Ryan Adams –- I’m not so much of a fan. Well, wasn’t much of a fan. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Whiskeytown when they burst on the scene –- if you don’t like Faithless Street and Stranger’s Almanac, there’s something seriously wrong with you -– but when Heartbreaker came out I didn’t feel like it lived up to the hype, which was constant and excessive, if you remember correctly.
Then when Demolition came out and it, frankly, blew goats for quarters and Gold was iffy, I just wrote the dude off –- there’s enough great music in the world that I don’t need to indulge the over-indulgent. I’m the kind of person that likes to make a rash decision and stick with it, so I basically ignored the dude for the rest of the decade. Sure, occasionally I’d be chastised by an Adams fan for my bullheadedness, but mostly it was a decade in which I was blissfully unaware of the man’s recorded output.
Until, that is, American Songwriter asked me to do this here Top 20 and I volunteered to listen to the man’s entire catalog because, ya know, why not? Both of us had outgrown our brash young punk phase, we were older, more mature –- why not see what all the hype was about, right? I’m a firm believer that if you’re not challenging yourself as a listener -– if you’re not constantly evaluating your biases and trying to move passed your prejudices –- then you’re missing half the fun of music. Sitting down for eleven-and-half hours and making yourself listen –- really, really listen –- to something you swore you’d never listen to again is a freaking challenge, lemme tell ya, but a rewarding one.
20. “1974,” Rock N Roll
It’s like the demon-spawn of AC/DC and Kiss with maybe a touch of Shocking Blue, not exactly the kind of thing that you expect from Adams but definitely awesome.
19. “Tina Toledo’s Street Walking Blues,” Gold
Another rocker, this one mines the sweaty, drug fueled debauchery of Goats Head Soup-era Stones to great effect –- six minutes of pure swagger.
18. “29,” 29
When you dive headlong into Adams’ catalog all the genre hopping can really spin the ol’ noggin’ – country one minute, blues the next, Mancunian mope rock a minute later – but when the dude nails a sound he owns it completely. That’s exactly the case with this great piece of boogie-woogie that could have come straight from the Canned Heat play book.
17. “Tennessee Sucks,” Demolition
While I don’t agree with the sentiment –- sure it’s horribly humid but Tennessee is super-fun in the summertime (you just have to wait for the sun to go down) – this is by far the best song on his worst record. And for the record, Johnny B is still tall and weird – I saw him last night.
16. “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.,” Easy Tiger
When Adams is at his best, he has a way with words that makes even the simplest phrases – oh my god, whatever and ecetera in this case – and makes them seem like the most harrowing and important things ever said. “Whatever” has never had this much emotional resonance and probably won’t ever again.
15. “Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel,” Faithless Street, Whiskeytown
Man, I can’t leave my house without tripping over a band that’s based their entire career on emulating this song and they will never, ever achieve its sparse and mournful beauty. Who knew that a punk kid could make something so pretty.
14. “Sweet Illusions,” Cold Roses
Cold Roses was quite the surprise, a little longwinded, but definitely one of his most cohesive albums. A lot of the friends I polled said this was one of their favorite tracks from one of their favorite albums and I tend to agree.
13. “Dancing With The Women at the Bar,” Stranger’s Almanac, Whiskeytown
This might make me sound like a drunk, but I love drinking and I love songs about drinking and singing songs about drinking while I’m getting drunk. Back before he cleaned up his act (quitter!) Adams wrote some of the best damn drinking songs of his generation.
12. “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart,” Stranger’s Almanac, Whiskeytown
This is the blueprint for every song Lucero ever wrote –- and that’s not a slag at Lucero, cause they’re a great band and this is a great song. But, yeah, it’s definitely every song they ever wrote.
11. “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home,” Love Is Hell
If you told me that this had been plucked from deep in the catalog of some ’80s Southern college rock band I wouldn’t have flinched for a second. Jangly and mopey in a circular way, it’s got the sound of Brits trying to pass themselves off as Big Star pretending to be Brits which is the sort of meta-referential shenanigans I can support whole-heartedly.
10. “Magnolia Mountain,” Cold Roses
“It’s been raining that Tennesee honey so long I got too heavy to fly.” Again, I have a strong bias towards all things Tennessee, but that’s some epically bad-ass imagery right there –- just the right balance of sad and beautiful.
9. “Paper Moon,” Pneumonia, Whiskeytown
This list just as easily could have been a Whiskeytown top twenty. No matter what the dude has done since, he’ll have a lifetime free pass to make whatever Mongolian butt-singing project he wants, whenever he wants. On that note, I’m certainly glad Adams didn’t become the Cobain of alt-country, as was once suggested. That would have been insufferable.
8. “Dear John,” Jacksonville City Nights
As far as albums go, JCN is definitely one of the most solid, one of the hardest to parse out the best tracks – and choosing a Willie Nelson cover just seemed like cheating. God forbid I ever get divorced, but if I do, this album is going to be at the top of my “drinking-the-pain-away” playlist.
7. “Firecracker,” Gold
Damn, the last nine songs on this list have been really been a trip down Bummer Lane, ain’t they? Well, the catalog isn’t a complete downer –“Firecracker” has a great shuffle and love-lorn joy that can make even the crankiest of music critics smile. Yes, I’m talking about myself.
6. “Wish You Were Here,” Rock N Roll
I love Pink Floyd! Oh, wait, wrong “Wish You Were Here,” which is cool cause I like The Replacements way more than The Floyd, and this song is one Bob Stinson guitar solo away from turning into Tim. We need to see if we can exhume Bob Stinson and get that worked out…
5. “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” Heartbreaker
I was telling a friend about this project and he starts grilling me –“Where’d ya put ‘To Be Young’?” And I’m all like “Number five” and he’s like, “You know it’s the best Highway 61 knockoff ever, right?!?” And that pretty much says it all.
4. “Too Drunk To Dream,” Faithless Street, Whiskeytown
Early press really played up the whole Gram Parsons Jr. angle when Whiskeytown first came out, which was off-putting because, frankly, nobody can live up to the Parsons myth. But Adams does a great job of trying.
3. “Jacksonville Skyline,” Pneumonia, Whiskeytown
I don’t have anything snarky to say – this song is just beautiful.
2. “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” Heartbreaker
Honestly, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the artistry of Mr. Adams, it’s that he really does his best work when he’s writing about North Carolina. It’s beautiful place with a long, rich musical history and he really manages to capture it, distill it and in the most sublime ways.
1. “Jimmy Whistlenut” (single)
After, oh, eighteen hours of emotional ups and downs with sometimes the manic, sometimes depressive, always unpredictable Ryan Adams, you really just need a good song about smoking crack, time machines and jumping on a trampoline in space. Luckily, Adams just happened to write a great one. Or the only one. I’m pretty sure this is the only song about trampolines in space that anyone has ever written.