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
Any artist who deals in catharsis risks having their output assessed solely through the prism of their biography. So it was throughout Tori Amos's career, with the coverage of 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel focusing on the miscarriage she suffered before recording it.
It's certainly not irrelevant. Amos's lyrics were always too oblique to be as straightforwardly confessional as her reputation indicated; her preference for fragmented poetry, wordplay and private references seemed at times to convey an impulse to hide rather than reveal. References to her miscarriage appear throughout From the Choirgirl Hotel, but rarely in a simple way. On the elegiac, pedal-steel driven ballad Playboy Mommy, they set the scene for a not-quite-apology from a "bad mother" to her dead daughter. Lament, self-recrimination and self-justification combine in a character study of a compelling, complex narrator, its emotional climax coming with the line: "I'll say it loud here by your grave ? those angels can't ever take my place."
The sheer craft of Playboy Mommy still astonishes ? something that applies to the album as a whole. On Choirgirl, Amos catapulted herself out of the piano-and-vocal mode that had formed the majority of her work to date. A variety of richly detailed, percussion-dominated arrangements characterise the album: demented electronic loops (iieee), swirls of marimbas (Cruel), crunching cock-rock (She's Your Cocaine). Having hit No 1 in 1996 with Armand van Helden's house remix of a Professional Widow, Amos seemed inspired to make a four-to-the-floor dancefloor banger herself in Raspberry Swirl, all pounding beats, aggressive sexuality and percussive gasps of breath. Liquid Diamonds lives up to its title, aqueous and luxurious, as Amos submerges and re-emerges from a sea of drums, bass and piano. On Hotel, she goes so far out that, even 13 years on, it sounds like nothing else: tactile drum pads, 8-bit synths, shrieking vocals and cascades of piano culminate in an absent-minded fairground organ melody. None of it makes sense, but it's utterly captivating. (This even extended to the album's B-sides, with a highlight being a full-throated, drum-heavy cover of Steely Dan's Do It Again.)
From the Choirgirl Hotel is not a typical Amos album ? that would be the more traditional singer-songwriter fare of Little Earthquakes. But it came in the centre of a stretch from 1996-99 during which she seemed to be pushing the form further out in every direction at once ? more intense, more complex, more experimental ? and, in pulling it off, becoming an even more powerful artist. Despite her largely unsung influence on today's singer-songwriters, both male and female, Amos's combination of conviction, catharsis and vision feels worlds away from the relatively timorous aesthetics of her followers, from Joanna Newsom to Bat for Lashes. There is still no one remotely like her.
? You can write your own review of From the Choirgirl Hotel on our brand new album pages: once you're signed into the Guardian website, visit the album's dedicated page.
Or you could simply star rate it, or add it to one of your album lists. There are more than 3m new pages for you to explore as well as 600,000-plus artists' pages ? so if, for example, Joanna Newsom is actually more your thing, or Bat for Lashes, then head there, find that act's albums and get to work ...