Reading Barney Hoskyns' excellent Tom Waits biography Lowside of the Road (Faber & Faber 2009) and its 'Top 40' of Waits' greatest songs made me ponder the idea of 'best of' compilations.
When a label decides to put out one of these albums it's almost always for purely commercial reasons. At their best, these collections can be an excellent introduction for newcomers, but if you're already a fan there's little reason to buy; hence the proliferation of usually unremarkable unreleased bonus tracks. There are several (too many?) Tom Waits compilations on the market but it's rare that the compiler's idea of an artist's best work is the same choice a fan would make (indeed, Hoskyns' choices, though all are good, are not the same as mine). Also, record labels have external factors (different labels, band vs solo careers etc) which often make a real overview difficult, especially in the case of artists like Waits with long careers.
So just for the sake of it, here is a 'best of Tom Waits' as chosen by me. In keeping with the idea of an album rather than a top 40, I have imposed a limit of 30 songs, which will hopefully curb pointless self-indulgence and make it less gruelling if I decide to do these for other artists. So anyway...
Would I really call a 'best of Tom Waits' A Hummingbird Trapped in a Closed Down Shoe Store? It's a nice evocative phrase, albeit from a song regrettably not included on the 'album' (A Town With No Cheer, which actually I probably would eject something else for). The temptation was to choose something from every release, but realistically I like too many songs on Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Blue Valentine to include something from everything. Which is a shame, because I really like Closing Time, Foreign Affairs and Blood Money and there are even a few songs from (probably) my least favourite, Real Gone that I listen to now and then. Thirty tracks is going to be difficult. But...
1. Semi Suite (from The Heart of Saturday Night, Asylum, 1974)
I love this cheesy truck driver's girlfriend's lament; very typical of early Tom Waits subject-wise and a very nice tune
2. Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson) (from Nighthawks at the Diner, Asylum, 1975) Nighthawks at the Diner is best heard as a whole album, but this and the next song are my favourites; cheerfully melancholy drunken bohemian nonsense
3. Warm Beer and Cold Women (from Nighthawks at the Diner, Asylum, 1975) same as last one only more so
4. Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copehagen) (from Small Change, Asylum, 1976) Small Change was a breakthrough album for Tom Waits; also the first where his voice went beyond 'gravelly' to its latterday bark/bellow. Which makes him able to sing the most sentimental love songs without being toothache-inducingly sweet. This isn't one of those though; another - perhaps his ultimate - lonely drunken ballad
5. Jitterbug Boy (Sharing a Curbstone with Chuck E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body and The Mug and Artie) (from Small Change, Asylum, 1976) A nostalgic, sepia-toned portrait of a typical Waitsian character; the inclusion of his real-life friends in the title (as elsewhere in his early work) successfully created a distorted, simplified self-mythology that Waits was saddled with for years thereafter. That said, this song is wistful and amusing, rather than more inebriated lachrimosity
6.Annie's Back in Town (from Paradise Alley soundtrack, 1978)
Tom Waits & Sylvester Stallone seems an odd partnership, but I love this song from the flop movie Paradise Alley. There's a great version of it on the bootleg live album Fast Women and Slow Horses too.
7. Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis (from Blue Valentine, Asylum, 1978)
Like Semi Suite, this song is sung from the viewpoint of a female character rather than Waits himself; it's a beautifully empathetic performance, and the bluesier sound Waits was employing by this time really captures the milieu he documents
8. Romeo is Bleeding (from Blue Valentine, Asylum, 1978)
This time Waits captures the street life of his native LA with a highly atmospheric narrative of gang violence, jazzy in a far more edgy way than his earlier, more lounge-inflected work.
9. Kentucky Avenue (from Blue Valentine, Asylum, 1978)
A heart-wrenchingly sad ballad, made up almost entirely of partly autobiographical memories; looking at the lyrics it's not obvious why it should feel so sad and moving; but it is.
10. Burma-Shave (from Fast Women and Slow Horses; Australia 1979 bootleg)
Already a good song about young people escaping a small town, the live versions of Burma-Shave became elaborate mood pieces and this version that melds the song with Gershwin's Summertime, thanks to an outstanding performance by Herbert Hardesty on a squealing muted trumpet is hugely atmospheric and powerful.
