“If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I’ve chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it.” – Tom Waits
Tom Waits is often portrayed as the anti-hero of folk and it’s a moniker he’s worked hard to preserve. The singer has traversed genre as easily as he moves from the gutter to the stage and has never truly been held back by anything in the music industry other than himself. Below, we take a staunch look at his defining moment, the classic album Rain Dogs by ranking the songs in order of greatness.
When Waits arrived on the scene, he did so with a bundle of great songs under his arm and a head full of dreams. Once his debut record Closing Time arrived it did so with little fanfare but by the time 1985’s Rain Dogs was released, Waits had changed a chunk of perception, after the album, he had America in the palm of his hand. Things could have looked rough for Waits—but like every other moment in his career, he refused to budge.
Instead, he forged his own path, his own persona and his own goal and quickly became the anti-hero of the American songwriting scene. Often referred to as a crooner, Waits is what you’d get if you made Frank Sinatra hitchhike between shows in Las Vegas and New York with only a bottle of whisky for comfort. “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things,” Waits once said, and it’s a quote that sums up his creative approach perfectly. “The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering,” he added.
While across many of Waits’ albums he has done his own fair share of work to eradicate that bad writing, it was on Rain Dogs that the singer truly broke free. No longer tied to a degrading image of rock and roll revelry, Waits flourished out from under the microscope and became one America’s greatest performers of all time, one of their own and a man-made of the very earth he trod upon. It was on Rain Dogs that Tom Waits became a hero.
The album allowed Waits to be as experimental as he ever had before. Ditching structured melody for musical expression, Waits also ditched studio techniques of the day: “Most things you can get with a button nowadays. So if I was trying for a certain drum sound, my engineer would say, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, why are we wasting our time? Let’s just hit this little cup with a stick here, sample something (take a drum sound from another record) and make it bigger in the mix, don’t worry about it.’ I’d say, ‘No, I would rather go in the bathroom and hit the door with a piece of two-by-four very hard.'”
Waits also stated that “if we couldn’t get the right sound out of the drum set we’d get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and bang it real hard with a two-by-four,” these kinds of performances echo throughout the album and give it a lot of its authenticity. As Waits rightly notes, doing such things makes sure “the sounds become your own.”
Ranking Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs from worst to best:
19. ‘Bride of Rain Dog’
When ranking the songs of an album, more often than not, the interludes between tracks end up propping the entire list. Meaning that a short section of music never truly matches up to the real thing.
Hence, the one minute and something long piece titled ‘Bride of Rain Dog’ being at the base of our list. It’s interesting as usual but not much else.
18. ‘Blind Love’
“Now you’re gone, it’s hotels and whiskey and sad-luck dames,” croons Waits on the opening lines of ‘Blind Love’. A classic toe-tapper from Waits lacks in authenticity in comparison to the rest of the album.
It’s about as traditional as America gets and Waits captures the imagery of the piece perfectly with his unique delivery. There’s nothing wrong with the track but in comparison to the rest of the songs, it falls a little short.
17. ‘Union Square’
A toe-tapper capable of turning a whisky bar into a shuddering situation. In comparison to the rest of the songs, it lacks a little authenticity to the album’s diverse creation.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the track only that it is a little simple, otherwise, we’re sure it will rank among some Waits fans’ favourites.
Another instrumental piece but this time delivered with a little more gusto. Feeling akin to a sixties superhero skit at times, the track is a searing piece of music. While instrumental pieces don’t really compare to full songs, this one does a great job of adding colour to an already vibrant album.
It’s the kind of song you can imagine painters and other artist using as a source of inspiration.
15. ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’
An album’s closer always needs to have a point. Whether it be to conclude the thematic elements of the LP or to leave you with a lasting impression of the record and the artist who made it. For Waits and Rain Dogs it is most certainly the former.
