16 Tom Waits Albums Rated, In Order

Rock Cellar Magazine StaffCategories:Music

Rock Cellar Magazine

You either love Tom Waits, or you don’t. There’s no in between. You can buy into his bourbon-drowned, porkpie hat, troubadour traveling from midnight gig to midnight gig by way of thumb, barter, or railcar-hopping shtick, or you don’t.
Fans believe the greatness of the music outweighs the necessity for it to be based on anything personal. If it’s not your thing, more power to you. It’s understandable. But then, this list of his 16 studio albums – #17, Bad As Me, comes out October 24th – isn’t for you either.
For the rest of us, enjoy this trip down Tom Waits Avenue…

#16 The Black Rider

Impossible to take into consideration on its own, this soundtrack for the 1990 play by Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs is only for those who want to get into the utter depths of Waits’ catalog. That said, “November” is one of the best songs he’s written. next »

#15 Foreign Affairs

A normal jazz record from Waits’ “safe” years, this one lands towards the bottom because it features a duet with Bette Midler. Bette. Midler. next »

#14 Nighthawks at the Diner

The rare live and studio album, this was recorded in front of a small audience in a Los Angeles studio to allow Waits to improvise jokes in between the 11 songs. They’re all fine, and Waits is one of those rare musicians who is actually funny, but the back-and-forth feels too rehearsed and comes off as unnecessary filler. next »

#13 Blue Valentine

Probably best known for the opener “Somewhere” from the musical West Side Story – the first indication of Waits’ acting aspirations – this collection shows him comfortably set in his singing-songs-about-the-less-fortunate-with-jazz-in-the-background groove. next »

#12 Heartattack and Vine

The last of his “normal” crooner albums, both the titular song and the original “Jersey Girl” – which The Boss later covered and made famous, a constant in Waits’ career – shine. The rest see him twiddling his thumbs, looking for more to do. He’d find it next time in the studio. next »

#11 Real Gone

2004 in America was one of the craziest political climates in our lifetime as evidenced simply by the amount of political songs being recorded. So, as far as protest songs during that year go, “The Day After Tomorrow” isn’t as cringe-worthy or dated as most. But it’s the human beat box that Waits becomes on this album that makes it a love/hate proposition. next »

#10 Frank’s Wild Years

His first foray into composing full-blown stage musicals – Waits himself played the role of Frank in the Gary Sinise-directed performance at Chicago’s Briar St. Theater – the full album is hit or miss. But it’s worth picking up if only for two versions of the most beautiful song Waits has written, “Innocent When You Dream.” next »

#9 Closing Time

Introductions and debuts are always going to get a little bump in rankings just because they’re the first exposure the general public has to an artist, and this is no different. On a surface level, this one’s no better than 12-15 on this list. But because nearly every song has been covered by everyone from The Eagles to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Meat Loaf, the tracks are part of the cultural DNA by now and tough to look at in a vacuum. next »

#8 Small Change

The music’s about the same as the rest of his “early era” albums, but the stories are a bit more fun and the lyrics more profound. Plus, there’s a topless dancer on the cover, who just happens to be Cassandra Peterson (Elvira). next »

#7 The Heart of Saturday Night

His second album, it could almost be seen as an extension of his debut. The music is still classic jazz arrangements, but the writing’s starting to take shape and become pure poetry. It includes what many people still consider his best work, “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.” next »

#6 Mule Variations

A classic return-to-form entry following a seven-year layoff since his last album Bone Machine, this has the same everything-and-the-goddamn-kitchen-sink-too approach to instrumental arrangement as that, but with a bit more restraint. On paper that should be the sign of maturity, but it comes off as a bit too polished to trust. next »

#5 Blood Money

Released on the same day as the further-down-the-list Alice, this soundtrack for the German play Woyzeck is the rougher and angrier of the pair with Waits in full broken glass-gargling mode. Go ahead and give the opening track “Misery is the River of the World” a shot. If you like that, you’re going to love the rest. next »

#4 Bone Machine

An entry point for teenagers of the 90s already sick of grunge, this ‘92 release won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, back when the Grammies were actually a thing that people cared about. While the opening one-two punch of “Earth Died Screaming” and “Dirt in the Ground” make the album seem dark (spoiler: it is), there are few happy-sounding songs in Waits’ oeuvre than “I Don’t Want To Grow Up.” next »

#3 Swordfishtrombones

The first self-produced album for Waits, it’s not surprising there’s a distinct separation between this and the one that proceeded it (Heartattack and Vine). Gone are the standard piano and orchestral arrangement that made up his career to that point. In its place is just about every piece of wood that knocks if struck or horn that blasts if blown. next »

#2 Alice

So much of how you relate to an album has to do with when you come across for it; the first album you hear by an artist you turn out to later love is going to get more consideration than the rest. Which is why Alice gets a much higher billing on this list, my list, than most. Another soundtrack for a Robert Wilson-directed play, this concerns the forbidden love between author Lewis Carroll and the young woman he wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for. As such, it’s his most consistently quietly sad offering. next »

#1 Rain Dogs

19 songs and not a clunker in the bunch, you can almost take this and make it a Greatest Hits collection. Every version of Waits’ persona is on full display, from wiry pirate (“Singapore”) to New Orleans boozehound (“Tango ‘Til They’re Sore”) to cryptic storyteller (“9th and Hennepin”) to angry lynch mob leader (“Cemetery Polka”) to tear-jerking poet (“Time”). This is the rare entry point for amateurs that doubles as an uncompromising classic for long-time fans. It is a perfect album.


  • Todd Trulock says:

    good list nice ranking i will check out alice.

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