Tori Amos – 10 of the best

Baroque, dissonant and unapologetic in confronting taboos, Amos has never been bound by conventions. Here are her career-defining tracks

1. Tear in Your Hand

Rejection and self-discovery were the twin fuel kegs behind Tori Amos’s breakthrough in 1992. She’d gone from teen prodigy to synth-rock “bimbo” with her maligned band debut Y Kant Tori Read in 1988 – an ego-crushing fall that forced her into creative retreat. Despair turned into determination, and four years on from the Y Kant Tori Read album, a bold solo artist re-emerged. Little Earthquakes, her solo debut, was a seismic statement, the sound of an artist letting her own unapologetically original style flourish, via wild pianos and bold personal truths. When Atlantic rejected the initial version of the album, Amos fired back with a clutch of new songs. Tear in Your Hand was among the deal-sealing salvo, a blazing, electric guitar-laced volte-face with a Springsteen warmth that flips from breakup song to personal power anthem. Her lover has left her and her world has imploded; she’s in emo mode, wallowing in “the black of the blackest oceans”. But as the detritus settles and she scrutinises the situation, an exultant, Bösendorfer-smashing epiphany: if she was too much, he was not enough. And his new squeeze? “Maybe she’s just pieces of me you’ve never seen.”

2. Silent All These Years

The Little Mermaid may have inspired this Little Earthquakes favourite, but it wasn’t Disney’s effervescent bride Amos was thinking of – it was Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic original, rendered mute and powerless by a love that would eventually send her to the grave. The message of self-reclamation, and the graceful, soaring melody it was couched in, made a powerful anthem for survivors of abuse. In 1997 it was rereleased as single to raise funds for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. As Amos tells it, the song’s impact continued long after its release. “Years later, when I played Israel, I was in an airport bathroom when a Middle Eastern woman came up to me. She said, ‘Don’t think we’re not listening. We pass your music behind closed doors to each other and it’s something secret that we know, so don’t stop.’” Impossible now to imagine it sung by its intended recipient, the Glaswegian folk-popper Al Stewart.

3. Winter

Winter is about as far away from motivational workout jams as you can get – a measured, almost solemn song that opens with a delicate, snowflake-soft intro and takes a good three minutes to go full-avalanche. But Little Earthquakes’ fourth single – a song that’s inspired covers by REM, Dream Theater and Amanda Palmer – was exactly what WWE star Mick Fowley needed to hear when a profound crisis of pre-match confidence struck. “Most listeners would interpret Winter as a song about a father’s love for a child. But the question in the refrain [“When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?”] always appealed to the scared part of me, the part that believed I wasn’t strong enough, or big enough, or good enough. It never made me think of doing wild and dangerous deeds inside a wrestling ring. It helped me believe that I was strong enough to do the things I already knew needed to be done.”

4. Icicle

If Little Earthquakes proved Amos could do force and noise to match grunge’s poster boys, her chart-topping 1994 follow-up, Under the Pink, was a masterclass in space: not just how to inhabit it with wild, imaginative piano gospels, but how to colour its absence – those quiet moments between chords and notes – with profound meaning. Icicle’s radical, taboo-melting hymn to female pleasure is intense with these spaces. Witness the ominous echo that follows the stern, opening notes; the clanging, off-kilter melody that follows it, attempting unsuccessfully to knit itself into something courtly and sentimental before unspooling violently into peals of dissonant, fret-hammering frustration. Listen closely to the heavy pause that cuts this volley dead and you’ll hear a long, exhaled breath – a table-clearing swoop that opens the way for the song’s true, twinkling melody to rise. The minister’s daughter has levelled her gaze at the “good book” and spotted its missing pages. She’s found a “hiding place” from God’s judgmental gaze, chosen pleasure over shame, self-love over dogma and prayer circles. She’s locating ecstasy – spiritual and otherwise – on her own, intimate terms: “And when my hand touches myself, I can finally rest my head / And when they say take of his body, I think I’ll take from mine instead.”

5. Cornflake Girl

Inescapable after its release in 1994, this Merry Clayton-assisted megahit became Amos’s calling card, the single even her non-fans hum along to. As the writer Annie Zaleski points out, it was the centrepiece of an album that explored the “more universal experiences of women: how they related to religion, negotiated power dynamics, explored their sexuality, and navigated relationships with men and with other women”. This last theme is the crux of Cornflake Girl, a breakfast cereal metaphor concerning frenemies and betrayal inspired in part by Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. Attend an Amos show now – almost always seated gigs in grand halls – and you’ll see a faction of hardcore fans rush the aisles when this set-list staple is unleashed.

