Tom Waits Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

California’s Tom Waits has enjoyed a remarkable career. Emerging in the early 1970s as a whisky-soaked, piano-playing balladeer, his career was seemingly 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 and respected creative force. I’ve skipped a few of his albums – namely 1982’s Crystal Gayle collaboration One From The Heart and 1993’s soundtrack The Black Rider.

Tom Waits Albums Ranked from Worst To Best

Foreign Affairs Tom Waits

#17 Foreign Affairs

1977
It’s unusual for a prolific recording artist to release their worst album within the first five years of their career. The messy Foreign Affairs, however, is an exception. There are fascinating tracks like ‘Burma Shave’, but Waits pushes the envelope too far on the lengthy ‘Potter’s Field’. There are also uncharacteristic lapses of taste, like the Bette Midler duet on ‘I Never Talk to Strangers’.


Tom Waits Heartattack and Vine

#16 Heartattack and Vine

1980
Heartattack and Vine was Waits’ final album for Asylum Records. Without the experimental leanings and dirty production of his later years, the bluesy rockers sound generic here. It’s a shame because the title track features one of Waits’ best one-liners – “there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.” Heartattack and Vine is worth tracking down for terrific ballads like ‘Ruby’s Arms’ and ‘Jersey Girl’.


#15 Real Gone

2005
Like Heartattack and Vine, Real Gone focuses on bluesy rock, but its dirtier sound is much more agreeable. Tracks like ‘Hoist That Rag’ and ‘Make It Rain’ are terrific, but Real Gone outstays its welcome – it runs for 72 minutes with little stylistic variation. The ten-minute ‘Sins of My Father’ is a particular offender.


#14 Alice

2002
Alice was written in for a play about Lewis Carroll. It was first performed in 1992. Waits didn’t release his interpretations of its songs until a decade later. A bootleg of the songs circulated for years, apparently after Waits’ car was broken into. The gorgeous title track is one of Waits’ career highlights, and there are other beautiful ballads like ‘Fish and Bird’.


#13 Blood Money

2002
Released on the same day as Alice, Blood Money is also a soundtrack. It was written for a musical based on the unfinished play Woyzeck by German playwright Georg Büchner. In contrast to the mellow Alice, Blood Money focuses on the rougher side of Waits’ music. There are few ballads and lots of noisy oom pah pahs.


Tom Waits Nighthawks at the Diner

#12 Nighthawks at the Diner

1975
Nighthawks is a live album with all-new tracks, recorded with jazz musicians like pianist Mike Melvoin. There are notable songs like ‘Better Off Without A Wife’, with the great line “I don’t have to ask permission/If I want to go out fishing”. Nighthawks at the Diner is also memorable for Waits’ entertaining monologues between tracks – he could have forged a respectable career as a stand-up comedian.


#11 Bad As Me

2011
Waits’ most recent studio album works as a career summary. It showcases his stylistic range, from the sentimental balladry of ‘Kiss Me’ to the rebellious stomp of the title track. The concise songs guarantee a fast-moving and entertaining listen.


Blue Valentine Tom Waits

#10 Blue Valentine

1978
Blue Valentine is Waits’ storytelling album, with vignettes like ‘Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis’. His cover of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story is surprisingly affecting.


Tom Waits Heart of Saturday Night

#9 The Heart of Saturday Night

1974
The Heart of Saturday Night is the second instalment from Waits’ early phase as a blues-influenced singer-songwriter. If you’re only familiar with his later records, it’s surprisingly pretty with (comparatively) smooth vocals and pretty tunes like ‘Diamonds on the Windshield’.


#8 Frank’s Wild Years

1987
Frank’s Wild Years is often regarded as the concluding part of a trilogy, along with Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. It lacks the unfettered enthusiasm of its predecessors, but it’s often great, like the Sinatra imitation on ‘Straight To The Top (Vegas)’.


Tom Waits Small Change

#7 Small Change

1976
Waits’ exploration of seedy night-life reached its apex on Small Change. His vocals grew more lugubrious, while song titles like ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’ and ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)’ are good indications of the record’s subject matter. Waits recreates a carnival barker on ‘Step Right Up’, and there’s the sweeping ballad of ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, later covered by Rod Stewart.


Orphans Tom Waits

#6 Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

2006
Orphans is a triple-CD set collating leftover songs and new recordings, organised by genre into brawlers, bawlers, and bastards. It’s generous, running over three hours. I always gravitate to the Bawlers disc of ballads, with highlights like ‘You Can Never Hold Back Spring’ and a cover of The Ramones’ ‘Danny Says’. There’s a lot of great music in this set, and it’s easily the most essential of Waits’ 21st-century albums.


Tom Waits Bone Machine

#5 Bone Machine

1992
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 simple; most of these songs only have two or three instrumentalists on them, often a guitar, a bass, and rough percussion. The unadorned sound helps both 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 Closing Time

#4 Closing Time

1973
Tom Waits’ career begins with 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 songwriting 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 the 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’ strongest albums.


Tom Waits Mule Variations

#3 Mule Variations

1999
While Tom Waits had a great run of albums from Swordfishtrombones in 1993 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 the quintessential Tom Waits album, demonstrating the range of his oeuvre with piano ballads, blues stompers, and more experimental pieces. It’s illuminating to hear Waits change gears from the mournful ‘Take It With Me’ to the joy of ‘Come On Up To The House’, two very different meditations on mortality. 


Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones

#2 Swordfishtrombones

1983
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 taste 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.


#1 Rain Dogs

tom-waits-rain-dogs

1985
Swordfishtrombones was a terrific album, but Waits tops it with its 1985 sequel Rain DogsRain Dogs inhabits the same Captain Beefheart-inspired musical space, with 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 memorable second line.

Do you have a favourite Tom Waits album?



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Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

43 Comments

    • I like that one – I was tempted to mark it down so I could have a narrative that Tom Waits was weak between Small Change and Swordfishtrombones, but it’s pretty solid.

      • 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! 🙂

          • 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!

  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!

    • 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.

  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… 😉

    • It was tough in places – I feel like he lost his way in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his 21st century albums are good but his voice gets hard to love.

  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!

      • 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.

  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

    • I like Cave, although probably not enough to listen to almost everything he’s ever done, like I have with Waits. They’re similar, but feel like Waits is more musical and Cave more about the lyrics. I really like 1990s records like Henry’s Dream and The Good Son though.

  5. Choice list! I love Tom Waits, but don’t listen to him as often as I did from ’99 to about 2007.

    I agree with most of the album assessments, save one: I’d rate Heartattack and Vine higher. Not top-tier, but for me, not second-to-last. It’s a “transitional” album in every sense of the word, Waits has one foot in the past, one in the future. It’s at least half a great album. The title track and Downtown could be on Swordfishtrombones, and wouldn’t look out of place next to Gin Soaked Boy or Down, Down, Down. And Jersey Girl, and Ruby’s Arms are great ballads despite the production. They’d be much better if producer Bones Howe attacked them the same way he did the “rockers”. But he couldn’t stop himself from adding strings and other treacly accoutrements to them. (For example, check the live version of Ruby’s Arms on Big Time.) That’s a big reason why Waits had to break ties with Howe when he recorded Swordfishtrombones.

    • I feel like the big difference is the arrangements – the rockers on Heartattack and Vine don’t have the cool instrumentation on later albums, like the junkyard percussion. The songs are generally pretty good though.

      Most of my Waits listening was probably over that exact same time frame. He’s been a lot quieter lately, although I heard he was back recording.

  6. Gee, we have a very different take on Waits.
    Rain Dogs #1 goes without saying.
    But in my top 5 would also include the following:

    Blood Money (which can be paired with Alice as effectively being a double album) – absolutely unique vocally and musically and the best (IMHO) of his fully experimental phase. The ballads on this are amongst his most devastating and delicate – All the World is Green is one of the best songs he’s ever written.

    Heartattack and Vine – I can’t understand the description “generic blues rock” to the point that I wonder how carefully you’ve actually listened to this. It has the same demented, back street, circus vibes as Rain Dogs and you can clearly hear the development of the sound that’s coming on Rain Dogs and even later albums like Alice. Plus it has a string of absolute bangers on it – Mr Siegal, the title track, Downtown, Til the Money Runs out are all top shelf, and then the ballads are less mawkish than a lot from this era. Finally, the production values and Tom’s singing are A+ on this album. The peak of the early years and definitely not his 16th best album!

    Closing Time – we agree on this one.

    Small Change – definitely think this is better than #7.

    Bad As Me would also be close to top 5 for me.

    • Thanks for writing in. One problem I have with the blues stuff on Heartattack and Vine is that it lacks the experimental spirit of later Waits stuff. Somewhere shortly after, he started listening to Captain Beefheart and recruiting musicians who were better equipped to realise a dirty blues sound. Here he’s playing straightforward blues with a bunch of west coast session guys, and it’s just not as interesting despite some good lyrics.

      I’m also confused about Rain Dogs being the consensus choice of most people who’ve written in, but Swordfishtrombones not getting a mention. They’re very similar IMO – both in sound and in quality.

  7. No Black Rider?
    Personally, I think Real Gone is one of his best albums. But it takes multiple listens for it to hit you. Or your partner to cheat on you, then you really feel it.

    • I listen to everything I cover on this site multiple times – according to last.fm I’ve listened to tracks from Real Gone 281 times – so about 16 spins (and that doesn’t count playing the physical copy, just plays from my Itunes library).

  8. I’m just trawling through Waits’ work now – guess what my top three are – Heartattack And Vine, The Heart Of Saturday Night and Foreign Affairs! It’s funny how we are often diametrically opposed within the framework of one artist’s work that we both like. When he goes more musically eclectic with Swordfishtrombones is not quite for me, I’m an early phase bluesy Waits man.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone rep for Foreign Affairs! Heartattack and Vine tends to be a bit polarising, while Heart is a solid early album that gets lost in the shuffle.

  9. For some reason, I often find I like albums the critics (and most people) don’t. Another example is David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down, which I really like, and Stevie Wonder’s Secret Life Of Plants. Really popular albums often are not my favourites – Born In The USA, Brothers In Arms etc.

    • Born in the USA and Brothers in Arms are a bit different though – they’re the highest-sellers, but not really the critical favourites.

  10. Tom Waits has done some interesting stuff. It may be accessible and more mainstream, but Closing Time is one of the most beautiful, evocative and mesmeric albums I have every listened to.

    • I have a bit soft spot for Closing Time – I don’t find it quite as unique as Waits’ later stuff but it’s still great.

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