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20. Jane Birkin – Alice

“Alice” is one of Waits’ more conventionally beautiful songs. Unlike so many of his others, it isn’t necessarily one that fits so well a shift to a female voice. Wisely, Jane Birkin doesn’t try to romanticize it or to smooth away the angst, playing it more in the style of a Leonard Cohen-esque observer. Indeed, by this stance, she reflects equally the feel of faded grandeur that Waits occupied so effortlessly in his first few recordings. The orchestration in the middle eight is genius, a mix of fairground and grand guignol, the deadpan vocal just the job to convey the mood. – Seuras Og

19. Drugstore – Old Shoes

A simple, straightforward lament from Waits’ debut album, “Old Shoes” is a pretty ballad with a no-frills arrangement of just his voice and guitar. It’s not a particularly Waitsian song, but it’s one of those simple ballads that goes straight for the heart. Brazilian-British dream pop band Drugstore trick you into thinking their cover will be a similar affair, opening with just voice, gentle electric guitar and tambourine to start. But fifty seconds into it, the distortion, bass and drums kick in. What follows is a dynamic journey; full-volume distortion giving way to gentle singing and strumming, and even moments of silence, which then slowly build back up to a feedback-drenched guitar solo worthy of Yo La Tengo. All the while, lead singer Isabel Monteiro’s voice glides along, nearly oblivious to the volume she and her bandmates are playing at. It’s a radically loud version that manages to never really lose connection to the original sentiment. – Riley Haas

18. The Cottars – Hold On

The Cottars came from a Canadian Celtic musical background, so it’s no surprise that most of their covers are the traditional ballads and jigs you’d expect from the genre. But they’ve also recorded three Tom Waits covers, and they give them a delightful lilt that makes them fairly spark of joy. “Hold On” is a good example. Lyrically, the message of encouragement is the same from both songs, but where Waits prowls through the dark alleys, the Cottars leap for the sunshine. The difference is dramatic, and the song not only survives the transformation, it thrives within it. – Patrick Robbins

17. Hell Blues Choir – God’s Away on Business

Some of Waits’ songs sound like they were written for musicals. And some of his songs were written for the theater. “God’s Away on Business” from Blood Money was written for an adaptation of the famous German play Woyzeck, but Waits’ version sounds like it comes from a revue at a carnival in hell. Despite their name, Norway’s Hell Blues Choir transports this dark, stompy dirge to a much lighter place, possibly on Broadway. Though the vocals are very choral, the theatrical feel of the song is preserved and you can imagine seeing and hearing a version a little like this in a big-budget musical production of Woyzeck. There’s a slight “demented Christmas carol” vibe, but it’s a nice balance between “choir cover” and the dark cabaret of the original. This is the kind of gateway cover that likely gets people into Waits’ more difficult material – much prettier than the original, but quirky enough to make you wonder what the original sounds like. – Riley Haas

16. The Eagles – Ol’ 55

Probably the first Tom Waits song most people are likely to have ever heard. I have a soft spot for this slightly cheesy and undoubtedly sentimental song. Waits’ own version is, frankly, a little clunky, awkward even, as if he is trying too hard to offer something mainstream. It took the Eagles to shamelessly pick up on that and layer on the saccharine. And so bloody well, the steel guitar as syrupy as the harmonies. It is a masterpiece, however counterintuitively. No idea what Waits himself thought of it, but I’ll bet he still gets more royalties from this than much else. – Seuras Og

15. Tori Amos – Time

Tori Amos ostensibly made Strange Little Girls—the covers album on which her version of “Time” is featured—as her last album owed to Atlantic Records. But the resulting covers amount to so much more than just a completion of rote contractual obligations; “Time,” in particular, is one of Amos’ most artful recordings in her entire discography, bringing the same kind of pathos and precision to the track that she does to her shapeshifting originals.

