Tom Waits has enjoyed a remarkable career – emerging in the early 1970s as 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.
Tom Waits Albums: 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.
Like 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.
Tom 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.
While 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 Machine. Mule Variations is just about the quintessential Tom Waits album, with piano ballads, blues stompers, and more experimental pieces.
Tom 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. Waits 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.
Swordfishtrombones was a terrific album, but Waits tops it with sequel Rain Dogs. Rain 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 Dogs constructs a unique world of social outcasts; “the captain is a one-armed dwarf” is the record’s second line of the record.