An idiosyncratic list. Compensating for a fallow nineties when he dabbled in soundtracks and applied his cool to extracurricular acting, Waits returned to recording in the 2000s with a vengeance, for better or worse. I couldn’t even finish his three-disc miscellany. I’ve got novels to read and bathrooms to clean.
1. Bone Machine (1992)
To find noise commensurate with the Beefheart worthy-lyric, “The devil shovels coal with crows as airplanes,” Waits found a homemade eponymous percussive device; he threw equipment down stairs when this failed him. The first half of this album, mostly written solo without the aid of wife Kathleen Brennan, is the most intense music of his career: scabrous white blues in which the minstrel mannerisms he’d adopted a decade earlier coalesced into a vision that subsumes Flannery O’Connor and Howlin’ Wolf, murder balladry and Underground busking. “Such a Scream,” “The Ocean,” “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” and “In the Colosseum” are so complete that they reduce the subsequent decade of work into parody; listeners didn’t need Mule Variations, nor the two unremarkable albums of 2002 when Bone Machine existed. Praised at the time, buried by the product of a new millennium, Bone Machine ranks among the top three or four albums of his career.
2. Rain Dogs (1985)
I annoy Waits fanboys of Rod Stewart’s Top Five cover of “Downtown Train” because Stewart and producer Trevor Horn embrace the original’s night-of-a-thousand-stars mawk instead of relying on an admittedly fetching Robert Quine guitar line to mitigate Waits’ moist croak. “Blind Love” and “Time” demanded Stewart’s love touch too, or maybe — stay with me — Luther Vandross. But the title track, thanks to Marc Ribot’s three-note hook and Stephen Hodges’ cymbal-averse drumming, might be Waits’ most beautifully realized union of sound and vision. And after “Hang Down Your Head” softens me, Waits’ own “Downtown Train” makes me cry uncle.
3. Bad As Me (2011)
What, another edition of Heaves & Belches? What distinguishes this American top ten from Real Gone or Blood Money is brevity, sweet brevity, and its racket — his loudest album since Bone Machine. “Hell Broke Luce” and “Raised Right Man” clang ‘n’ bang untethered to concepts or theatrical productions. Keith Richards returns for “Last Leaf,” an unofficial sequel to 1992’s “That Feel,” revealing himself as the source of Waits’ barstool blues: Tom spent the late seventies putting the needle down on “All About You.”
4. Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Like a tetrapod emerging from a mephitic Permian Era swamp, “Underground” announces itself as a clean break from the songwriter’s belting Weltschmerz career. A template for what followed, too: brashly mixed production, spare stinging guitar licks, a delight in colorful percussion instruments like marimba for their own sake. Obviously Waits didn’t abandon the melancholy, nor did he abandon his weakness for acting out shanties (“Shore Leave”); he discovered new kinds of offsetting stringency. “Down Down Down” and the title track would become fun throwaways; in 1983 they were evidence that he was just getting started.
5. Mule Variations (1999)
The embrace of this example of pre-millennium declension confused me. Softer if not spongier in execution from Bone Machine and what followed, Mule Variations served as as a welcome back after his theatrical interregnum. “Chocolate Jesus” revealed that the minstrel evocations had hardened into a manner. I embrace the ballads, in search of another Rod Stewart: “Hold On,” “Come On Up to My House.”
6. Franks Wild Years (1987)
The start of contract filler: solid fragments and excerpts of growls. A SPIN list from spring 1990 praising the most interesting artists of the last five years cited Tom Waits, specifically how adeptly his music works as house cleaning soundtrack. Franks Wild Years is that album — no small thing. Put it this way: it took The Wire for me to hear the possibilities in “Way Down in the Hole,” especially while scrubbing the shower stall.