Mar 312023

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40. Queens of the Stone Age – Goin’ Out West

This song seems tailor-made for Queens of the Stone Age to cover. The downtuned guitars, a chugging beat, a general sense of menace. Lead singer Josh Homme sounds believable when he shouts “I know karate, voodoo too”; he embodies the persona of a dangerous loner heading out west. The song is pretty simple but it works because, like Waits, Homme has an endless reserve of swagger. – Mike Misch

39. The Steel Wheels – Walk Away

Another Waits song (a co-write with Kathleen Brennan) about people with regrets and problems, whose solution is to run away and start over. As if next time they’ll get it right.

The Steel Wheels got the song right. They seem pretty confident about it, too—in fact, they titled their 2013 album No More Rain, a phrase from the “Walk Away” chorus, and the song is the album’s leadoff track. The band’s three-part harmonies on chorus are smooth and haunting, and the acoustic instruments make for a nice callback to the old weird America that Waits himself is so enamored of. – Tom McDonald

38. Violent Femmes – Step Right Up

When it comes to pure persona outshining musical talent, Gordon Gano is a kindred spirit of Tom Waits. “Step Right Up” consists of little more than a goofy walking bassline and a maniacal carnival barker: Violent Femmes have this covered. For six and a half minutes Gano’s nasally, non-stop, meandering screed fills the space over Brian Ritchie’s bass and really, that could describe a whole bunch of other Violent Femmes songs. In this case, Gano perfectly captures Waits’s seedy delivery and delivers it in the typical Violent Femmes’ style. It feels like the band probably could have kept this up for another hour without letting up; honestly, they probably could have turned it into a sold-out show. – Mike Misch

37. Steve Earle – Way Down in the Hole

Each season of The Wire uses a different version of “Way Down in the Hole” for its theme song. (Waits’ own version is the theme of the second season.) For the final season, they went with the version from famed songwriter (and Wire cast member) Steve Earle. Earle strays from his country/folk origins – part of a mid-career genre experimentation on Earle’s part – and adheres a little closer to the contemporary flavor of the other Wire versions than you might expect. But it’s still very much a Steve Earle track. His harsher voice really gives his version more of a bluesy feel than the soulful directions of the other non-Waits Wire versions. But the production is distinctly contemporary, with a clipped guitar, a drum machine, backing vocals that sound like they are piped in from somewhere else, keyboards, and other production touches that feel quite out there for someone whose music usually sticks to country and folk traditions. Unlike the versions for seasons 3 and 4, Earle’s is an actual, full song, and it feels distinct from the other covers for the show, which were skewing more and more and more towards R&B and further away from Waits’ original. Earle’s version is appropriately a little more desperate, a little more in line with the failures of the show’s characters to “walk the straight and narrow track.” – Riley Haas

36. Willie Nelson – Picture in a Frame

With this month marking the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Tom Waits’ debut album Closing Time, one can be forgiven for thinking he’s been around forever. But consider this: By the time Closing Time came out, Willie Nelson had already released fifteen albums. But Willie is not averse to learning a few new tricks from a few (not as) old dogs. He took “Picture in a Frame” from 1999’s Mule Variations and gave it the charm of a red headed stranger. No longer a moody piano ballad, it lolls in its gentle country arrangement. Where Waits sounds like he could be singing about the one that got away, Nelson sounds like a man basking in the relationship he’s made with the woman he’s always loved – and always will, as long as those wheels hold out. – Patrick Robbins

35. The Beat Farmers – Rosie

“Rosie” is a weeper from the first Waits record, Closing Time. Waits was still in the laid-back confessional style he honed in San Diego. The Beat Farmers, also out of San Diego, usually played material with more beat and more drive—they were country-rockers and cowpunkers. “Rosie” reveals an unexpectedly sensitive side of the band. Their translation of the song from piano-based to guitar-based brings out a certain tension that comes across just right, tempered as it is by tender vocal harmonies on the refrain. Wisely, they keep it short and sweet, a fine and faithful reading that doesn’t need to show off or go beyond the simple love song that is. – Tom McDonald

