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Tom Waits

Tom Waits. Where do you even start? Over the last three decades the weathered raspy-voiced singer has been one of the most daring and innovative artists in American popular music. He's made a career of being willfully out-of-step with the mainstream. He's combined the confessional insight of the singer-songwriter with the romantic seedy thrills of the beat poet. What's more, he has also appeared in numerous movies, composed movie music, and written for the stage.

Since bursting on the scene in 1973 with his Dylanesque debut record, Closing Time, Tom Waits has been a fixture in American popular music. With a voice that became increasingly gravelly with the passing of the years, Waits painted dark sinister portraits of the world on the other side of the tracks, a world of freaks, drunks, and nobodies. It's the world of the lost souls of Edward Hopper's melancholy paintings, the junkies of William Burroughs's damaged literary odysseys, and the lowlifes who roam the shadowy streets of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles.

Waits gives this world its vibrant, dirty life with a voice that's like no other, an amazing roar, like a waterfall of hard sharp stones. It's the collective voice of all the world's perverts and degenerates, the wise guys and the three time losers, all those park bench weirdoes who sit in the damp 3 a.m. shadows romancing bottles of cheap red wine in brown paper bags, all those men in stained snakeskin suits who slick their hair down with engine grease and hold their alligator shoes together with chewing gum and rubber bands. It's the sound of the shifting, unruly chaos that lurks beneath the plastic, smoothed out surface of American life.

Just when mainstream America started to catch up with him, offering him a Grammy for "Best Alternative Music Album" for his 1992 Island release, Bone Machine, Waits got even weirder, releasing 1993's The Black Rider (also on Island), a recording of the macabre, demented musical he cowrote with William Burroughs and Robert Wilson. He then went into a period of relative seclusion, emerging only to appear in Robert Altman's film Short Cuts, before finally returning in 1999 with a new album, Mule Variations, on Epitaph.

Waits bellows like the apocalypse is coming on the song featured here, "Books of Moses," a stripped-down percussion-driven blues number that would sound right home with the material on Bone Machine. The song was written by the late, legendary Skip Spence, a psychedelic blues pioneer who played briefly with Moby Grape and recorded a single solo record before struggling with mental illness until his death in 1999. "Books of Moses" comes from the Birdman Records tribute to Spence, More Oar, which also features performances by Robert Plant, Beck, Mark Lanegan, and others.

In all his various guises, from crooning balladeer to weirdo circus barker to bluesy gospel singer, whether he's playing the part of the ex-con who's done hard time, the kind-hearted drunk without a dime, or the backwoods freak with a crazy glint in his eye, Tom Waits is a towering giant in the flat landscape of American popular music.