Tom Waits isn’t an artist who’s ever courted mainstream success. Which is just as well, as he’d have been bitterly disappointed if he had. With the odd exception, his albums have rarely made the slightest dent in the charts, while his singles have fared similarly poorly. But commercial success isn’t the yardstick by which to measure great artists, and Tom Waits is inarguably one of the finest musicians and songwriters of the last 50 years. His work is challenging, rarely approachable, odd to the extreme, but rarely anything but compellingly brilliant. Here’s how we rank all the Tom Waits albums for worst to best.
17. Foreign Affairs
As albumreviews.blog says, it’s unusual for an artist with such a long recording history as Tom Waits to put out their worst album in the first five years of their career. Usually, they like to save the worst for last. But Waits has always been contrary, and in 1977, he released the biggest turkey in his catalog. It’s not that Foreign Affairs is completely unlistenable, and there are certainly enough highlights (Burma Shave being the sparkliest) to keep fans happy. But ultimately, any album that contains something as bizarre as the Bette Midler duet I Never Talk to Strangers has no place to go but last.
16. Heartattack and Vine
Waits’ seventh studio album (and the final to be released on the Asylum label) is a mixed bag. The innovation and experimentation that would characterize his later records are noticeable in their absence, and his vocals, while always an acquired taste, are croakier than usual, making the lyrics almost impossible to make out. But there are still a few crackers in the mix, including the charming Ruby’s Arms and the ever-popular Jersey Girl. His delight in the darker side of life, meanwhile, is as compelling as ever.
15. Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine was released on September 5, 1978, as Waits’ sixth studio album. Sonically, it represented a big change in direction, with a greater emphasis on keyboards and electric guitars and a lesser one on the strings that had dominated his previous recordings. The result is bluesier and harder-edged, a style more fitting to his stories of low lives and misfits. The subject matter of the songs has also expanded, with Waits largely abandoning the first-person narrative style that characterized his earlier material. It didn’t fare well in the charts, stalling at a disappointing No. 181 on the Billboard 200, but commercial appeal aside, it’s still essential listening for fans.
14. Nighthawks at the Diner
Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits’ third studio album, was released on October 21, 1975. In comparison to his previous two albums, it fared reasonably well in the charts, peaking at No. 164 on the Billboard 200 and certifying silver in the UK. The album was designed to show off Waits’ talents as a live entertainer, with producer Bones Howe transforming the studio into a nightclub facsimile, bringing in an audience, and pairing Waits with a jazz band. There are a few too many spoken word routines, but even in its weakest moments, it’s hard not to be charmed by Waits’ beguiling showmanship. Key highlights include Better Off Without a Wife and Nobody.
13. Real Gone
Waits rarely gets political, but on his sixteenth studio album, Real Gone, he gives it a whirl. For the most part, the results are sensational, particularly on the closing track Day After Tomorrow, a song described by Waits as an “elliptical” protest against the Iraq War and which may well be one of the most insightful, beautifully understated antiwar songs ever written. Other highlights include the heartbreaking Green Grass, the brooding How’s It Gonna End, and the moving murder ballad, Dead and Lovely.
12. The Heart of Saturday Night
At the time of its release, The Heart of Saturday Night didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes. Janet Maslin of The Village Voice called Waits’ lyrics vague, his puns ill-advised, and the mood “too self-consciously limited.” Fellow Village Voice music journalist Robert Christgau was equally unimpressed with Waits’ song choice, writing that “there might be as many coverable songs here as there were on his first album if mournful melodies didn’t merge into neo imagery in the spindrift dirge of the honky-tonk beatnik night. Dig?” But detractors aside, the album is still immensely listenable, with a fine selection of unabashedly sentimental songs for fans to sink their teeth into.
In 2002, Waits released two albums simultaneously, both of which were written alongside his wife Kathleen Brennan and dramatist Robert Wilson. Of the two, Alice is arguably the weaker – although judged on its own merits, it’s still astonishingly good, with the lovely title track and the menacing waltz of Everything You Can Think standing out as particular highlights. Not all of the songs work – Kommienezuspadt and Reeperbahn are both strangely wonderful, but they don’t make sense in the context of the album – but there’s enough quality material to make it essential listening.
10. Bad As Me
It’s rare for an artist to hit their commercial peak seventeen albums into their career, but then again, Waits has never exactly taken the conventional route to success. Released in October 2012, Bad As Me reached No. 6 on the US Billboard 200, No. 10 in the UK, and charted in the top 20 in numerous other countries, becoming his highest selling album to date. Critically, it was equally successful, with Pitchfork calling it “concise and expertly edited,” and Michael Wheeler of Drowned in Sound praising its “exhilarating, terrifying, heartbreaking, tear-jerking, bone-rattling style.” It subsequently went on to earn a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Award.
