The 10 Essential Tom Waits Tracks

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So Tom Waits’ new album Bad As Me is out today. It’s the 17th full-length in a long and constantly fascinating career, an album that marks the latest step in the continuing development of one of America’s most idiosyncratic artists. Waits’ journey has taken him from Bukowskian barroom balladry to experimental elder statesmanship, from headache-inducing noise to some of the most delicately beautiful ballads you’ll ever hear. We can’t really think of another artist who remains so vital and relevant nearly four decades after his debut — Lou Reed is working with Metallica, Bowie’s virtually retired, but Waits continues to make wonderful, innovative records. Of course, with such an extensive discography behind him, it can be difficult to know where to start with Waits’ work — so here’s our selection of his 10 most vital tracks from over the years. With so much goodness to choose from, this is inevitably a pretty subjective selection — so what are your favorites?

“Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” from Small Change, 1976

Apparently Waits’ biographer described “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” as the “archetypal Waits song,” but if we had to pick a single track for that title, it’d be this one. It’s laden with both gritty realism and bruised romanticism, borrowing the refrain of Australian folk song and de facto national anthem “Waltzing Matilda” and a surfeit of down-and-out imagery to tell the story of an itinerant vagrant and his enduring love, which may be (according to how you read the song) a girl, the bottle, or his battered suitcase. Like many of Waits’ lyrics, the exact meaning of “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” and the inspiration behind it, have been debated for years — but however you read it, it’s a marvelous piece of songwriting.

“Innocent When You Dream (78)” from Franks Wild Years, 1987

There are two versions of this on Franks Wild Years — the “barroom” version is exactly what its title might suggest, a groaning, anguished howl of a song that sounds like it was performed in some dingy dive as the lights are coming on, while the “78” version sounds like it’s playing on an old Victrola, so quiet and delicate that it’s almost not there. The two sides to the song neatly sum up the dichotomy at the heart of Waits’ work, the contradiction between grotesquerie and beauty, and the way that — like his voice — his music often manages to be both at the same time. We’re partial to the “78” version, but they’re both great.

“Reeperbahn” from Alice, 2002

Waits’ barroom balladeer phase was long behind him by the time he recorded this song, but it might nevertheless represent the single best example of his continuing fascination with society’s seedy underbelly. The song takes its name from Hamburg’s notorious red light district, but it’s really about any city’s shadowy back alleys, the dark corners where respectable folk never dare to venture, and the denizens you find there. And like much of his work, it’s full of affection and a certain admiration for the down-and-out: “Behind every window, behind every door/ The apple has gone but there’s always the core/ And the seeds will sprout up right through the floor/ Down there in the Reeperbahn…”

“Anywhere I Lay My Head” from Rain Dogs, 1985

The exploration of vagrancy and homelessness is a theme that turns up again and again in Waits’ work throughout the years. Rain Dogs apparently takes its name from the idea that a dog caught in the rain can’t smell the scents that mark its way home, and the album is a loose concept work about the down-at-heel homeless of New York City. As such, this song functions as Rain Dogs‘ conceptual centerpiece. It’s one of the saddest, prettiest ballads that Waits has ever recorded — but also, without reading too much into it, the strange musical left turn it takes at the end, bursting into a jaunty march-like figure, suggests that maybe there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for all concerned.

“What’s He Building?” from Mule Variations, 1999

Mule Variations is heavily laden with both weirdness and awesomeness — and Waits songs don’t get any more awesomely weird than this, the strangely compelling tale of a man locked away from his fellow townsfolk as he builds… something. The spoken word nature of the piece is something that’s cropped up sporadically in Waits’ work over the years, and the lyric is a fantastic piece of writing — in the course of just over three minutes, it manages to be ambiguous, sinister, funny, and intriguing, sometimes all at once. What is he building in there? Perhaps it’s best not to know…

“Goin’ Out West” from Bone Machine, 1992

For all its manifold influences and constantly evolving sound, there’s always been something quintessentially American about Waits’ music. So it’s perhaps not surprising that he’d write a song so steeped in the key American mythology of going west, a tale of a dissatisfied knockabout taking his troubles to the land of new opportunity. But as ever with Waits, nothing’s that simple — for a start, his character doesn’t sound like the most pleasant type, and the whole song is shot through with a streak of satire, lampooning both the idea of going out west and the people you might find when you get there.

“Big in Japan” from Mule Variations, 1999

Like Nick Cave, Waits’ sense of humor has often been underestimated over the years, but it’s on full display here. The song functions as a dig at plastic pop stars the world over, but it’s also got a healthy amount of self-deprecation about it. And, y’know, it’s rather amusing.

“Day After Tomorrow” from Real Gone, 2004

This garnered a reasonable amount of publicity for being a subtle protest against the war in Iraq, but even setting that aside, it’s a fine example of Waits’ enduring ability to address a subject in a manner that’s oblique but remarkably effective. His lyrics are rarely straightforward — they make you think, and are usually all the better for it.

“Shore Leave” from Swordfishtrombones, 1983

Swordfishtrombones was Waits’ great musical left turn, the moment where he emerged from three years of seclusion and uncertainty with one of the most startling musical reinventions of our time. The difference from Heartattack and Vine to this record is dramatic — gone is the disheveled beat poet who’s still at the piano as the bar is closing, replaced by a strange musical maverick with a penchant for experimental noise and headache-inducing arrangements. But one thing that isn’t diminished is Waits’ storytelling ability — who else would write a song about hanging loose in Hong Kong that contains the lines “I slopped at the corner on cold chow mein/ And shot billiards with a midget until the rain stopped”? To quote one YouTube commenter on this video, it’s so evocative that “you can feel the humidity in your shirt.”

“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” from Blue Valentine, 1978

And while we’re on Waits’ storytelling ability, let’s finish up with a song whose lyric is exactly what its title suggests — a transcription of a fictional postcard that’s engrossing and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s one of the saddest and most beautiful moments in all of Waits’ long career, a song that retains its emotional punch over 30 years later.

Bonus track:

Allen Ginsberg, “America” (set to Tom Waits’ “Closing Time,” from Closing Time, 1973)

This is one of our all-time favorite internet discoveries. We’re not sure quite how this mixture of Ginsberg’s reading of “America” and the instrumental title track from Waits’ debut album came about — but it’s a stroke of genius.