It feels like a milestone with Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Maybe because of the relief it spells for us in our unprecedented times of ambiguity during a global pandemic, or because it’s her fifth album—rounding out a full discography that officially spans four decades in this new year, or maybe every album feels like a milestone from the famously reclusive singer who has solidified a slow pace of artistic output with her last release, in 2012.
For all of these reasons, it feels warranted to geek out over Apple’s music—with that most irresistible and contentious of efforts: a list. With five albums under her belt now, Apple’s catalogue feels ripe for a ranking of this very discography. It’s all the more tempting because it’s no easy feat, considering how ingenious her music has consistently been these last four decades: how would you rank her albums from best to worst, or in her case: best to almost as best?
- The Idler Wheel… Her 2012 release has been aptly described as “distilled” Fiona. It best showcases her artistic sensibility, style, and skill in top form. Although the piano was synonymous with her identity and music at the start of her career, and still is—The Idler Wheel… transcended instrumentation, literally: its pared down sonic landscape was a stark departure from Apple’s prior albums, but her lyrics and melodies were instantly recognizable—and an extension as well, showing her artistic growth. These assets were brought to the foreground, and were always Apple’s greatest strengths. Songs like “Anything We Want”, “Hot Knife” and “Every Single Night” were as rich and potent as any music with multitudes more instrumentation. It’s her most consistent record, without a single weak track. Apple was at her peak: the songs don’t aim to be catchy, but the melodies are indelible anyway. It’s the perfect balance of artistic and accessible.
- When the Pawn… – Apple’s sophomore album was also an impressive balance of rich melodies and artistic innovation. In many respects, it’s her most satisfying album because it operates on all cylinders: it features beautiful production values, potent lyrics, and inventive sounds. It’s no wonder that this appears to be the fan favorite, from what I’ve read online—myself included. It draws from several influences and weaves it into a rich tapestry that can be sung along to, while also digested for its lyrical meaning: classic rock, hip-hop, show tunes, and spare piano torch songs. “Paper Bag” remains one of her best songs for good reasons: it’s lyrically and melodically taut yet bursting with ripe instrumentation that includes a brass section. “I Know” is one of her loveliest songs—a quiet, infectious meditation on adoration and contentment. When the Pawn… is the complete package.
- Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Undoubtedly her least pretty album, but perhaps because it’s the sequential last step in her artistic progression thus far: her most revealing, in a career that always prioritized revelation. Similar to her 2012 release, it moved even further from instrumentation and focused more on lyrics and themes. The result is a palpably cathartic album that marries deeply personal experiences with the primal impulse for release: pure art. What the melodies lack in accessibility, they make up in sheer urgency and authenticity—they’re like chants you made up in the schoolyard as you faced down bullies, or while you lounged quietly in the privacy of your home. They pulse with vitality. “Ladies”, “Heavy Balloon”, and “Relay” touch on themes like jealousy, betrayal, and mental health without being didactic or heavy-handed.
- Tidal – Her most accessible album for its sheer sonic gloss, it features her most catchy songs like “Criminal”, “Sleep to Dream”, and “Shadowboxer”. The seemingly surface beauty of these songs is not a detriment to their accomplishments. They sound as vibrant and relevant today as they did a quarter of a century ago. This album is ranked lower than her others only because an artist like Fiona can only improve with age, and starting from 18 years old at that, as she was when this album was released in 1996. The lyrics are not as mature as her subsequent albums, naturally, but the melodies and gorgeous piano-laden instrumentations aid them in their appeal.
- Extraordinary Machine – This was always my least favorite album, perhaps because it sounded less urgent and distinctive than the rest. There are a few classic gems that exemplify what I love most about Apple: “Parting Gift” is what she did best at the time: a girl with a piano singing about love askew; “Waltz: Better than Fine” is a throwback, reminiscent of her preceeding album’s foray into classic show tune influences. The rest of the album justified Apple’s talents, but there was a whimsical instrumentation and mood to this album that, though shouldn’t be synonymous with inferiority, was less appealing.