Tom Waits Makes a List of His Top 20 Favorite Albums of All Time

Sinatra Hours

What’s that? Exile on Main Street’s in your top 20 favorite albums of all time? Yeah, me too. How about Trout Mask Replica? A little weird, that one, right? The Basement Tapes? Cool… So, uh, how about Bohemian-Moravian Bands? No? Never heard of it? Seriously?

Me neither.

But there it is, the music of “Czech-Bavarian bands that landed in Texas… music both sour and bitter, and picante, and floating above itself like steam over the kettle… like a wheel about to go off the road all the time… the most lilting little waltz… accordion, soprano sax, clarinet, bass, banjo and percussion.”

Sounds like the kind of thing Tom Waits would listen to.

And that’s because it is, number 12 on his list of top 20, to be exact, described with just a tiny taste of his idiosyncratic music writing courtesy of The Guardian, who published his list in 2005 as part of a series “in which the greatest recording artists reveal their favourite records.”

Sure, Exile is on Waits’ list, as is the Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan. And also Frank Sinatra, naturally, and Thelonious Monk, Lounge Lizards, Little Richard, James Brown…

Waits compares the experience of seeing the Godfather of Soul live to a “mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas… You’d been changed, your life is changed now… everybody wanted to step down, step forward, take communion, take sacrament… get close to the stage and be anointed with his sweat, his cold sweat.”

He names a comedy album by the late, great Bill Hicks, who was “like a reverend waving a gun around.” Leonard Cohen “is a poet, an Extra Large one.” Marc Ribot is “a prosthetic Cuban.” The Pogues “play like soldiers on leave… whimsical and blasphemous, seasick and sacrilegious….” Sound like someone you know? It sounds a bit like Tom Waits.

Put his top 20 in a blender and out comes Real Gone. Sort of.

In giving us his list, he gives a double gift—an inspired collection of music rootsy, avant-garde, jazz/blues/Americana, and Other; and a series of mini-essays on the merits of each album, each one a masterful exercise in concision and elliptical wit. See the full list below, and stop by The Guardian to read Waits’ commentary on each album.

1 In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra
2 Solo Monk by Thelonious Monk
3 Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart
4 Exile On Main Street by the Rolling Stones
5 The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryers
6 The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan
7 Lounge Lizards by Lounge Lizards
8 Rum Sodomy and the Lash by the Pogues
9 I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen
10 The Specialty Sessions by Little Richard
11 Startime by James Brown
12 Bohemian-Moravian Bands by Texas-Czech
13 The Yellow Shark by Frank Zappa
14 Passion for Opera Aria
15 Rant in E Minor by Bill Hicks
16 Prison Songs: Murderous Home Alan Lomax Collection
17 Cubanos Postizos by Marc Ribot
18 Houndog by Houndog
19 Purple Onion by Les Claypool
20 The Delivery Man by Elvis Costello

We’ve added a Spotify playlist with many of his favorite albums below. And if you dig Waits’ musical taste, check out this list of his favorite art films.

Related Content:

Tom Waits, Playing the Down-and-Out Barfly, Appears in Classic 1978 TV Performance

The Tom Waits Map: A Mapping of Every Place Waits Has Sung About, From L.A. to Africa’s Jungles

Tom Waits Names 14 of His Favorite Art Films: Fellini, David Lynch & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (50)
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  • Pam says:

    Disappointing that not a single female artist is on his all-time favorite list, unless you count the aria collection (I don’t). We are such a male-dominant society. With so many female artists throughout history, it’s a shame someone of Tom Waits’ caliber (I’m a huge fan) did not consider the gender bias he presents with this list.

  • JV says:

    “Consider the gender bias?” Seriously? This is a list of personal favorites, not an HR policy. When thinking of favorites works of art, I don’t consider shit aside from if it moves me or not. I’d have a few albums by female artists on my list (Bjork, Edith Piaf, some others), but so what?

  • MC says:

    Fucking hell can the man not like what he likes? Gender bias me hole

  • alex says:

    Are we for real discussing “gender bias” in a list of *personal* favorites?

