Calling Ryan Adams prolific is an understatement. At the age of 39 he’s already released 14 studio albums, ranging everywhere from the alternative country/singer-songwriter music he’s known best for to some interesting if ill begotten
attempts at straight pop-rock and even death metal. He’s a songwriter who simply will not stop writing, and spectacularly most of those songs are far more than good. Narrowing down the favorites to 20 was an extremely daunting and difficult task — especially because my favorites tend to change with every season. Still, these are the ones that I always go back to, the ones that are played over and over and over again, the ones that without fail always give comfort.
Disclaimer: Covers were outlawed on this list. Because Adams has written so many great songs, I felt that highlighting his covers seemed a bit unfair. That said, he has an incredible talent for reinterpreting songs, and his covers of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, Alice in Chain’s “Head In A Hole” and Gillian Welch’s “(Time) The Revelator” are all spectacular and worth seeking out.
20. When the Stars Go Blue
19. New York, New York
18. Easy Plateau
15. This Is It – Cardinals Version
14. In My Time Of Need
13. Let it Ride
12. These Girls
11. I See Monsters
10. Hotel Chelsea Nights
Adams has always experimented with the confines of genre– mostly by adding indie rock ethos to country and americana. Here, however, he puts on his best Prince impression for a bluesy ballad that has the power to knock you on your feet.
9. Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains)
Every single track on this list highlights the songwriting prowess at Adams’ core, and this one showcases it flawlessly. Removing all backing instruments and strumming on his guitar so lightly that at times it seems he’s singing acapella allows the cleverness and poetry of the lyric’s metaphors to truly stand out. It’s a folk song for an alt-rock generation.
8. The Shadowlands
Yes, the poetry that seeps through Adams’ lyrics is one of the reasons we love him so, but there are plenty of times when the music simply takes over. Half-way through the exceptional Love Is Hell, comes “Shadowlands”,and it lands with quite a devastating blow. Sure, his lyrics and fragility are on display, but it’s the guitar solo at the center of the song that catapults it from great to necessary. Coupled with his incredible cover of “Wonder Wall”, this one-two punch is one of the most heart wrenching in modern music.
7. My Winding Wheel
Off Adam’s debut Heartbreaker, this track gets at the core of what made Ryan Adams the star of Alt-Country that he is today. The album is full of spectacular rock kick (as will be seen down the list), and this one mixes his beautifully sung southern drawl with an acoustic guitar and lyrics that ooze country soul.
6. To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)
Speaking of that kick in Heartbreaker, this album’s opening track is perhaps one of the best openings in Adams’ long, long career. With a scorching electric guitar, rumbling percussion and, of course, that spectacular sing-along chorus, this track is as much Merle Haggard as it is Joe Strummer — a perfect mix of country and rock.
5. If I Am a Stranger
Over his career, Ryan Adams has experimented with all types of music, from death metal to straight country, but he’s best when he lets his singer-songwriter roots shine through. When backed by his fantastic band The Cardinals, his songwriting was really able to shine. With it’s simple build, emotional climax and, of course, its hauntingly poetic lyrics, “If I Am A Stranger” is a stand out in a career full of them.
4. Dear John
There are two versions of this track, each emotionally devastating in it’s own way — one released on Jacksonville City Nights as a duet with Nora Jones and one on the absolutely incredible Follow the Lights EP. Both are absolutely stunning versions of the song, offering different emotional interpretations and different emotional climaxes, but the absolutely heartbreaking version with Nora Jones is what wins this prize. Their voices mesh perfectly and the addition of Jones dark female vocals brings this story of relationship desolation to dizzying emotional heights.
3. Oh My Sweet Carolina
Yet another one from Heartbreaker, one that cemented his place in the country-rock pantheon, Emmylou Harris decided to sing backing vocals on “Oh My Sweet Carolina”. At a mere 27 years old, Adams wrote one of the definitive songs about his home state, and one that could easily be included in the definitive songs about the South. Like all the tracks on this list, it’s beautifully written, heartbreaking and contemplative — a song that I’ve heard hundreds of times that still can never, ever get old.
2. Magnolia Mountain
When Adams is working at his peak, he’s writing music that mixes the pathos and melodies of the old country greats with the sounds and grit of the 90s/2000s indie kids. The Cardinals back the breathtaking poetry of Adams’s lyrics again here, with instrumentation as lush as the mountains for which he’s pining. The mixture of electric and pedal steel guitars show his ability to seamlessly meld genres, taking country out of the past and rooting indie-rock in Americana-nostalgia.
1. Come Pick Me Up
After a list of fawning, it seems I’m about to fawn hardest of all for perhaps one of the greatest songs written in my lifetime — and I’m completely serious about that statement. The highlight of Adams’ unmatched debut, there’s nothing about “Come Pick Me Up” that isn’t absolutely where it should be, from the opening harmonica, to the crushing lyrics to the strangely catchy melody. It’s a song that perhaps is loved so intensely not because of its undeniable mastery, but for the moments it’s soundtracked for many of us and the hardships it’s gotten us through. Every bad break up, every moment of triumph and every long car ride with my family, this song has been there for me, as it has for so many others.