Riot Fest may not conjure up the sound of acoustic guitars and jazz-inspired instrumentals for most, but real ones know the true spirit of Riot season is rebellion. Ani DiFranco’s steadfast desire to create a sound that honors her voice over the mainstream has made her a rebel who refuses to sell out. Maybe you believe the singer-songwriter from Buffalo, NY has more in common with Lilith Fest than Riot Fest, but fun fact: Ani DiFranco never played Lilith Fest. She was too fucking hardcore for it! While she could’ve gone the mainstream path and been the next Jewel or Liz Phair, DiFranco threw her desirability in the faces of those who wished to profit from it. When record companies offered millions in exchange for a more palatable look and sound, DiFranco told them she’d be the million that they never made and started her own label.
She’s since incubated a generation of musicians and creatives who see the value in doing it yourself for yourself. Should Ani DiFranco be up there with Fiona Apple when it comes to sad girl music faves? Yes. We wouldn’t have Billie Eilish or Olivia Rodrigo without her! But does she get credit for this? No! DiFranco is happy to be an underground, DIY hero, but that’s why I’m here to sing her praises so people beyond bisexuals may know the joy of her music. Lyrically and vocally, DiFranco is unlike anything you’ve heard. She’ll swing from yelling about ripping her tampon out to breaking down the military industrial complex. Musically, she’s so skilled with a guitar, it’s merely misogyny and her inability to brag that keep DiFranco from being discussed among the greats.
Her performance at this year’s Riot Fest will undoubtedly be an incredible showcase for those of us who have been in the know. I was lucky enough to find my first Ani DiFranco album in sixth grade. She turned me into a rebellious preteen full of righteous babe rage. I stopped shopping at the mall, now I was someone who spray painted handmade stencils on thrift store clothes. I bought an acoustic guitar and refused to use a guitar pick because she didn’t use one. DiFranco is the rare artist that inspires a small, cult-like following. I’ve seen her live at least a dozen times (no two Ani DiFranco concerts are ever really the same). For decades, fans have swapped bootlegs of her tours to capture her always evolving sound in real time.
If you have the opportunity to see Ani DiFranco in person, you should take it. Riot Fest attendees have the chance this Friday and you should absolutely make sure she’s on your schedule. And after? You’ll want more. I trust in her ability to change minds so much, I once made a Republican history teacher listen to a 9-minute spoken word poem she recorded because I swore it would convince him Bush was evil (“Serpentine”…it didn’t.)
So, this is a guide to the top ten Ani DiFranco songs to listen to after she changes your life at Riot Fest.
“Overlap” from Out of Range
The original “Overlap” is an emotional gut punch on its own. On Living in Clip, one of DiFranco’s official live albums, the song feels like the equivalent of watching your 7th grade crush hold hands with someone else. Also, the version from the official 9.22.07 Chicago bootleg features Melissa Ferrick. And me, I was at that show. I got a last minute orchestra seat ticket and made my boyfriend sit with my mom so I could be front row. Worth it.
“Untouchable Face” from Dilate
If Olivia Rodrigo’s album GUTS had a great-great estranged queer aunt, it would be “Untouchable Face.” This is a deep cut angry girl anthem that makes it clear DiFranco was never worried about being radio-appropriate.
“Not A Pretty Girl” from Not A Pretty Girl
This is one of DiFranco’s bigger hits, or at least one people have heard of. It’s a moment where DiFranco puts it all on the line: her spoken word-style singing, plucky guitar sound and occasional growl and she wants you to know she doesn’t care if you like it. Also, I didn’t wear make-up for 4 years because of this song.
“Slide” from Evolve
If you want to be the DIY queen of singer-songwriters, you can’t be afraid to get weird. DiFranco’s career has spanned decades and she’s tried out a variety of sounds and genres during that time. Evolve is a more jazz and improv-inspired album that brought DiFranco into the 21st century. Also she sings “And my pussy is a tractor and this is a tractor pull.” What does that even mean? I don’t know, but I think about it every day.
“Marrow” from Revelling/Reckoning
Tryna feel forlorn? Wanna do some intense pondering and gazing, maybe? Angry at something or someone? Ani DiFranco has the song for you! There’s a tone she manages to hit where she sounds like your older sister questioning every choice you’ve ever made while also giving you the very obvious right answer.
“Everest” from Up Up Up Up Up Up
I swear Ani DiFranco isn’t always angry. I mean, she has an entire song called “Joyful Girl” about how she’s just that! But “Everest” shows the optimism at the core of DiFranco’s music. If she’s angry it’s only because she imagines how much better everything could be if we’d all just get over ourselves.
“I Know This Bar” from To The Teeth
Honestly, this is my favorite Ani song, but it’s been awhile since she played it regularly live. There’s a light sweetness to “I Know This Bar” that’s reminiscent of “Joyful Girl.” Her vocals barely hit above a whisper, she knows this bar and she only wants you to know about it. The song feels like a knowing glance between two people who know they really get each other. If she plays it, you’ll find me dead in the crowd.
“Anyday” from Puddle Dive
I performed this song as a spoken word poem at a middle school talent show. Why did I do that? Because you’ll have a great time getting to know Ani DiFranco even if you’re just reading her lyrics. Every song is a poem, “Anyday” feels like it just happens to be set to music. If it was the early-2000’s, you’d have so many AIM away messages from this track alone.
“In the Margins” from Reprieve
This song has over 4 million plays on Spotify, which is a lot for an Ani DiFranco song. Maybe it was in a TV show or a Tiktok challenge made it popular, that would make sense because it’s a career highlight. Reprieve sounds like the end result of earlier experimental albums Evolve and Educated Guess, leaving DiFranco with a new, mature perspective that would grow into her later 2014 hit “Woe Be Gone.”
“Fire Door” from Ani Difranco
You want vocals? You want a guitarist? Here you go then! From her first album, Ani DiFranco’s talent was on display. She started her own record label at 19! She’s been in this business for 30+ years and we still don’t know what sound or setlist she plans on bringing to Riot Fest. To listen to her is to wonder how she’s managed to have such a dynamic sound without losing herself. Whether it’s 2021’s Revolutionary Love or her 1990 self-titled debut, there’s a passion and artistry that connects her discography even at its most experimental moments.
Riot Fest 2023 Tickets + Lineup
Don’t miss Oso Oso at Riot Fest 2023 on Friday, September 15th, playing alongside Turnstile, Tegan and Sara, Say Anything, Foo Fighters and more.
Haven’t bought your ticket yet?
No worries, here are some buttons to do just that.