15. You Can Never Hold Back Spring/Bottom of the World from Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
Waits has a reputation for being a junk collector, but nobody was counting on him having scraps as good as these laying around when he assembled 2006s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. You Can Never Hold Back Spring warmly crackles and glows, with Waits crooning like a mainstay in your Grandmas old record collection. On Bottom of the World, Waits, with his voice in all its ragged and worn glory, shares tales and wisdom from a lifelong hobo set to one of the most vibrant and beautiful arrangements hes ever put forth. Besides, where else can you get a recipe for fried black swan or learn to use egg whites for slicking down your hair?
14. Soldiers Things from Swordfishtrombones
Waits has never really been overtly political in his songs, which made 2004s Real Gone, Day After Tomorrow in particular, somewhat unexpected. A more subtle commentary on the effects of war is the poignant Soldiers Things from 1983s Swordfishtrombones. The song is little more than a list of possessions set to simple piano. Listeners find themselves at a garage sale, where customers can buy cufflinks, neckties, and medals for bravery. Theres a palpable sense of desperation as a broken radio and a car with a dented hood and bad brakes make for tough sells and a profound sadness as personal belongings are practically given away (everythings a dollar in this box). Waits touches a nerve by playing it cool, letting listeners fill in the story and bring their own emotions to the song.
13. The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (an Evening with Pete King) from Small Change
One of Waits more comical numbers (or disclaimers), The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) closes out side one of the brilliant Small Change in fine, inebriated fashion. Waits has admitted to having played a lot of toilets as a young, opening act, and you almost have to wonder if a jukebox that has to take a leak and a waitress you cant find with a Geiger counter are lyrical inventions or reminiscences. Humorous as the situation may seem, Waits is also conveying a weariness and disenchantment with his lifestyle and heavy drinking during these years. Waits often performed this song with a notably drunken deliveryall part of the act, maybeas can be seen in this abridged version from a television appearance.
12. (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night from The Heart of Saturday Night
For listeners who discovered Waits through more experimental albums like Franks Wild Years or later, gruffer releases like Blood Money, it might come as a bit of a surprise that he started out as a fairly typical (a stretch, I know) piano- and guitar-based singer-songwriter, with a voice that was shockingly smooth before years of moonlighting as a chimney finally caught up with him. This simple, acoustic ballad highlights Waits knack for poetry that depicts the late-night scene (Is it the crack of the pool balls?/Neon buzzin/telephones ringing, its your second cousin). Later recordings would bring Waits back to the world of (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night but rarely with the same innocence or romantic outlook.
11. Lucky Day from The Black Rider
The Black Rider, a collaboration with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs and Waits first stab at writing for the theater stage, is admittedly a tough pill to swallow. November has endured, and its still a kick to hear Waits as a carnival barker announcing a freak show lineup during the overture, but Lucky Day is the real gem on this mostly inaccessible record. As is the case in a number of Waits songs, the protagonist of Lucky Day leaves his love and life behind for the allure of bummin around, adhering to the hobo-esque wisdom of his father: When you get blue/And youve lost all your dreams/Theres nothing like a campfire/And a can of beans. Lucky Day has been a live staple and fan favorite on a number of tours, including 2008s Glitter and Doom Tour.