34. Jerry Jeff Walker – (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night

Jerry Jeff Walker gives “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” an outlaw-country spin. Where Waits went on a desolate tour, dotted with dive bars, that ended with him stumbling amongst lost dreams, Walker’s cover is full of anticipation for the good times to come. Now it sounds like a stomping celebration, rather than a doleful dream deferred. Even the glimpse of the Sunday morning coming down toward the end serves the song in a good way. As one YouTube commenter put it, “I love how it shows that the same lyrics can tell a completely different story when sang differently.” – Patrick Robbins

33. Cold War Kids – Dirt in the Group

Before they were alt-rock radio giants, Cold War Kids were a buzzy, off-kilter roots group that was like three parts The Band, one part Tom Waits. A few times in those early days, they covered Waits’ “Dirt in the Ground,” always using it as an intro of sorts to transition into their own “Hospital Beds.” They make it this giant barroom holler-along, piano and some quiet guitar underpinning those huge brawling vocals. You can watch both songs in that video, but if you’re looking for better audio quality, you’ll want to track down a tape of their Bonnaroo 2007 set. – Ray Padgett

32. Diana Krall – Temptation

Krall is a smokey-voiced jazz artist with a sultry style that fits “Temptation” to a T. Krall is, or plays, the kind of slinky femme fatale that Waits’s narrator finds so intoxicating and so unnerving.

Jazz interpreters tend to add complexity and sophistication to pop material. But what Krall contributes here is a measure of measured-ness, a straightening out of the crooked. On “Temptation,” Waits is channeling his freakish “Frank” character in his wild years, so things get wild. Listen to his timing on the original: where he jumps in vocally bears a loose, even random relationship to the beat. It’s a beautiful mess. I love the twisted original and I appreciate Krall’s arrangement almost as much–she cleans up after Frank’s derangement on the way to making it her own. – Tom McDonald

31. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – Pony

This is one of my favorite things about writing about covers: Sometimes the more a track is turned into something conventional, the better it can sound. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s cover of “Pony” is a brilliant case in point – simply put, he’s transposed the song into a more traditional country/folk track, with banjo plucks, slow guitars and a steady beat. While Waits’s version is certainly in the same wheelhouse, it is much more somber in tone – Ramblin’ Jack Elliott fully demonstrates the powerful storytelling in the lyrics and still packs the same emotive punch. – Brendan Shanahan


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  15 Responses to “The 50 Best Tom Waits Covers Ever”

Comments (15)
  1. Great list.
    I’d add Rickie Lee Jones’ “Rainbow Sleeve” from “Girl at her Volcano”.
    And one substitution: Linda Thompson’s “Day After Tomorrow” for Joan Baez’s.

    Typo alert: “ideal” should be “idea” on page 4

  2. How this didn’t make the top 50 is just wrong

  3. John Hammond Wicked Grin Album is all Tom Waits songs, and the album is produced by Tom himself as the two of them are friends. Not having any of those songs on this list is criminal. The entire album is amazing. Nice list though despite the clickbait format. Cheers. I’ll be listening to a bunch of these that I haven’t heard.

  4. Seriously: I honestly think these guys do a *better* job of both these songs.
    I give you Jack L singing “The Piano Has Been Drinking”,
    and Paddy Sherlock dueting with Jack L on “Shoot the Moon” @ 51.46, and lastly: Paddy doing his own version: “If I Could Shoot the Moon.”

    Hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

  5. No “Come on up to the House” covers? I personally love Sarah Jarosz’s voice on her cover.

  6. 10,000 Maniacs
    I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You

  7. I’ve always loved this one.

  8. Where was “Shiver Me Timbers” by Bette Midler.
    Sorry, but your list can not be taken seriously without that song

  9. I agree on Rainbow Sleeve. A huge miss here. The authors need to check it out.

  10. I’ll be spending time with these. Thanks.

    But, yeah, ignoring the the Hammond recording is a pretty significant oversight.
    and live:

    These others I’ll list, I’m tempted to say they were oversights for this list, but instead I’ll just share them because I think you’ll enjoy listening to them.

    Heidi Talbot’s version of time Time is pretty gripping:
    and live:

    Perhaps my favorite Waits cover:
    Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey, Hold On from their album Redbird.

    The aforementioned Sarah Jarosz’s cover of Come on up to the House:

    And my favorite Jersey Girl cover:
    Andy Cowan:

  11. Green Grass… Cibelle… family favourite..

  12. Waits’ Gun Street Girl by Canned Heat became much more bluesy, brilliant!

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