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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.

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Comments (49)
  1. Nighthawks at the Diner at #5! Alright!!! I feel like that album never gets the appreciation it deserves, it’s brilliant.

    • burrrrgerss and frieeeess

    • Yep! Almost everything I love about TW can be found on that album. Have you heard the Surfin’ Minneapolis bootleg? (sometimes it’s called Round Midnight). Great recording from ’75, with a lot of these songs, plus stuff from HOSN, Closing Time, etc. Seek it out if you don’t know it.

  2. “Waits is the only white singer I have ever heard who can scat convincingly.” What? Have you never heard Scatman John’s 1995 hit “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)”? That’s damn convincing scatting, insofar as I’m convinced he was indeed scatting. I mean his name was Scatman John for Christ’s sake –– and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a reference to his bizarre predilection for animal droppings.

  3. Nice. I would have liked to have seen “Mule Variations” and “Alice” in the top five, but overall, I like this. Good to see “Nighthawks at the Diner” get some love.

    And while it may be true that Waits has yet to make, in your words, an “irrefutably perfect album,” Rain Dogs comes pretty close. That album is responsible for an enormous shift in my musical tastes when I first heard it back in 1986.

  4. I was looking for a reminder to listen to as much Tom Waits as possible. Thanks! Also, as much as your top 3 are the obvious choices, they are still the right choices in the right order IMO. Good show!

  5. how could any person with ears think bad as me is better than alice or mule variations?!

  6. Tom Waits is an artist I always felt interested in, and really liked the songs I have listened to, but the task of getting to know his work always felt daunting given how large his discography is. This list will serve as a massive introduction point for me, so thanks.

  7. Real Gone, Blood Money, Alice, Mule Variations and Bad As Me BETTER than Closing Time? Ha! I say. Ha!

  8. Closing Time at 15? Dagger to the hart! For Shame!

    Rosie, Ice Cream Man, OldShoes, Grapefuit Moon, Martha, I Hope…

    Top 3 material, alongside Small Change and Raindogs.

  9. #1, #2 and #4 are obvious choices and I think most people would agree they are classics. But “Blood Money” and “The Heart of a Saturday Night” are actually two of my FAVORITE Tom Waits albums! I like the sentimental stuff you begrudgingly refer to as cocaine-Rogaine folk rock. For me, my favorite Tom Waits is forlorn, love lost and sitting at the end of a dank hole of a bar drinking by himself.

  10. Oh man. This is like every Christmas all at once and every present is solid gold. Literally, solid gold. But if I disagree with this one, heads will roll.

  11. Bad As Me placing before Mule Variations is some straight bullshit.

  12. Ya gotta love and hate these lists, but The Black Rider that low is a disgrace!! ;)

  13. Bad as Me is a mediocre Best of album and where is Orphans!!! Three albums!

  14. Closing Time was my entry point… so it’s a personal favourite and I’d have to put it higher … but what’s great about TW is that so many of his albums could be someone else’s number one. I’d put Small Change at the top, next to Raindogs, Mule Variations and Blue Valentine – mainly because Kentucky Avenue is arguably the most beautiful song in the history of music.

  15. I’ve gotta take my hat off. I haven’t fully soaked in Bad As Me still, but this is an excellent ranking of a very tough and consistently excellent career. I like Heartattack and Vine more than you do and would probably bump Frank’s Wild Years down a notch or two, but it’s minor quibbling. Bone Machine definitely deserves that placement, and I’m going to go listen to it right now. AND THE EARTH DIED SCREAAAAMING!

  16. I love most of Waits’ albums except for Closing Time and Nighthawks. Those are so consistently overrated, while The Black Rider remains inexplicably underrated. I don’t understand how Bone Machine gets praise and high ranking for its experimentation, while Rider is more or less dismissed. At worst its the beautiful, haunting companion album to the more gnarly Bone Machine, and highlights like “November” are unmatched.

    • You make a good case. In fact, I think it’s the fact that The Black Rider is a soundtrack that makes it seem so disjointed and unfriendly where Bone Machine seems like such a complete work. And I think Nighthawks is underrated, if anything! Thanks for reading!

  17. Mule Variations, come on now. The atmosphere he conjures up on that album will lock you in a toolshed for an hour.

  18. Ahhh yes, Rain Dogs. I’m not willing to do the research, but considering all of the ‘gum Countdowns of classic artists, would having Bad As Me at #7 be the highest ranked album released after 2000 for any of the artists reviewed? I think I asked that weird, but you get the idea.

    • I get what you mean, and can’t be bothered checking, but I think Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light was pretty high. But Bad As Me is pretty amazing – almost like his entire discography condensed into one record, and makes a perfect entry point into Waits, in a way.

    • ‘Good News For People Who LoveBad News’ was at 4 if I remember correctly, but then again Modest Mouse isn’t a classic artist…

  19. Never really got into the pre-Swordfish stuff, though there are the odd songs I like. (Small Change is pretty good). Beyond that:

    Mule Variations needs to be higher. It’s too long, yes – it could shave “Georgia Lee” & “Take It With Me” for sure, but it’s got so much insanely high-quality stuff it’s easily top 5, and the earlier comment about it’s brilliantly maintained atmosphere was dead on. “Cold Water” is his greatest, most weirdly ecstatic tribute to life on the skids ever, “Choclate Jesus” is a slinky hoot, and “Come On Up to the House” is an absolute show-stopper of the highest order. I also have to big time disagree on “Filipino Box Spring Hog”, which is a blast, and “What’s He Building…” which actually is pretty successfully creepy and one of the better spoken word numbers Waits has done.

