Ask the average music fan anywhere in the world to name the biggest and best musical artists coming out of Seattle in 2018, and the answer is still likely to be Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, or some other boom-years band, active or not. This has now been true for more than 25 years, much to the frustration of many worthy Northwest artists.
People who pay slightly closer attention know that plenty of fine music has been made around here during the past quarter century, and, if pressed, would have no trouble remembering some of the more conspicuous national profiles of anyone from Modest Mouse to Macklemore, from the Presidents to the Postal Service.
The tenacity of early 1990s icons is a more accurate reflection of the cultural shift away from music as a mass-audience phenomenon than of the city's musical identity. But it remains an interesting side note when you consider Brandi Carlile, the folk/country/pop artist from Ravensdale, Washington, who just released her seventh album in 13 years, the stately and assured By the Way, I Forgive You.
Carlile's career has been a steady progression of professional accolades, noteworthy collaborations, and artistic advancement—all of it off the traditional path of what one expects from Seattle artists. She has worked with legendary producers T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, and welcomed guest-star vocalists Elton John and the Indigo Girls on her albums.
She has had songs in major commercials and Hollywood films, and heard them sung by contestants on American Idol and The Voice.
Less than a year ago, the New York Times called Carlile "a critically acclaimed but relatively unknown singer-songwriter" shortly before she released Cover Stories, on which every song from her 2007 LP The Story was performed by such up-and-coming artists as Adele, Pearl Jam, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, and Jim James from My Morning Jacket.
Barack Obama, who declared his fandom for Carlile in 2015 when he added her song "Wherever Is Your Heart" to the first of his presidential Spotify playlists, wrote liner notes for the Cover Stories release (which was a benefit for the War Child UK charity), lauding her songs as "stories that encourage us to see ourselves in one another."
More notable is the fact that Carlile has managed to do all this during the sharp decline of both the music business and civil society. She has also become a low-key LGBTQ icon, established a thriving charitable foundation, and raised a family while turning out more sharply focused music with each batch of songs she releases.
By the Way, I Forgive You is the consummation of selves, sounds, and styles she has tried on throughout her career. You're tempted to call it a breakthrough, but then you remember how many of those she's already had.
All of which is a long way around saying that regardless of what measurement you apply—art, commerce, conscience, or craft—any list of Seattle music's biggest and brightest talents that doesn't include Brandi Carlile's name belongs to the past.