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 and 1993’s soundtrack The Black Rider.
Tom Waits Albums: 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
Heartattack and Vine was Waits’ final album for Asylum Records. It’s dominated by generic blues rock, but it’s worth hearing the terrific ballads like ‘Ruby’s Arms’ and ‘Jersey Girl’.
#15 – Real Gone
Like Heartattack and Vine, Real Gone focuses on bluesy rock, but the 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, 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
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 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
The Heart of the Saturday Night is the second installment 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
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 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
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 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
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.
#2 – 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 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.
#1 – Rain Dogs
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.