    Real Gone is one of the weaker post-Swordfish albums – it’s not bad of course, and it does lack bad songs…but there are very few standout highlights…though “Hell Broke Luce”, which got backhand complimented in the article, is certainly one.

    Couldn’t agree more on Rain Dogs as #1, and I would absolutely say it’s a masterpiece – Hell, it’s my favorite album of the ’80s. I’d put Bone Machine ahead of Swordfish, but I have no real gripes there.

  20. orphans would have been worth including

  21. i always thought “what’s he building in there” was INTENTIONALLY comical. c’mon: “he’s got no friends… but he gets a lot of mail” is a hilarious line. weirdly, this was the song that introduced me to waits, and i’ve been a fan ever since.

  22. I have so much to say that I don’t know where to start. Here comes a rant. Tom Waits is my favorite artist of any sort. I had been hoping you guys would do this list for a while, though I’m not sure what’s in it for me other than to read some more people’s thoughts on Tom Waits. Is there a more interesting songwriter/poet/actor/storyteller/cultural-curator/producer/playwright around? He’s an American original and I wouldn’t be who I was today without his music. You clearly did your homework and I enjoyed your biography and analysis of Waits and his output, but I am a little puzzled by the exclusion of Orphans. Orphans is mostly original songs that don’t exist in any other form, and quite a few people would count it as one of their favorite Waits albums. It’s hardly an afterthought compilation and I think it should stand alongside the rest of his work. Still, I enjoyed the list, and as you said there is no wrong way to rank Tom’s albums.

    • Point taken re: Orphans. But despite the fact that it includes some flat-out great songs (without digging for my copy, I recall “Lord I’ve Been Changed” and the one about not wanting to go down to the well being particularly marvelous), I felt, on the whole, that there was nothing in this collection of stray tracks that added anything substantive to the TW story. Now, have I ended many a mix CD with either “Children’s Story” or “Missing My Son?” Yes, yes I have. I do think Orphans is a must-own for any fan, but trying to wedge it into a list of his proper studio albums without repeating myself would have been a challenge. Thanks, as always, for reading and for the comments; I DID remember your previous comment (on the NY piece) when I placed Swordfishtrombones at #2. I don’t want any trouble here. :)

    • “Lie To Me” is one of my favorite TW songs. It’s like Elvis+Screaming Jay Hawkins+dubious inhalants or something

  23. “Waits has never released a bad album; he has also yet to release a front-to-back brilliant one.” I don’t know I’d have to say Rain Dogs is pretty goddamned brilliant but that’s just me

  24. Glad to see Rain Dogs make No 1. I know it’s a bit obvious, but it’s a hell of an album (and I would argue, a brilliant one, but I understand where you’re coming from).

  25. I legit like the song “What’s he building in there” and find it super creepy. Sorry.

  26. Blah. I don’t like your list.

  27. Heartattack and Vine is in my top 5 for sure.
    as are Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, Nighthawks, Swordfish Trombones and Frank’s Wild Years.

    oh well that’s six but you get the point. Mule Variations is my favorite of his more recent efforts.

  28. Here’s mine. Lists like this vary in terms of what is considered a proper Waits album, and mine leaves out One From the Heart. My definition is anything released on Asylum, Island or Epitath/Anti, minus Night On Earth and all compilations and live albums except Nighhawks at the Diner.

    17. Foreign Affairs
    16. Nighthawks at the Diner
    15. Closing Time
    14. The Black Rider
    13. Real Gone
    12. The Heart of Saturday Night
    11. Mule Variations
    10. Blood Money
    9. Bad As Me
    8. Franks Wild Years
    7. Alice
    6. Heartattack and Vine
    5. Small Change
    4. Blue Valentine
    3. Bone Machine
    2. Swordfishtrombones
    1. Rain Dogs

    The same albums occupy my top 3, as in the Guided By Voices rankings, except this time they’re in the same order.

    I agree with most of what you said about Real Gone, except for me a couple of the later songs redeem it somewhat. Also, while I agree that it can be trimmed down to a much better album, many of the songs are too long, including some of the good ones, and nothing can be done about that. I’d give anything for Top of the Hill to be half its length.

  29. The Eagles do not play on Waits’ version of “Ol’ ’55″. The third line of “Tom Traubert” is “Got what I paid for now”. And despite what WIkipedia says, Izzy Stradlin is NOT on Franks WIld Years (no apostrophe).

  30. I don’t like the word “perfect” when describing albums, but I would say that Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones and Bone Machine are straight up classics.

  31. No such thing as “worst” when we’re talking about Tom Waits.

  32. Closing Time deserved better than No 15.

  33. 1- Blue valentine
    2- Small change
    3- Closing time
    4- Bone machine
    5- Black rider

  34. overrated album

    rain dogs (album gentil et mou)
    swordfishtrombones ( pas assez de bonnes chansons; formalisme dévorant)
    mule variations ( sous” bone machine”)

  35. Swordfishtrombones
    Mule Variations
    Rain Dogs
    Bone Machine
    Closing Time
    Blood Money
    Small Change
    Alice
    Real Gone
    Bad As Me
    Blue Valentines
    Franks Wild Years
    Heart of Saturday night
    Heart Attack and Vine
    Black Rider
    Foreign Affairs

  36. in no order my favourite Tom Waits albums are
    - nighthawks at the diner
    - heart attack and vine
    - blue valentines
    - closing time
    - mule variations

    i will admit to not having heard all of them. i also loved my vinyl copy of bounced checks.

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