  • Ran says:

    That really is a stupid thing to say, Pam. Really stupid. Suggesting that he is purposefully being biased, rather than listing his actual preferences. Really? Is that what you think? In fact, it’s such a stupid thing to say, it doesn’t even warrant acknowledgement…

  • Thomas says:

    5. Gavin Bryars, with an A. Tom Waits loves his music so much that he sand on the re-edition of “Jesus Blood…” It’s a sweet story.

  • Thomas says:

    And of course, I made a typo in my comment—sang, not sand. *sigh*

  • kerouac22 says:

    Not sure why the Pogues album surprised me. Makes sense. One of my faves too. Leads me wonder if there any recorded MacGowan and Waits conversations out there . . . Maybe something for Coffee and Cigarettes Part II?

  • noel horgan says:

    you cant please evertbody

  • Dillon Darnassus says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, M’lady.
    If I’m ever asked for a list of MY top 20 favorite albums, I will be sure to knock a few off of the list and replace them with female artists. Alienating people is wrong, and Tomw8z should be ashamed.

  • Jon says:

    It’s a list of favorites not a political agenda. It’s also I believe all Western artists so why not criticize him for not having a ‘world music’ approach. Now people can’t even love what they love in art: they need to tow a politically approve line: jeez.

  • Marbles says:

    Pam is projecting. HER playlist would be only female artists because she’s a chauvinist feminist.

  • Ted Mills says:

    Does anybody know who painted the cover? The Internet and Wikipedia has failed me.

  • Alastair says:

    You suggesting he should have self censored and told us his fictional top 20 all time favorite albums? #truthisouttastyle

  • Colin says:

    There’s a few records on that list that I haven’t heard, so I’m going to check them out on Tom Waits’ recommendation. I read a list of his favourite books and films once, checked them all out and was introduced to some great stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard. Instead of moaning about what’s not on the list, investigate the stuff that is. Might change your life!

  • Jason says:

    It’s his personal favourite album list, if it’s all male or female singers it wouldn’t make a single goddamn difference.

  • Don Neal says:

    One of my all time favorite albums? Small Change by Tom Waites.

  • Noah says:

    I feel you, Pam. 100%

  • Jason Schusterbauer says:

    Pam’s right and you gentleman are a bunch of fragile dicks.

  • Callum says:

    oh shhhoosh

  • rebecca gozion says:

    yeah, what a thing to say! whine about some so-called gender bias, when he’s listing his 20 all time favorite albums>? you people have turned into nazi’s, really. i have female artists in my list of favorites, but that’s me. what are you now, the music police>? the PC police>? what>? you probly wanna go into museums, like those who are trying to condemn the met, & tear down great art that for one reason or another you find offensive. get a grip…you’re becoming a nazi.

    & small change is one of my favorite tom waits albums too.

  • Sollipsist says:

    “Pam” is no doubt working on an independent film that exposes Tom as the talentless huckster that connivingly profited from Kathleen Brennan’s true genius. Ironically, Tom would probably enjoy that immensely :D

  • Rudi Bringer says:

    this is not about gender. It is just his favorite music. Is there any fruit or vegetable you don’t like? It would not appear on your favorite food list, would it? So what’s the point? Will we be forced to have a gender-mainstreamed taste? Do you really wish that? What is the benefit?

  • Mark Havanero says:

    Why wouldn’t you include arias?

  • Woody says:

    Women don’t sing the blues, they give the blues…

  • Isaac Davidson says:

    As people have commented, this is a sadly male-centric list of albums. It’s inconceivable, if not tragic, that not one album by the likes of the great Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday made the list. Mr. Wait’s should take some time to listen past his very narrow collection.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    @Pam, normal people cannot consider identity politics in every facet of their lives, sorry. Hope you can still listen to Tom Waits though, despite his um shortcomings.

