Tom Waits Albums From Worst To Best
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.
One From The Heart (1982)
The soundtrack to the Francis Ford Coppola film of the same name, One From The Heart features the unlikely pairing of Waits with country-pop star Crystal Gayle. The songs, all written by Waits, reiterate the prevailing wisdom that, had he been born thirty years earlier, Waits could have enjoyed a very prosperous career writing MGM musicals. This is no put-down: Songs like "Picking Up After You" and "I Beg Your Pardon" sound more like actual standards than facsimiles of standards; like Stephin Merritt, Waits is the rare contemporary songwriter who takes as many cues from Rodgers and Hammerstein as from Jagger and Richards, and is comfortable enough within the tradition to eschew the irony that otherwise would have rendered these tunes goofy and anachronistic. It's also not bad listening, especially "You Can't Unring A Bell," with its hard-panned floor toms and walking bass offering a glimpse of the weirder Tom Waits we know and love, and a couple of brief appearances by Dennis Budimir, whose impressive guitar runs evoke a twinkling Lenny Breu. Still, the question remains: who is this for, exactly? Fans of Waits' Epitaph-era aren't exactly keeping up with Dianne Reeves albums, while it's hard to imagine many 21st century easy listeners choosing One From The Heart over any of the several Verve box sets available; Waits may be our generation's Stephen Foster, but Crystal Gayle is no one's idea of Judy Garland, after all.
Foreign Affairs (1977)
Producer Bones Howe said that he and Waits conceived Foreign Affairs as a 'black and white movie,' and everything from the cobalt-tinted album cover to the similarly smoky material within captures this noir-ish sensibility. Side one in particular maintains this pulpy, Raymond Chandler atmosphere with the aid of lounge piano, saxophone solos and songs about hiding from memories in whiskey bars. Waits even flirts with Bette Midler on the unlikely duet "I Never Talk To Strangers," whose lyrics are little more than a transcription of singles bar repartee. Side two retains the jazzy, lush arrangements but adds an orchestra for the mazy and cinematic "Potter's Field." Still, it is only the vivid and mysterious "Burma Shave" that truly redeems this dull entry in a catalog that is anything but.
The Black Rider (1993)
The Black Rider is probably the most challenging Tom Waits album, which makes it either the worst or best entry point into his vast catalog, depending on your point of view. The fruits of a collaboration with William Burroughs and director Robert Wilson, The Black Rider is a play based on the German folktale Der Freischut, and the resulting soundtrack unfortunately fails to cohere into anything resembling an album. Listening to these songs of deranged calliope melodies, haunted ballroom music, ghostly gondola serenades, swashbuckling Dixieland, and Eastern Bloc tango divorced from their context, you might guess that the stage version of The Black Rider was actually just a local madhouse's production of Fiddler On The Roof. For nearly an hour, Waits barks about freakshows, affects a Sigmund Freud accent, and offers his phone number (beating rapper Mike Jones to this gimmick by over a decade) while the music skids recklessly between sounding genuinely compelling and sounding like someone bootlegged the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. Rivaled only by One From the Heart (though for entirely different reasons), The Black Rider is the Tom Waits album most likely to provoke a "what the hell are you listening to?" query from anyone within earshot, and might be one of the strangest albums you will ever hear.
Closing Time (1973)
Tom Waits' debut album was produced by The Lovin' Spoonful's Jerry Yester, which might explain why it's the only album in the Tom Waits catalog to remotely resemble the cocaine-Rogaine folk rock popular at the time. Casual fans who only know Tom Waits as the glass-gargling, "Rowlf The Dog"-sounding, scrapheap-whacking enigma he is today will be shocked by the robust and unspoiled-sounding voice heard on these earnest soft rock ballads. Closing Time's rightful claim to fame is the stirring "Ol 55," a song covered by the Eagles (who play and sing on the version found here), but the excellent "Martha" even better hints at the songwriting greatness to come. Though much of Closing Time now sounds inchoate and dated, little of it is embarrassing ("Ice Cream Man" not withstanding), and some of it is quite good. It may have seemed his imminent destiny at the time, but Waits was not content to merely write songs for prestige acts, and would soon blaze a trail the likes of which popular music had never seen. Still, Closing Time offers little indication of this; it's an album that introduces a talented songwriter, not a star.
