There are very few artists who manage to maintain a rabid and loyal fanbase such as Tori Amos. To like Tori is to LOVE Tori—even if you hate what she’s become. Those who refer to themselves as “Toriphiles” (I know), are an opinionated bunch, who love to speculate on the intricacies of her career—why she released this album, and why these songs have remained unheard, etc. What’s really interesting about her fanbase is that they rarely (if ever) agree with each other about what is considered Amos’ seminal work. There is never a consensus, and there is rarely respect for each others’ differing opinions. Taking three steps back though, you can examine the patterns inherent in her fanbase and realize that there are common running threads throughout the discussions of what makes Amos so great.
Amos’ fans also love to make lists. You can venture on to ANY Tori Amos forum site and read the endless threads that ask fans to organize the musician’s catalogue from best to worst—filtered through some interesting categories such as: “Five Best Harpsichord Songs”, or “Favourite Unreleased B-Sides”. So, a Top Ten list is nothing new for this group. Instead, this list is intended as a brief introduction for non-fans—those who haven’t been spoiled by the odd quirkiness that Tori Amos can often exude making her less accessible to the mainstream public. It is meant for those who have always wanted to know more about Tori Amos, but didn’t know where to start.
What I’ve compiled here (besides an exercise in futility) is a list of 10 songs that hopes to encapsulate both the elemental themes in Tori Amos’ music, as well as the finest musical directions she has embarked upon. Although there are many interlocking facets to what Amos sings about, there are some definite thematic consistencies, such as the self, interpersonal relationships, motherhood, womanhood, heartbreak, religion, and America. This is not comprehensive by any means, but they are the most frequently broached topics for Amos. Because this list is a reflection of those consistent threads in her music, I have intentionally left off tracks such as “Caught a Lite Sneeze” and “Cornflake Girl”, as those are aspects of a greater theme in her work—they are great songs, but they don’t define how Amos understands the world through her music. I’ve tried my best to leave out personal biases and incorporate the opinions and relevancies of fans and critics who know Tori in a way that I don’t personally gravitate towards. The reality is that she has 11 studio albums (one more on the way, due out September 26, Night of Hunters) and over 200 songs under her belt, and with only 10 songs to choose from this was definitely a trying task.
For those Toriphiles, who will most likely be the only ones reading this article, I implore you! Burn a CD (or make a playlist) of these 10 songs, share it with your friends who are not Tori Amos fans, and ask them to give a shot to the artist who we love and adore so magnificently, and hate so intensely.
(Abnormally Attracted to Sin, 2009)
In the latter half of Tori’s career (everything post-Strange Little Girls), Amos has zagged right when everyone expected her to zig left. This isn’t a completely good thing as many people have found it difficult to get on board with the musical directions she has decided to tread. In 2009 she released her much-reviled 10th studio album Abnormally Attracted to Sin. The album is an uneven mess of b-sides meant for her previous album American Doll Posse, and new electronic material. The bad songs are really bad (see “Not Dying Today”), but the good songs are quite amazing and surprising. One such tune is the album closer “Lady in Blue”. In it, Amos casts the mirror in her direction and takes a good hard look at what she’s become as a musician. The track makes continuous references to how she can “play lady in blue if you want me to”, and that she can “play well into midnight”, understanding that she’s an aging rock star, not what she once was, and because of this needs to venture through this new terrain to find herself. There is a sense of sorrow for what has passed, but simultaneously an understanding of what has transpired. It is also hopeful and self-affirming, as she asks the members in her band “Can I join you”, whilst proclaiming “I can play too”. The music itself is a seven-and-a-half-minute-long epic number that demonstrates Amos penchant for (and desire for) rocking out. It begins with a looming atmospheric hum and explodes in a two-and-a-half minute full band jam session. Of the tracks in Tori’s later catalogue, “Lady in Blue” is a perfect encapsulation of what she’s become, and where many of us hope she’ll continue.
(Boys For Pele, 1996)
Amos released an earth-shattering epic record in 1996 called Boys For Pele. Many were surprised at how candid she was being about her life-changing break-up with longtime partner and producer Eric Rosse. The album is filled with conflicting emotions from heartbreak, to confusion, to anger, to how she loses herself in relationships with men. The first half of the album sees an angry and confused Amos, reacting to how she has been positioned within her interpersonal relationships with men, while the latter half-attempts to deal with the calming after the storm. “Blood Roses” is seminal “angry” Tori, rocking out in the best way Amos knows how—on her own at the foot of her instrument. Up until this point we’ve only ever heard Amos at her piano. Boys introduced us to the Tori who is fascinated with a variety of multi-faceted keyboard instruments. “Blood Roses” is the first track on the album that is solely performed on harpsichord. There are no drums, no guitars, no bass—none of the typical instruments that are associated with “rocking out”, but rock out she does. From the medieval opening riffs to her belting lines like “God knows, I know I’ve thrown away those graces”. “Blood Roses” introduced us to a new kind of Tori, one that could be fierce and vitriolic in new and unexpected ways.
(To Venus and Back, 1999)
When I first heard To Venus and Back I was instantly repelled. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand where she was going with this album and why she was singing about the things she was. It took me some time to understand that To Venus and Back was her landing album. She had been dramatic and emotional and torn up for four albums previous, and now she was learning to subside her rage and control herself. “Spring Haze” is the perfect “I’m-slowly-coming-to-terms-with-myself-and-my-new-found-happiness” song. Although the song was literally written for John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s untimely death via plane crash, it can also be understood as an enlightened first breath after years of sorrow and unhappiness—coupled with all the uncertainty that comes with a fierce change in life patterns when all you’ve ever known is sorrow. She fights against the calmness she’s feeling and is conflicted by the ambiguity of where she fits. The opening lines are breathtakingly beautiful as a demure Tori sings, “Certain these clouds go somewhere / Billowing out to somewhere.” Stylistically, the song exemplifies Amos’ adventurous musical spirit of patterned electronic music. This is the song you sing if you’re cautiously optimistic.