    Must say though, that almost every playlist I come across these days is via Spotify. If you support music, you shouldn’t support Spotify, because they don’t support musicians. I don’t subscribe to Spotify, especially not their freemium service , for that reason.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    @Pam, normal people cannot consider identity politics in every facet of their lives, sorry. Hope you can still listen to Tom Waits though, despite his um shortcomings. Having said that, you’re probably male, and got a kick out of the responses here…hahaha

    Must say though, that almost every playlist I come across these days is via Spotify. If you support music, you shouldn’t support Spotify, because they don’t support musicians. I don’t subscribe to Spotify, especially not their freemium service, for that reason.

  • David Wallbank says:

    I like most of Toms choices but I’m struggling with more than two female contenders for my list. What would your 50:50 equality list be?

  • r d hawk says:

    is “Houndog” Hound Dog Taylor?

  • r d hawk says:

    is “Hound Dog” Hound Dog Taylor?

  • Ralph says:

    Nighthawks at the Diner should be on this list.

  • Rob Krueger says:

    Really? …people can have preferences…why is it such a crime for an artist like Tom Waits to have sound preferences?

  • Declana Patricia says:

    I bet he’s kicking himself!

  • Declana Patricia says:

    That was meant for Pam’s comment, of course. I hit reply, said my ten cents, and it posts my comment at the end of the comments, not in reply to her? It’s the small annoyances that really try.

  • Paul says:

    Seriously? Gender bias? He can’t just like the albums he likes without some dick bringing gender into it. Grow up and get a life.

  • ronald scoggins says:

    I would bet after careful consideration Tom would regret not having Blondies “Eat to the Beat” at the top of his list! One of the greatest albums by one of the greatest bands of all time!🤙

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Help me out Tom!😸

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Hi folks! This is Tom! I’m up here at Rondo’s cabin in beautiful sunny Pine Nook Colorado playing guitar and eating red beans and rice! Tomorrow we’re going mtn biking and fishing! I checked in via Rondo’s account only with his permission but you can rest assured it’s me! We’ve been listening to records and Rondo has jogged my memory of some overlooked gems I love so much! Most notably Blondies “Eat to the beat”! I do hereby declare “Eat to the beat” to not only make my list but dethrone my dear friend Frank for the top spot! Sincerely T.

  • ronald scoggins says:

    My man!😸

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Thanks Rondo! I don’t know how I missed that one! Hi Debbie! 👋

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Thanks Rondo! Global warming and world peace aside I think it’s extremely important Tom get his top 20 list in order! Hi Debbie!

  • ronald scoggins says:

    My man!

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Hi Frank! How about the people upstairs? They’re always arguing gender bias but when I see them in the hall they appear trans to me! I too think it very important for us all Tom get his top 20 house in order! Are you good relinquishing your top spot to Blondie?

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Absolutely! I concur! Tom concurs! Done! Ahhh! I feel much better! Thanks Rondo! Have a great day!

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Hi Debbie!😸

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Hi Rondo! It’s Deborah! I think it’s great you recognize Eat to the Beat as a top 20! Tom was more of a New York Dolls guy very surprised they didn’t make his list! Thanks for advocating for us though!

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Hi Deborah! Eat to the Beat so F’n crazy good! I have a black cat named Shayla! She would love to meet you! Perhaps you could come by with Tom sometime! I would love it if he would produce an album for me!!! Perhaps you could advocate for that?! I have some good songs but no money. I have a website with some great stuff I would direct you to but down right now because I owe Go Daddy money. Hope you know I’m not joking all this real! You and Tom anytime! I’ll make some red beans and rice! Just come to Pine Nook Colorado outside Sedalia, population 22 and just follow the Black cat named Shayla!

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Tom! We should go out and meet this guy! We’ll listen to his stuff and if it’s good maybe you could help him out with production. I love red beans and rice and I want to meet Shayla! Thanks! Deborah

  • ronald scoggins says:

    Hi Tom! I got “Closing Time” at #5 on my list! Right behind Blondie, Frank, Hank Williams and Magic Sam’s “Westside Soul”! Would love to have you guys but if you can’t make it out I understand. Happy to link you to some of my stuff if you contact me. Here’s an instrumental I did for my neighborhood. I have lyrical version as well. Tom Waits! Are you kidding me? That’s who I want to produce my album. Only on that could!

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