The early ’90s brought a wealth of change to pop music, and while the spoils of the dynamic shifts may have gone to the flannel-clad misanthropes of Seattle, the longevity and distinction of Tori Amos’ influence is a story almost as unique as her lyrics. Much of the criticism directed at Amos has concerned the very topic of her lyrics and the fantastical whimsy unabashedly embraced by the singer/songwriter since her solo debut, 1992’s Little Earthquakes. And though it’s fair to say the ’00s were not especially compelling in terms of Amos’ creative output, the whole of her career has offered much more in the way of what can be accomplished when an artist or musician is able to distance themselves from distraction. Eccentricity is a tricky thing, especially when placed in the context of a culture that prides itself on that very attribute. When everything is quirky, nothing is.
But for Tori Amos, the imaginative landscapes and abstractions have continually been the vehicle for something absolutely grounded in reality. While many busied themselves with genuine worry over who would replace Kurt Cobain atop the grunge throne in 1994, Amos released her second album, which in retrospect is one of the most outstanding sophomore releases by any artist of the era, especially considering that it came just two years after her masterpiece debut. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Amos’ music is that her compositions always seem to find their way outside categorization, largely without losing accessibility. It’s not so much that Amos was and is an enigmatic presence in pop music. It’s that she has almost always retained and evolved that quality.
From the first few notes of her debut, Amos has readily betrayed a bold sense of compositional style and perspective, with her most successful songs and albums dealing a steady but no less forceful blow to what might otherwise be considered an exercise in needless abstraction. Even with the missteps, the years since have proved no less fruitful for the singer/songwriter’s ambitions, with the same deceptively fragile voice and music quickly spiraling into an utterly commanding sense of melodic presence. For Amos, that sense of the song as story and the potency it provides when coiled around an equally narrative orchestration is precisely what will continue to place her music in a remarkably profound place for listeners old and new. Now 22 years removed from Little Earthquakes and on the cusp of her 14th full-length release, Unrepentant Geraldines, Amos’ full impact on popular music resembles the expansive nature of her compositions — gorgeously intricate and unapologetically daring.
10. “Professional Widow” (from Boys For Pele, 1996)
With a harpsichord underscore and the song’s almost industrial (yes, industrial) atmospherics, “Professional Widow” is an anomalous song even by Amos’ standards. The song still holds to the characteristically ethereal tone of her other work, but “Professional Widow” also bears a distinctive dirge-like musical pace in methodical contrast to a vocal delivery that shows Amos as improvisational as she’s ever been. Yes, there was a dance remix that reached No. 1 on the UK charts, and it is catchy as hell, but it loses the original version’s subtlety of movement. Coming three albums into her solo career, Boys For Pele brought a more serrated edge to Amos’ already razor-sharp compositional prowess, and “Professional Widow” serves as the album’s most seething example of the singer/songwriter being just as willing to bite as she is to bark. Amos may have written the song for a particular person — a topic of speculation upon its initial release — but the words and music here are applicable to any person who’s endured betrayal. While Amos never names her subject, the song is firmly brought to eye level, offering a vivid picture of those inevitabilities that so often come with fame, something Amos was no doubt fully realizing by the time of this release. While still unmistakable as a Tori Amos song, “Professional Widow” is a reflection on the present rather than retrospection. Interestingly, the rarity of that perspective is served with less of a gripping narrative and more of a searing invective that’s as catchy as it is rancorous.
9. “Job’s Coffin” (from Night Of Hunters, 2011)
From an album that saw Amos come full circle and fully embrace the darkly fanciful lyrics and lush orchestrations that had, at her very beginnings, given the singer/songwriter all the ammunition she would need, “Job’s Coffin” is a distinctively moving new pathway for Amos, who employed the outstandingly impressive vocalizations of her daughter, Natashya Hawley, for the song. Melodically straightforward, the song pairs the subtle use of woodwinds against Amos’ trademark hiccuped piano playing, with Hawley taking the lion’s share of vocal duties and Amos contributing those lines that ground the abstract imagery of Hawley’s biblical Job into the context of those self-destructive tendencies she sees too often being embraced by women. Where another song might quickly veer into preachy territory, “Job’s Coffin” is Amos fully capitalizing on her greatest strength of posing those questions both to herself, as the song’s creator, and the listener, whose experiences will obviously be wholly unique to their own context of experience. Buried deep in the fantastic Night Of Hunters, “Job’s Coffin” is a deceptively unassuming song — a characteristic that, with repeated listens, reveals the layered perspective that has continually shown itself to be the heart and soul of Amos’ most effective work.
