The “Who is Ryan Adams?” Primer
If your first introduction to Ryan Adams is his song-for-song re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s 1989, here’s a solo career-spanning playlist to get yourself acquainted.
“Gimme Something Good” — Ryan Adams (2014)
We’re going to start with the first track off of his latest album of originals. It’s quintessential Ryan Adams, for a lot of reasons that will become clear the more you dig into his back catalog. Layered guitars and organs, catchy hooks, tight songwriting…it’s a great single on a really good album.
“Come Pick Me Up” — Heartbreaker (2000)
Ryan Adams was the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for Whiskytown, a music-critic fave in the 90's. He left the band to record this solo effort, and it’s often cited by fans as his definitive work. There’s a really strong country influence on this ballad-heavy LP. This song is an example of those ballads, and shows off his songwriting skill with uncanny ability to craft a compelling song.
“New York, New York” — Gold (2001)
This was the first track and lead single off of his sophomore album. Coming off of his critically acclaimed first solo album, this was directed at a little more mainstream alt-rock. He shot the video for this song in New York four days before 9–11, and the massive airplay of it on MTV following the attacks brought him the most attention of his career to that point, and since. This also happens to be one of the songs my band covered when we did a short tour throughout western Canada in 2007 (shout-out to the eight people that showed up to our show in Castlegar).
“Enemy Fire” — Gold (2001)
This is one of my favorite songs, period. It’s a heavy, raw, boozy trip with impeccable soaring harmonies. It’s perfect in every way.
“Desire” — Demolition (2002)
This album was all tracks from culled from four separate unreleased albums, and released by the record company despite his protests. Like “Come Pick Me Up”, this is a classic example of his skill in writing ballads. I’ve heard this song played more than once at weddings for the processional, which is a bit fucked up — this isn’t exactly a wedding-y love song.
“So Alive” — Rock n Roll (2003)
More record company problems. Ryan wrote, recorded and delivered an album called “Love is Hell” to his label, and they flat-out refused to release it. So he went into the studio and bashed out this album in two weeks. Popular opinion regards it as his weakest album (Pitchfork called it “ one-dimensional, vain, and entirely lifeless”), but because this was the first album I owned, it’s always held a special place in my heart. Especially this song, a U2-esque driver.
“Wonderwall” — Love is Hell (2004)
The record company finally relented and released this album the next year. It featured this haunting cover of “Wonderwall” by Oasis, and Noel Gallagher himself declared it to be the definitive version of the song. It’s the song he’s most well known for, judging by the unassailable qualifier “Most Streamed Ryan Adams Song on Spotify”.
“Let it Ride” — Cold Roses (2005)
Adams put together a semi-permanent backing band called the Cardinals, and Cold Roses was his first release with the band playing on all the tracks. It also was a return to his country-influenced sound that had largely disappeared in favor of the alt-rock sound.
“Dear John” — Jacksonville City Nights (2005)
The beauty of this duet with Norah Jones really hit me after repeated listens. Adams collaborates with tons of different musicians, and this song is emblematic of how he neither stands out nor disappears when other artists join him. It’s truly a testament to how good of a musician he is.
“29” — 29 (2005)
This album was a concept album with each track representing a year of Adams’ 20s. Throughout his career Adams has worn his influences on his musical sleeve, and this track is a clear nod to the Grateful Dead.
“Goodnight Rose” — Easy Tiger (2007)
6/8 is my favorite time signature to play in, and I can’t help but drum all over my desk or steering wheel when this song comes on.
“If I am a Stranger” — Follow the Lights (2007)
First appearing on 2005's Cold Roses, this version is stripped back and emblematic of how Adams can take an established song, tear it apart, and reassemble it into something new.
“Fix It” — Cardinology (2008)
On special occasions like Easter and Christmas, my mother makes a Trifle, a traditional English dessert. It’s the perfect amount of sweet and savory, lightness and heft. This song is like that trifle.
“P.S.” — III/IV (2010)
This album was recorded in 2006 (during the same sessions that produced Easy Tiger), and released by Adams’ own PAX AM label after being rejected by his previous label. It’s a rather disjointed effort, with influences pulled from all over the place. I like this song as an example of how Adams is unafraid to experiment with styles and sounds beyond what many fans would wish he stick to.
“Chains of Love” — Ashes & Fire (2011)
Whenever I see Adams in concert, this is the song I’m always waiting for him to play. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m holding out hope.
“Shadows” — Ryan Adams (2014)
With the echo-y guitars and muted plodding drums and bassline, this track is vintage Adams. The soaring melody on the pre-chorus is gorgeous, moving between major and minor notes that provide the right blend of melancholy.
“Burn in the Night” — Burn in the Night (2015)
Adams has been sporadically spitting out 7" EPs with various unreleased or re-tooled songs. The title track of this 3-song EP is described by Adams as “really special but it never fit anywhere”.
“Wildest Dreams” — 1989 (2015)
This is why you’re here, right? Adams’ interpretations of Swift’s big singles like “Bad Blood”, “Style” and “Shake it Off” will likely be getting the most attention, but I’m most enamored with this, the fifth single. Swift’s version borrows heavily on Lana Del Ray’s aesthetic with brooding, breathy vocals, but Adams makes it entirely his own. If I hadn’t heard Swift’s version, I’d have assumed this was an outtake from the Jacksonville City Nights sessions.
Rhys Albrecht is a photographer, mostly. He can be found on Twitter at @rhysalbrecht talking about Oilers hockey.