Waits gurgles and babbles through his lyrics as the sonics around him wave goodbye to the listener. A piece to finish off the story, Waits is still as captivating on the last notes as he was on the first. Of course, it all kicks into gear around the two-minute mark and leaves a sense of cabaret on the tongue.
14. ‘Diamonds & Gold’
A curious wander down the streets of Waits mind, including broken glass, rusty nails and growing violets, it perfectly describes Waits’ unwillingness to conform to any kind of predesigned commercial pathway.
It’s a song about a man who has now given up the railroad life and is complying with normality. But he still keeps the railroad in his mind, littered with the memories of a past life. It’s an archetypal Waits number.
13. ‘9th & Hennepin’
‘9th & Hennepin’ begins with a doughnut and ends with machine gunfire. The place described in Waits wandering number is real and the song’s content, which sees two pimps fighting with one another, one throwing forks and blenders with the other firing an automatic weapon into the doughnut shop, is also a real-life experience Waits had.
Although Waits’ experience took place in New York, not Minneapolis where the titular corner can be found, otherwise the song’s events are real. Waits really was in the middle of a shootout in the middle of a late-night doughnut. For that reason alone, the song is a classic.
12. ‘Walking Spanish’
There’s an unstoppable groove to ‘Walking Spanish’ which underpins all great jazz, a bassline that acts as the tragedy and the comedy of the piece. Bouncing across the airwaves with joy, every so often a note of solemnity will drop in and change the pace of the piece. It fits perfectly as the counterbalance to Waits’ darkened lyrics—walking Spanish is a reference to prisoners walking to the electric chair.
Waits’ vocal is yet again as gravelly and gruff as you’d hope and he delivers his wry lyrics with the twinkling eye of a time gone by.
11. ‘Tango Til They’re Sore’
One of the shorter pieces on the album, it is songs like ‘Tango Til They’re Sore’ that add considerable colour to the album. As Waits croons his fabled story of death and love, the track is imbued with the timeless quality of a nursery rhyme from the wrong side of the tracks.
Waits is often seen as a careering pirate of America, travelling across the country with a bottle by his side plundering his songs from the corners North America, songs like this one only add fuel to the fire.
10. ‘Cemetery Polka’
Rain Dogs is beloved by many for its sheer diversity in sound. Across a mass of genres, Waits is able to pick out the truth in almost everything he hears. Case and point come on the quirky and eccentric ‘Cemetery Polka’.
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, a strange and noodling story comes via the too often underused stylings of polka music. Providing a blueprint for bands like Gogol Bordello is one thing, but the sheer lunacy of this track makes it joyful.
9. ‘Big Black Mariah’
As well as being one of the three songs to feature Keith Richards on guitar, deeply evocative piece, Waits’ lyrics are naturally narrative and imbued with the serious literary weight he adds to all of his songs. In truth, the picture Waits paints with his words needs no further added here from us.
A song which tells the story of a man on the run and trying to escape his execution or the “wooden coat” that awaits him. Sonically, the song thunders with intent and feels purposeful and potent in comparison to some of the other songs. When listening to this song, in particular, it’s hard not to be transported into the story.
8. ‘Rain Dogs’
With the opening notes of the album’s titular track, played on accordion and organ, it’s clear that this song is set to get a little strange. A song full to the brim with instrumentation, Waits takes on his welcomed role of the rain dog.
As original as the album itself, the title track is more musings from one of the most mercurial minds in music. It was on songs like this that Waits proved you could be both experimental and attainable.
7. ‘Gun Street Girl’
Beginning as any great American songbook number should, with a twanging guitar, Waits soon picks up the story of a man in love with a ‘Gun Street Girl’ and how meeting her led to his eventual downfall. Naturally, the song is drenched in booze and feels like it could fit into any piece of American history you wanted it to.
The rudimentary construction of the song in comparison to some of the other more muso-centric tracks means that it has real power in the LP. It’s certainly one of the more fully-formed pieces and is a perfect example of how Waits alone can captivate you from the very first line until the end.