Heartattack And Vine (1980)
As the final Tom Waits album recorded for Asylum and the last to feature an outside producer, Heartattack And Vine occupies a significant place in the Tom Waits catalog. It would be his last proper studio album for three years, during which time he would completely reinvent his approach to record making. On the evidence of the inessential Heartattack And Vine, Waits was right to take a breather to regroup. There are a few saving graces: the irresistible "Jersey Girl" would be covered by Springsteen, and sounds as if it were written for him to sing, and listening to the riveting title track on headphones is like having your own personal Tom Waits gleeking and frothing into your eardrum. But of all of Tom Waits' albums, Heartattack And Vine somehow sounds the most like a period piece, even when compared to the piano bar melancholy of his seventies records. By now, the hoary 12-bar blues templates and Cab Calloway stripteases that dominate the album have moved decisively beyond schtick-y and into hack-y. Tunes like "Saving All My Love For You" and "'Till the Money Runs Out" show Waits going through the motions, while the hammy "On the Nickel" and the overwrought "Ruby's Arms" razzle without dazzling. Better things were ahead.
Blood Money (2002)
Blood Money, inspired by Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, a bleak tale of infidelity, murder, and army experiments, is the third and final collaboration between Waits and Brennan and director Robert Wilson (following The Black Rider and Alice, respectively). The album's songs generally keep to the gloomy themes of Woyzeck ; the most uptempo number on the album bears the title "Starving In The Belly Of The Whale," after all. Instant Waits classics abound, especially the Rain Dogs-y "God's Away On Business," featuring Waits hectoring like a Scooby Doo Frankenstein in towering silhouette, and album closer "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," about a forgotten soldier from a forgotten war, sounds like a Louie Armstrong / Edward Gorey composition. Mostly, though, Blood Money is a frosty, often impenetrable collection of slow motion cabaret music, with a moribund-sounding Waits mumbling like he's been roused from a nap to mumble melodies from barely-remembered Latin American musicals. If this sounds compelling, it should: Blood Money, like Lou Reed's Berlin and Joy Division's Closer, is an album meant to accompany the washing down of sleeping pills with Two Buck Chuck, and, using that criteria, it is a rousing success.
Real Gone (2004)
Real Gone follows the similarly overlong Mule Variations with another album of squelchy blues, caricatural dungeon-verse, and vaguely Latin-sounding arrangements. If this sounds like a retread, fair enough, but much of Real Gone finds Waits varying the formula just enough to avoid a rut. Real Gone also continues to illuminate guitarist Marc Ribot's role as a valuable, even crucial, contributor ; his combinations of fractal, no-wave outbursts, fiery Cuban licks, and lubricated jazz runs remain as inventive as they are distinct. By now, Tom Waits albums have become more like collages than paintings, and these assemblages and appliqués can be dizzying. The highlights comprise some of Waits' best work in years: the stentorian "Hoist That Rag," is a masterpiece of whipcrack percussion and spidery guitars; the desolate and stone-cold "Sins Of My Father" gnaws at itself for over ten glorious minutes; and "How's It Gonna End" is missing persons conjecture over the sounds of a demonic chain gang stepping into an inferno. Many other songs, however, are leaden and unnecessary: It is remarkable that it took Waits four decades to write a song called "Circus," but by now these tired freakshow dispatches veer perilously close to self-parody; ditto the overreliance on the beatbox gimmick, which once sounded inventive and demonic but now, heard on a cluster of songs near the album's back half, sound like time-marking. By the time a 'hidden track' and yet another beatbox appears, you're exhausted, having forgotten what the first third of the album even sounded like. Like a CD-era hip-hop album bloated with skits and interludes, Real Gone is a great 40-minute album hidden inside a 72-minute long endurance test.
