I have a friend who hates Tom Waits, so I hope he doesn't see this, because "best" is a useless term in his case. In mine, it took a few years before I fully embraced the guy. His recording career began in the 1970s, but 1980's "Heartattack and Vine" marks the first song I heard, so that's when my interest began.
Though I don't follow his career as closely as I once did—2004's Real Gone (which features cover art that looks like it was puked up by a drunk design student) represents the most recent Waits record in my collection, in part because an editor asked me to write about it, but I can't imagine he'll ever completely fall out of my favor (plus, he was one of the few alternative artists my father enjoyed, assuming it's acceptable to use that term to describe his unique jazz-folk-blues concoction).
It's just that he has a schtick; that whole beatnik-by-way-of-Louis Armstrong thing (not that Armstrong wasn't a bit of a beatnik himself). As schticks go, it's a pretty good one, and the guy can write a song. I may come up with a different favorite next week, but for now it's the fabulously written and fantastically performed "Step Right Up" (1976), which popped into my head a couple of days ago, because I'm finally selling off all the old crap I don't use anymore. Plus, I can't resist that what-the-fuck line about "a nine-year-old Hindu boy."
"Don't you know there ain't no Devil, there's just God when he's drunk."
It bears adding that I have an irresistible attraction to movies and TV shows about carnival life—Freaks, The Unknown, Nightmare Alley, Carny, HBO's Carnivàle—so Waits's barker routine hits me right. It's no wonder directors from Francis Ford Coppola to Tony Scott have been calling on the rumpled musician to bring his wise, but not especially trustworthy songwriting persona to their films—One from the Heart, The Outsiders, Down by Law, Domino, Wristcutters: A Love Story, etc. I have a lot of affection for those pictures, too, most of which haven't met with the same degree of critical acclaim as the albums Waits released during that same period of time, notably Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years (let alone the Grammy Award winners: Bone Machine and The Mule Variations).
About Small Change, William Ruhlmann came to the following conclusion:
Small Change isn't his best album. Like most of the albums Waits made in the '70s, it's uneven, probably because he was putting out one a year and didn't have time to come up with enough first-rate material. But it is the most obvious and characteristic of his albums for Asylum Records. If you like it, you also will like the ones before and after; otherwise, you're not Tom Waits's kind of listener.
Even if, like my friend, you're not "Waits's kind of listener," you can't deny the wisdom in these lyrics: "The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away."