Beyond its inclusion as the heart of Strange Little Girls, Amos’ rendition of “Time” is perhaps best known for a particular seminal live performance presented on national TV in September 2001. Though she was scheduled well in advance to promote her new covers record with a performance on The Late Show that month, the events of 9/11 would ultimately make Amos one of the first musical guests to return to David Letterman’s program in the wake of the tragedy. Her understated performance of ’“Time,” presented just one week later brought a normally-steely Letterman seemingly to the verge of tears. Like David Bowie’s iconic cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” which opened the televised Concert for New York City that fall in a similarly understated and shockingly profound way, this was a moment where even the most radical art-rock stars were finding solace in classic songwriting, covering decidedly understated material that would resonate and might offer a moment of communion at a national scale. – Ben Easton

14. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks – The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)

Though some view “The Piano Has Been Drinking” as archetypal ’70s Waits, there’s also an alternative view, that this is one of those songs in which Waits’ ’70s persona veered closest to self-parody, as if it’s one of the moments that helped lead to his musical and spiritual rebirth seven years later. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as the song is quite funny; if it’s self-parody, it’s self-aware-parody.

The legendary Dan Hicks clearly sees the humor in the song. He and his band, the Hot Licks, lean heavily into humorous lyrics in both versions they recorded, with the backing vocalists occasionally acting as a Greek chorus. Hicks takes this piano ballad up-tempo. Their first version in particular feels very much about emphasizing those lyrics, which Hicks clearly enjoys delivering. In the second version, acoustic guitars replace the horn that handles the main instrumental melody in their first version, and the vibe once again veers into the world of parody, but this time of someone like Jimmy Buffett. Whether intentional or not, it feels like a clever repurposing of a song that otherwise seems utterly tied to Tom Waits’ lounge lizard persona of the first part of his career. – Riley Haas

13. Ramones – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up

“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” proved a perfect swan song for the Ramones, as featured on their farewell album of 1995, Adios Amigos! The New York punk legends of CBGB, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Rock N’ Roll High School” fame found in Waits’ raw Bone Machine strummer every reason to remain as pageboy-haired adolescent upstarts in leather jackets. With their trademark “1, 2, 3, 4” count-in, breakneck guitars, and sneering vocals, the band made it quite clear that they wanted no part in TV-watching, binge-drinking, medicine-taking adult life, with the domestic disputes, baldness, and endless debt that came with it (and still does!). They got a rare hit single out of the song, too, because, really, they made a compelling case. – Adam Mason

12. Jeremy Smoking Jacket – No One Knows I’m Gone

Two years ago, we asked the staff, “What’s the most bizarre cover you’ve ever heard?” This was my answer. To quote myself:

Early in my fascination with covers – or maybe it was early in my fascination with Tom Waits; they happened around the same time – I stumbled upon Jeremy Smoking Jacket‘s cover of “No One Knows I’m Gone.” The recording was on MySpace which, at the time, was where one would go to find under-the-radar music. It appears to have not made the transition to other platforms, either; when you Google it, the first result is something I wrote a million years ago and the second is that old MySpace page, which no longer plays. It deserves wider exposure, which hopefully the Soundcloud I just uploaded will help facilitate. Bizarre this cover certainly is, and arresting too. The only accompaniment is a loop of someone coughing. Just coughing, over and over. It sounds extremely off-putting, but it actually kind of works. And you just know Tom would love it. – Ray Padgett

11. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band – Downtown Train

While Waits skulks around nighttime city streets in “Downtown Train” just longing for a stolen glance, Bob Seger takes the wheel much more assertively. His version—recorded with The Silver Bullet Band in 1989; shelved, ostensibly, after Rod Stewart beat him to the punch; and then re-recorded and finally released, 22 years later, for Seger’s Ultimate Hits compilation—is classic heartland rock, with the punchy spirit and grand scale of an open-road journey. Seger and Waits share a big romantic spirit, with versions that have similarly fervent vocal leads and soulful arrangements. But it’s Seger’s that sounds like it breaks out of “Downtown Train”’s self-described little world. Rather than craned necks on a crowded subway, this cover is all full-on majestic vistas, displayed on the horizon miles and miles on down the line through a long-distance train-car window. – Ben Easton


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

Comments (16)
  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!

  13. Bette Midler – Shiver Me Timbers:

    Carolina Chocolate Drops – Trampled Rose:
    (with Rhiannon Giddens)

    Johnny Cash – Down By the Train:

    Tom Jones – Bad As Me:

    Mandy Patinkin – Kentucky Avenue:

    Randy Rainbow – Martha:
    (actually one of my favorites)

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