8. “Precious Things” (from Little Earthquakes, 1992)
From her breakthrough solo debut Little Earthquakes, “Precious Things” perfectly captures Amos’ trademark characteristic of balancing contrasts both musically and lyrically. Beginning with an echoing treble-clef series of chords played with a kind of loose fragility, Amos quickly pairs the deliberate melodic hesitation with a commanding chord in the bass clef, establishing a kind of ominous but constant foundation that remains throughout the song’s nearly four-and-a-half minutes. The pendulum of lyrical themes sway in the same rhythmic balance, cutting open those wounds old and new for Amos’ narrator, giving equal measure to the memories of a woman and the experiences of a young girl. Amos’ voice crashes through the chorus along with intermittent percussion working to push the machinery of the song to the very threshold of collapse before abruptly dropping back into the second hushed verse. Amos has a way of evoking an absolute seething rage without ever lifting her voice above even so much as a shout. That subdued delivery is a powerful vocal weapon here because it places value in suggestion over distinction, with Amos suggesting that the most precious of things, for all their presumed fragility, oftentimes end up being the catalyst for our greatest strengths.
7. “Silent All These Years” (from Little Earthquakes, 1992)
The third track on Amos’ solo debut fully displays the singer’s orchestral sense of songwriting, opening the song with a few seconds of a minor-key broken chord that suddenly shifts into one of her most memorable and profound melodies. The song’s lyrics are some of her most straightforward and, at least for this record, most hopeful. Following both the outstanding but incredibly visceral and dark tracks “Crucify” and “Girl,” where the lyrics maintain a mostly abstract if not vague sense of narrator, “Silent All These Years” feels personal without resorting to sentimentality. Perhaps most remarkable is the bridge, an immediate swell of beautiful orchestration courtesy of Nick Caro, which moves in unison with the speaker’s unanswered question of what lies ahead with the possibility of having a voice when all she’s known so far is the complicit silence and quiet strength. Amos is a master of imagery, yes, but where the landing might prove shaky or sometimes even nonexistent for other songs, on “Silent All These Years” the reference point and reality is strikingly and powerfully clear, with the song capturing all manner of apprehension toward the unknown future, and hope for the voice it will provide.
6. “Jackie’s Strength” (from From The Choirgirl Hotel, 1998)
A song whose lyrics center on the late Jackie Kennedy-Onassis might prove a groan-inducing exercise in topical posturing for most other artists, yet Amos does her subject justice on this track that, though six years removed from Amos’ debut, still carries the weight of that nameless narrator shifting through various stages and perceptions of her/his own identity. Melodically, it is one of Amos’ most gorgeous pieces, with a muted yet lush refrain that fully capitalizes on the push/pull dynamic of harmony and dissonance, major and minor. Amos executes this conflicting sound alongside a lyrical thread that runs parallel to the image, if not necessarily the person, of Jackie Kennedy. The line “So I turn myself inside out/ in hope someone will see” immediately follows the pointed yet almost flippant “You’re only popular with anorexia” — a pairing that gives the song thematic clout rather than a topical glossing-over of a seriously devastating and very real disorder. Amos can oftentimes be too ham-fisted in her lyrics, preaching a message that gets lost in the method of its delivery without landing gear. “Jackie’s Strength” is successful because the narrator of the song offers more in the way of questions than summative answers to what’s obviously a very personal glimpse into heartache and doubt. Here Amos displays an empowering sense of vulnerability — while she’s still fiercely independent, she now takes a kind of cautious comfort in being unable to provide an answer to the question of who she is in that moment or what she may become with her next step.
5. “A Sorta Fairytale” (from Scarlet’s Walk, 2002)
A fairly straightforward pop song, “A Sorta Fairytale” still showcases the full breadth of Amos’ diversity as a songwriter. Though the majority of the 2000s saw Amos struggling to find the balance between the abstract notions of her more ethereal work and the hook-laden songs at which she’d proven herself more than adept at writing, “A Sorta Fairytale” strikes a perfect balance between lyrical depth and a radio-ready refrain. In the 10 years since her debut, Amos still shrouds her lyrics in a mystique that, for many critics, had worn thin, but “A Sorta Fairytale” encapsulates the essence of perspective change for the singer/songwriter or, at the very least, the narrators of her songs. The lyrics here find Amos again in a state of retrospection, glancing at the experiences of her past with the cruel futility of hindsight. It’s especially interesting to see Amos less in the state of accusation or embittered rejection and seemingly more comfortable in a kind of objective dissent. Amos’ voice softens just slightly enough to suggest a more contemplative but no less forceful songwriter, who’s now satisfied with seeing those fractures in her past both at their point of origin and where they’ve taken her (and where they will continue to take her).
4. “Pretty Good Year” (from Under The Pink, 1994)
In stark contrast to the damning and ominous weight of “Crucify,” the opening track from her debut two years prior, Amos’ Under The Pink begins with the almost completely subdued “Pretty Good Year” — a song whose strength lies solely in the delivery of its singer, rather than in the combination of a good melody paired with good lyrics. Amos hangs on these words, darting from a near-spoken reading of some diary to a conversation taking place either in her own head or, more likely, between herself and the listener. The song’s deliberately open-ended narration conjures a commonality between the passing of time (by now an a hard and fast theme for Amos) and the vast expanse that lies between what we remember, what we forget, and the little choice we often have in discerning between the two. Amos’ narrator is distracted in the song, given to brief descriptions of the seemingly menial behavioral nuances of the characters named in the song, then quickly pairing them with a personal perspective, allowing the music to swell alongside the conversational duality of her music.