6. Blood Roses

After the gargantuan classical tempests of Little Earthquakes and the haunting toy piano excursions on Under the Pink, Amos turned her attention to the harpsichord, bringing a baroque darkness to Boys for Pele in 1996. If the subdued woman in Silent All These Years was inching her way to freedom, the survivor in this album’s standout has sped her way there, incandescent with trauma after a crime scene of a relationship: “Now you’ve cut out the flute, from the throat of the loon. At least when you cry now, he can’t even hear you.” It’s a humid and haunting song, a fever dream of a waltz delirious with carnographic images and seething, keening vocals – Amos at her darkest.

7. Professional Widow

Armand Van Helden’s monster remix of Boys for Pele’s third single transformed this song into a supple dance anthem and gave Amos her sole No 1 single in the UK. The original – long rumoured to be a diss track about Courtney Love – is equally formidable: dense, noisy and obscenely sensual, with a quintessentially Tori signoff: “Give me peace, love and a hard cock.” An entire album of Boys for Pele dance remixes were mooted at one point, but sadly failed to materialise.

8. Cruel

On the Choir Girl Hotel, released in 1998 and written in the wake of a miscarriage, Amos pushed her sonic boundaries, utilising a fuller band sound and bringing the alt-rock skeins that threaded her first three albums to the fore: treated percussion, eroded synths, industrial basslines, crunching shards of electric guitar and coiling feedback. The resulting album is dark, brooding and vampish: lascivious club bangers (Raspberry Swirl) colliding with strutting glam rock (She’s Your Cocaine) and trip-hop saturnine (Iieee). There’s a rich seam of the latter on Cruel, with its snaking synths and water-clogged scratching.

9. Crazy

If Cruel sounds like midnight games and spiked stilettos, Crazy is its guileless, barefoot opposite: a languid, sun-washed dawn of a song, where desert-baked tremolo guitars echo across radiant organs and wistful ahh-ahh-ahhs. The expansive country vibe and local colour on Crazy – canyons, native shelters and drive-all-night romance – was typical of her 2002 album Scarlet’s Walk, a road trip-style concept record centred around Amos, America (post 9/11) and plenty in between.

10. Trouble’s Lament

Amos roughly averages a record every two years, and, luckily for her fans, shows no signs of retirement. The year after her stage musical debut with The Light Princess in 2013, she released her 14th album, Unrepentant Geraldines, a flawed but rewarding collection of songs recorded at her home in Cornwall, with her husband and longtime engineer Mark Hawley and Marcel van Limbeek. Cleaving to the unapologetic spirit of the album’s title, lead single Trouble’s Lament is no lament at all, but rather a winking hat-tip to “wicked” women: the grifters, gamblers, troublemakers and risk-takers working society’s rigged odds to their advantage. Long may they thrive.

  • Boys for Pele – Deluxe Edition is out now on Rhino.


Charlotte Richardson Andrews

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Music Weekly: Tori Amos

Tori Amos talks mythology, and mixing songs with classical music, reviews of St Vincent, Pistol Annies and Friends, and REM remembered. With Alexis Petridis, Dorian Lynskey and Alex Macpherson.

Presented by Alexis Petridis and produced by Scott Cawley

23, Sep, 2011 @4:37 PM

Article image
Tori Amos, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Hammersmith Apollo, London

Ian Gittins

07, Jun, 2005 @11:20 AM

Tori Amos, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Hammersmith Apollo, London

Caroline Sullivan

06, Jul, 2007 @10:48 PM

Tori Amos | Pop review

Hammersmith Apollo, London
An introspective affair, wholly focused on the enigmatic woman and her piano, writes Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan

15, Sep, 2009 @11:57 AM

Tori Amos, Manchester Apollo

Manchester Apollo.

Dave Simpson

15, Jan, 2003 @2:11 AM

Tori Amos, Shaw Theatre, London

Shaw Theatre, London.

Dorian Lynskey

20, Nov, 2003 @2:25 AM

Article image
My favourite album: Tori Amos – From the Choirgirl Hotel
Continuing our series in which Guardian and Observer writers pick their favourite albums – with a view that you might do the same – Alex Macpherson explains why he still falls for Tori Amos

Alex Macpherson

12, Aug, 2011 @11:01 AM

Tori Amos – review
In this celebration of her career, Amos tunnelled into each song with the intensity of someone singing it for the first time, writes Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan

04, Oct, 2012 @4:54 PM

Other pop: Tori Amos, The Beekeeper

Other pop: Kitty Empire on Tori Amos | The Kills | Amos Lee | M Ward | Laura Veirs | Various Artists

Kitty Empire

20, Feb, 2005 @1:55 AM

Tori Amos | Pop Review
Hammersmith Apollo, London
Tori Amos's flowing, fluting vocals, although impressive, were more a stream of sound than actual words. Wherever she was in her head, it wasn't in west London, writes Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan

14, Sep, 2009 @9:05 PM