So Tom Waits’ new album Bad As Me is out today. It’s the 17th full-length in a long and constantly fascinating career, an album that marks the latest step in the continuing development of one of America’s most idiosyncratic artists. Waits’ journey has taken him from Bukowskian barroom balladry to experimental elder statesmanship, from headache-inducing noise to some of the most delicately beautiful ballads you’ll ever hear. We can’t really think of another artist who remains so vital and relevant nearly four decades after his debut — Lou Reed is working with Metallica, Bowie’s virtually retired, but Waits continues to make wonderful, innovative records. Of course, with such an extensive discography behind him, it can be difficult to know where to start with Waits’ work — so here’s our selection of his 10 most vital tracks from over the years. With so much goodness to choose from, this is inevitably a pretty subjective selection — so what are your favorites?
“Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” from Small Change, 1976
Apparently Waits’ biographer described “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” as the “archetypal Waits song,” but if we had to pick a single track for that title, it’d be this one. It’s laden with both gritty realism and bruised romanticism, borrowing the refrain of Australian folk song and de facto national anthem “Waltzing Matilda” and a surfeit of down-and-out imagery to tell the story of an itinerant vagrant and his enduring love, which may be (according to how you read the song) a girl, the bottle, or his battered suitcase. Like many of Waits’ lyrics, the exact meaning of “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” and the inspiration behind it, have been debated for years — but however you read it, it’s a marvelous piece of songwriting.