Tom Waits is a gravel voiced American singer and songwriter known for his dark catalogue of songs that tell the tales of desperate and seedy characters. Perpetually lodged in the underbelly of the world, the people and stories found in the work of Tom Waits are raw and sometimes ugly, but the intelligence and humanity with which they are portrayed makes them deeply sympathetic.
Tom Waits is known for alluding to a film noir-style gangster aesthetic in much of his work, which is replete with a kind of lyrical and sonic decadence that feels as though it could only be purchased with ill-gotten gains. In recent years, Tom Waits has branched out from purely musical pursuits to collaborate with theatrical director Robert Wilson on a series of shows, include “Alice,” based on the book Alice In Wonderland, “Blood Money,” based on George BÃ?Â¼chner’s 1837 avant-garde classic Woyzeck, and “The Black Rider,” a wholly original piece with text by William S. Burroughs. Through it all, Tom Waits continues to bring the grit, and the tenderness, that made him famous.
10. America (Closing Time)
Here, Tom Waits collaborates with beat poetry legend Allen Ginsburg. Ginsburg’s rhythms and language are a natural match for the music of Tom Waits, especially on this introspective, jazz-infused track.
9. All The World Is Green
from Blood Money
This Tom Waits tune feels on first listen like a sweet if slightly hollow ballad, but within the context of the album it stands out as a movingly ironic counterpoint to the obvious doom and gloom that pervades the tragic plot of the story.
8. I Don’t Wanna Grow Up
from Bone Machine
Tom Waits indulges in a brief Peter Pan reverie on this tune. The weathered, world-weary, and even downtrodden nature of his vocal tone makes the childish sentiments he expresses feel fresh and interesting.
7. The Piano Has Been Drinking
from Small Change
This snapshot of the world through a booze induced haze gives us Tom Waits at his seediest.
from Frank’s Wild Years
Here, Tom Waits offers a passionate riff on, of all topics, morality. This quirky, intense track is a standout on a highly conceptual album that runs the genre gamut from rhumba to tin pan alley.
5. Lost In The Harbor
Tom Waits released Alice as half of a double album with Blood Money, and many critics and fans preferred the Carrol-inspired works. This track in particular shows Tom Waits making the most of the legacy of nonsense and insight that Carrol has left him to play with.
from Closing Time
With “Martha,” Tom Waits turns in a no-holds-barred love story. This inventive ballad takes the listener inside the story of a pair of former lovers who have moved on, forged separate lives, but cross paths again briefly in a late night phone call that catapults them back into the past for a few moments.
3. Diamonds On My Windshield
from The Heart Of Saturday Night
This Tom Waits track is perhaps the flip side of his famous Ol’ 55, found in the number one spot. A jazzy spoken riff infused with the urgency of an urban nighttime, “Diamonds On My Windshield” offers plenty of poetry, and even hints at a genuinely tender love for the harsh sights and sounds of the city and the highway.
2. Tom Traubert’s Blues
from Small Change
This enigmatic ballad transcends pure logic and sense, and in it Tom Waits creating a picture, a feeling, and an experience that is instantly relatable, yet somehow slightly obscure. The song has been covered by artists as diverse as Rod Stewart and The Pogues, and Tom Waits used it as the final number for nearly all of his concerts throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
1. Ol’ 55
from Closing Time
This Tom Waits tune has been covered by a variety of artists, most notably The Eagles, but the songwriter’s own version remains the definitive one. Ol’ 55 captures the unique feeling of rejoining the rhythms of the world and of everyday life after a transcendent, private experience like falling in love, or staying up all night. A true jewel in the Tom Waits oeuvre, this perfectly crafted tune is simple enough that you can hum it after a single listen, but complex enough to reward the audiophile who plays it again and again.