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, 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 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 recording artist with such a long career to have their worst album within their first five years, but Foreign Affairs is a mess. There are fascinating tracks like ‘Burma Shave’, but also odd failed experiments like the Bette Midler duet on ‘I Never Talk to Strangers’.

#16 – Heartattack and Vine

Tom Waits Heartattack and Vine

Heartattack and Vine was Waits’ final album for Asylum Records. Without the experimental streak of his later years, the bluesy rockers sound generic. It’s worth tracking down, however, for the 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 great, but Real Gone runs too long at 72 minutes with little stylistic variation.

#14 – Alice

Alice was written in the early 1990s for a play about Lewis Carroll but wasn’t recorded until years later. The gorgeous title track is one of Waits’ very best songs, and there are other beautiful ballads like ‘Fish and Bird’.

#13 – Blood Money

Blood Money is another soundtrack, this time for a musical based on a Woyzeck play. It presents the rougher side of Waits’ music – few ballads and lots of noisy oom pah pahs.

#12 – Nighthawks at the Diner

Tom Waits Nighthawks at the Diner

Nighthawks is a live album with all-new tracks, recorded with jazz musicians. 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”. It’s also notable for Waits’ entertaining monologues between tracks – he could have forged a career as a stand-up comedian.

#11 – Bad As Me

Waits’ most recent studio album 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 Tom Waits

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 the Saturday Night

Tom Waits Heart of Saturday Night

The Heart of the 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 nice 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

Tom Waits Small Change

Waits’ exploration of seedy night-life reached a peak on Small Change, as his vocals grew more and more lugubrious. He plays a carnival barker on ‘Step Right Up’, and there’s epic balladry of ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’.

#6 – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

Orphans Tom Waits

Orphans is a triple-CD set collating leftover songs and new recordings, organised by genre into brawlers, bawlers, and bastards. 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

Tom Waits 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 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

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 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 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

Tom Waits Mule Variations

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 MachineMule Variations is just about the quintessential Tom Waits album, with piano ballads, blues stompers, and more experimental pieces.

#2 – Swordfishtrombones

Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones

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 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 Dogs constructs a unique world of social outcasts; “the captain is a one-armed dwarf” is the record’s second line of the record.

Do you have a favourite Tom Waits album?

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    • 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… 😉

    • Yeah, Mule Variations is really good – seems like a good summary of his career, and I don’t think any of his albums after that have been as good.

    • 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.


    • 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. 1. Closing Time 2. The Heart Of Saturday Night 3. Nighthawk At The Diner 4. Foreign Affairs 5. Blue Valentine

  8. Although I do like the fact that you put Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones at number 1 and 2 respectively.

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