What Are The Top 20 Ryan Adams Songs?

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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.

Ryan Adams has such a varied discography that there were enough deep cuts and experiments to keep even an admitted hater like me entertained –- I had no idea that he cribbed so heavily from the Paul Westerberg playbook, but it makes sense, given Adams reputation. I’m still not a fan of “New York, New York” –- baseball grudges die hard –- but overall I’m glad I did it. There are some nuggets buried in that huge pile or recordings –- 180 official album cuts –- and it ended up being really tough cutting it down to just twenty. Odds are I left out your favorite songs –- make sure to holler at me in the comments.

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.

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21 Comments

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  1. Wow. Can’t believe I’m the first one commenting here….

    Anyway, first reaction…I’m pissed off you’re including Whiskeytown songs on here and that you’re number 1 is a fucking joke song.

    OK…that aside… I like the love for Cold Roses but not enough for Love is Hell. Of course, that record is really tough to pick single songs from because it’s just an amazing record as a whole.

    Great list though! I have to say I am a bit jealous that you got to hear all these records for the first time. I wish I could have that experience again.

    Couple songs I just want to highlight that you left off:

    – Hotel Chelsea Nights: I’ve never heard a song so clearly evoke the feeling of a place.

    – Note to Self: Don’t Die: Most awesome / badass / hilarious chorus of all time: “NOTE TO SELF DON’T CHANGE FOR ANYONE. NOTE TO SELF DON’T DIIIIIIE”

    – Two: Maybe the most beautiful and radio-friendly single off any of his albums.

    – How Do You Keep Love Alive: saddest song of all time

    PEACE

    MT

  2. I think it’s ok to include Whiskeytown. I’ve always hated when artists take on a solo career and completely ignore the bands they used to be in. He wrote those songs, who cares what the moniker was, they’re still RA songs IMO.

    I would have included:

    I see Monsters
    Houses on the Hill
    Avenues
    To be the One
    In My Time of Need
    Dear Chicago
    She Wants to Play Hearts

  3. Some interesting selections and wouldn’t disagree with that many of them. To be honest I’d struggle to limit it to 20, but (for me) there would always be a place for:

    Stars Turn Blue (Gold)
    Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight (Strangers Almanac)
    Pawn Shop Ain’t No Place For A Wedding Ring (Rural Free Delivery)
    Two (Easy Tiger)
    Sweet Illusions (Cold Roses)

    And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s all subjective, of course, but I enjoyed the article nonetheless. I’m off to track down “Jimmy Whistlenut” now…

  4. TLF18- I don’t think he was implying that Willie Nelson wrote “Dear John.” On the UK version of “Jacksonville City Nights,” there was a cover of “Always on My Mind,” so choosing that song would have been cheating.

    I agree that more journalism is needed here because if he had chosen “Always on My Mind,” as a Willie Nelson cover, he would still be wrong because Willie Nelson didn’t write the song.

    Whatever…

  5. Pointless piece. Plain contrived. You should have just given the writer an assignment to list the top ten Adams songs he hated and let someone who knows his music pick his best songs. The latter would have made an interesting read.

  6. I can agree with several of your choices, but I think you left out:

    Call Me On Your Way Back Home
    Come Pick Me Up
    La Cienega Just smiled

    and the version of Dear John from the Follow the Lights album is soo much better I think!

  7. I’m pleased some of your twenty songs differed from my choices, that’s DRA varied and experimental and prolific. IMO he’s one of the great writers because of the simplicity of many of his songs. I have 13 Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown/Cardinals albums and I find my favorites change with the seasons and my moods. We try to cover “stars go blue, two, a kiss before I go, and sweet carolina”.

    Thank God Ryan’s clean and sober . . . now I can look forward to his next album and the one after that . . . Thanks for taking on the thankless task of trying to review him pick the best. Like everyone, he’s on facebook if you want to learn more about the person behind the songs.

  8. That’s an interesting list, but I would’ve included:

    Faithless Street
    Mining Town
    Black Arrow, Bleeding Heart
    Desperate Ain’t Lonely
    Theme for a Trucker
    My Winding Wheel
    Come Pick Me Up
    Answering Bell
    When the Stars Go Blue
    Nuclear
    So Alive

  9. The great thing about Ryan Adams is you’ll never ever ever find any two people who can agree on a Top Anything list. He’s done so much; so much great stuff, and a bit of mediocre stuff.

    Personally, JCN is my least favourite RA album by some distance, but then REAL Country music makes my toes curl.

    I’m glad to see Anybody Wanna Take Me Home on the list, which is in my opinion his #1 song, with Firecracker a close second.

  10. I’ve put a few CDs together over the years for friends as an introduction to RA, and here’s what they usually get. For such a prolific songwriter, only fair to up the list to 30 don’t you think?! My top 5 are truly my favorites; the rest aren’t in any particular order. Thanks Ryan from another Carolina boy living in New York….

    30 Nuclear
    29. Sweet Illusions
    28. Everybody Knows
    27. Answering Bell
    26. So Alive
    25. Halloweenhead
    24. Goodnight Rose
    23. English Girls Approximately
    22. Let Us Down Easy
    21. My Love For You Is Real
    20. To Be Young
    19. Hotel Chelsea Nights
    18. In My Time of Need
    17. How Do You Keep Love Alive?
    16. I See Monsters
    15. I Taught Myself How To Grow Old
    14. The Sun Also Sets
    13. Oh My God Whatever, Etc.
    12. Dear John
    11. Fix It
    10. Anybody Wanna Take Me Home
    9. My Winding Wheel
    8. Two
    7. Avalanche
    6. Firecracker
    5. La Cienga Just Smiled
    4. When The Stars Go Blue
    3. My Sweet Carolina
    2. Stop
    1. Come Pick Me Up

  11. I find it wild that not a single one of you touched on my favorite song which is The Shadowlands from Love Is Hell. It makes an incredible pace change and has an awesomely cerebral closing riff.

  12. I’m digging on Jeremy’s list. Here are some of mine, in no particular order.

    Hardest Part
    House is not for Sale
    La Cienega(duh!)
    Gracie
    Happy Birthday
    Lucky Now
    Answering Bell
    Sun Also Sets
    Death and Rats
    Come Pick Me Up
    Stars Go Blue
    The End
    English Girls App.
    Call me on Your Way Home
    New York”
    Harder now That it’s Over
    Sweet Illusions
    If I am a Stranger
    Cherry Lane
    Withering Heights
    Two
    These Girls
    Taught Myself How to Grow
    Go Easy
    Evergreen
    Natural Ghost
    Wasteland

    Epiphany action! I guess Ryan may be my favorite songwriter of all time.

  13. Bit of an old thread, but it’s one of those nights, so here goes:
    1. Dear Chicago
    2. Oh My Sweet Carolina
    3. To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)
    4. New York, New York
    5. Desire
    6. My Winding Wheel
    7. Sylvia Plath
    8. Dear John
    9. If I Am a Stranger Now to You
    10. Harder Now That it’s Over

  14. And the second half:
    11. Damn Sam
    12. Dear John
    13. Firefracker
    14. Rescue Blues
    15. Somehow, Someday
    16. The Bar Is a Beautiful Place
    17. Magnolia Mountain
    18. Friends
    19. Gonna Make You Love Me More
    20. Let It Ride

  15. Cannot believe so many hits were omitted!! My alphabetical list of faves:

    “Cloud Number Nine”
    “Cuts Like A Knife”
    “Do I Have To Say The Words?”
    “I’m Ready”
    “On A Day Like Today”
    “One Night Love Affair”
    “Please Forgive Me”
    “Somebody”

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