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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"