When it comes to Tom Waits, the offbeat singer-songwriter with the soul of a poet and the voice of a raspy foghorn, there is no middle ground: You're either crazy about him, or you're flat-out wrong. In hot anticipation of his sold-out show Sunday night at the Akron Civic Theatre, I submit for your listening pleasure the following list of 10 great Waits tunes. Guaranteed to get you in the mood if you're lucky enough to have a ticket to the concert, or get you hip to what all the fuss is about if you haven't seen the light yet.
1. "On the Nickel" (from the album "Heartattack and Vine," 1980): The first Waits song I ever encountered, via a transfixing performance on David Letterman's show. "What becomes of all the little boys/Who never comb their hair?" Waits croaks, hushabying the down-and-out with a poignant skid-row lullaby.
2. "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" (from "Small Change," 1976): Proof (or is it 120 proof?) of just how intoxicatingly silly Waits could be in his early years.
3. "Downtown Train" (from "Rain Dogs," 1985): An obvious choice, but still essential. This breathtaking torch song is so foursquare, not even Rod Stewart could ruin it. Somehow, "I'm shining like a new dime" sounds like a much bigger deal coming from Waits.
4. "Hang Down Your Head" (from "Rain Dogs"): You really should own the entire album. For now, just one more outtake, a lump-in-the-throat lament for a broken heart. Like several other selections in this rundown, it was co-written by Kathleen Brennan, Waits' wife and frequent collaborator.
5. "Innocent When You Dream (78)" (from "Franks Wild Years," 1987): It sounds like an old-time record salvaged from a flea market, but this haunting waltz (shades of Brecht-Weill) has a timeless beauty, too.
6. "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" (from "Bone Machine," 1992): A fun anthem for the inner child in all of us. The video is worth seeking out, too, if only for priceless footage of Waits in a devil costume, riding around in circles on a tiny bike.
7. "Take It With Me" (from "Mule Variations," 1999): The source isn't just my favorite Waits album; it's in my all-time Top 5, period. Highlighting a single track is impossible, but I'll hold it to two, starting with this exquisite valentine. Nothing against your Cole Porters or your Gershwins, but nobody has come closer to nailing the essence of true love in song than Waits does here.
8. "What's He Building?" (from "Mule Variations"): OK, enough mushy stuff. Time to get hilariously weird, as our hero delivers a spoken-word, sound-effects-laden character sketch of a Unabomber-type oddball . . . CLANK! . . . with a shady past . . .THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! . . . who must be up to no good behind closed doors . . . BZZZHHHTTT!
9. "I'm Still Here" (from "Alice," 2002): How does it feel to be a discarded object of affection? When infatuation gives way to indifference, cue up this lost gem, a five-hanky ballad squirreled away on the score for an avant-garde opera about Lewis Carroll's obsession with the young girl who inspired the Alice in Wonderland books.
10. "Make It Rain" (from "Real Gone," 2004): Brennan once said Waits has two kinds of songs: "grand weepers" and "grim reapers." File this spectacularly unhinged blues invocation off his most recent album in the latter category.
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