DR: Ryan Adams released his umpteenth album, Ryan Adams, last week and JB and I felt like it was a perfect time to finally throw together our all-time top ten Ryan Adams song list. We’ve sort of collaborated on lists before, but never the same list, so this is going to be interesting. We did a little pre-work, each of us nominating songs to be considered. The point of that exercise was basically to help me brush up on the catalog – I’m not as well versed in anything after Love is Hell, which means depending on how this list shapes up, I might not even be remotely qualified to be having this conversation. Naturally, this means I’m going to lean heavily toward the Whiskeytown / Heartbreaker / Gold eras, while JB will help balance us out with the later stuff. This should be fun. Without further ado, let’s get started. I planned to kick things off with number ten, but I really need JB to set the tone for this list, otherwise it’s going to get out of hand really quick.
JB: Well, I truly intend to set the tone, but not in the way you think. Instead of giving you number 10, I am going to give you a couple that just missed the cut for me. Now keep in mind, with this type of back and forth we may not get everything out of our top 10, but it should be a little more representative and even involve a bit of strategery. The most difficult cut for me came in the form of Adams’ disarming cover of Oasis’ classic ‘Wonderwall’. Including this track may have been a form of cheating, but in this case it would have been worth it. Adams does so well to change the tone and highlight the amazing range in his vocal talent. This was a tough cut for me. Also missing the cut for me: ‘Two’, ‘Born Into a Light’, ‘Faithless Street’, and ‘Firecracker’. I never thought ‘Firecracker’ would miss the cut, but that should just whet your appetite for what’s to come.
DB: Not exactly what I was going for, but you did at least set the tone, so I’ll take it. I’m with you, ‘Firecracker’ was just outside the cut for me, but one of your other cuts is in my Top 10 so we’ll just have to see how this shapes up. Okay, let’s get this thing started.
10. ‘Nuclear’, Demolition
Did any of the critics actually like Demolition? I loved it, but it also came just as my Ryan Adams fandomonium was hitting its stride. Adams himself wasn’t a fan, though it had more to do with how the album was put together than the tracks themselves. Other personal faves include ‘Cry on Demand’ and ‘Desire’, and one more that I hope appears later in this list (that is, if I didn’t inadvertently eliminate it from the list with this pick.)
9. ‘Let it Ride’, Cold Roses (Disc 2)
His debut effort with the band the Cardinals. The band was formed informally in 2001 with JP Bowersock who he met through his neighbor. This double album is beyond solid and really brings Adams back to his alt-country roots, which I love as you will quickly be able to deduce from my contributions to this list. I fear this selection will leave one of my Whiskeytown favorites out in the cold, but that is the nature of this type of exchange so I will ‘Let it Ride’. In the end Cold Roses is too good an album to not have a selection on this list.
8. ‘Excuse me While I Break My Own Heart’, Strangers Almanac
Our first and unapologetically not our last Whiskeytown era track. This track somehow eluded my running list of Adams favorites over the years. It re-entered my consciousness while researching for this list and I just can’t believe I’ve been missing it all these years. Adams draws me in with a higher percentage of his moody, slower stuff, but I love this bit of uptempo goodness from him (ahem, them).
7. ‘When Stars go Blue’, Gold
This is the toughest call of them all in this format. It is safely in my Top 10, but I am afraid this is going to bump out some I had higher on my list. However, I think it makes sense on this list for many reasons. It is without a doubt his most commercially successful song, even though that success does not involve him on vocals, see Bono, Tim McGraw or Haley. I think this song is probably the best representation of Adams as a songwriter with its country pop sound. It also speaks to his greatness as a songwriter that he could write something that has been adapted so wonderfully by a disparate group of artists.
6. ‘Two’, Easy Tiger
Serendipitously, this song lands exactly where I wanted it, though it takes some of the luster off the shine knowing it was cut from your final ten. I went back and forth between putting this song and ‘Hallelujah’ from Demolition here, but this is clearly too high of a spot for ‘Hallelujah’ (which really belongs at 10 in a tie with ‘Nuclear’). The thing about ‘Two’ and the reason I had to put it here is that it’s my favorite song of anything Adams has released since Rock ‘n Roll. That alone doesn’t make it a top ten lock – it’s also one of the catchiest hooks, both in lyrics and melody, that Adams has produced in his prolific career. That makes it the kind of song that stays with you long after a listen and pops up from time to time in your mind whether you’ve heard it recently or not.