Though its songs were written ten years earlier for a 1992 play directed by occasional collaborator Robert Wilson, Alice was released simultaneously with the similarly sinister Blood Money, another long-gestating release inspired by a theatrical work. Unlike its counterpart, however, Alice arrived much anticipated: The songs, based on a musical play about the life of Lewis Carroll, had already been traded for years among fans as a bootleg called The Alice Demos (a misnomer: these 'demos' were actually studio recordings rendered demo-like through generations of dubbing and copying). Tom Waits described the album as "adult songs for children, or children's songs for adults," and there is indeed something to the macabre but oddly romantic numbers herein that recall Grimm fairytales. Theatrical and heavy on the strings, Alice was written from the point of view of a specter, and Waits' gloomy croon provides the ideal instrument to deliver the spooks. The album's mood is so uneasy and casually dissonant that an occasional frolic like the jaunty "Kommienezuspadt" or the skiffle-like "Table Top Joe," seems out of place. "Dig deep in your heart for the little red glow, " Waits sings on the fugue-like "Everything You Can Think", "we're decomposing as we go." Unlike previous albums written specifically for, but disembodied from, a theatrical work, you seldom get the feeling here that you're only getting part of the story ; Alice is plenty nightmarish enough on its own.
The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974)
"Sentimentality is the failure of feeling," Wallace Stevens once said. Maybe so, but Tom Waits' uncanny ability to legitimize nostalgia as an art form unto itself is a rare gift ; if poets were presidents, Stevens might consider Waits worthy of a pardon. On his second album, Tom Waits begins to convincingly adopt many of the personas he would return to, in various forms, throughout his career : the twisted Vaudeville crooner ; the maudlin, luckless barfly ; the "pool-shootin' shimmy-scheister." Even the cover art, a painting depicting Waits as some combination of reluctant lothario and boxcar stowaway, is pitch-perfect. Waits relies on showbiz affectations the way a priest might don a ceremonial robe : by getting into character, he is better able to transcend his reality, perceived as earthly or mundane. In doing so he retains the tunefulness of his mediocre debut while taking a few more stylistic chances, with sterling results: the title track uses metropolitan field recordings and a stomach-gurgle-sounding fretless bass as a bedrock for an episodic narrative equal parts Joni and Zimmy; the gorgeous "San Diego Serenade" is poignant and astute ; and "Semi Suite" is a slow bebop ballad complete with muted trumpet and the sort of vaguely lascivious torch singing you'd commonly associate with Lady Day. But the most interesting aspect of The Heart Of Saturday Night is its intersection of Waits the sophisticated balladeer and Waits the jive-talkin,' snake oil-sellin,' tall tale-tellin' barroom bullshitter, the sound of Jekyll confronting Hyde in the pages of some lowlife Charles Willeford novel. Rarely would these two disparate personalities sit as cozily or as compatibly.
Blue Valentine (1978)
1978's Blue Valentine is Tom Waits' most straight-faced and romantic album, and also one of his most frequently overlooked. Admittedly, opening the album with a schmaltzy cover of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "Somewhere" (yep, the one from West Side Story) probably wasn't a great idea, and several songs find Waits still mired in tired, idiomatic 12 bar blues arrangements, but these stumbles are forgiven in context of some of the unimpeachable numbers here. Preeminent among these is the heartbreaking, epistolary "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis": over the course of four and a half minutes, the correspondent, presumably a former lover, brags of a new, clean life in the straight world, but can't sustain the lie long enough to even complete the postcard ; by the end, she's requesting money to pay off her lawyer and volunteering her date of parole. It's masterful storytelling, as vivid and creditable as any scene concocted by Raymond Carver, and it is performed brilliantly. Elsewhere, "Whistlin' Past The Graveyard" is a rare look at Tom Waits the Rock 'n' Roller, sounding like a cross between Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Alice Cooper, while the tender and picaresque "Kentucky Avenue" reveals the likely influence of pal Bruce Springsteen's 1973 album The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle.
