Tom Waits is one of the most diverse artists of all time. His music ranges from traditional blues to gospel music. Even his lesser known softer ballads and chaotic songs deserve a place as some of the best music ever recorded. So to compile a list of his greatest songs is a daunting task, to say the least. Regardless, here are the top 10 songs of Tom Waits, but there are lots more to know.
10 – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up – Bone Machine (1992)
“Controlled madness” is the best way to describe the majority of Waits’ material. While the song The Piano Has Been Drinking may be the first real indication of this, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up epitomizes it. The song breaks the rules by letting listeners regress to their playful, stubborn selves. It also paved the way for Waits’ deeply deranged, yet hypnotizing tunes—most notably God’s Away On Business, and Kommienezuepadt.
9 – I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You – Closing Time (1973)
In terms of an all-around love song, I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You may be Waits’ most subtle. His voice doesn’t shift in opposite directions the way it does on other earlier love songs, such as the beautiful Jersey Girl. The guitar rhythm and the rhyming patterns are equally fluid, and it’s that overall simplicity that makes this song so special. It is one of the most popular songs of Tom Waits.
8 – Downtown Train – Rain Dogs (1985)
Perhaps overshadowed at the end of a long 19-track album by other songs like Clap Hands, and Jockey Full of Bourbon, Downtown Train still remains the best song on Rain Dogs. It may also be Waits’ most upbeat and radio-friendly song he has ever done, but, at the same time, it still seems to be miles ahead of the majority of pop songs out there. Even miles ahead of all the online casino sites addiction. Rod Stewart should be taking note.
7 – Hoist That Rag – Real Gone (2004)
When fans thought it wasn’t possible for Tom Waits to come out with any more original material, he delivers yet again with Host That Rag. It is really surprising to many fans. The song itself sounds like it’s played in a rusty old garage, but it’s that authentic feel—not to mention the heavy foot stomps, shakers, and an epic guitar solo—that makes it awe-inspiring. Waits uses ugly imagery to describe his sentiments on the war, culminating later with the song Road to Peace, but that one just didn’t have the same rugged flare.
6 – Temptation – Frank’s Wild Years (1987)
Sometimes when Tom Waits has nothing else to say he invents new sounds that hit the mark straight away. This can range from megaphones to rooster moans in songs like I’ll be Gone and Chocolate Jesus, or simply the sort of strange tantric-like humming found in Temptation. All of it blends perfectly, making this song so much more seductive than it is catchy.
5 – All The World Is Green – Blood Money (2002)
Bitter emotions are buried in this song evident by chilling lines like “the face forgives the mirror, the worm forgives the plow, the question begs the answer can you forgive me somehow?” In fact, the lyrics look secondary to the beautiful music that accompanies it. The clarinet and the marimba flutter together in true harmony, and for that reason it may be Waits’ most beautiful song.
4 – Hold On – Mule Variations (1999)
After taking a leave of absence for more or less 6 years, Waits came back with Mule Variations, furthering his legendary status as an artist. “Go ahead call the cops, you won’t meet nice girls in coffee shops” Waits pleads, while capping it off with a chorus that captures so much emotion simply by repeating two words, Hold On—Hold On.
3 – Tom Traubert’s Blues – Small Change (1976)
It’s hard to imagine that Tom Waits recorded this song at the tender age of just 26. Even then he displayed the ability to convey general things about life with such liveliness and truth, seemingly with delicate ease. It is also around this time when his voice started aging with bitterness and booze, allowing him to execute the string of “Waltzing Matildas” with overpowering command.
2 – Alice – Alice (2002)
Without a doubt Alice is Waits’ strongest lyrical performance, and it gets better with every listen. The comparison between ice and the name Alice (“And by tracing it twice I fell through the ice of Alice”) paints a fantastical picture of frozen lakes, and solemn evenings about lost love. To top it all off the melody and the horn arrangements are as swift and enchanting as the “dreamy weather” Waits is skating on.
1 – Innocent When You Dream (Barroom) – Frank’s Wild Years (1987)
What’s better than Tom Waits? How about two Tom Waits singing in unison? Innocent When You Dream has just that, one purposely off key, and the other howling to the moon. The entire song is a majestic piece of poetry; inspirational because it embodies everything Tom Waits has ever learned as a musician and as an artist. Against a modest piano progression, the chorus enlivens the song, saying “And it’s memories that I’m stealing, but you’re innocent when you dream, when you dream, you’re innocent when you dream.” If only Waits knew how guilty he was for dreaming so big.
It is perhaps impossible to piece together a list that can accurately rank Tom Waits’ greatest songs, because it obviously comes down to personal opinion. The ones that were on the cusp could have easily replaced the ones that made it, which include Shore Leave, Cold Cold Ground, Invitation to the Blues, and even the novelty Step Right Up and Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard. Nevertheless, Tom Waits’ impact on music is more than 30 years of recording history, and each one of those songs should be considered timeless treasures for generations to come. Truly, he is one of the best.