Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes

Last year, the eminently lovable hardcore pro-wrestling legend Mick Foley wrote a weirdly fascinating Slate article about how he came to become a Tori Amos superfan. In the piece, Foley writes how a wrestling colleague named Maxx Payne first played Little Earthquakes, Amos’s solo debut and watershed moment, for him in 1993. And he also goes on about how he’d psych himself up for excessively gory Japanese death matches, in which he and Terry Funk would tear each other to shreds with barbed wire and thumbtacks, by playing “Winter” over and over. It’s an indelible image: This gigantic scraggly-bearded motherfucker sitting in a fetal position in the locker room, rocking back and forth, getting ready to bleed buckets by losing himself in this quietly gorgeous confessional. And it also strikes somewhere near the heart of Little Earthquakes: These are, after all, absorbingly beautiful songs about wracked, devastated emotional states.

Foley might be one of the most interesting and famous Tori superfans, but she has many, and most of them were pulled in, in one way or another, by Little Earthquakes. The simple existence of the album is something of marvel. Her previous band, Y Kant Tori Read, existed on some cultural continuum between Richard Marx synth-sweep and Lita Ford poodle-metal, and their “The Big Picture” video, ridiculously entertaining though it may be, doesn’t exactly announce the arrival of a major talent. But three years after that band released its one album and a year after it dissolved for good, Amos reemerged with this stunningly still album, one that takes the melodic gifts she’s already displayed with Y Kant Tori Read (Iet’s be honest, “The Big Picture” is catchy as fuck) and marries it to a previously-undiscovered gift for translating trauma into poetry.

I can’t remember Little Earthquakes causing any cultural tidal-waves upon its release, which was 20 years ago today in the UK and about a month later over here. The first time I can remember hearing her name was when she lost a bunch of times to Nirvana at the 1992 VMAs. The album’s sharp, shivery piano-based pop was, after all, about a million miles removed from the grunge zeitgeist; she wouldn’t really integrate alt-rock clangor until her later albums. But for those who did hear it, Little Earthquakes sunk its hooks in deep. I bought my copy sometime in 1993; it was one of the six CDs I got for free by subscribing to the BMG Music Club, and I don’t remember being all that amped about it before listening. But when I did dig into it, I got lost. It was the first time I really pored over a lyric sheet.

God knows how I made sense of any of it. Amos was 28 when she released the album, twice my age, and the album has a whole lot to say about that particular stage of life, when you’ve been through absolute awfulness that you’re only then starting to piece together and understand. A lot of the album is about attempts to shake off the bullshit you grew up accepting as true, and more of it is about processing the horrible things that might’ve happened to you since then. A few of her lines — “Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon” — only make sense once you’ve had your first pregnancy scare. On the album’s centerpiece, the harrowing a cappella story-song “Me And A Gun,” Amos describes a rape with a scarily dead-eyed calm that I’m sure I’ll never fully grasp. But the basic idea — heavy shit, rendered with quiet beauty — still resonated.

In the years after Little Earthquakes, Amos largely left behind the cruel concrete realities of her own personal experience to explore a larger sense of feminine mysticism. And she’s been good at that, too; Under The Pink and From The Choirgirl Hotel are powerful albums. But Little Earthquakes is, for my money, still Tori’s masterpiece, and we music critics should probably pay more attention to its impact on the music that would follow. It’s tough to imagine Fiona Apple having the impact that she did if Little Earthquakes hadn’t come first, and Sarah MacLachlan sure owes Amos a whole lot as well. And more recently, I’ve heard echoes in people like Florence And The Machine and Bat For Lashes.

So, as Little Earthquakes turns 20, what memories does it conjure? What’s your favorite song from it, or your favorite memory that it conjures? Let us know in the comments section.

Comments (28)
  1. It’d be impossible for me to choose a single favorite song from this album. It exists as a whole in my memory, a complete journey that I took over and over while struggling to understand myself as a teenager. In my twenties I kept listening and heard it differently, as I had new experiences that somehow it still related to. And now Im my thirties it reminds me of being a teenager and it also still resonates with me as an adult,. Not too many albums out there can endure for so long. It’s magic, every word and note.

