Our top 10 Joe Henry songs list presents the music of an American Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter best-known for his rich vocals and insightful lyrical content. Joe Henry’s music is an assortment of folk and alternative country sounds. In some of his recordings, the singer has also embraced rock, soul, and jazz sonic influences.
Other than his singer-songwriter career, Joe Henry has established himself as a reputable producer working with multiple artists. Some include Solomon Burke, Meshell Ndegeocello, John Doe, Teddy Thompson, Ani DiFranco, Susan Tedeschi, Elvis Costello, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, and Joan Baez. His production work has been termed exemplary for his ability to illuminate each artist’s unique set of skills.
Joe Henry’s inspirational songwriting skills have seen him work with reputable artists, including Madonna, Madeleine Peyroux, Rosanne Cash, and Chely Wright. His songs mostly feature intuitive lyrical content alluding to the lives of his archetypal characters. This has seen critics compare him to the legendary Tom Waits, who is regarded as one of the finest singer-songwriters to have come after Bob Dylan.
Over his career, Joe Henry has released over fifteen solo studio albums and one collaborative album with folk singer Billy Bragg. The singer faced a scare for his life in 2018 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Apparently, he was notified that he only had several months to live. However, his body responded well to treatment, and in the following year, Joe Henry released his most recent LP, The Gospel According to Water.
Joe Henry’s Career Beginnings and Breakthrough
Joe Henry left his home in Charlotte to pursue a new life in Brooklyn, New York, in 1985. Immediately after landing in Brooklyn, he started performing music in different local venues. The following year, Joe Henry started his professional career, which was marked by the release of his debut album, Talk of Heaven. While Talk of Heaven failed to make him an overnight success, it helped him sign to A&M Records.
Under A&M Records, the folk/alternative country singer released his sophomore studio album Murder of Crow in 1989. Murder of Crow failed to catapult the singer to mainstream success. Under the production of former Bob Dylan’s band guitarist T Bone Burnett, Joe Henry released his first alternative country album Shuffletown. However, Shuffletown marked his last release through A&M Records.
The singer signed a recording deal with Mammoth Records, once home to Antenna, Blake Babies, Chainsaw Kittens, The Sidewinders, Dillon Fence, and Juliana Hatfield. Joe Henry’s first release under Mammoth Records was his 1992 album, Short Man’s Room. By the time he was releasing his fifth LP, Kindness of the World, in 1993, Joe Henry had already become quite popular with quite a fair share of following in the alternative country scene.
His sixth studio album, Trampoline, was later issued through Mammoth Records in 1996. Trampoline featured Helmet’s guitarist Page Hamilton. Some of the best Joe Henry songs from the album include “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash,” “Trampoline,” and a cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s hit “Let Me Have It All.” Trampoline was one of his most acclaimed works of the ’90s.
Joe Henry’s Album Releases over the Years
Later in 1999, Joe Henry issued his seventh studio album, Fuse. Fuse was also issued through Mammoth Records, with production work shared between the singer and T Bone Burnett. All the songs from Fuse were penned by Joe Henry except the hit “We’ll Meet Again,” a 1939 song by Vera Lynn. Joe Henry would later issue his last album under Mammoth Records, Scar.
Scar was an album dedicated to comedian Richard Pryor. The singer collaborated with Craig Street in producing the album. Craig Street is also known for his magnificent work with other artists, including Cassandra Wilson, k. d. lang, Chris Whitley, Jimmy Scott, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Shelby Starner. “Stop” and “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” are some of the best Joe Henry songs from Scar.
After a successful time with Mammoth Records, Joe Henry teamed up with ANTI- Records, once home to Billy Bragg, Solomon Burke, Buju Banton, The Frames, Bettye LaVette, The Dream Syndicate, and Tom Waits. His first release through ANTI- was Tiny Voices. Tiny Voices saw Joe Henry take on folk-rock, jazz, and experimental sonic influences.
