Discover: 14 Essential Tom Waits Albums

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 10.25.11 in Collections

It’s been seven years since Tom Waits last graced us with that growl, delivering doomsday diatribes like a lurid carnival barker on Real Gone. Now that his latest album — the shape-shifting, career-spanning sounds of Bad As Me — is finally upon us, eMusic thought we’d revisit key records from throughout the singer’s storied career. That goes for everything from the barhopping Beat poetry of Nighthawks at the Diner to the high-wire theatrics and inspired madness of Blood Money and Alice

The Albums

Real Gone

Tom Waits

Opening with the swish of turntables worked by his son Casey, Tom Waits's 17th album wastes no time throwing down the gauntlet. If The Mule Variations leaned on past advances, Real Gone kicks away the crutches, forcing Waits to find his footing again. There's not a note of keyboard on the entire album, and though there's no disguising his voice, Waits buries it in distortion and puts it low in the mix, forcing it to fight its way to the top. "Shake It" distills the distorted stomp of Bone Machine to its infernal essence, while "Metropolitan Glide" fulfills Waits's desire to create a "dance craze," albeit one that by the sound of it can only be engaged in by skeletons. "Circus" is just warped music box and record-player static, an end-times take on one of Waits's pet subjects. The 10-minute "Sins of the Father" is the boldest step, a slowly building narrative built on a minimalist riff, less "Burma Shave" than it is "Desolation Row." Even after so many years, the old conjurer still has a few tricks left.

Blood Money

Tom Waits

The retitled soundtrack to Robert Wilson's stage production of Woyzeck is the best of Waits's theatrical efforts, at its height the equal of anything on Bone Machine or Mule Variations. Perhaps having the spine of Georg Büchner's play to build on freed Waits to compose at will, or perhaps he'd simply gotten the hang of collaborating with Wilson, but Blood Money feels like a full-throated Tom Waits album rather than an adjunct to an unseen story. "Misery Is the River of the World" raises the curtain in familiar sturm und drang style, but "All the World Is Green" broadens the palette to include the saw of a melancholy cello. Reading up on Büchner's play might deepen your appreciation, but it's not a necessity; the songs tell their own stories as well as fitting into a larger one. "God's Away on Business" leans closest to the Waits-by-numbers of The Black Rider, but it's infused with a knowing wink, as if Waits knows we've all been here before.


Tom Waits

An effective children's story depends on a perfect balance of menace and wonder. Disney golly-gee'd Lewis Carroll's Alice stories into toothlessness, while Jefferson Airplane overplayed their darkness — the ominous "White Rabbit" is practically an anti-drug commercial. But Tom Waits is the ideal carnival barker to lure kiddies to the other side of the looking glass. His voice suitably animated and wheezy as a dilapidated accordion, his spirit possessed by a giddily insatiable appetite for decadence, Waits offers a temptation that's equal parts alluring and terrifying, a balance of excitement and fear best summed up when he asserts, "Everything you can think of is true."

Waits' version of Wonderland is like a Bowery flophouse transplanted to Weimar Germany, populated by two-faced boys ("Poor Edward") and ranting Teutons ("Kommienezuspadt") instead of manic rabbits and murderous queens — in short, a place recognizable to anyone who's followed his career-long fascination with what he once dubbed "a world going on underground."

Originally composed for a 1992 Robert Wilson stage production, the songs here occasionally feel programmatic and, as a piece, can lack narrative flow. But most of the material stands on its own, even out of context, especially the title track, one of his finest love songs to date.

Mule Variations

Tom Waits

After another lengthy break between albums, Waits emerged with an album that sums up his post-Swordfishtrombones career without breaking much in the way of new ground. Given that there's no one else working his turf, the lack of innovation isn't an issue; the title, with its allusions to stubbornness and repetition, proclaims as much. "What's He Building" is a distorted, paranoid monologue delivered atop radio squeals and disembodied whistles, as if Waits was constantly fiddling with the frequency, trying to tune in his own signal. "Get Behind the Mule" draws on a bluesy well not much tapped since Heartattack and Vine, and there's a gentleness to "House Where Nobody Lives" that had largely slipped out of his repertoire, but they're variations on a theme and not strides forward. By this point, Waits has made so many consistently surprising records that it's almost disorienting to come across one that's tweaking the formula rather than changing it up. There are still great moments, but they're great in the ways we've come to expect.

