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Tom Waits Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

Tom Waits Closing Time

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

Foreign Affairs Tom Waits

1977
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

1980
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

Tom Waits Real Gone

2005
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 Tom Waits

2002
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 Tom Waits

2002
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

1975
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

2011
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

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.


#9 – The Heart of the Saturday Night

Tom Waits Heart of Saturday Night

1974
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

Tom Waits Franks 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)’.


#7 – Small Change

Tom Waits Small Change

1976
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 the most essential of Waits’ 21st century albums.


#5 – Bone Machine

Tom Waits 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 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-closing-time

1973
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

Tom Waits Mule Variations

1999
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

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 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

tom-waits-rain-dogs

1985
Swordfishtrombones was a terrific album, but Waits tops it with 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?

Read More:
Tom Waits album reviews
Worst to best lists

24 thoughts on “Tom Waits Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best Leave a comment

      • 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! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        • 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!

          Liked by 2 people

  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!

    Liked by 2 people

    • 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.

      Liked by 2 people

  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… 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  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!

    Liked by 2 people

      • 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.

        Liked by 3 people

  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

    Liked by 3 people

    • 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.

      Like

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