Mule Variations (1999)
Mule Variations, Tom Waits' debut album for Epitaph records, would set the course Waits would follow for the next decade, and earned him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album as well as his highest position to date on the Billboard chart. While it is perhaps difficult to imagine pierced punks embracing the debauched early records of the Waits' Asylum years, a recent turn toward hangdog Americana and bile-spitting blues would put him in the company of prestige artists like Johnny Cash, another recently exhumed icon who ostensibly provided a template on how to grow old and stay weird. Mule Variations is over 70 minutes long and feels even longer, yet remains one of Waits' most celebrated works. The album's overarching sound is one of scintillating tones and mausoleum-funky textures: instruments often sound like battery-operated machines leaking ooze ; guitarists perform like abandoned Arctic expeditionists whose teeth-chattering and bone-shivering alone provide the tremolo. New to Waits' arsenal of sounds is beatboxing and DJ scratching, the former a series of itinerant scats and snarls, the latter a suggestion of what modern hip-hop might sound like had scratching been invented not by Kool Herc, but by William Burroughs. "Lowside Of the Road" and "Black Market Baby" sound like Cajun blues LPs pressed off-center; "Hold On" is Waits' most elegant pop song since "Downtown Train"; "House Where Nobody Lives," "Picture In A Frame," and the processional-sounding "Come On Up The House" prove that Waits can still write songwriting circles around his various imitators; and "Cold Water" is the most irresistible Tom Waits singalong since "Cemetery Polka." Then there's the filler: "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is so outrageously plagiaristic of Captain Beefheart that its practically scandalous, while the unintentionally comical spoken-word of "What's He Building Down There" is about as spooky as a Styrofoam tombstone on Halloween. Other songs seem to run out of ideas long before they actually end (does "Get Behind the Mule" really need to be nearly seven minutes long?). In Barney Hoskyns' 2008 biography Lowside Of The Road: A Life Of Tom Waits, former producer Bones Howe argues that the length of Mule Variations does it a disservice: "The problem with (Waits) and Kathleen (Brennan) producing their own records," he says, "is they can't step back to look at their work." One might just suggest a smaller canvas.
Bad As Me (2011)
2011's Bad As Me is the leanest and most consistent Tom Waits album since Bone Machine, with nary a weak track to be found. Waits credits Brennan for helping to streamline his tendency to make the most of a CD's 80-minute runtime, and the resulting album is pithy, sharp, and mesmerizing. Bad As Me finds Waits as sonically resourceful as ever : he revealed to Terry Gross in a that the vinyl-sounding pops and clicks heard on "Kiss Me" were simulated by holding a microphone up to barbeque chicken sizzling in a pan. Additionally, though Waits has been using non-percussion instruments to simulate drums for years, he's now advanced beyond struck objects altogether : David Hidalgo's palpitating accordion provides "Chicago" with its frenetic backbeat, while the clipped trumpet on "Talking At The Same Time" creates an eighth note pulse that sounds like slow, stoned ska. Bad As Me also continues the trend toward the more rock and roll arrangements heard on Real Gone, from the boogie-woogie piano and rockabilly rhythms of "Let's Get Lost" to the tender Elvis-goes-flamenco likes of "Back In The Crowd." Even when Waits seems to be repeating himself, he's repeating his best stuff: "Satisfaction" is a rewrite of Rain Dogs' "Big Black Mariah" ; "Last Leaf," featuring background vocals by Keith Richards, is an update on "House Where Nobody Lives" ; "New Years Eve" finds Waits again quoting one of his favorite melodies, "Auld Lang Syne," reaching all the way back to 1977 and his own "Sight For Sore Eyes" for inspiration; even the tumultuous "Hell Broke Luce," a clanking nightmare of overdubbed vocals, aggressively monotonous guitar, and artillery-like percussion updates the Bone Machine formula (and sounds an awful lot like The Birthday Party's "Mutiny In Heaven," while we're on the subject). The fact that an artist rapidly approaching senior citizenship is capable of such an album is a testament to Waits' continued potency.
Frank's Wild Years (1987)
No one chews scenery like Tom Waits: Observe the musical break about a minute into Frank's Wild Years' "Temptation," during which Waits moans and caterwauls over what would have been the perfect place for a tasty Marc Ribot solo. It's ironic that such a notoriously hammy performer's discography would be so full of collaborations like this one. Subtitled Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts, Frank's Wild Years is the soundtrack to a musical written by Waits and Brennan and directed by Gary Sinise, in collaboration with Benoit Christie. The spontaneous feel of the album is quite distinct from Waits' more meticulously structured work of this period, with ludic, ramshackle arrangements and a largely off-the-cuff feel. Though Waits occasionally plays it straight, as on the smoky, vaporous "Yesterday Is Here" and two versions of the lullaby-waltz "Innocent When You Dream," most of the album proffers an exotic and otherworldy reverie, as on the Old World doo-wop of "Cold Cold Ground" and the lively "Telephone Call From Instanbul," which sounds like it was recorded by a band of trembling, roller-skating bears. Trivia fans take note: in addition to Waits' now-usual cast of collaborators including Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo and Larry Taylor, Frank's Wild Years features both Guns N Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin and the Magic Band's Jeff Moris Tepper, providing a single degree of separation between Captain Beefheart and Axl Rose.
