Mar 312023

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10. Bruce Springsteen – Jersey Girl

This is the first of two songs Waits wrote about places connected to Kathleen Brennan, his wife and creative partner. She was living in New Jersey at the time Waits first wrote about her, but she wasn’t really a Jersey girl. She grew up in Johnsburg, Illinois (thus leading to the second song about Brennan, ”Johnsburg, Illinois,” from Swordfishtrombones).

No one has heard of Johnsburg, Illinois, but we’ve all heard of New Jersey, mostly because Springsteen made it famous. He made Waits’ song famous too. He owned it so well that a lot of Bruce’s fans are unaware that it’s borrowed. “Jersey Girl” is the b-side to Bruce’s “Cover Me” single (of course the flip side to “Cover Me” would be a cover). “Jersey Girl” became a concert favorite in the 80s and 90s for Springsteen, and during one show in LA the Boss invited Waits himself up to sha-la-la along. – Tom McDonald

9. Giant Sand – Invitation to the Blues

Howe Gelb and Giant Sand take this song far away from the dressing room of a dingy club, transferring it to a neon-lit alleyway. The despair and despondency is all the more harsh in the glare, and any pity for the narrator is long lost by this transcription. However, it sure makes for an altogether interesting and alternative reading of the song. On balance, the song survives, despite the discordant connect of all the disparate shapes thrown, if a little haphazardly. into the mix. It comes from one of the earlier Waits tribute albums, 1995’s Step Right Up, which has a number of acts taking the act of deconstruction even further than the author, retaining the pig’s ear and discarding the purse. – Seuras Og

8. Chiara O. – Dog Door

“Dog Door” might be the most obscure Tom Waits tracks on this whole list. This Sparklehorse collab comes off his outtakes collection Orphans; to be fair, so do a few other songs here. “Dog Door,” though, is barely even a song. It’s a cool percussion loop that he moaned some unintelligible words over and called it a day. No surprise, perhaps, that singer Chiara O. takes his version as only the barest suggestion, pulling lyric snippets and rearranging them as she pleases. She also ditches all the percussion and beatboxes, roaring over a guitar as distorted as her vocals. A powerhouse performance, and one of the only tracks on this list that even a Waits superfan (ahem) would say is miles better than the original. – Ray Padgett

7. Norah Jones – Long Way Home

To quote a semi-famous Irish writer, Tom Waits’ voice is “somehow scratched by heaven.” Hardcore fans like it scratchy to the max, and shouted through a megaphone. Other listeners prefer a silken voice in pristine condition. Norah Jones may be their speed, and luckily Jones herself is fond of Waits and Neil Young, and other vocal ruffians. She doesn’t emote her way into the lyric; she doesn’t distress the music to set a Waitsian vibe as most artists tend to do. Jones sits at her cool remove, shunning theatrics, delivering the song in her poised near-perfection, letting the song itself work its magic. – Tom McDonald

6. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – Ice Cream Man

This version does not give us the piano opening and closing, reminiscent of the ice cream truck jingle, however, this lack is made up for with the song’s enduring upbeat swing. The original is a little snappier, with a jazzy jaunt, but this version has a little more attitude. The deeper vocals occasionally break into a carefully controlled scream (true to the artist’s name, of course). – Sara Stoudt

5. Goldheart Assembly – Clap Hands

Goldheart Assembly start their cover of “Clap Hands” as austerely as the original, with the obvious exception of the vocals. Singers James Dale and John Herbert break out lovely harmonies to go along with a sparse piano line. The song maintains its desolate tone, but quickly amps up the intensity with pounding drums and a blistering guitar solo. It’s almost unhinged at times, but impressively clean at others considering this is a live recording, and it’s an impressive escalation of the Waits original. – Mike Misch

4. Scarlett Johansson – Anywhere I Lay My Head

It was an improbable scenario, for sure: A glamorous Hollywood star making a whole album of Tom Waits covers. A glamorous Hollywood star, furthermore, with a singing voice that didn’t exactly grab you by the lapels. Yet the star in question was the impeccably cool Scarlett Johansson, a superfan of Waits, who had a lot more indie cred than most A-listers, and who had TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek on hand to supply the largely synthesized ambience. Oh, and David Bowie for the odd bit of backing vocals. She quickly demonstrated that while growling and impassioned guttural craziness wasn’t really her thing, dreamy and woozy melancholy was, most strikingly on “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” Never has a song about broken-hearted vagrancy and hopelessness sounded so soft, seductive, and beautifully strange. – Adam Mason

3. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Trampled Rose

No matter how off-kilter a song tries to be, adding Alison Krauss is going to on-kilter it. Krauss’s voice floats in over the knocking percussion and jumpy banjo, soothing and serene. Where Waits’s vocals traced an idea of an octave change, Krauss’s voice is transcendent as it soars effortlessly. Waits’s lyrics, in the same way, are elevated by Krauss singing this tale of heartbreak. No matter how poignant the lyrics, though, the highlight remains the haunting, wordless vocals between verses. – Mike Misch

2. Everything But The Girl – Downtown Train

Here’s the Tom Waits song everyone knows that isn’t “Ol’ 55.” Most folk will think this to be a Rod Stewart cover, more fool they. But, even if the chameleonic British husband and wife duo follow pretty much the same arrangement, this is a league apart. Ben Watt shows just how sensitive a singer he too is, most of the attention being usually given to his wife, Tracey Thorn. OK, she then, effortlessly and inevitably, eclipses him, as she chimes in. A slow and stripped-back version, it drips with pathos. From their middle period, post-nu-jazz and pre-dance floor drum’n’bass, it forms but one of the classy selection of covers they were able to turn their talent to. Thorn can turn the heart of the hardest-hearted cynic from stone to goo. – Seuras Og

1. Mates of State – Long Way Home

The sugar rush of ‘00s indie pop—explosive electronic keyboards, bashing drums—couldn’t feel farther away from the earthy palate Waits laid out on his original “Long Way Home.” But Mates of State, the husband-and-wife duo of Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner, make the unlikely genre pivot convincing, deploying their signature rambunctious style to its fullest extent and finding an entirely new route to buoy the song’s affectionate title-hook. Instead of Waits’ wheezy shuffle, “Long Way Home”—part of Crushes (The Covers Mixtape), self-released by the band in 2010—becomes a crossfire of “yeah yeah yeah”s and rager-level enthusiasm, nearly worthy of confetti cannons. – Ben Easton

Check out more installments in our monthly “Best Covers Ever” series, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, ABBA, Neil Young, and more.

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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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