Tom Waits has had a broad and eclectic career, varying across multiple genres in a way that is hard to define. But Waits got his start as a jazz singer and pianist. In this article, we’ll discuss six essential Tom Waits albums, starting with his early years.
Tom Waits, born 1949, is an American songwriter, musician and actor. He is widely known for performing with a deep and gravelly voice, which has become almost a trademark of his.
Throughout his career, Waits has always focused on narratives and telling stories through his lyrics, which are often focused on stories of the mysterious underworld of city life.
Waits’ music carries with it many influences, from blues, rock, and most notably vaudeville; a theatrical form of variety entertainment originating from France which included comedic situations spiced with drama, light poetry, and songs or ballets.
Despite his broad influences and strange and experimental career, Waits worked primarily in jazz during the 1970s. Read on as we dive into a few of the best Tom Waits albums, many of which are rooted in the sounds of jazz and blues.
Closing Time (1973)
‘Closing Time’ is Waits’ debut album, released in 1973 on Asylum Records and produced by Jerry Yester of Lovin’ Spoons. Although it was his first studio effort, it remains one of the best Tom Waits albums, especially for fans of jazz.
Although the album was received primarily as a predominantly folk-influenced album, Waits intended it to be a jazz, piano-led album. It’s likely that Yester had an impact on this, due to the nature of Lovin’ Spoonful’s music.
On top of this, Asylum Records were releasing music for the Eagles at the time, so it could be that Waits and/or Yester had been pressured with a folkier angle in light of the Eagles’ success.
In fact, the first track of the album, ‘Ol’ 55′ was covered by the Eagles shortly after, which managed to attract attention to the song. The most popular of the tracks on the album besides this include ‘Martha’ and ‘I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’.
The latter is an acoustic guitar-driven, rather folky song, and the former is closer to what I imagine Waits had in mind for the album, a piano-led ballad.
The album was mildly successful in the US, but it didn’t chart or receive much attention from the press in the UK, or anywhere internationally. However, the album received critical acclaim from music journalists and is still regarded as one of the best Tom Waits albums.
The Rolling Stone reviewed ‘Closing Time’ in 1973 with great praise, saying that Waits “delights in rummaging through the attics of nostalgia, the persona that emerges from this remarkable debut album is Waits’ own, at once sardonic, vulnerable and emotionally charged.” They describe his voice as “self-mocking, bordering on self-pity.”
What Waits did do with this album was demonstrate his ability for creating persona and theme in his music; something that he would further explore later in his career even deeper.
In the same review of the album, Rolling Stone described the tracks on the album as “all-purpose lounge music … a style that evokes an aura of crushed cigarettes in seedy bars and Sinatra singing ‘One for My Baby.”
The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
Despite his folkish debut, Waits still desired to cut a jazz, piano-led record. ‘The Heart of Saturday Night’, Waits’ sophomore effort, certainly managed to succeed.
Clearly not happy with Yester’s production of Waits’ to-be-jazz album, ‘Closing Time’, production fell on the shoulders of Bones Howe, who would go on to produce and engineer all of Waits’ records until he left the Asylum record label.
Standout tracks on the album include the opening tune, ‘New Coat Of Paint’, perfectly showcasing Waits’ plonking piano capabilities and sleazy night-club-drawl.
“San Diego Serenade” is a slow waltz, the perfect counterpoint to ‘New Coat Of Point’, and is the second track on the album. It also contains a beautiful string arrangement by jazz pianist Mike Melvoin.
Another track that jazz-fans are likely to enjoy, ‘Fumblin’ With The Blues’ is a jazz-blues, piano-led, bouncing drawl that lifts the album off of its feet.
In December 1974, Rolling Stone declared that the album “surpasses the rest of Closing Time.”, saying that “Waits has a marvellously raspy voice, a jazz singer’s phrasing, and plays a fair piano.”
They describe his songwriting as “jazz-poetry” and “doleful melodic lyricism”, whilst they compare his piano playing to that of Hoagy Carmichael. Waits’ lists his influences in the liner notes, including (American Novelist / Poet) Jack Kerouac, Randy Newman, and Frank Sinatra.
Blue Valentine (1978)
Recording of Blue Valentine began in 1978. In an effort to move away from the jazz-inflected sound of his earlier releases, Waits decided to replace his musicians part way through the production of the album. He also picked up the electric guitar in favour of the piano which up until then was his main instrument.
Although there is still plenty of piano on the album, Waits only plays the [acoustic] piano on two tracks: ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’, and ‘Kentucky Avenue’.
Blue Valentine is a sentimental saga, during which Waits sings of down-on-their-luck night dwellers (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’), and small-time gangsters coming to their tragic end (‘Romeo Is Bleeding’).
The album’s opening track, ‘Somewhere’ is a cover of the same Broadway musical song from West Side Story, but it is by no means the standout song on this record.
‘$29.00′ is a rolling jazz-blues tune that shares the lead between the guitar and the piano, both of which let out expressionistic chords and riffs in between Waits’ urgent vocals.
