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.
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"
15. Heartattack and Vine, 1980
A schizophrenic collection of songs rough-edged and tender, Heartattack and Vine is almost more interesting as a museum piece: all of the elements of Waits, past and future, are in place here, though they've yet to be integrated. There's the stomp and holler of the title track, the faux-nightclub atmosphere of "In Shades," and the weepy grandeur of "Ruby's Arms." "Jersey Girl" was later appropriated by Bruce Springsteen for certainly one of the most fitting Waits covers. (The least fitting is, of course, Rod Stewart's "Downtown Train.")
Listen: "Ruby's Arms"
14. The Heart of Saturday Night, 1974
Though Heart contains a little too much of the finger-snappin' leer that characterizes Waits' early work, it's still pretty charming. "Depot, Depot" is entertainingly bluesy, and the title track is a fine portrait of a weekend night's ephemeral glee. "Please Call Me, Baby" glides along on soaring strings and Waits' wounded croon: "If I exorcise my devils, then my angels may leave too."
Listen: "Please Call Me, Baby"
13. One from the Heart, 1982
The score for an overlooked Francis Ford Coppola film, One From the Heart finds Waits playing the bad cop to Crystal Gayle's good one, and the pairing actually makes more sense than you'd expect. Like many of Waits' jazzier albums, One From the Heart features a top-notch backing band: drummer Shelly Mann had worked with Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans, and Teddy Edwards provides great sax throughout. It's a fine addition to the Waits canon.
Listen: "Picking Up After You"
12. The Black Rider, 1993
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets was a stage musical — a collaboration between Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs. Though it's disjointed and surreal, the album is still a welcome break from the barroom aesthetic of Waits' previous work. Burroughs himself pops up on "T‘Ain't No Sin," and Tom tries on a new accent in the weirdly endearing title track.
Listen: "Just the Right Bullets"
11. Blue Valentine, 1978
Blue Valentine dropped the string section (with the exception of Waits' great take on West Side Story's "Somewhere") and added the shimmering sounds of electric piano to Waits' rapidly changing voice. The result is a bluesier album, but one that doesn't sacrifice the emotions of its predecessors. "Red Shoes by the Drugstore" manages to be both driving and atmospheric, by virtue of the electric piano and relentless drums. "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," adapted from the Charles Bukowski poem "Charlie, I'm Pregnant," is a crushing character portrait with one of the all-time greatest lyrical twists at its conclusion.
Listen: "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis"
10. Alice, 2002
Alice is a collaboration by Waits, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and playwright Robert Wilson, about Alice Liddell, who inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books. The album finds Waits at his most subdued and almost off-puttingly somber. Alice is almost a period piece: the violins are all Stroh violins (which are are outfitted with small tin horns to amplify their sound), and the whole thing sounds like a lost cabaret work.
9. Bad As Me, 2011
Waits' most recent songs are also, surprisingly, some of his most concise. Where some artists grow less focused as they age, Waits has sharpened his vision, cut his run times, and made a lean, driven album. The album's opener, "Chicago," is a horn-driven uptempo rave, and "Bad As Me" finds Waits cycling through his voices over an off-kilter beat. "Hell Broke Luce" is a real show stopper, a positively apocalyptic vision of war from the front lines, with Waits bellowing "How is it the only ones responsible for making this mess / got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamned desk?"
Listen: "Bad As Me"
8. Small Change, 1976
Small Change shows Waits in transition. His voice is newly rough, but he hasn't yet shed the trappings of his early work: the string section is still present and mawkish sentimentality is still at the fore. Some of it is grating: "Pasties and a G-String" seems almost like a mocking caricature of his blues and jazz idols, and on "Jitterbug Boy," he slurs his words nearly past the point of comprehension. That said, "Step Right Up" is one of the most entertaining songs he's ever cut, and features the indelible line "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away."
Listen: "Step Right Up"
7. Franks Wild Years, 1987
Though Franks Wild Years is uneven and cluttered, it's still graced with some of Waits' best songs. "Hang on St. Christopher" barrels along with manic glee, and "Straight to the Top" is a demented tale of aspiration presented both in "Rhumba" and "Vegas" form ("Rhumba" wins). "Temptation" displays the full capabilities of Waits' ravaged but surprisingly agile falsetto. Finally, "Innocent When You Dream" caps off the proceedings as a wistful retrospective; the "78" version recreates the song as though heard through a hole in a Lost Generation Paris cafe wall.
Listen: "Innocent When You Dream (78)"
6. Real Gone, 2006
Real Gone is an experimental work, even by Waits' standards. He ditches the piano in favor of looped samples of his own beatboxing, and even includes turntables on a few songs, courtesy of son Casey. It also contains his most explicitly political songs in "Sins of the Father" and "The Day After Tomorrow," the latter one of the most affecting songs ever written from a soldier's point of view. "Hoist That Rag" is a particularly heavy song with a deceptively simple guitar solo from long-time collaborator Marc Ribot, while "Don't Go In to That Barn" is just plain frightening, featuring lyrics like "When the river is low they find old bones / And when they plough they always dig up chains."
Listen: "Hoist That Rag"
5. Closing Time, 1973
Though Waits' first album literally sounds like the work of a different person, within this hunk of ‘70s strings and tender L.A. balladry, Waits was dropping some real gems. "Ol' 55," which was notably covered by the Eagles, is downright beautiful, and "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You" is probably as close to Jackson Browne as Waits ever got. (I mean that as a compliment.) This may not be the Waits who got famous, but it's still a great standalone work and proof that Waits didn't have to be banging on trash cans to write great songs.
Listen: "Ol' 55"
4. Mule Variations, 1999
Though Mule Variations isn't as adventurous as Real Gone or as taut as Bone Machine, it's a strong work that shows even when Waits takes his time in between albums, he never misses a beat. His beatboxing on "Big in Japan" prefigures Real Gone, and the monologue in "What's He Building in There?" proves he doesn't have to bellow to be scary. "Come On Up to the House" would be the by-now-requisite "ballad," but the lurching drums and withering harmonica solo by Charlie Musselwhite defy such easy categorization.
Listen: "Come On Up to the House"
3. Swordfishtrombones, 1983
Sort of a sister album to Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones suffers only from a lack of focus — three of its fifteen songs are instrumentals, and "Frank's Wild Years," "Johnsburg, Illinois," and "Trouble's Braids," feel more like sketches than actual songs. Spiked with brilliance as it is, the album still feels more like a warm up to Rain Dogs than a stand-alone masterpiece. Highlights include the stately "In the Neighborhood," the rollicking "Down, Down, Down," and the badass field holler, "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six."
Listen: "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six"
2. Bone Machine, 1992
Stark and driven where much of his '80s work is lush and meandering, Bone Machine is one of Waits' darkest albums, though it displays a certain gallows humor, notably on "Goin' Out West," with its twisted blues boasting: "I know karate, voodoo too — I'm gonna make myself available to you / I don't need no makeup, I got real scars." The album is relentlessly harrowing and bleak, and its echo-laden, stripped-down production is primal and unnerving. But there's tenderness here, too: "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" is an innocent, sing-songy chant plaintively rendered over a simple arrangement, while "Who Are You" and "That Feel" are two of Waits' most nakedly emotional songs.
Listen: "Goin' Out West"
1. Rain Dogs, 1985
Oft-cited as Waits' defining work, Rain Dogs is a beautiful summation of Waits' surreal take on nearly the entire history of American music (and some international flavor as well), from the hypnotic hillbilly drone of "Gun Street Girl" to the murky stomp of "Big Black Mariah" (one of several notable guest appearances by Keith Richards). It's impossible for me to pick a "best song" from this album, but I'm going to go with a more subdued pick: the haunting ballad "Time," which features some of Waits' most poetic lyrics.
And for a much more in-depth (and I mean much more) look at the Waits canon, check out my Tom Waits playlist for Spotify.