Ranked: Tom Waits Albums from Worst to Best

In honor of Tom Waits' new album, Bad As Me, we take a look at music's patron saint of weird.

by Alex Heigl

Tom Waits occupies a beautifully twisted spot in American music: his meandering path from boozy bohemian jazzbo to elder statesman of old-world Americana is compelling and cinematic. It is with a fan's reverence I take on the daunting task of assessing that journey, in honor of his new album, Bad As Me. (As per Nerve convention, I've excluded compilations and live albums.)

19. Night on Earth, 1992

Waits' soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth is really only for completists. It's mostly instrumental, and great for scaring neighborhood kids on Halloween, but there's not much to it beyond that. "Back in the Good Old World" is an enjoyably boozy, nostalgic lurch, though.

Listen: "Good Old World (Waltz)"

 

18. Foreign Affairs, 1977

On Foreign Affairs, Waits' reach exceeded his grasp. Sprawling arrangements and overwrought vocals weigh the songs down and stifle the flow of the album. "Jack & Neal / California, Here I Come" is a neat display of Waits' Beat-influenced rambling, but the Gershwin-meets-Kerouac aesthetic never fully gels — except on the sweetly nonsensical pairing of Waits and Bette Midler on "I Never Talk to Strangers," which is just cheesy enough to work.

Listen: "I Never Talk to Strangers"

 

17. Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975

Recorded in a studio, but in front of a live audience, Nighthawks was probably a lot more fun if you were there. The whole thing leans more towards caricature than the nuanced sketches Waits would begin churning out later on, though his assembled band absolutely kills it. L.A. vet Pete Christlieb turns in a concise gem of a sax solo on "Warm Beer and Cold Women," one of the only songs on Nighthawks that manages to work past its own cleverness into real emotion.

Listen: "Warm Beer and Cold Women"

 

16. Blood Money, 2002

Blood Money finds Waits getting dangerously close to self-parody. To paraphrase one of his later songs, this album might as well be titled Clank Boom Growl. It's not that it's a bad album, but in contrast to the restrained Alice (released the same month), Blood Money feels limited in its range. Still, "God's Away on Business" is a great song (even though it sounds a bit like a lost track from The Nightmare Before Christmas), and "Another Man's Vine" is a nicely swooning tale of infidelity.

Listen: "Another Man's Vine"

 

Commentarium (32 Comments)

Oct 25 11 - 1:17am
Rubix

Ol'55 is so damn good it hurts.

Jan 14 12 - 5:02pm
Cormac C

Hard to pick a favourite off Rain Dogs for sure. I would've gone for Tango Till They're Sore. What a tune!!!

Mar 19 12 - 7:21am
Adam

Come on!!! I know it's all opinion, but whoever did this list is SOOOO off! I mean "Closing Time" and especially "The Heart of Saturdaynight" have to be in the top Five. Rolling Stone named "Heart of..." on of the 500 best albums of all time. "Nighthawks" is amazing too! I think the most Obvious choices were made here. Yeah Rain Dogs is a classic, I agree, but his BEST? No way.

Oct 25 11 - 7:47am
Tom g.

Gun Street Girl is so good. His lyrics in the Rain Dogs album are so vivid and beautiful.

Oct 25 11 - 8:10am
Rhodey

"Blue Valentines" never leaves my turntable, if I had one.

Oct 25 11 - 9:59am
Cait

Tom Waits is one of the greatest musicians of our time! I could go through his collections, album by album, and each song with have a different affect on me. His sharp-witted lyrics (esp. in his spoken word songs) are genius. I only wish I had been born in the 60s so I'd be able to witness him in action at the beginning.

Oct 25 11 - 10:35am
faulknersaysrelax

Yeah I dunno. I'd rather have seen him in the late 80s -- fresh off the Island trilogy. That early L.A. stuff gets a little cloying for me.

Oct 25 11 - 11:29am
Sean

I would have included his live albums on the list too: On "Big Time", the versions of "Rain Dogs" and "Way Down in the Hole" are excellent, and original songs like "Strange Weather" and "Falling Down" are amongst my favorite Tom Waits Songs. "Live on Broadway" is a great live album too. And why no "Orphans" on this list? The Bawlers cd is so beautiful: "Widow's Grove" and "Fannin Street" especially.

Oct 25 11 - 12:14pm
Alex Heigl

I know, I know. But we exclude live albums from Ranked, generally, and Orphans, despite having some great songs (I especially like "Down There by the Train" and "Never Let Go"), is a collection of b-sides and rarities -- we didn't include "The Early Years" volume 1&2 for the same reason, even though it has some favorites like "Had Me a Girl" and "Pancho's Lament."

Oct 25 11 - 1:07pm
mr. man

i'm not sure i'm ready to rank tom's work, but his career output is super impressive. the ones that get the most action in my truck are 'blood money,' 'orphans,' and 'mule.' i guess i favor the slightly newer stuff. gave 'bad as me' an online listen and wasn't sure what i thought. but i'm sure i'll buy it at some point.

Dec 27 11 - 5:31pm
Nick723

If you want to download "Bad As Me" for super cheap, right now Amazon has it at $2.99. I got it for Christmas and love the album.

Oct 25 11 - 1:08pm
Dude...

I might have agreed with this list had it not been completely screwed up.

Oct 25 11 - 1:23pm
cool

thanks for sharing

Oct 26 11 - 4:38pm
Dude...

I shouldn't be so harsh. No need for that. I've been a huge Waits fan for years and I in no way would want to tackle a task like this. Hats off to the writer for stepping up to the plate.

Oct 25 11 - 2:30pm
Jack

You are incorrect. There are no 'worst' albums by Tom Waits.

Oct 27 11 - 5:24pm
Prytania

I disagree. I think most of his pre 1978 work was weak. Lets not make him a saint.

After Steve Jobs I think we have the making of a "saint bubble"

Oct 27 11 - 6:20pm
jcm800

so true. It's a testament to a totally different era where an artist could make like five pretty so-so albums in a row but still show potential, so people would keep paying him to make records as he developed. The other side of that is out of all his records, only Rain Dogs and Bone Machine are essential in a moderate music snob collection.

Oct 29 11 - 5:59pm
idleprimate

I love his early work. his early work, the franks wild years trilogy and the newer crunchier experimental stuff are his best imo. my top ten would look pretty different from this list. not that i can imagine trying to rank a complete works. maybe tiers, but not album by album.

Nov 15 11 - 9:06pm
Esra

I disagree, Small Change is one of the most heartbreaking and fantastic records ever. Blue Valentines has some of Waits' very best songs, Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis, Kentucky Avenue and Blue Valentines are all essential!

Oct 25 11 - 2:40pm
Hombrelobo

Great list, and no small feat of compilation. "Anywhere I Lay My Head" and "Make it Rain" are sadly absent from your round-ups, but you can't get'em all.

"I'M CLOSE TO HEAVEN / CRUSHED AT THE GATE. " Chills....

Oct 25 11 - 3:51pm
Alex Heigl

Check out my Spotify playlist, recently edited down from six hours to two.

Oct 26 11 - 6:52am
bambi

tom waits is one of the true voices of america, and a hero for art, artists and people who love these everywhere across the world.

what more could you ask for but that he keeps going?

HOIST THAT RAG!

Oct 27 11 - 11:21pm
steve

i was in total agreement there at the beginning, but started disagreeing around Heart of Sat. Night (which should me much higher). but it's subjective.

the best three are, in no particular order: Bone Machine, Heart of Sat., and Closing Time

Oct 29 11 - 6:00pm
idleprimate

i love foreign affair and nighthawks.

Nov 03 11 - 4:36pm
Ol55

Cait, I too wish I was born in the 60's, because it was the 40's ;-) I can probably be counted as one of his oldest (in each sense of the word) fans. Been one since I first saw young Tom live at a nightclub in Ithaca in the early 70s - no band, just Tom and his piano in a very intimate setting. I was hooked. I'm still partial to his first three albums - Closing Time, Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks.

Nov 08 11 - 8:42am
jooran62

I believe that I would have included Orphans, Bawlers and Brawlers in there. it's pretty spectacular,(in my opinion).

Dec 12 11 - 3:54pm
CD

saw Tom Waitts at the Paramount in Oakland, 1977. Can't get much better than that! Set was an old gas station pump, and old chevy. For an encore, set changed, he came out in a ratty bathrobe, sat down in a ratty arm chair, looking at an old TV that was nothing but fuzz. Turned to the audience and said, "well, looks like nothing is on, night" and left the stage. Classic!

Feb 05 12 - 5:57pm
benjamin chiasson

tom waits is the man. all of his albums are pretty tit. all of the reviews on this site are weaksauce. terrible.

Mar 25 12 - 5:00pm
BigAl

Can't argue too much with the list; they put my three favourite albums of his in their top 5.

Aug 08 12 - 2:58pm
steve

Heart of Saturday Night has to be in the top 5

Aug 31 12 - 11:57pm
adam v

frank's wild years at number fucking 7? what are you smoking? definitely top 3.

Sep 03 12 - 3:57am
DanielleMarie

Nighthawks At The Diner is probably my second favorite Waits record (after Blue Valentine and maybe tied with Small Change for second place). I can't believe you rated it 3rd worst! Of all his records, I think Nighthawks is the one I've listened to, from start to finish, the most.