  2. Even though it had come out several years before this era in my life, Little Earthquakes reminds me of high school and all the girls who were Toriphiles who I should have tried to date instead of the stereotypical “cute” girls who just ended up breaking hearts.

  3. This is definitely in one of my top five favorite albums of all time. I also cannot choose one favorite song; I always thought this album could have been turned into a coming-of-age musical.

  4. 20 years later it always makes me think about how every girl I met that was a big Tori Amos fan just so happened to be crazy insane.

  5. One that sticks with me and one that I catch myself humming: Mother. Plus I always here hints of Rachmaninoff in it.

  6. I had stopped playing the piano for a year before this. I saw “silent all these years” on mtv as I was sitting in my basement alone in the summer of ’93, a recent transplant to a new town where I knew no one. I think I literally dropped my jaw and walked up close to the TV as she sang, “Excuse me but can I be you for awhile.” It changed my life. I went right over to the piano when the song finished and I haven’t stopped since. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but “Tear in Your Hand” transports and lifts me every time.
    To this day I put this album on when I feel directionless and don’t know what I’m doing. It’s like an instant reminder of who you are.

  7. Wow. That was really well written! Thank you from one of many Tori “superfans”!

  8. I wonder what Brutus The Barber Beefcakes favorite album is.

  9. Thank you so much for this article! I am a huge Tori fan, since just after “Under The Pink” came out, but “Little Earthquakes” was the first album of hers I heard all the way through. I had written Tori off with the Nirvana cover, being a little grunge-lovin’ high-schooler: “Who does this chick think she IS?” Then Sassy magazine’s Reader-produced issue had an article called “Albums that changed our lives” or something like that. “Little Earthquakes” was on there; Tori’s lyrics were described as what the author wanted to say in the dark of night but couldn’t. So, I gave it a shot (also ordering it through BMG or Columbia). I was floored. My life absolutely changed (and I too took up piano again). I don’t know who I would be if it weren’t for Tori Amos, as crazy as that sounds. Choosing a favorite song off this album is not an easy task, but I am either in the “Mother” or “Precious Things” camps. Thank you again for writing this!

  10. This record changed my life over and over. High school, college and that terrible time after college. Mother definitely is a fucking mind blowing song. I do hear this album different as I age. Thank you for writing this.

  11. Ah, Little Earthquakes. This album wasn’t my introduction to Tori, and I didn’t get into her music until the end of the decade, but Colette is right, there is just something magical about this album. The songs definitely stand wholeheartedly on their own, but there’s something about these recordings that can’t be reproduced.
    It *is* hard to single out one song, but “Little Earthquakes” packs a hell of a punch (especially considering the song it follows). “Mother” is one of those songs that I absolutely love but sometimes forget about (like “Bells for Her” off of Under the Pink), and, not to sound too much like a pretentious super fan (too late?), I do have to say the b-sides “Take to the Sky (Russia)” and “Upside Down” are just as amazing as the songs that made it on the album.
    As for memories, I don’t really have any Super Special Memories attached to this album, though I do remember walking around the streets of Chicago on a trip with my high school chorus and singing “Leather” with a friend.

  12. Wow- count me in as someone who had her life changed by this album. It reminds me of my freshmen year of college and I must have played this a million times. I’d have to vote for Precious things as my favorite song (and still is.) I’ve seen Tori in concert countless times – and still play Little Earthquakes all the time (even 20 years later.)

  13. I wrote Tori Amos a letter and she didn’t write back.

  14. Next month, Pantera’s – “Vulgar Display of Power” turns 20. Can’t wait for the Sterogum article on that one too. As the darkwinter of 1992 gave way to spring, “Little Earthquakes” and “Vulgar Display of Power” were the flagships of what would end up being an unforgettable music year. Albums by The Jesus Lizard, Kyuss, PJ Harvey, Pale Saints, Entombed, etc. and shows from Rollins Band, Tori Amos, Skinny Puppy, Social Distortion, My Bloody Valentine, and Lollapalooza II, etc., et al., and so forth and so on. Wild ‘n’ wonderful times.