How you open an album is always a difficulty of creating an album. Which song will say the most about the artist and the work to come but in the quickest way possible. Well, budding artists should take lead from Waits he uses ‘Singapore’ as the opener for Rain Dogs.
The track not only plays host to a mix of all the sounds about to be heard on the rest of the record, polka, jazz, rock and everything in between, but it also showcases Tom Waits’ adoration of theatricality. The track could easily be placed within a West End production and nobody would bat an eyelid such is its varied story and pacey punctuation. It sets you up for the rest of the album within two notes.
5. ‘Clap Hands’
If ‘Singapore’ set you up then ‘Clap Hands’ knocked you down. A nail in the coffin for Waits’ eccentricity, there are moments on this track that signified the singer had finally reached his creative peak. Happy to manipulate his vocal for the purpose of storytelling, Waits had found his niche.
As well as being a smoke-filled charmer that meanders through, the track also highlighted the side hustle Waits was about to pick up—acting. As the opiate-drenched backdrop continues to sway with the wind, Waits delivers a vocal which any actor would be proud to have on their audition reel.
4. ‘Hang Down Your Head’
Much of Rain Dogs is avant-garde and flirting with the extravagantly experimental but on ‘Hang Down Your Head’, Waits is far more restrained and it sees him return to the melodic structure of his previous work.
Naturally, the song still has Waits pulling the strings so the arrangement is certainly unique. Yet, the song is still one of his cleanest and clearest expressions. It sees the singer in an unusually direct mode of attack and the album benefits from the crystalline vision. It makes the other more experimental piece shine even brighter.
3. ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’
Waits holds his dirtiest vocal from this piece and instead acts as the quick-talking narrator of this track. The first single from Rain Dogs, the track is obviously one of the more complete songs on the album but it doesn’t mean the sentiment of the LP is in every note. There’s a myriad of instruments and, as is most important with Rain Dogs, a classic groove.
A song that wouldn’t sound out of place playing on a jukebox during a duel will always have a place on a Tom Waits record and on Rain Dogs it fits right in with the LP’s gunslinging tendencies.
2. ‘Downtown Train’
There’s more than a touch of Bruce Springsteen here. The song is certainly imbued with a sense of American rock radio readiness, it could maybe be seen as a detriment to the album’s free-spirited creativity but, in truth, the record needs it. While we all love a bit of free-form experimental music, sometimes we just need something to get our fists bumping and toes-tapping—that is the essence of music after all. ‘Downtown Train’ does that in spades.
Of course, considering the artist and the album it’s on, the record is still far from straight rock. There’s still a sense of storytelling, in fact, more so than on most of the songs on the album, and perhaps most importantly, of the sonics of the track still keeping the story moving along at pace.
Theatrical, bold yet honest and comforting, there isn’t much to dislike about ‘Downtown Train’. We’d go as far as to say that not liking the song is a reason for distrust.
The album’s most reflective moment sees Waits take a moment to breathe during the hectic cacophony of the album, choosing the midpoint of the record to do so. It’s a song on the album which has been routinely covered for its timeless questioning of the slipping sands of time.
Recorded in the RCA studios, ‘Time’ acts as one of Waits’ finest songs as he bears his soul, his gritted teeth and hardened heart all in one track. Beautiful and painful in equal measure, Waits evokes sorrow and remorse, unlike any other artist. Save this one for a rainy walk on a rainier day and you’ll find out the exact sentiment of this song and about a million others such is the power of his song—a pure distillation of Waits’ softer side.
It’s a piece of work that shines a light on Waits’ whole schtick. While many will think of him as a crooner, a tramp, a misguided muso or a gruff guitar-slinger, the truth is Tom Waits is a poet. Across the myriad of themes and songs that the singer delivers on Rain Dogs, Waits proves he can breathe any breath, live any life and tell any story.