Nighthawks At The Diner (1975)
To call Nighthawks At The Diner a "live album" is dubious the same way that canned laughter heard in sitcoms can be said to have been provided by a 'live studio audience.' Recorded over two days in the summer of 1975 at the Record Plant in Los Angeles and performed to an invited audience of record executives, friends and associates, Nighthawks At The Diner finds Waits backed by a quartet of seasoned jazz cats. Playing the role of the Hollywood hobo to the hilt, Waits performs every song elegantly, daubing each sepia-toned number with canny one-liners and well-paced asides. Throughout, a jive-talking Waits works blue ("I'm so goddamn horny the crack of dawn better be careful around me"), banters of "coffee not strong enough to defend itself" and uses bebop jargon to construct some memorable and deeply profound poetry, with discussions of "pincushion skies" and "Velveeta-yellow cabs" and "the impending squint of first light" and such. Theatrical piano bar signifiers abound: Waits introduces the band and drops names of familiar Los Angeles locales and eating establishments, to the delight of the game and agreeable crowd, perhaps laying the tracks for some of Todd Snider's endless, stoned preambles. Waits occasionally gets serious, as on the saccharine "Nobody" and the uncharacteristically grave reading of Red Sovine's trucker ghost story "Big Joe and Phantom 309," as well the fantastic "Putnam County," a number that blends Waits' post-Beat patter ("And the Stratocasters slung over the burgermeister beer guts / swizzle stick legs jackknifed over Naugahyde stools") with a piano melody worthy of Bill Evans. Mostly, though, it's lighthearted fare. Sure, the album occasionally sounds like a Henny Youngman routine being performed over a very long rendition of "Crepuscule With Nellie" (or "Theme From The Pink Panther"), but Nighthawks At The Diner is great fun, poking fun at the archetypically seedy underbelly of showbiz while celebrating its slouching excesses.
Small Change (1976)
"Wasted and wounded/ 'tain't what the moon did/ God, what am I paying for now?" So begins Small Change, Tom Waits' first great album. By now Waits' voice is fully formed, his no-count narratives and Bohemian shimmying a defiantly love-it-or-hate-it, take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Jazz sympathies hinted at before are now flaunted ; Waits even quotes "As Time Goes By" at the top of "Bad Liver and Broken Heart." But dismiss Small Change as po-faced traditionalism at your own peril; this amalgamation of Waits themes and preoccupations contains a bounty of truly great songs: "The Piano Has Been Drinking" transcends the novelty of its Shel Silverstein-like lyrics by making the titular instrument sound as if it's drunkenly hiccupping throughout – you can almost smell the belch of a Rob Roy; "I Wish I Was In New Orleans" one-ups even Shane MacGowen for soused balladry; and "I Can't Wait To Get Off Work (And See My Baby On Montgomery Avenue)" ends the album triumphantly with a seemingly autobiographical litany of work-night woes eased by the anticipation of romance. Four songs featuring a rapping Waits simply stringing together street salesman and auctioneer clichés over zippy jazz accompaniment dull the album's impact somewhat, but Small Change resonated: it would be the first Tom Waits album to enter the top 100 Billboard chart.