3. “God” (from Under The Pink, 1994)
In a year where Ace Of Base dominated the Billboard charts alongside a Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart/Sting collaboration (read that again), and R. Kelly was offering the world a little bump ‘n’ grind, Amos released Under The Pink, and with that release, one of the year’s most unequivocally powerful songs. While the indie world mourned the tragic death of (one of) its supplemental messiahs, Amos laid bare the patriarchal impasse of American culture with her signature melodic and lyrical gauntlet. Obvious metaphors aside, “God” is strikingly focused, given the sometimes lyrically winding nature of Amos’ other work, with the repeated phrase “God sometimes you just don’t come through” falling into a near prayerful lockstep with the mid-tempo pace of the music. The subject of Amos’ “God” is her narrator’s perspective on men and their role in society, yes, but it’s also a gripping portrayal of just how powerful religious imagery can be when employed in the context of gender issues. The empowerment in the line “Do you need a woman to look after you?” is so incredibly effective because Amos’ lyrical medium is inherently patriarchal, oppressive, and utterly American. For all her popularity in the UK, much of Amos’ earlier work honed in on challenging the core ideologies not only of her own personal experiences with religion but the larger implications of those beliefs and their often entrenched misogynistic notions within her native America. With “God,” Amos momentarily steps away from offering questions, instead providing a singular answer to what is valued by religion and, by extension, the culture it inhabits.
2. “Winter” (from Little Earthquakes, 1992)
Just shy of six minutes, “Winter” is widely considered Amos’ masterpiece, and for good reason. Again from her near-perfect debut, the song immediately evokes a sense of longing from the lightly played chord sequence at the beginning, quickly but subtly joined by Amos’ lilting voice. Especially noteworthy is the song’s placement in Amos’ career, as it bears all the weight of a song one might expect from a songwriter looking back at a life’s worth of experience, yet its imagery and all-too-real lyrics come by way of someone not yet even 30. The song is yet another confirmation that Amos has always seemed to exist in a state of adulthood, despite her lyrics often deceptively and deliberately suggesting a fantastical childishness. Though the majority of Amos’ work reflects a narrative personal and grounded in her relationship experiences, no song captures the absolute realism of that connectivity as masterfully haunting as does “Winter.” Suggestions that Amos wrote the song in direct reference to her relationship with her own father, a minister, are not without merit, but the song’s value is derived from a much broader place of change and transition — a commonality shared with both the experiences of the woman who wrote the song and the millions of listeners who’ve now heard it and felt a kind of striking familiarity in its theme. “Winter” is musical storytelling at its best, subdued in the manner of the song’s orchestration and lyrics but firmly rooted in the tandem heartache and hope that comes with change.
1. “Cornflake Girl” (from Under The Pink, 1994)
Amos has indicated that “Cornflake Girl” took direct inspiration from Alice Walker’s gut-wrenching Possessing The Secret Of Joy — a novel whose narrative revolves around the horrifically real practice of female genital mutilation. Never one to shy away from the topical, Amos succeeds again on what’s likely her most recognizable song by allowing the gravity of the music to carry the enormous weight of the topics discussed in the lyrics. It is the seminal Tori Amos rock song with the music pulsing in a kind of fevered turmoil that runs parallel to the singer/songwriter at her most commanding, both at the helm of her vocals and that of the keys. Thematically, the lyrics are an extended metaphor that’s deliberately vague in its references to sexual oppression, female adolescence, and the perils invariably tied to denying the cruel realities that exist in both contexts. Amos employs some of her most forceful vocal work for the anthemic chorus, with her voice as quick to soar to a near-shout as it is to collapse into a hushed sneer. The song lyrically begs for a sort of reckoning, both for its speaker and for the listener with whom it connects. The satisfaction of closure never comes, though, and it’s precisely the thing that provides the song’s most unforgiving punch. Adding yet another formidable component to an already evocative song is the guest vocals appearance of Merry Clayton, the revered soul/gospel singer whose same unquestionable vocal authority on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is brought front and center to the climactic surge here. Clayton’s contribution to the song is downright chilling, especially intertwined with that of Amos, who counters the harrowing depth of Clayton’s “Man with the golden gun” refrain with her own signature airy cadence. The genius behind “Cornflake Girl” is the same familiar sense of balance that Amos has seemingly had on lock from the very beginning, with music and lyrics doing battle for the listener’s attention by delivering a troubling glimpse of humanity’s utter cruelty and malice against the backdrop of an outstanding and radio-ready rock ‘n’ roll song.