Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, multi-platinum album sales, multiple Grammy winner as both performer and producer, supergroup founding member, humanitarian activist, a number one book on the New York Times Bestseller list, even has a restaurant named after her. And only seven studio albums, including the supergroup. This, in summary, is the immense talent that is Brandi Carlile.
I was first introduced to the music after hearing ‘Cannonball’ from ‘The Story’ which featured the Indigo Girls, whom I already admired, which highlights both acts’ extraordinary harmony skills and sealed the deal to follow Carlile as long as she makes music. As with many, if not all, of the acts in this ‘Essentials’ series, selecting the ten best tracks (or albums) is a near impossible task… this list has changed several times as the selection was curated. These are ten great songs but needn’t necessarily be viewed in a ‘least-best-to-best’ order, and if you are somehow unaware of Carlile’s work, there are many more great songs in her canon.
Number 10: ‘The Story’ from ‘The Story’ (2007)
Starting from where it really all took off for Carlile, the title track from her second album, this one produced by T Bone Burnett, the song starts soft and slow before suddenly crashing into beefy guitars and a soaring vocal, with an absolutely perfect crack in her voice as she enters a verse. The song went on to be used in countless TV shows, commercials and documentaries, because it is simply a great song.
Number 9: ‘Hold Out Your Hand’ from ‘By The Way, I Forgive You’ (2018)
A soaring, sweeping number, this begins with an almost bluegrass rhythm before majestically entering the chorus, taking the listener ever onwards and upwards. There are further changes in pace before sailing to the end. It is easy to understand why Carlile has ended her live shows with this song.
Number 8: ‘Wherever Is Your Heart’ from ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’ (2015)
A song about family, close and extended, young and old, children and pets, the good and not so good, Carlile seems to channel an inner Johnny Cash on this and indeed other tracks on the album. Oh, and yet another superb vocal.
Number 7: ‘Raise Hell’ from ‘Bear Creek’ (2012)
Our heroine tells tale of writing this in a grump during a tough tour disrupted by massive storms that threatened to cancel several shows, this is a chomping, sawing guitars track, more surging vocals, and a desire to wreak revenge and indeed raise hell.
Number 6: ‘The Joke’ from ‘By The Way I Forgive You’ (2018)
Written as a socio-political comment following the 2016 US election, on release ‘The Joke’ was lauded by National Public Radio as “a country-rock aria dedicated to the delicate boys and striving girls born into this divisive time.” A vocal performance to match that of the ‘The Story’ over a truly anthemic track.
Number 5: ‘Highwomen’ from ‘The Highwomen’ (2019)
As a founding member of this supergroup – with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby – Highwomen was written in a response style to the song ‘The Highwayman’ (of other supergroup fame) with Shires and Jimmy Webb, who wrote the original . The song replaces the original lyric with one detailing the experiences of persecuted women and sets out a stall for perhaps a different view of the future for female country artists. Features guest vocal from another americana favourite, Yola. Superbly done.
Number 4: ‘Fulton County Jane Doe’ from ‘By The Way, I Forgive You, (2018)
Based on a true story about the discovery of the body of a young woman found in the title county beaten to death with “Jesus tattooed on your hand” and not much else. The story of someone who meant something to someone at some point, now just a Jane Doe. “Your mother called you something sweet once, darling/You’re more than Fulton County Jane.”
Number 3: ‘The Eye’ from ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’ (2015)
One of the most delightful examples of standout harmonies for which Carlile and the Hanseroth twins, Tim and Phil (her long time song writing and playing partners) are renowned are found on this track. It is exactly what it says – a quiet space as the eye of the storm of the rest of the album. Sublime.
Number 2: ‘That Wasn’t Me’ from ‘Bear Creek’ (2012)
Overcoming addiction and its impact on loved ones features as the subject matter of this gospel-tinged anthem, which stars Kris Kristofferson as the addict in the accompanying video. Clearly a personal issue for Carlile, which shines through in the lyric of the song.
Number 1: ‘Mainstream Kid’ from ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’ (2015)
Carlile at her rockiest, raging guitars, perfectly pitched shouty vocal of typically intelligent lyrics, relentless rock ’n’ roll, a welcome view of the other side of Carlile’s more restrained thoughtful style. What’s not to like?