Nighthawks At The Diner

Tom Waits

The best of Waits's early records captures him in front of a live audience at the fictitious Rafael's Silver Cloud Lounge, actually a recording studio turned into a makeshift speakeasy. Like the setting itself, Waits's booze-addled persona is both real and staged, a performance so effortless that it seems to inhabit him rather than the other way around. Apart from the bachelor anthem "Better Off Without a Wife" (memorably covered by Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley), the songs lose something out of context, but they thrive in Nighthawks' tobacco-stained atmosphere. Waits's interstitial patter is as engaging as the songs themselves, rife with hepcat lingo and dive-bar jokes. The supple jazz quartet are clearly in on the joke; Jim Hughart's upright bass acts as a counterpoint to Waits's sleepy drawl. Prefiguring the otherwordliness of Waits's later recordings as well as his interest in theatrical spectacle, Nighthawks conjures a world as seductive as any film noir.

Closing Time

Tom Waits

Tom Waits began his career at the end, portraying a washed-up saloon singer with a barrel full of a broken hearts and tip jar stuffed with dreams — at the ripe old age of 24. A little bit Sinatra and a little bit Kristofferson, couched in an early '70s orchestral soft-rock milieu, Waits' debut demonstrates a precocious mastery of songwriting conventions that would form the basis for his later innovations.

"I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You" is a barroom first-sight romance ("I turn around to look at you, you light a cigarette/I wish I had the guts to bum one, but we've never met") with a twist at the end worthy of a seasoned Nashville pro: the dreaded deed in the title only happens once she's walked out the door. "Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)" is a king-of-the-road farewell song with a jaunty shuffle rhythm and singalong chorus; "Midnight Lullaby" is windowsill wooing told in slurred, lascivious nursery rhymes as a trumpet player serenades in the back alleys below. In "Ol' '55," the weatherbeaten protagonist revs away in his trusty clunker; in "Martha," he desperately dials an old flame four decades after their glory years. "We were all so young and foolish," he declares with drunken aplomb. "Now we are mature." For all its formalism, Closing Time isn't without quirks: Waits invents words at will ("lickety-splitly") and, in "Ice Cream Man," offers up the sleaziest reinvention of a childhood icon since the evil clown. But in skipping prematurely to an imagined old age, Waits managed to outfox time. These songs feel as gorgeously musty and familiar today as they did when he unpacked them from his magical trunk for the first time.

The Heart Of Saturday Night

Tom Waits

Tom Waits is still finding his voice on his second album, literally and figuratively. The smooth croon of "Shiver Me Timbers" and "Drunk on the Moon" bears little resemblance to his familiar apocalyptic rasp, although it's got just enough sand to scuff up the former's swelling French horn. The after-hours trawl of "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" veers close to sentimentality, but Waits's romanticism is cut with weariness, as if he keeps searching only because he prefers failure to defeat. The cool-cat spoken word of "Diamonds on My Windshield" points the way to future glories, swinging crime-novel patois like a bebop Raymond Chandler. Stacked next to Nighthawks at the Diner or Heartattack & Vine, The Heart of Saturday Night inevitably feels a tad unformed, but the melancholy beauty of "Semi Suite" and "San Diego Serenade" is unassailable, no matter who's singing.

Small Change

Tom Waits

Audiences love a grim spectacle, and by his fourth album Tom Waits was pretty much a one-man lowlife circus. Between the cover photo of a strip joint dressing room, the lubricated jazzbo arrangements, the gargling-razor-blades vocal tone and the scenes set in tattoo parlors, soggy night clubs and wee-hours bus depots, he barely seemed willing to raise his head out of a puddle of stale beer and spilled martinis.

The semi-spoken title track opens with an amplified flick of a match and a deep inhale; rather than counting down "one, two, three, four," "I Wish I Was in New Orleans" kicks off with a series of rhythmic grunts. But like Dean Martin's boozehound schtick, Waits-as-souse is a sleight-of-hand routine that requires brilliant timing, comic genius and impeccable musical chops. For all its bald humor, "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" is a cliche-upending literary tour-de-force of the dissipated mindset: "The jukebox has to take a leak/And the carpet needs a haircut/And the spotlight looks like a prison break," he growls. "Jitterbug Boy" is a no-goodnik character study so flawless, it's almost Hemingwayesque. Only on the opening track, "Tom Traubert's Blues," does he set aside the bad-boy act and reveal the wounded romanticism that is his true stock in trade. When an orchestra swoons and that rugged voice breaks into tenderness, he's incomparable. Waits may have loved his whiskey, but he never forgot his bread and butter.

Heartattack And Vine

Tom Waits

The apex of Waits's Island Records run is his most self-consciously degenerate, trading slinky jazz for distorted guitar and swampy beats. "Heartattack and Vine" and "Downtown" find him on familiar turf, but he's moved from sitting on the curb to stomping through the gutter. Waits hasn't ditched his wise-cracking barfly persona so much as subsumed it into a larger cast of characters. The blue-collar romantic of "Jersey Girl" isn't a doomed sucker, just a working stiff taking inspiration from the corny conviction of a doo-wop "sha la la." (Waits's original is, not surprisingly, more internal and less triumphalist than Bruce Springsteen's better-known cover.) It's doubtful Waits knew it would be three years until his next album, but Heartattack still has the feel of a summing-up, the period at the end of a bleary-eyed sentence. It's a climax and a prelude at the same time.

