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
#17 Foreign Affairs
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’.
#16 Heartattack and Vine
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
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.
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
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.
#12 Nighthawks at the Diner
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
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.
#10 Blue Valentine
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.
#9 The Heart of Saturday Night
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
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)’.
#7 Small Change
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.
#6 Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
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.
#5 Bone Machine
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.
#4 Closing Time
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.
#3 Mule Variations
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 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
Swordfishtrombones was a terrific album, but Waits tops it with its 1985 sequel Rain Dogs. Rain 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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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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