    • Jesus Lizard!!!!! I wish more bands sounded like the Jesus Lizard. The Men come to mind, but nothing can replicate the chemistry of David Yow (greatest frontman-turned-computer-software-geek-turned-reunion-frontman ever), Duane Denison, David Sims, and Mac McNeilly.

      You just inspired me to listen to Liar tonight. Little known fact: Kurt Cobain told Steve Albini he wanted In Utero to sound like Albini’s then-recently “engineered” albums by PJ Harvey (Rid of Me) and the Jesus Lizard (Goat and Liar).

      I wasn’t there, but I sure as shit wish I was.

  15. Although Little Earthquakes isn’t my favorite Tori album, it certainly sets the foundation for all Ears With Feet. Songs like Winter, China, Girl and Teaar in Your Hand reminds me why I am utterly obsessed with Tori.

  16. I was born a few months after this album came out. I didn’t get into Tori Amos until I was in high school, but this was the first album I heard of hers. The first song I heard was Winter, and I knew I had to learn to play it. Eventually I got into the whole album, and it’s definitely one of my favorites of hers. I don’t know what song would be my favorite. I love Happy Phantom. And Tear in Your Hand. All of them. I love all of them. Tori changed our lives. And I’m living proof that this album can completely transform people many years after its creation.

  17. “Tear in Your Hand” is my favorite song from that album. Tori Amos always reminds me of high school; I discovered her and a shitload of other good music that would have a huge impact on what I would go on to listen to later on in life, when I was seventeen.

  18. Call me when Under the Pink turns 20 and we’ll chat.

  19. she was cute before all the plastic surgery

  20. 5am Friday morning Thursday night far from sleep / I’m still up and driving can’t go home obviously / So I’ll just change direction cause they’ll soon know where I live / And I wanna live / Got a full tank and some chips.
    It was me and a gun and a man on my back / And I sang “holy holy” as he buttoned down his pants

    20 years later, nobody could write a song as powerful and intimate as “Me and a gun”.

  21. This album came into my life at the tail end of high school 15 years ago, like all of us at that time, I was changing, accepting who I was and about to venture out into the world on my own. This is the album that shaped that much younger version of myself.

    Here I am 15 years later and I still listen to it regularly. What’s so amazing about this album, and many of hers, is that you can come back to it over and over and it can relate to your life at whatever point it seems to be in.

    This is an album. It is one unit. Even the b-sides were amazing.
    Take to the Sky is probably still, my favorite Tori song of all.

  22. Great article. I love Little Earthquakes so much. Precious Things is one of the most insanely brilliant songs ever recorded.

  23. One of my all time favorites. China is my all time fave.

  24. Tear in your hand is still my all time fave and i probably would not had have survived high school without this album. I am 37 now and i still get lost in the raw beauty of this album.

  25. I feel SO lucky that a friend of mine gave me LE a week after it came out and I was able to see Tori in the early days (as well as 4 times on this past tour and at least 4 to 8 times on every tour) but it’s not my favorite album of hers. I love Precious Things and probably it could have been my favorite song, ever, but since she plays it in concert every time, it’s just not as special as if she would just take it out every so often and play it. (I suspect she plays it every concert for the people who only see her occasionally). Like one reviewer above me said: talk to me when Under the Pink turns 20~~I kinda feel the same way. However… my favorite song from LE is actually the alternate version of Crucify on the EP and Winter. I am 2 years older than Tori, so I feel like I did my growing into “real” adulthood with her. But if I had to chose between my copy of LE and Night of Hunters forever? I would chose NoH… It’s a masterpiece, but nearly all of her records (for me) have been masterpieces. Can’t wait to hear her reinterpret some of her old songs with the Metropole Orkestra from Amsterdam this year… If she plays ANYWHERE with the orchestra in the US, I’ll be there. Fingers crossed.

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