11. Mr Siegal (from Heartattack and Vine, Asylum, 1980)
This rough, dirty bluesy pub crawl of a song looks forward to some of the narratives of his later period, although at this point it is still filtered through the 70s 'Tom Waits' persona
12. Ruby's Arms (from Heartattack and Vine, Asylum, 1980)
One of his loveliest ballads, unusual in that it's a leaving rather than being left song
13. Candy Apple Red (from One From the Heart OST, CBS, 1982 bonus track)
A short simple songs with a lovely muted trumpet sound. Lyrically almost like a desolate drunken nursery rhyme; I love this song but it does feel like Waits' work was reaching some kind of conclusion that the experimentation of his later work (and his marriage, presumably) saved him from. Having said that, he can still tap into this kind of feeling anytime he wants; it just seems like he (thankfully) isn't living it anymore.
14. Shore Leave (from Swordfishtrombones, Island, 1983)
The texture of Waits' work changed completely with Swordfishtrombones; the subject matter didn't, but the protagonists of his songs were more often clearly discernible from the man himself; theoretically the narrator of Shore Leave could be the same as in Tom Traubert's Blues, but the feel and imagery are far more visceral.
15. Johnsburg, Illinois (from Swordfishtrombones, Island, 1983)
Short, beautiful love song with a repeated high note that seems distressingly off-key until you think out the tune to yourself and realise that the 'wrong' notes are right, even if he hits them on the sharp side
16. 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six (from Swordfishtrombones, Island, 1983)
One of Waits' best songs, the deranged bellowings of a bizarre outsider on the fringes of society. The version of America in songs like this feels melodramatic but real, a kind of depression-era gothic realism that works through the accumulation of detail of railroads and thinly populated rural areas ('I slept in the holler of a dry creek bed' etc etc); almost all of the songs on Swordfishtrombones have this kind of evocative quality, including...
17. In the Neighborhood (from Swordfishtrombones, Island, 1983)
The first Tom Waits song I ever heard is still one of my favourites; the contrast of the Salvation Army band flavour/archaic atmosphere with the matter-of-fact description of the very ordinary neighbourhood isn't really like anything else I know
18. Swordfishtrombone (from Swordfishtrombones, Island, 1983)
Despite its reputation for atonal 'difficult' music, most of the songs on Swordfishtrombones have a sound that is unfamiliar rather than tuneless. The sound of Swordfishtrombone is richly textured and percussive but with a slinky, atmospheric quality that is far from unpleasant. Lyrically, like many of the songs on the album it's a character portrait of a shadowy, marginal figure
19. Jockey Full of Bourbon (from Rain Dogs, Island, 1985)
A far smoother, latin-flavoured sound on this great song with a more low-key vocal and a sinister nursery rhyme-influenced chorus
20. Tango Till They're Sore (from Rain Dogs, Island, 1985)
His most drunken-sounding song since Heartattack and Vine, a woozy and fun near-party song which gets dark at the edges
21. Time (from Rain Dogs, Island, 1985)
Rain Dogs has some of Waits' most accessible ballads on it (including the mega-successful Downtown Train) but this despondent one is my favourite
22. Blow Wind Blow (from Franks Wild Years, 1987)
Franks Wild Years has some of Waits' most strongly atmospheric and peculiarly rusty-sounding music on it and it's mostly great. At least half the songs on the album are GREAT but I love this one.
23. I Don't Wanna Grow Up (from Bone Machine, Island, 1992)
I am not all that keen on Bone Machine but this is one of a handful of songs I really like from it
24. November (from The Black Rider, Island, 1993)
On the other hand, I really like The Black Rider and the strangely archaic-sounding sparse instrumentation of these songs seem to have influenced his later work. November is a partly lovely, partly creepy ballad with some very weird lyrics
25. The Briar and the Rose (from The Black Rider, Island, 1993)
Kind of a more romantic version of November
26. Pony (from Mule Variations, Anti-, 1999)
Mule Variations is full of great bluesy tunes, Pony is one of them
27. Black Market Baby (from Mule Variations, Anti-, 1999)
Lovely and very Rain Dogs-ish song that sounds kind of like a Tom Waits version of the kind of ersatz blues songs in old Hollywood movies from the 30s
28. You Can Never Hold Back Spring (from Orphans, Anti- , 2006)
Orphans is HUGE and one of my favourite Tom Waits releases, so it's ridiculous to only have one song from it on the 'best of', but if I only have one it would probably be this lovely, soft-but-sandpapery song.
29. Flowers Grave (from Alice, 2002)
Morbid romanticism, like most of Alice it's dreamlike and a bit spooky
30. Last Leaf (from Bad as Me, Anti-, 2011)
Another beautiful ballad, this time a suitably autumnal near-duet with Keith Richards adding his leathery voice to Waits' mournful rasp to great effect