Bone Machine (1992)
"I have irreconcilable influences," Waits told the Dallas Observer's Robert Wilonsky in 1999. "… I like Rachmaninoff, and I also like The Contortions." Appearing at the end of a five-year break, during which time Waits busied himself with soundtrack and acting work as well as various musical cameos, Bone Machine better reconciled these influences than any previous Tom Waits album. Though not as dramatic a stylistic shift as the one that occurred between Heartattack And Vine and Swordfishtrombones, Bone Machine earns the distinction of Tom Waits' noisiest, most experimental album; no small feat for a man for who'd never conceive of a drum kit without the obligatory sheet metal and lead pipes. The percussion-heavy, bluesy Bone Machine indeed foreshadows future albums like Mule Variations, but remains singular in its tenacious devotion to scabrous, almost uniformly ugly sounds. Waits' sentimental balladry rarely pops up (the cascading "Whistle Down the Wind" and the dulcet "Who Are You" are two exceptions), replaced by deranged carnival shouting, seismic machine sounds, scorching guitars and ghastly sound effects of unknowable origin. Throughout, Marc Ribot's guitar dots, chucks, and pokes through these dense nightmare-scapes while torrents of startling cracks, bangs and thwacks suggest a hailstorm of used car parts. "Such A Scream" is industrial Beefheart; the wheezing, dirge-y "Dirt In The Ground" evokes a Satanic blues funeral; and the great and galvanizing "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" is so punk, the Ramones had to cover it. At every turn, Bone Machine undermines expectations and flaunts a feral, irreverent imagination, like a Rubik's cube somebody spent hours unsolving.
Swordfishtrombones finds Waits returning after a three-year absence, with a pivotal release that effectively closes one chapter and opens another. Like Paul's Boutique, Swordfishtrombones is the rare album that provides a funhouse mirror reflection of the culture that produced it, offering an unlikely collision of sounds and ideas. Crucially, the album would begin an unbroken trend of self-produced Tom Waits albums, and it shows; it may be the only album in history to credit no fewer than three different glass harmonica players. Previously, most of the sounds heard on a Tom Waits album could be easily attributed to specific instruments; Swordfishtrombones dispenses with such transparency. Even the instruments that can be indentified by ear - marimbas, chord organs, xylophones, bagpipes – are recorded to sound as if they are experiencing vertigo, or curdling. While a few songwriter-y tendencies linger in the form of the sweet "Johnsburg, Illinois" (birthplace of Brennan), the yearning "In The Neighborhood," and the solemn "Soldier's Things," the disparity between where Waits left off on his last album with "Ruby's Arms" and where he begins on Swordfishtrombones with "Underground" is jarring. The songs are brief, strange and remorseless: The bone-rattling "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six" provides the template for the clanging, expressionist blues that would ingratiate Waits to a new generation of punks and adventurous indie rockers; "Shore Leave" sounds like Amon Duul I with a case of Thunderbird and a Moleskine; and tasty instrumental "Dave The Butcher" could pass for Atlantis-era Sun Ra. Singling out individual songs from Swordfishtrombones, however, does the album a disservice; this bricolage of mysticism, mayhem, and machines is best experienced in a single sitting.
Rain Dogs (1985)
While not as experimental as Bone Machine or Swordfishtrombones and less immediately disarming than Small Change or Nighthawks At The Diner, Rain Dogs is nevertheless the pinnacle of Tom Waits' career and the apotheosis of his artistic vision. It is the first album that pairs him with redoubtable guitarist Marc Ribot, whose contributions to Rain Dogs cannot be overstated, even alongside such formidable players as Robert Quine and Keith Richards. Ribot sounds like he was invented in one of Waits' secret basement contraptions for the express purpose of providing the knotty, cleaving counterpart to Waits' increasingly skeletal subterranean blues. "Singapore" captures an exultant-sounding Waits growling over what sounds like an invasion of militaristic termites storming a birdhouse; "Hang Down Your Head" and "Downtown Train" (the latter covered by Rod Stewart, who regrettably makes it his own) are poppy minor key laments in the Springsteen tradition; the twerking, polyrhythmic "Jockey Full of Bourbon" conjures a constellation of washboards being repeatedly struck by lightning; and "Cemetery Polka" finds Waits delightedly chawing language like so much cud ("Independent as a hog on ice"). Everywhere, scuttling guitar lines stick and move, vocals goad like emaciated buzzards, and drums sound like loops of pot lids being repeatedly dropped onto distressed wood. As an album, Rain Dogs is practically a Waits primer, a holistic cataloguing of Waits' many idiosyncratic inventions, and the most fitting introduction to the work of this unusual and gifted artist.