Fiona Apple has long been viewed as the bad girl of the solo piano playing female artists. Lambasted by the media for her bluntness and constant need to speak her truth, Apple perservered, making the music that she believed in. While she’s created a large number of great works, here are the ten best:
Apple’s first single introduced fans to her painfully intense lyricism and made her the envy of piano students everywhere. Her low and husky voice laid down a solid jazz track in the days before jazz made its comeback, and Apple showed that she could do with music what few could – she could make it mimic the action in the song. With this talent in particular “Shadowboxer” shines – the song plays out like one long, winding boxing match between performer and audience, narrator and subject.
Apple’s big hit, Criminal took MTV by storm with its provocative video and sultry entreaties. The song features our singer, imploring God to forgive her for a mistake that she’s made, and while we can determine through the lyrics that this song does involve another person, the details are not specific. This song is perhaps the least like anything else that Apple has done, but she nonetheless delivers with style and conviction.
Never Is A Promise
Written when Fiona Apple was only 15 years old, this slow ballad is by far the most emotional piece off of Tidal. This is no sappy love song, or quiet bemoaning of fate; one does not find these things among the creative space of Fiona Apple. This sad number sees Apple cooly stating that her different perspective sets her apart from all those around her; two people can never really last forever when one of them possesses a greater knowledge of the world and its workings (“you’ll never feel the heat of this soul/ my fever burns me deeper than I’ve ever shown to you”). Apple doesn’t mean this to be arrogant, and although it may come off that way, this is more an reinforcement of her feelings of isolation than anything else.
This song, off the 1999 release When the Pawn…, is quitessential Fiona Apple. She returns to her jazzy melodies with this song, using her command of musical imagery to create a song that feels strangely like a wistful jaunt down a London road on a rainy day. Paper Bag also happens to be the most straightforward song on Apple’s second album, which was heavily criticized as being too esoteric and hard to understand. While explaining what brought a relationship to its end, Apple once more reiterates how little she relates to those around her (“He said ‘It’s all in your head,’ I said, ‘So’s everything,’ but he didn’t get it; I thought he was a man but he was just a little boy”).
Often called Fiona Apple’s happiest song (and certainly the only truly upbeat track on When The Pawn…, at least lyrically), “I Know” creates the image of a lover waiting patiently in the wings for her partner’s show to conclude. Despite its slow, jazzy feel, the words tell of a kind of devotion often overlooked in music today. Apple understands that things don’t always work out easily, but sometimes the best things are worth waiting for. There is a gentility to this song (“when the crowd becomes your burden/ and you’ve early closed your curtain/ I’ll wait by the back stage door”) rarely seen in Apple’s other work, which often comes across as aloof, even at its emotional height.
Fast As You Can
This was Apple’s first chart-topper in Britian, and its presto tempo and quick barrage of lyrics come across like a volley of attacks leaving the listener both stunned and hooked on first listen. Throughout the course of this number, Apple villainizes herself and warns off potential suitors, suggesting that they follow her advice and run as fast as they can away from her. Listeners not heeding the lyrics, however, will find themselves drawn even further into Apple’s web with the drum loops and catchiness of this single.
Apple’s 2005 release Extraordinary Machine marked a follow-up six years in the making. The first most people had seen or heard from Fiona Apple in a period of time dangerously long in the music industry, the new album showed a more grown-up, more mellow Apple, and the title track exemplifies this. In this song, we se that Apple still has her sharp tongue (“they’re no good at being uncomfortable, so they can’t help staying exactly the same”) while embracing a steely disposition that makes her seem quite level-headed (“I’ll make the most of it; I’m an extraordinary machine”). This is the same Fiona of the olden days – only older and, dare we say it… calmer.
Once again, Fiona Apple addresses a break-up. Don’t expect to find any tears here, however – Apple’s cool intellectual aloofness comes out full force in this song as she expresses her discontent with a thinly veiled insult meant to criticize her partner’s deceit as well as her own willingness to play the fool (“you looked as sincere as a dog/ just as sincere as a dog does/ when it’s the food on your lips with which it’s in love”). Where the young Apple might have lashed out with such tracks as “Criminal” and “Never Is A Promise,” the older and wiser one can assess her own shortcomings (“it is my fault, you see, you never learned that much from me”) and reflect on the whole affair with a much more balanced perspective (“it ended bad, but I loved what we started”).
Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song)
There’s a lot to be said for a girl who can spend a decade writing songs about how questionable her mental stability is, and Tymps continues in the Apple tradition in this regard. Here, Apple lays down a somewhat happy-go-lucky look at mental balance, claiming that she is either “so sick in the head [she] need[s] to be bled dry” or “really used to love him.” Don’t expect Fiona Apple to be able to tell you the difference between being in love and losing track of reality; this confusion seems to be one of her personality traits. What makes Apple so special, however, can be seen in this song – she never claims normalcy, but she owns her mental state for better or worse and always speaks her mind.
Angel (Jimi Hendrix Cover)
This sweet and terribly approachable cover rounds out the list of Fiona Apple songs. She lends to Jimi’s work a kind of calm gratitude. We can only imagine, hearing this song, that the prayers of that young girl in Criminal were eventually answered.