9. Blood Money
In May 2002, Waits dropped his fifteenth studio album. Blood Money. Consisting of songs written by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan in collaboration with dramatist Robert Wilson for the musical Woyzec, it’s a stylish, nuanced album stuffed with songs that tread a fine line between darkly funny and downright wicked. The characters Waits sings about are repulsive, but he paints them so well, it’s impossible not to be captivated by them. Commercially, it was a moderate success, reaching No. 32 on the Billboard 200 and charting in the top 40 across numerous countries in Europe.
8. Frank’s Wild Years
Considered the concluding album in a trilogy with Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years was released as Waits’ tenth studio album in August 1987. The songs consist largely of fairly straightforward romantic vignettes, but the spare arrangements, strained vocals, and unusual instruments strip them of convention to create an album of breathtaking oddness. But ‘odd’ is what Waits does best; while the album might not be as thrilling as its two direct predecessors, it’s still an incredibly fine addition to his canon.
7. The Black Rider
Waits’ twelfth studio album, The Black Rider, consists of studio versions of songs written by Waits for the Robert Wilson directed play of the same name. It’s very dark, very twisted, and some of the songs are a little too harsh for comfort. But for all its freakishness, it’s utterly compelling, blessed with what Rolling Stone describes as “the morbid excitement of a ride on a decrepit old Tilt-a-Whirl.” It’s not for the fainthearted, but Waits’ fearless, dizzying ambition is hard to fault.
6. Small Change
After picking up solid reviews but barely any sales for his first three albums, Waits achieved a commercial breakthrough with his fourth studio album, Small Change. Released on September 21, 1976, it climbed to No. 89 on the Billboard 200, remaining his highest-charting album until 1999’s Mule Variations. Critically, it was equally successful, and although the quality is slightly patchy (which, considering he’d been putting out an album a year for the past four years, is understandable), it’s still a stunning album. The Piano Has Been Drinking, Tom Traubert’s Blues, and Bad Liver and a Broken Heart stand out as particular highlights.
5. Mule Variations
Waits may be a great artist, but his albums aren’t always the most accessible. Mule Variations, his thirteenth studio album and first album of original material since 1993’s The Black Rider, bucks the trend. The songwriting is still obscure and the productions are still wild, but as All Music says, it’s actually fun to listen to, even with a murder ballad here and a psycho blues there. If ever a Tom Waits album could be described as ‘light,’ this is it. Released in April 1999, it became one of his highest-selling albums to date, charting at No. 30 on the US Billboard 200 and charting in 14 countries worldwide. It also managed to snag the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album at the 42nd Grammy Awards and a nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
4. Bone Machine
After taking a five-year break from the recording studio following the release of Frank’s Wild Years, Waits returned in 1992 with his eleventh studio album, Bone Machine. This time around, he stripped back the arrangements to their bare bones, laid on the percussion, and delved deep into his dark side with a set of songs based around death and decay. The result isn’t necessarily his most accessible album, but the evocative power of the songwriting and rich tapestry of the instrumentation makes it one of his most affecting.
3. Closing Time
Of all his albums, Waits’ 1973 debut is arguably his most straightforward. Waits has said he intended Closing Time to be a “jazz, piano-led album.” In parts, it is, but the breadth of styles evident in songs such as the funky Ice Cream Man, the folky I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You, and the crooning Midnight Lullaby make it an album that’s impossible to pigeonhole. On its release, it was almost completely ignored. But it’s stood up to the passing years well, and today, it’s widely considered to be among Waits’ very finest albums.
2. Rain Dogs
Just missing out on a place at number one is Rain Dogs. While Swordfishtrombones wasn’t much of a commercial success, it was a critical sensation, setting expectations high for its follow-up. Suffice to say, Rain Dogs didn’t disappoint. Like its predecessor, it’s heavy on surreal lyrics and unusual instrumentation, although this time around, Marc Ribot is on hand to lend some guitar to the marimba and accordion. Waits occasionally retreats from the cacophony to indulge in some more conventional offerings like Head Down Your Head, Time and Downtown Tran, but the rest of the album is a riot of noise and jarring rhythms. It lacks the focus of Swordfishtrombones, but even so, the extraordinary quality of the music makes for a stunningly memorable album.
After Heartache and Vine, Waits made some big changes. He dumped his manager, his record label, and his producer, and found a wife (script analyst Kathleen Brennan) who encouraged him to abandon the strings, tone down the piano and start experimenting with texture, sound, and style. The result was Swordfishtrombones, a hugely ambitious, stunningly surreal album in which Waits howls and wheezes his way through a set of songs about misfits and mishaps to the backing of low-pitched horns, blasts of bass, and even a few bellowing bagpipes. It didn’t make any waves in the charts, but of all his albums, this was the one that turned him from a minor talent into a cult hero.