olk-punk firecracker Ani DiFranco is unquestionably the female equivalent to Guided by Voices' über-prolific Bob Pollard. Since forming her own label, Righteous Babe, in the early '90s, the Buffalo native has dropped no fewer than 14 studio albums and two live discs. Separating the essentials from the throwaways is a daunting task, so here's a handy guide to DiFranco's prodigious output.
Album: Ani DiFranco (1990); Not So Soft (1991)
Description: DiFranco's unorthodox, Muppet-with-a-conscience vocal contortions and lyrics address everything from abortion to the evils of corporations to the softness of a lover's body.
Sample Lyric: "Oh, no don't close your eyes/ I am writing/Graffiti on your body/I am drawing the story of/How hard we tried."
Typical Fan: Radical teenage feminists who shave their heads, stomp around in combat boots, and bemoan the stifling nature of their middle-class suburban existence.
Album: Imperfectly (1992)
Description: Most notable for its endless uncertainties: DiFranco's conflict between her perceived tough-girl persona and actual inner marshmallow ("I'm No Heroine"); why some women settle for jerks ("Fixing Her Hair"); and the pain of not fitting into a Susie Homemaker niche ("In or Out").
Sample Lyric: "I've got no criteria for sex or race/I just want to hear your voice/I just want to see your face."
Typical Fan: Bisexual-until-graduation hippie chicks who refuse to shave their armpits and refer to themselves as "womyn" or "hir" in drum circles and campfire sing-alongs.
Album: Puddle Dive (1993)
Description: A road-obsessed album that sounds as tossed-off as its stopgap, Livejournal-level "poetry."
Sample Lyric: "How come I can pick my ears/But not my nose/Who made up that rule anyway?"
Typical Fan: Disillusioned twentysomethings who disavow cubicle jobs in favor of following jam bands around and living off the earth's natural resources.
Album: Out of Range (1994)
Description: Occasional horn and accordion bursts break up the monotony of this uneven, little-considered disc.
Sample Lyrics: "You are a china shop/And I am a bull/You are really good food/And I am full."
Typical Fan: Those who purchased the album in 1994 and have it collecting dust on their record shelves next to discs by Arrested Development and Hootie & the Blowfish.
Album: Not a Pretty Girl (1995)
Description: Head-bobbing acoustic strums that allow DiFranco's best, most soul-searching words to rise to the fore.
Sample Lyric: "And God help you if you are an ugly girl/'Course too pretty is also your doom/'Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred/For the prettiest girl in the room."
Typical Fan: Ugly ducklings who need external reassurance that it's what's beneath their subpar mugs that really counts.
Album: Dilate (1996)
Description: A cathartic album detailing the recovery process from a breakup made all the more poignant by DiFranco's evocative, rocker-chick-styled guitar picking.
Sample Lyric: "I found religion in the greeting card aisle/Now I know Hallmark was right."
Typical Fan: Buttoned-up types who find DiFranco safe to listen to now that she's also writing about sleeping with men.
Album: Little Plastic Castle (1998)
Description: The last essential DiFranco disc, Castle throws urgent bits of orchestration over her sparest soul-baring moments.
Sample Lyric: "They say goldfish have no memory/I guess their lives are much like mine."
Typical Fan: Grunge ex-pats who caught the Lilith Fair bug.
Album: Up Up Up Up Up Up (1999)
Description: The bluesy dark sheep in her oeuvre. Here, she tones down past self-absorption in favor of intriguing character sketches and political diatribes.
Sample Lyric: "Up up up up up up/Points the spire of the steeple/But God's work isn't done by God/It's done by people."
Typical Fan: Newbie Ani obsessives who wore out their copies of Little Plastic Castle.
Album: To the Teeth (1999); Reveling: Reckoning (2001)
Description: Teeth is an ambitious album liberated by flutes, pedal steel, and saxophones. The genre-skipping, double-disc R:R, in contrast, feels like the overindulgent senior thesis of a brown-nosing music student.
Sample Lyric: "The sand is grey/And the ocean is grey/And I feel right at home/In this stunning monochrome."
Typical Fan: Starbucks-swilling professionals who want to embrace nonthreatening multiculturalism alongside their chai lattés and pressed khakis.
Album: Evolve (2003)
Description: Mellow and languid, Evolve delves into smooth jazz and funk-folk suitable for quiet winter nights at home in front of a roaring fire.
Sample Lyric: "'Cause when I look at you I squint/You are that beautiful/And my pussy is a tractor/And this is a tractor pull."
Typical Fan: Diehard granola lesbians who buy Ani records out of sheer habit and blind loyalty.
Album: Educated Guess (2004); Knuckle Down (2005)
Description: Basically higher fidelity versions of her earlier acoustic work. Guess earns demerits for pretentious spoken-word introductions.
Sample Lyric: "You're my seeing eye dog and I am blind/You take me there every time/With that winning combination of loyal and kind."
Typical Fan: Lapsed fans combing used-record stores for bargains, who happen to pick these discs up for old time's sake.
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