The Best Tom Waits Albums
If you want a classic Tom Waits record, the Grammy-winning Bone Machine may be your best bet. It features diverse instrumentation and vocal patterns, along with Waits’ songwriting chops and ability to perform. Released five years after Frank’s Wild Years, Bone Machine includes some of his most popular songs, including “Woman” and “Wasp” (both of which are regarded as Waits’ best albums).
Tom Waits’s first studio album is regarded by many as his masterpiece. Despite the name, the songs here are almost all about transportation. The album is full of surprising moments, including a guitar solo by Keith Richards and an unnerving piano line. Even for those who aren’t familiar with Waits, this album is a must-listen. However, the album is not for everyone. It is certainly worth a try if you’re a fan of his work.
The 2002 Double Shot is Tom Waits’ least daring album, but it’s arguably the strongest musically. This is the only Tom Waits album to feature songs like “Starving in the Belly of a Whale” and “Misery is the River of the World”. Nevertheless, it’s still a fine example of Waits’ talent. The songwriting on Double Shot is excellent, but there are many more gems to be found on Waits’ discography.
Another great album by Tom Waits was Swordfishtrombones. Released the same day as Alice, Swordfishtrombones was a foreshadow of what would come to be on the follow-up. Its jazz ballad Soldier’s Things makes it feel like the best Tom Waits album. It also kick-starts Waits’ werewolf songs and freakish imagery. It is a highly recommended album by fans of his work.
Big in Japan is perhaps the most American of Waits’ albums. It captures sounds from every American immigrant culture from Scottish to Irish. It also features some wild west themes. His piano playing has been compared to that of Hoagy Carmichael. His influences also include Jack Kerouac, Randy Newman, and Frank Sinatra. The album is a masterful synthesis of his influences and his own voice.
Another gem from Waits’ oeuvre is Small Change, his sophomore album. Although the title is obscure, this record is a gem. It’s a largely instrumental work that would sound right at home in a piano bar at three in the morning. The titles of the songs are a clue to the subject matter. ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’, ‘The Black Rider’, and ‘Bad Liver and Broken Heart (In Lowell) are examples of the kind of topics Waits explored. ‘The Black Rider’ is so good that Waits’ album received a near-universal appraisal. The album cemented Waits’ place in songwriting culture of the 1970s.
While Waits’ other albums are notable for their complexity, many of his albums are underrated. The most underrated of these are ‘Heartattack’ and ‘Rain Dogs’. The former had a long, successful career on the Asylum label, but Waits was forced to change labels in his last album. A change in label usually signals a backroom deal gone wrong, but Waits was trying to get out of it. Eventually, he got out and moved on. In the end, he did – and changed his style instantly.