Blue Valentine

Tom Waits

Tom Waits' characters aren't the kind of saps to wrap their gums around a cheap and easy word like love. In "Kentucky Avenue," an idealistic derelict creatively comes on to his crippled sweetie: "Let me tie you up in kite string," he suggests, "and I'll show you the scabs on my knee." The anti-heroine of "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" builds a fantastic scaffold of lies to impress a loyal former john before confessing the truth in the final verse: "I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer and Charlie, hey/I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day." "Wrong Side of the Road," a burlesque blues number embellished with saxophone and organ, is the world's most deranged marriage proposal. "We'll do 100 miles an hour spendin' someone else's dough," Waits promises his lucky moll. "We'll drive all the way to Reno on the wrong side of the road."

Waits' sixth album is easy to overlook — caught between the peaks of his early crooner phase and the avant-garde theatrical clatter of his 1983 reinvention Swordfishtrombones, it offers subtler charms and a more brooding tone than his benchmarks. But just because he's not known for understatement doesn't mean he can't pull it off. "Blue Valentines" is a guitar-and-voice jazz ballad modeled on Julie's London's low-key 1955 hit "Cry Me a River"; "$29.00," about the slow and steady ruination of an innocent arrival in Hollywood, is one of the nastiest sagas in his catalog, but he sings it without breaking a sweat. That is, until the fade out, when he backs away from the mike and lets rip with a couple of "ay-yi-yi"'s and an inexplicable "cuckoo." But these are borderline inaudible and barely count.

Foreign Affairs

Tom Waits

A mixed bag of slick jazz and sprawling narratives, Foreign Affairs is a well-traveled collection that takes a handful of wrong turns. Recorded and mixed directly to two-track tape, the album strives for spontaneity, though it's hard to swing when there's a studio orchestra in the mix. "I Never Talk to Strangers" is a near-miraculous fusion of styles, a giddy, barbed duet that pits Waits's disheveled growl against Bette Midler's acid-tongued warble. Not every odd-sock combination comes together: "Potter's Field" tries to bridge the album's disparate halves, but the full-scale orchestration clashes with the spare contours of Waits's spoken-word slur. "Burma Shave," however, is a miniature masterpiece, an impressionistic story of lovers running from the law scored to Waits's fluid piano and a late-breaking muted trumpet; it's like Bonnie and Clyde as told by Miles Davis. Waits's lounge lizard persona is starting to wear thin, but he punches right through the holes and surges on to something more mysterious and mercurial.

A Live One

Glitter And Doom Live

Tom Waits

Tom Waits is in a profoundly unimpeachable position. He is perceived as grizzled and crazed and magnificently out-of-step. And, most crucially, a genius. An inscrutable iconoclast, with a hobo's sense of style and a coal miner's voice box. Over time, he has begun to resemble a video game villain — dark, rarely seen, unbeatable. The Legend of Zelda's Ganon, basically. So hearing him on Glitter and Doom, a live album, is both a treat and a curiosity. Here is this unknowable artist, perpetuating the folkloric artifice, and perhaps even stretching it into full-blown myth. Waits's growl is deeper, his stories more cracked and poetic, and his band more lurching and lockstep. He is only himself, without context or contemporaries.

In 2008, Glitter and Doom was the first Waits tour in three years and he and his band traveled through the underserved Southwestern swath of America — places like Mobile and Tulsa and El Paso. So the fans in attendance, often traveling a great distance to see Waits, are rapturous, slurping down much-loved compositions, like Rain Dog's "Singapore" with the same verve as the never-before-heard story song, "Live Circus." Most of the time Waits's howlish singing style can verge on the grotesque and hilarious. "What does it matter, a dream of life, a dream of lies?" he woofs on Bone Machine's "Dirt in the Ground." It is terrifying, melancholic and logical at the same time — one of Waits great, uncelebrated gifts. On a restructured "Falling Down," one of Waits's best and most heartbreaking songs, he is almost freakishly hoarse. Which, we suppose, is by design.

Glitter and Doom is an unsurprisingly defiant work, culling mostly from stellar later albums like Real Gone and the odds 'n' ends compilation Orphans. It's a stopover until the beast grows bigger and darker, but suitably menacing no less.

A Couple Compilations

Used Songs

Tom Waits

The Asylum Years

Tom Waits