5. ‘To Be Young (is to be sad)’, Heartbreaker
The first entry (though I am sure not the last) from Adams’ debut solo effort. Written after a bad break up (ironically spelling the end of Whiskeytown), the album contains the highs and lows of someone dealing with heartbreak. ‘To be Young …’ is probably the highpoint tonally and my favorite up-tempo Adams song. The guitar riffs (and copious quantities of drugs) on this song carry you away and for that brief 3 minutes make you forget whats her name (I like to think it’s Parker Posey).
4. ‘Don’t Be Sad’, Pneumonia (Whiskeytown)
I struggled a lot with this pick. I originally had a second Gold track slotted for this spot, but weighing your feelings of ‘Don’t Be Sad’ gave me pause and forced me to reconsider. Gold is probably, from top to bottom, Adams’ most impressive work, but it doesn’t have the single that stands above anything that will make this top five. ‘Don’t Be Sad’ is a classic Adams fast moving ballad; a simple song with relatively few lyrics. But the depth contained in those few lyrics gets a lot of mileage out of the less than three and a half minute runtime.
3. ‘Hallelujah’, Demolition
Not sure I would have ever guessed two tracks from the jam session that became Demolition would make it on this list, but ‘Hallelujah’ is the type of Ryan Adams track I love the most, with its folky sound and country twang. It may not be how Adams views himself, but I think it is him at his best in part because it draws so strongly from his roots as a boy from eastern North Carolina (roots we share in common). As with a lot of his music, the lyrics center on who he is and who he wants to be, and that is something to which we all can relate. All in all, this is just a masterclass and while it is not my #1, at this point, we are splitting hairs.
2. ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, Heartbreaker
Ryan Adams. North Carolina. His home state. My home state. Need I say more? I’m a homer in the worst way and despite my best efforts at denial I can’t escape it. Ignoring that, I love this song and its beautiful simplicity. Earlier this year, I was reminded just how subtly powerful Adams’ vocals are when I watched a video of him performing a cover of ‘Neutron Dance’ at Code Conference. When I listen to ‘Carolina’ carefully enough, it amazes me how much you can get a similar sense of that power in such a quiet song. ‘Carolina’ is the ultimate achievement in songwriting, composition, and performance and belongs in the conversation of Adams masterpieces.
1. ‘Sit and Listen to the Rain’, Pneumonia (Whiskeytown)
JB: It was always going to be this song. In reality, this was a competition for second and while our personal list varied quite dramatically in some cases, this is the one we both agreed on. As I said earlier, Ryan Adams struggles with who he is, where he is from and what all that means. He is the boy who grew up in Jacksonville, NC, but he is also the man who burned the midnight oil in New York City, and the man who turned over a new leaf in Los Angeles. He has always longed to be somewhere else and be someone else, as he rifs, “Sit around, dream away the place I’m from.” It seems ironic that this journey has brought us home. The song that longs for the future, but was written at home. As you read this list and enjoy the sounds, it’s home that makes us who we are and shapes our future. It is all these places that makes Ryan Adams who he is, and while he has certainly burned bright I am just thankful he isn’t done writing his ‘Wonderwall’.
DR: Well said, JB. My appreciation for the song is probably a little more superficial, but no less significant. When I first heard ‘Sit and Listen to the Rain’ I knew immediately it had a permanent place in my all-time rotation. ‘Sit and Listen …’ is my go to song when I want to let my mind wander off and ponder; when I want to remember; when I want to dream. The best part for me through the years, whether real or imagined, is having this vision of Ryan Adams sitting on a porch somewhere in North Carolina writing this song. And so, sometimes when it rains, I’ll walk out to our front porch, sit, listen and wonder if that’s what he was feeling.
Photo Credit: Laura Musselman (via Flickr)