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Tom Waits – Worst to Best

Tom Waits Heart of Saturday Night

I’ve been slogging through the catalogue of Tom Waits over the last couple of months – I’ve covered 16 of his albums, from 1973’s debut Closing Time, through to the 2006 triple set Orphans. Waits has enjoyed a remarkable career – initially a whisky soaked, piano playing balladeer, it seemed like his career was petering out in the early 1980s. But he reinvented himself with the junkyard clang of 1983’s excellent Swordfishtrombones, and his output from that album through to 1999’s Mule Variations is his peak.

I’ve found Waits’ 21st century albums often less appealing – his gruff voice is even thicker, and they’re often dark and uninviting. But more than almost any other artist of his generation, he’s remained a vital creative force. I’ve skipped a few of his albums – namely 1982’s Crystal Gayle collaboration One From The Heart, 1993’s soundtrack The Black Rider, and 2011’s Bad As Me.

Worst To Best

16. Foreign Affairs (1977). It’s unusual for a recording artist with such a long career to have their worst album within their first five years, but this one’s a mess. A few interesting tracks like ‘Burma Shave’, but lots of weird tracks that don’t go anywhere.

15. Heartattack and Vine (1980). Generic blues rock, with a few terrific ballads (‘Ruby’s Arms’).

14. Real Gone (2005). Some great tracks here, but it runs too long at 72 minutes with little stylistic variation from dirty blues.

13. Alice (2002). Love the title track, but there’s little new ground covered on this soundtrack.

12. Blood Money (2002). Another soundtrack, rougher than the gentle Alice.

11. Nighthawks at the Diner (1975). Live album with all new tracks, and plenty of Waits’ entertaining monologues in between tracks – the man could have forged an alternate career as a stand-up comedian.

10. Blue Valentine (1978). Waits’ story-telling album, with tales like ‘Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis’.

9. The Heart of the Saturday Night (1974). The second installment from Waits’ early phase as a blues influenced singer-songwriter.

8. Frank’s Wild Years (1987). Often regarded as part of a trilogy with
Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, but it lacks the unfettered enthusiasm of its predecessors.

7. Small Change (1976). Waits’ exploration of seedy night life reached a peak here, as his vocals grew more and more lugubrious.

6. Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. A triple set collating leftover songs and new recordings, and the most essential of Waits’ 21st century albums.

5. Bone Machine (1992)
Tom Waits Bone MachineLike Frank’s Wild Years, Bone Machine offers a different spin on the sound that Waits had developed on Swordfishtrombones. This time, the arrangements are very simple; most of these songs only have two or three instrument tracks on them, often a guitar, a bass, and rough percussion. The simple sound lends itself both to propulsive rockers like ‘Goin’ Out West’ and tear jerkers like ‘Whistle Down The Wind’, and Bone Machine is another very solid entry into Waits’ strong catalogue of the 1980s and 1990s.

4. Closing Time (1973)
tom-waits-closing-timeTom Waits’ career begins with what’s arguably the most straightforward album in his catalogue, a relatively sedate collection of jazzy piano ballads. With his least hoarse vocals ever, and a musical palette limited to conventional instruments, the focus here is on his song writing and most of these songs are terrific. While Closing Time is largely centred around a jazzy piano style, there are also hints of West Coast rock (the Eagles would later cover opening track ‘Ol 55’) and country, while ‘Ice Cream Man’ brings an upbeat groove and sassy lyrics. Lyrically, Waits is establishing an image as a lovelorn, alcoholic, late-night bar crooner, and if occasionally the album slips into cliche territory, both musically and lyrically (‘Midnight Lullaby’), it’s melodic and coherent enough that it hangs together as one of Waits’ stronger albums.

3. Mule Variations (1999)
Tom Waits Mule VariationsWhile Tom Waits had a great run of albums from Swordfishtrombones until the end of the 20th century, Mule Variations is a highlight; it’s more fun and diverse than the subdued Frank’s Wild Years and the serious Bone MachineMule Variations is just about the quintessential Tom Waits album, with piano ballads, blues stompers, and more experimental pieces.

2. Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Tom Waits SwordfishtrombonesTom Waits went through a major career shift between 1980’s Heartattack and Vine and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones. He left Asylum Records for Island, and he married Kathleen Brennan, a script analyst. Brennan had adventurous music tastes, and introduced Waits to outsider music like Captain Beefheart. This informed Waits’ approach, and he transitioned from conventional piano and guitar arrangements to utilising unusual textures like the harmonium, glass harmonica, bagpipes, and marimba, sometimes reminiscent of American composer and instrument maker Harry Partch. The tapestry of junkyard sounds would continue throughout the rest of his career, and Swordfishtrombones is the pivotal record of Waits’ discography.

1. Rain Dogs (1985)
tom-waits-rain-dogsSwordfishtrombones was a terrific album, but Waits tops it, seemingly effortlessly, with its sequel Rain DogsRain Dogs inhabits the same Captain Beefheart inspired musical space, with the unusual instrumentation like marimbas and accordions, although there’s a more extensive cast of backing musicians, notably with Marc Ribot and Keith Richards contributing as guitarists. Lyrically Rain Dogsconstructs a unique world of social outcasts; “the captain is a one-armed dwarf” is the second line of the album.”

For more detailed Tom Waits reviews, please visit https://albumreviews.blog/reviews/tom-waits/

Do you have a favourite Tom Waits album?

20 thoughts on “Tom Waits – Worst to Best Leave a comment

      • I still think it’s one of his greatest album! But some of my love for it is maybe down to discovery Tom as a teenage but I didn’t tell the tale of my first listening in that post! Maybe will have write another blog about that!
        Your list is pretty outstanding too! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, it wasn’t the very first one. At the time I live in a small country town and back then I had to travel to the big city just to buy music and I got a pile of Waits and other artists at the time. Some reason that one jumped out at me! I guess, I better tell the tale of the very first listen/album, when I write the blog post I’ll try and remember to send you a link!

          Liked by 1 person

  1. The 1001 list picked 5 of his albums – they chose your #1,2,5,11,15.
    I admire that you listened to all of them, I learned he’s one I quite enjoy, but as a ‘palette cleanser’ between other artists.
    Nice list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do really enjoy his first couple of albums, and the ones between 1983 and 1999 – just the other ones were tough sometimes. I do think the 1001 album choices are a little random – often I agree with them, but not in the case of Waits.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a simple man, I see Tom Waits, I hit Like.

    We have all of his records here, and are pretty big (in Japan) fans. Good on you for making this effort to rank (most of) his albums!

    Myself, I rank Mule Variations higher, but you’ve done well by my thoughts on the matter… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wonderful! Loved this, but I appear to be more fond of later releases than you, it seems (though Orphans wouldn’t make it on account of it being a bit of a slog!). Mule Variations is my #1, with Bone Machine #2. Swordfishtrombones then Rain Dogs, with Blood Money coming in at #5. Much of a muchness between the rest, though I might opt for Real Gone (though overly long, its highlights are wonderful). Of course, I may change my mind tomorrow! Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I think I prefer the character in his voice. Though I realised I missed Bad As Me. That’d push itself into the top 5 and today – because you got me in a Waits mood – push Rain Dogs out. Blasphemy, I know, but I think I’m very much an Anti years Waits fan most of the time.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m sorry to say, I’m not a believer. So your epic Waitsian journey does not move me especially in the musical sense, though I bow deeply to your commitment.

    Having said that, the first three I owned were your #16, #15, and #10. So perhaps the Gods of Tom were against me from the start.

    I did, however, see live on TV the famous (infamous?) Don Lane interview, back in 1979 I think. It’s probably on youtube.

    Bruce

    Liked by 2 people

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