison some of DiFranco’s more poignant verses. Conversely, Davis added her own chorus when she recorded the song, and isn’t typically credited with the changes. Without the original recording, one misses these goose bump-inducing lines: “And god help you if you are a phoenix / And you dare to rise up from the ash / A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy / While you are just flying past.”
First recorded for Little Plastic Castle , subsequently recorded live on Living In Clip , and eventually included on the retrospective 2007 album, Canon, “Gravel” is the quintessential DiFranco song—uneasy, aggressive, and punctuated, while still anthemic. Once again, the listener is torn between cheering her on or warning her against doing something foolish as she sings, “You were never a good lay / And you were never a good friend / But oh, what can I say / I adore you.” In youth one may lean toward cheering, but older listeners beg her to send the motorcyclist on his merry way.
The title track from DiFranco’s seventh studio album utilizes one of her alternate tunings, allowing her to slap bass notes while maintaining arpeggiated guitar chords. In spite of being the title track of her 1996 LP, DiFranco uses the word “dilate” exactly one time in the lyrics. While dilate typically means to make larger, the less-frequently used definition refers to speaking at length, which is precisely what DiFranco does here. She packs an impressive number of words into four and a half minutes, while detailing why being alone is preferable to being with someone who constantly disappoints you. “I see you and I’m so unsatisfied. I see you and I dilate.”
The opening track to Dilate must be quite a shock for a first-time listener. As the melodic and bittersweet lyrics begin, DiFranco details unrequited love, “Think I’m going for a walk now / I feel a little unsteady / I don’t want no one to follow me /Except maybe you,” no one could possibly anticipate the similarly phrased yet jarring interjection of the chorus: “So fuck you, and your untouchable face / Fuck you, for existing in the first place.” After the initial surprise wears off, however, the listener is aware that this is classic DiFranco. It’s startling to untested ears, but perfectly consistent with the folk singer’s message.
From DiFranco’s sixth studio album, Not a Pretty Girl, which continued her pattern of using only guitar and percussion, “Shy” is an unnerving track that stokes anxiety as it increases in intensity. DiFranco’s guitar skills are evident, particularly in the chorus, and she is known to break strings while playing this song. The lyrics detail morning-after regret, transporting the listener to a dingy hotel room. She sings, “The sheets are twisted and damp / Well the heat is so great,” and you could easily break a sweat just by listening.
Being the first song from the first recorded album—listed as having A and B-sides because it was initially released on cassette tape—this was DiFranco’s introduction to the world, and it could not be more ideal. On the original recording, a single guitar drives the accompaniment throughout, and DiFranco’s delicate voice delivers the vulnerable yet determined message: “And both hands, now use both hands / oh no don’t close your eyes.” Later on, when DiFranco recorded Living In Clip, her breakthrough live double album, “Both Hands” was accompanied by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, lending the song a worthy fullness as it swelled toward the climax. In both versions, however, the authentic simplicity of DiFranco’s voice shines.