Joe Henry returned in 2007 with his tenth LP, Civilians. Civilians saw Joe Henry take on folk-rock sonic vibes, with Joe Henry taking on the production roles singlehandedly. The album featured Van Dyke Parks, Loudon Wainwright III, Greg Leisz, and Bill Frisell. Some of the best Joe Henry songs from the album include “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” “God Only Knows,” “Civilians,” and “Our Song.”
Blood from Stars marked Joe Henry’s eleventh album release and his third issued through ANTI-. The album was released in 2009. The album featured musical gems such as “The Man I Keep Hid,” “Stars,” and “All Blues Hail Mary,” a song that was covered by Tom Jones in 2012. Blood from Stars blended folk-rock, blues, and experimental sounds. In 2011, Joe Henry released his last album through ANTI-, Reverie, marking his twelfth album release. The album featured some of the best Joe Henry songs, including “Odetta” and “After the War.”
Joe Henry’s next album was Invisible Hour, which featured musical gems such as “Lead Me On,” “Invisible Hour,” and “Sign.” The album was issued through earMusic, with his next two LPs, Thrum and The Gospel According to Water, issued through the label. The Gospel According to Water peaked at number eleven on the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart. It also made it to the UK Americana Albums chart, peaking at number seventeen.
Joe Henry’s Other Musical Pursuits
In 2016, Joe Henry collaborated with British folk singer Billy Bragg in releasing the LP, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. All the songs from the album were cover songs of traditional folk songs. Joe Henry has also worked as a songwriter/producer with other artists, including Ani DiFranco, Madonna, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Kristen Hersh, Solomon Burke, Susan Tedeschi, Aaron Neville, Meshell Ndegeocello, Natalie Duncan, Bonnie Raitt, and Rosanne Cash.
Joe Henry’s Accolades and Legacy
The folk/alternative country singer has established himself as one of the most iconic songwriters and producers. His songwriting skills have seen his music career lauded by critics and folk/alternative country music lovers. On the other hand, Joe Henry’s production skills have seen him win three Grammy Awards.
His first Grammy Award came after Solomon Burke’s LP, Don’t Give Up on Me, won the Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 2010 Joe Henry won his second Grammy Award as a producer, thanks to his contribution to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s album, A Stranger Here. Joe Henry won his last Grammy Award after Carolina Chocolate Drops’ LP, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Best Traditional Folk Album in 2011.
#10 – Time Is a Lion
Ushering us to the top 10 Joe Henry songs list is the psychedelic hit “Time Is a Lion.” The song is featured on the singer’s roots-driven album, Civilians. “Time Is a Lion” has its lyrics serve as a warning that time flies fast, making life on earth quite short. Without a doubt, the facts spell out by the singer about life in the song might feel a little disturbing.
However, Joe comforts his significant other by saying that he will be there to protect her. “Time Is a Lion” is a lyrical gem that showcases how the singer was influenced by folk tradition/Americana musical backgrounds. The song’s bass and drums evoke the jazz vibes from the early 1930s. “Time Is a Lion” has its accompanying music video arouse nostalgia.
#9 – Odetta
“Odetta” is our ninth pick for the ten best Joe Henry songs. The song is among the musical gems from the singer’s 2011 album, Reverie, issued through ANTI-. “Odetta” is a piano-driven driven hit delivered in soul and country sonic vibes. Its lyrics allude to the discovery of love and the loss of a soul. Joe Henry proves to be a guitarist worth mentioning, thanks to his humbling guitar riffs. The beauty of “Odetta” is evidenced by the song’s great composition and heart-rending delivery.
#8 – Trampoline
Our number eight spot of the ten best Joe Henry songs is the rhythmic hit “Trampoline.” The song serves as the album title track to the singer’s sixth LP. Tagging producer Pat McCarthy on this project was a great win for Joe Henry, as evidenced by musical gems like “Trampoline.”
Joe Henry revealed that producer Pat McCarthy impacted his songwriting and production approach. Pat is best known for his work with U2, Counting Crows, R.E.M., and The Waterboys. “Trampoline” retains Joe Henry’s Americana inspiration while exhibiting his classical songwriting.
