"The other day, I overheard my older kids talking to my younger boy and they were saying 'don't ever, don't ever ask dad to help you with your homework'. They said I made up a war once."

Tom Waits is a story-teller. That's really all you need to know before approaching any one of the 16 studio albums he's released in his 42 years as a performer. It's rare for Waits to shine the light on his own life – even in interviews he tends to avoid the subject by telling tall tales – his subjects tend to more often be those at the margins of society. Even after he reached wider attention he still insisted on staying in crummy motels, as that was where he found his inspiration.

It helps that Tom Waits voice alone seems to contain a thousand stories in its raspy sound – which makes for a surprisingly versatile instrument. It can be croaked with sadness, weathered by age, growling with antagonism or simply terrifying. Yet it wasn't always that way. Back in '73, when he released debut album Closing Time, Waits actually had a reasonable voice, he just happened to destroy it completely in the space of three albums thanks to cigarettes and liquor.

As the years have gone by Tom Waits has repeatedly changed genre and his music has taken a far more theatrical turn. Part of this has been a result of the influence of his wife Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter, who he met whilst writing the music for the Francis Ford Coppola movie One From The Heart. She is often credited as co-author on many of Waits' songs and helped develop the concept for many stage shows – most notably the Big Time tour.

To discover the music of Tom Waits is to become Alice falling down the rabbit hole. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the myriad routes and curiosities to take. Hopefully this playlist, which spans Waits' entire career, including studio recordings, live performances, collaborations and other oddities, will act as a starting point. But really the best advice is to just jump in and try a bit of everything. Get yourself a little lost, try something that'll make you feel small and insignificant (1992's Bone Machine is a good one for that), but most of all remember that it's ok if it all gets a little weird. As Waits himself once said "popular music is like a big party, and it's a thrill sneaking in rather than being invited. Every once in a while, a guy with his shirt on inside out, wearing lipstick and a pillbox hat, gets a chance to speak."

  • 1. 'The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)' – 1974
  • 2. 'Step Right Up' – 1976
  • 3. 'Kentucky Avenue' – 1978
  • 4. 'Spacious Thoughts (feat. Kool Keith and Tom Waits)' – 2009 (From the NASA album The Spirit of Apollo)
  • 5. 'Top of the Hill' – 2004
  • 6. 'A Brief History of John Baldessari' – 2012
  • 7. 'Shore Leave' (live) – 1988
  • 8. 'Earth Died Screaming' – 1992
  • 9. 'Satisfied' – 2011
  • 10. 'Hold On' – 1999
  • 11. 'Anywhere I Lay My Head' – 1985
  • 12. [Bonus] 'God's Away on Business' – 2002