Heard through the wall of a neighboring apartment, you might confuse Tom Waits’s music with Howlin’ Wolf’s. Then again, you could just as easily mistake it for a long-lost Harry Partch piece, an especially ’out’ Busta Rhymes interlude, or a bootleg recording of Randy Newman twelve-stepping in reverse. For all the discussion of Tom Waits as an American Original, his components are easy enough to parse; his music can be compared to an exotic meal whose recipe doesn’t necessarily require a special trip to the grocery, with many of the ingredients — the aforementioned Wolf (via Captain Beefheart), the Beats, Bukowski, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Spike Jonze, Satch — easily found in the cupboards of most discerning 21st century listeners. The yield, however, alchemically produces the great and unique Tom Waits.
Actor Peter Sellers claimed to not possess a personality of his own and considered himself a tabula rasa upon which he was able to convincingly construct or adopt personas. Waits’s public face could similarly be said to be a series of projections; part chameleon, part caricature, the corporeal version of Waits seems to embody nothing and everything. As an artist, he is a fount of musical ideas, albeit one that appears to require constant kindling. Every sound, colloquialism, or bit of trivia is processed by Waits as raw material; tropes, platitudes, and song fragments are merely grist for the mill to be absorbed and rendered anew in the form of innovative, postmodern sound sculptures.
Waits is the only white singer I have ever heard who can scat convincingly. His ability to embrace classic song structures and traditional idioms is a thread that runs through even his most experimental work: A Tin Pan Alley refrain poking through the din of a salvage yard rumble or a show tune quote in the midst of a hallucinatory sea chantey endure like proud, stubborn mailboxes that remain standing after the onslaught of a Nor’easter.
There are two distinct eras of Tom Waits music, demarcated by an invisible line that separates the Asylum (or pre-Swordfishtrombones) years, and the Island/Epitaph (post-Swordfishtrombones) years. The former era is distinguished by albums made with outside producers on which Waits invented and perfected his freight train freeloader persona; these showcase the sophisticated, piano-based, Beat-obsessed, urban, relatively traditional side of Waits. The latter period is marked by songwriting collaborations with his wife Kathleen Brennan and albums that are exclusively produced or co-produced by Waits himself; these albums represent a decisive turn toward both the avant garde and more tactile, organic and humanistic sounds. These distinctions should be understood to be quite broad, merely providing a sort of Cliff’s Notes guide to experiencing Waits’s uncategorizeable oeuvre. Furthermore, while it may be tempting to contextualize Waits’s many moods and inventions using distinctions like “brawlers,” “bawlers,” and “bastards” (the subtitle of Orphans, Waits’ 2006 box set of rarities and outtakes), this, too, is an oversimplification.
Every Tom Waits album, even those found at the very bottom of this list, is worth owning, and worth knowing. Waits has never released a bad album; he has also yet to release a front-to-back brilliant one. Like Townes Van Zant, Waits has written at least two dozen irrefutably perfect songs, but conspicuously absent from his prodigious discography is one irrefutably perfect album. For one thing, almost all of his records, especially those released during the CD era, are far too long. Waits is an artist who indulges his imagination’s every whim, and who follows those whims indiscriminately. More often than not, the results are resplendent; occasionally, they’re not. As a result, ill-advised sonic experiments, musty monologues that sound like voiceover narrations from bad films involving dames and trenchcoats, and songs that sound like outtakes from the Bugsy Malone soundtrack frequently disrupt the pacing and shatter the spell cast by even his greatest records.
It should be noted that my personal favorites, or at least the ones I return to most regularly, appear at Nos. 4 and 5 of this countdown; I’m generally (and pretty firmly) an Asylum/pre-Swordfishtrombones guy, but in an attempt to rate these albums fairly, I tried to assess the discography with a fairly objective criteria. This is the first Stereogum countdown in which I believe there will be no majority consensus even among the top ten; any one of these 18 albums might just be somebody’s favorite, and I expect that the comments section will reflect this.
I did not include the exhaustive-but-worthwhile Orphans box set or live albums that seemed redundant due to the inclusion of songs discussed elsewhere. I also saw no reason to include the pair of Early Years collections of Waits’s earliest songwriting demos, many of which have been re-recorded and released on his first two albums. Lastly, I did not feel the need to include Night On Earth, Waits’ mostly instrumental soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film of the same name. The Countdown begins here.