Heartattack and Vine (1980)
After Blue Valentine, Waits split up with American songwriter Rickie-Lee Jones after their relationship was strained by her abrupt success and heroin addiction.
Waits moved to New York, returning to L.A. only to write the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s flop-to-be One From The Heart, where he met Kathleen Brennen, whom he married within a week.
The film flopped at the box office, but that didn’t stop Waits from receiving a nomination for ‘Best Original Music Score at the Oscars in 1982.
Originally titled White Spades, Waits returned to New York to write the album Heartattack and Vine. The album is most prominent for being much more guitar-based than Waits’ previous work, marking the turning point of his transformation and maturing as a songwriter.
The album broke into the Top 100 charts and peaked at 96. Not long after, Bruce Springsteen, who Waits admired, covered ‘Jersey Girl’.
Another standout track is the titular tune ‘Heartattack and Vine’, featuring a rough-and-ready guitar riff, a moody drum/bass beat, and an aggressive, raspy Waits as he spews out lyrics such as “Don’t you know there ain’t no Devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk”.
More jazz-friendly songs include the instrumental “In Shades”, which works mostly as a guitar-led jazz-blues tune with a hard edge to it, as well as ‘Mr. Siegal’, a tune packed with brilliant lyrics:
“I shot the morning in the back with my red wings on,
“Told the sun he better go back down.
“And if I can find a book of matches
I’m going to burn this hotel down.”
This album steps further into the acquired taste of Waits, but it’s worth a try for any fan of jazz and blues, and definitely worth a listen if you’re already a Waits fan.
Rain Dogs (1985)
Rain Dogs is Waits’ ninth studio album and was released on Island Records. The album is a very loose concept album, once again about the urban underworld, this time-based in New York City. The album is considered by many fans to be the middle instalment of a trilogy [of albums], with the first and last being Swordfishtrombones and Franks Wild Years.
The album features famed guitarist Keith Richards (of The Rolling Stones) and Marc Ribot (who would go on to further work with Waits). It is noted for taking influences from across the globe, and two of its songs were featured in Jim Jarmusch’s film Down by Law, in which Waits also played a leading role.
The album was a success for Waits. It hit number 29 in the UK charts and found its way into the Billboard 200 in the US.
The Rolling Stone listed Rain Dogs as number 21in its ‘100 greatest albums of the 1980s’. Furthermore, in 2020, the album was listed as number 357 on Rolling Stone‘s list of ‘The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’.
Standout tracks on the album include ‘Clap Hands’, for its eerie rhythm, melody, and vocal whispers, and ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’, for Marc Ribot’s mesmerising, subtle guitar playing (look out for that solo).
‘Tango Till They’re Sore’, which features an intro reminiscent of the first couple seconds of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Heart and Soul’, plays out like a pirate’s haunt, and ‘Big Black Mariah’ is an aggressive bluesy tune that would’ve made a good home on ‘Heartattack and Vine’.
But among all of the tunes on Rain Dogs, ‘Downtown Train’ is undoubtedly the album’s biggest hit. The song’s music video was directed by filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Mondino and was later covered by Patty Smyth in 1987, as well as Rod Stewart in 1989, reaching the top five in 1990.
Big Time (1988)
Whilst touring the release of Franks Wild Years in 1987, two of Waits’ performances were recorded and later used for the concert film directed by Chris Blum, titled Big Time. Waits wouldn’t go on tour for another two decades.
The album was originally titled Crooked Time, with Waits’ other half (Brennan) playing a leading role in the development and production of Waits’ initial idea.
The recordings were later altered in post-production for both the album and the movie, with Waits’ voice being altered, and several audio effects being added (stamping boots, finger-snapping, gunshots, train whistles, and more).
Big Time is a truly brilliant live performance (despite the post-production altercations), and Waits adapts his own tunes with such audacity. The musicianship on display is diverse in both influence and style, but it all melds together perfectly.
The prime example of this is the band’s version of Waits’ ‘Telephone Call From Istanbul’. The version is arguably better than the (much different) studio version and features three great solos from Ralph Carney (saxophone, baritone horn), Marc Ribot (lead guitar), and Greg Cohen (bass). Waits himself even falls into a nonsensical vocal rhythm at the end of the song as he jams along with the band.
Tom Waits has had a long and prolific career as a musician, songwriter, actor, and even playwright. Despite his acquired taste, Waits is an inspiring figure who managed to carve out his own niche despite pressures from every direction. To this day, he is still married to Kathleen Brennan, to whom he perhaps owes much of his later success.
In a 1988 interview by Rolling Stone, when asked what he’d do if he weren’t able to make a living as an artist, Waits said:
“I would hope that whatever I was doing, I could find something in it that I could dance to.”
These six Tom Waits albums merely scratch the surface of his 50-year career. If you like what you hear in this list, be sure to check out other great albums from Tom Waits discography like Small Change, Real Gone and The Black Rider.
Harry Sprinks is a gigging musician and writer from the Isle of Wight (UK) who recently graduated with a first-class degree in Commercial Music. He has been playing guitar and singing in various projects for the last five years, taking inspiration mainly from rock and blues greats including BB King, Marc Ribot and Mark Knopfler.