#7 – Stop
“Stop” is a musical gem from Joe Henry’s eighth studio album, Scar. The singer is credited to have penned the lyrics to this alternative country ballad. “Stop” features a thrilling tune that complements the singer’s soprano sound. You probably have heard the lyrics of this song in Madonna’s hit “Don’t Tell Me.”
Joe Henry’s wife Melanie shared the lyrics of “Stop” with her sister Madonna, who in return used the lyrics for her song “Don’t Tell Me.” While Joe Henry’s version of the song might not have garnered much attention, Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. Lizz Wright and Bettye LaVette covered Joe’s version of “Stop” in 2005 and 2015, respectively.
#6 – Our Song
Number sis on our top 10 Joe Henry songs is the slow-paced hit “Our Song.” The song was issued on Joe Henry’s album, Civilians. “Our Song” is yet another powerful lyrical masterpiece penned by the singer. Joe Henry reveals that the song started with just a line that would later metamorphose into a series of events/reflections. The song’s lyrics allude to some social and political contexts. “Our Song” goes down as one of the singer’s releases that effectively sync his vocal prowess with perfect lyrical content.
#5 – Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation
Scar is home to our fifth pick on our ten best Joe Henry songs list, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” As earlier mentioned, Scar was dedicated to comedian Richard Pryor. “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” pays homage to the African-American stand-up comedian who passed on in 2005, four years after the album was issued.
The song is penned in the context of the comedian addressing his statesmen, who seemingly mourn his departure from the limelight. Of course, Richard Pryor’s health had been known to be deteriorating since the ‘90s. This lyrical gem finds Joe Henry teaming up with Ornette Coleman, who takes on the saxophone. Ornette Coleman is best known for his impactful free jazz and jazz fusion career.
#4- Hobo’s Lullaby ft. Billy Bragg
“Hobo’s Lullaby” is a musical gem born of an unforgettable collaboration between two singers from different continents brought together by their love for folk music. The song is featured on Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. “Hobo’s Lullaby” was first released by the late American folk singer Goebel Reeves.
This was his most famous release, having it cited as one of the most alluring train songs of all time. Before the song was forgotten by folk music lovers, Woody Guthrie released its cover. Joe Henry adds to the list of singers who have covered the song. Other artists who have released a rendition of the song include Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, and Bruce Springsteen.
#3- Lead Me On
After quite a successful time issuing music through ANTI-, Joe Henry signed a contract with earMusic Records. Under the independent label earMusic Records, the singer issued the album, Invisible Hour. The album is home to one of the best Joe Henry songs, “Lead Me On.” “Lead Me On” is an original composition by Joe Henry. Its lyrics allude to a love story told from the singer’s heart.
The singer talks to himself about something bigger than words, a song, or any description; that’s love. “Lead Me On” is among the deeply enigmatic hits having it not delivered in a linear narrative as some of his mainstream work. The true value of the song comes with unraveling the puzzles from the deeply poetic lyrics as penned by Joe Henry.
#2- Gentle on My Mind ft. Billy Bragg
“Gentle on My Mind” is yet another collaborative hit by Joe Henry and Billy Bragg. The song is among the songs featured on Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s collaborative album, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. Initially, the son was issued by John Hartford in 1967. John Hartford featured the song on his LP, Earthwords & Music. The singer’s inspiration for penning and releasing the song came after he watched the romance movie Doctor Zhivago.
Its lyrics allude to the singer’s memories of a lost love of a guy after he takes on a journey through the country. Joe Henry and Billy Bragg are among the many artists who have covered this country ballad. Other artists who have covered the song include Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Dean Martin.
#1- God Only Knows
Number one on our top 10 Joe Henry songs is the dazzling hit “God Only Knows.” The song is featured on the singer’s album, Civilians. Joe Henry’s glory on the mic is best explained using masterpieces such as “God Only Knows.” After all, the song is one of his most touching releases ever penned.
The musical delivery of this five-minute ballad makes all the difference. From the piano riffs to Joe Henry’s emotive yet shimmering vocals, there is much to take praise about “God Only Knows.” While Joe Henry might not have been overly successful in the mainstream, he remains a true musical icon of the folk/alternative country music genres.
Feature Photo: Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons