In this sense, Waits is a testament to American creative exceptionalism. For more than four decades, he’s harnessed emotions and the powers of love and betrayal in the vein of Hank Williams. In that same time, he’s captured the blues in a way only Leadbelly could, and he’s harnessed contemporary, urban poetry in a way that would challenge the status quo of the music industry. Throughout sixteen studio albums, Waits has never had a particularly bad album. In fact, he’s set a remarkable standard for quality.
Thus, when looking at a career like that of Tom Waits, an interesting exercise through brilliance is to dissect his finest efforts. Here are ten of them in ranked order.
# 10 – Heartattack and Vine
‘Heartattack and Vine’ was Waits’ final album on the Asylum label before switching to Island Records. Typically a label shift for an artist is a red flag that a backroom deal went awry. The artist does everything they can to get out of their contract, and then they move along. In the case of Tom Waits during this time, however, one could argue that the label switch was a drastic and immediately noticeable change in tone for the songwriter’s releases.
‘Heartattack and Vine’ combines some of Tom Waits’ rock and roll musings of the late 1970s and culminates them into a fascinatingly strong debut into the 80s. Searing electric guitars, blues riffs, pianos and saxophones – they’re all present in varying capacities and ‘Heartattack and Vine’ benefits massively from being such a well-realized endeavor. The tonal shift afterward would forever change Waits’ approach to music, so one could argue this record was the end of an era, both figuratively and literally for him.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Heartattack and Vine,’ ‘Jersey Girl,’ and ‘Downtown.’
# 9 – The Black Rider 1993
Moving in the 1990s, Waits remained on Island Records and his style on the label continued to evolve in bizarre, but fantastical ways. In 93,’ Waits released ‘The Black Rider,’ a collection of songs designed to be the soundtrack of a play co-written by William Burroughs. Now, this wasn’t the first time Waits had dabbled in mixing his craft with other mediums. In the early 1980s, Waits recorded the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘One from the Heart,’ an effort that brought him significant acclaim.
‘The Black Rider,’ however, is much more obscure. It’s veiled in darkness and intrigue, and Waits fleshes out his characters’ backstories in twenty tracks of theatrical musings. In truth, it’s probably the most ‘consumable’ album Waits released during this time, however, since his penchant for experimental production often resulted in low-fi, off-kilter recordings. In contrast, ‘The Black Rider’ is a finely tuned, well oiled machine.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Lucky Day,’ ‘I’ll Shoot the Moon,’ and ‘Just the Right Bullets.’
# 8 – Small Change
‘Small Change,’ Waits’ junior recording effort, is a compelling jaunt through some of Waits’ finest songwriting. The album is probably best assessed as a bluesy jazz record. Waits’ vocal delivery and minimalistic instrumentation sounds like it would be most at home in a dark, dusty piano bar at three in the morning on a Wednesday.
Waits exercises an especially tactful hand over the contemporary and the antiquated on ‘Small Change,’ dropping seamless references to Australian bush ballads and New Orleans standards while igniting them with a passion that modernizes them unbelievably well. The record was received with near universal appraise, concreting Waits’ place in the songwriting culture of the 1970s.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues,’ ‘I Wish I Was In New Orleans,’ and ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking [Not Me.]’
# 7 – Bad As Me
It’s vital to know that all of these accolades of Tom Waits transition into the twenty-first century. While Waits hasn’t released music very often over the last sixteen years, the offerings that did arise not only rose his level of quality, but exceeded it in some ways. His most recent studio release was ‘Bad as Me’ in 2011, an album that feels as inspired and enthusiastic as anything Waits released in his heyday.
Rooted in the blues, Waits centers himself on ‘Bad as Me’ with an eclectic mixture of bombastic instrumental performances and soft, comfortable ballads. The tonal shifts compliment one another, and as a result, ‘Bad as Me’ is a listening experience unlike any other. From the opening notes of the bluesy ‘Chicago’ to the final, anthemic notes of ‘New Year’s Eve’ where Tom Waits croons ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ the album is a magnificent portrayal of an American songwriter’s continued relevance in the modern era.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Face to the Highway,’ ‘Satisfied,’ and ‘Hell Broke Luce.’
# 6 – Blue Valentine
1978’s ‘Blue Valentine’ is a record in Tom Waits’ catalog that stands off to the side on its own. During this time, one would find Waits on stage waving his hands in mystical shapes while loosely holding a lit cigarette, mesmerizing nightclub audiences. Waits’ performances on the album’s songs aren’t even always ‘musical,’ per say. He spits his poetry like a beat poet that’s been accented by a suave, small jazz outfit. Waits speaks plainly, but sophisticatedly.
Even the more intense performances like ‘Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard’ only utilize a handful of instruments. They’re performed very clean and orderly, something Waits would shift from in the following decade. Considering ‘Blue Valentine’ houses some of Waits’ most laser-sharp lyricism, the equally on-point execution of the whole album is fitting.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Somewhere,’ ‘Romeo Is Bleeding,’ and ‘Kentucky Avenue.’
# 5 -‘Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards’ – 2006
In 2006, Tom Waits released ‘Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.’ The album is three discs, each of which represents one of the title words. Thus, it’s broken down into three rather distinct efforts. As a result, the album is remarkably long – the length of three. Throughout the collection, however, Waits moves through not only some of his most elegant songwriting, but some of his most intriguing interpretation.
‘Orphans’ is a surprisingly cohesive hodgepodge of music. Waits and his wife penned a great deal of it, and it’s littered with old traditional standards and contemporary covers. Heck, there’s even an obscure Ramones cover sitting side by side with ‘Goodnight Irene.’ Since the album was released as a limited edition box set, it’s often not included on Waits’ official discography. Technically, it is a ‘compilation,’ since it includes cut recorded over two decades. As a full entity, however, it stands against any other studio effort Waits has ever put out, and deserves to be recognized as one of his best.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Rains on Me,’ ‘Lie to Me,’ and ‘Little Drop of Poison.’
# 4 – Closing Time
‘Closing Time’ is a most unique debut effort. Since its release in 1973, Waits has been rooted in its folksy musings, but has also shifted dramatically in nearly every other direction. You rarely find Waits softly singing ballads on an acoustic guitar after ‘I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’ or ‘Old Shoes.’ Ironically, the folk ballads the album is so well known for were never designed to be as folky as they are. Waits was aiming to record a jazz record, but ended up with a singer-songwriter staple. (Though it’s still doused in an ample dose of jazz influence.)
Waits’ voice is especially pristine on ‘Closing Time,’ not at all resembling the gruff, bourbon and nails fueled intensity he would later become synonymous with. The raw simplicity of the album cannot be understated, however, and Waits is in his barest, most essential element on the record. From ‘Old Shoes’ to ‘Grapefruit Moon,’ it’s one hundred percent unadulterated Tom Waits.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Martha,’ ‘Ol’ 55,’ and ‘Ice Cream Man.’
# 3- Swordfishtrombones
‘Swordfishtrombones’ is usually placed at the forefront of a trilogy, since ‘Rain Dogs’ and ‘Franks Wild Years’ chased it with similar musical and lyrical themes in the years that followed. The album is the first record the man produced on his own, and his first effort on Island Records. His drastic shift from ‘Heartattack and Vine’ is abundantly obvious, as the circus-esque percussion and erratic electric guitar banter surround Waits while he gruffly bombards the listener with dreary, but fierce imagery.
The album is arguably a quintessentially American record because it harnesses folklore and sounds from every American immigrant culture. There’s Scottish and Irish influence effortlessly abounding with wild west themes and frank, contemporary songwriting the likes of ‘Frank’s Wild Years.’ It’s an observational endeavor unlike any other. Waits dissects his country’s culture with splendidly poetic, but uncomplicated insight. His poetry is never ostentatious.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘In The Neighbourhood,’ ‘Town With No Cheer’ and ‘Frank’s Wild Years.’
# 2 – Rain Dogs
‘Rain Dogs,’ the middle effort of the aforementioned 1980s trilogy, is most surely the best of the three. Its wide-ranging assortment of sonic influence is unmatched. ‘Singapore’ is dramatically different than ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon,’ which is equally different to ‘Blind Love.’ The record conjures imagery of Waits dancing about an abandoned graveyard like Tom Bombadil skipping around his Tolkien forest. It’s joyfully whimsical and abnormal.
‘Rain Dogs’ is home to polkas, folk ballads, pirate anthems, tangos, and so much more. It has pop songs like ‘Downtown Train’ and traditionally-tinged tracks like ‘Hang Down Your Head.’ The band performing on ‘Rain Dogs’ is masterful, capturing Waits’ wacky Willy Wonka of Americana world with unforgettable grace. It’s an album so deeply-seated in American music, one would be remiss to not classify it as one of Waits’ best.
Tracks worth revisiting: ‘Hang Down Your Head,’ ‘Big Black Mariah,’ and ‘Cemetery Polka.’
# 1 – Mule Variations
Amidst all of these legendary records, there is a ‘perfect’ album that remains notably poignant – ‘Mule Variations.’ In 1999, Waits released his pinnacle effort – his masterpiece. The album incorporates the best of everything Waits had experimented with in the past, all wrapped up and ready to be served in a classic package. There’s gospel, folk, blues, and even pop sensibility – all roughly raw and organic in pure Tom Waits fashion.
‘Mule Variations’ is a monument to Waits’ place in the history of American songwriting. It doesn’t just exemplify his abilities as a writer, but his understanding of the cultures surrounding him. Waits taps into each element of the American artistic conscious on ‘Mule Variations’ in a way few, if any artists have ever been able to do so effectively. Every song on the album is a gem. It is a perfect album, which is an accolade that can’t be taken lightly, or given often.
Tracks worth revisiting: Who are we kidding? Go listen to all of it now. (But if you only have a few minutes, ‘Come On Up To The House,’ ‘Pony,’ and ‘Hold On’ are excellent glimpses into the album’s genius.)