Greatest Hits: Ryan Adams

Avatar photo

Ryan Adams has a lot of songs — a lot of songs. On studio albums alone, he well surpasses 100, and that’s not counting his B-sides, rarities, unreleased tracks or bizarre goof albums credited to DJ Reggie, WereWolph, The Shit or Sad Dracula. Or, for that matter, his former band Whiskeytown (who aren’t included here, but Strangers’ Almanac and Pneumonia are both absolutely essential listening). This week, a lot of Ryan Adams songs are being released on his live box set, Live at Carnegie Hall. But trying to compile all of his best material into one CD-length compilation is easier said than done. There’s some material that can be easily cut, certainly, but that still leaves dozens upon dozens of eligible tracks that might be considered his best. That’s where we come in, in our attempt to compile the best Ryan Adams songs in one place. There’s bound to be disagreement, but it’s hard to go wrong with these selections.

best Ryan Adams songs HeartbreakerTo Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is To Be High)
from Heartbreaker
(2000; Bloodshot)

I know it’s bad form to begin a mixtape with an album opener, but technically this isn’t — “Argument with David Rawlings Concerning Morrissey” is the first track on Heartbreaker, so that clears up that technicality. But as the first actual song of Ryan Adams’ solo career, it pretty much belongs here. It’s rocking, rollicking Ryan — doing his best Bringing It All Back Home Dylan — looking back at youthful angst and having a hoedown about it. It has a surprisingly pretty bridge despite the dust-kicking rock ‘n’ roll that’s going around all over this track, but that’s not why the song is great. The honky-tonk strum-along, wild solos toward the end and Adams hollering, “Oh Lord, I got HIGH!” — that’s what makes this a winner.

best Ryan Adams songs GoldFirecracker
from Gold
(2001; Lost Highway)

There’s nothing all that fussy or fancy about “Firecracker,” just a solid country-rock melody that blends some hearty harmonica and Hammond organ. But like most of Adams’ best love songs — which are most of Adams’ songs — it’s about conveying a simple idea in a simple way. There are probably more harmonica solos than lyrics in the song, but Adams makes his lyrics count: “Everybody wants to live forever/ I just want to burn up hard and bright/ I just want to be your firecracker/ And maybe be your baby tonight.” And it’s over in less than three minutes — that’s how you do it.

Ryan Adams - Cold RosesLet It Ride
from Cold Roses
(2005; Lost Highway)

One of Adams’ best pure country-rock songs, with slides and tremolo blazing, marrying surf-rock atmosphere with outlaw country wanderlust. It’s a song built for road trips, late night troublemaking, or solitary pining. It’s a highlight among two discs worth of standouts on 2005’s Cold Roses, thanks in large part to its moody energy and maybe the best guitar riff in Ryan Adams’ entire catalog. His band The Cardinals eventually disbanded, but tracks like this are one reason why they mark one of the greatest chapters of his career.

best Ryan Adams songs Love Is HellThis House Is Not For Sale
from Love Is Hell
(2003; Lost Highway)

Occasionally Ryan Adams throws out a rock ‘n’ roll number as snotty and irreverent as The ‘Mats at their rowdiest. Better still is this Love Is Hell highlight, which comes closer to solo Paul Westerberg, or the more refined pop of Pleased To Meet Me. And you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a break-up or divorce song, upon first listen. Adams sings, “Do you remember when we even bought this thing?” in a melancholy reminiscence, as if on the precipice of eviction or separation, but the clue to unlocking the backstory is in the line, “What happened in the car that night?” Yup, they’re ghosts — maybe even the Maitlands — which makes the song haunting in a literal sense, as well.

best Ryan Adams songs DemolitionNuclear
from Demolition
(2002; Lost Highway)

Adams released 2002’s Demolition in an effort to streamline a long list of scattered, unreleased projects into one accessible compilation of highlights. There are two schools of thought on this material, one being that several of the sessions that went unreleased — like Suicide Handbook and 48 Hours — are some of his best collections of material. The other is that nothing here is all that remarkable. But Demolition is underrated, if not perfect. Take “Nuclear,” which is Adams doing a big-production rock song right. He’s written better lyrics, sure, but there’s an energy about it, not to mention some outstanding slide riffs, that make it one worth revisiting often.

Ryan Adams - Cold RosesSweet Illusions
from Cold Roses
(2005; Lost Highway)

You can probably guess from the title that “Sweet Illusions” isn’t about a love that’s destined for the ages. Nope, it’s in the rearview and getting smaller and smaller in the distance, just about to disappear over the horizon. Adams has always been exceptional at songs where things just don’t work out; it’s telling that his debut was called Heartbreaker, because broken hearts are what he seems to understand best. As heartbreak goes, this is a particularly beautiful form, with some gorgeous slide guitar and one of the catchiest choruses on Cold Roses. That he returns to the refrain “I ain’t got nothing but love for you now” only makes it all the more bittersweet.

best Ryan Adams songs Easy TigerEverybody Knows
from Easy Tiger
(2007; Lost Highway)

Albums like Easy Tiger have become more the norm than the exception in recent years, with Adams largely abandoning some of the weirder and more ambitious experiments from earlier in his solo career in favor of a triple-A sound that has few surprises but still satisfies on the whole. That doesn’t mean his songwriting chops don’t still yield some incredible highlights, like this song, which is almost best heard live to be able to appreciate. It’s an example not just of Adams the gifted songwriter, but also the badass guitar slinger. If you watch his solo acoustic performance of the song, it becomes clear just how nimble those fingers really are. And that it’s still one of his catchiest tunes is just gravy.

best Ryan Adams songs GoldNew York New York
from Gold
(2001; Lost Highway)

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for “New York, New York,” the closest thing that Ryan Adams has ever had to a hit single. It’s not the only song of his that sounds like a hit single, but that’s another story altogether. Still, this one has all the makings of a radio smash — a simple but catchy chord progression, an earnest but fun lyric, and a charismatic vocal presence that’s about as American as it gets. Ryan Adams’ Gold was released in September of 2001 (with an upside-down flag on the cover — guess nobody noticed that?), so it also benefited from some weird, awkward timing that coincided with one of the worst tragedies to ever happen on American soil. But it’s best not to think about that; “New York, New York” is simply one of the best pop songs in Adams’ repertoire. That it ends on a saxophone solo is all the more reason to fall in love with its heartfelt quirks.

best Ryan Adams songs JacksonvilleA Kiss Before I Go
from Jacksonville City Nights
(2005; Lost Highway)

Ryan Adams is, ostensibly, an “alt-country” artist, which is true to a certain extent. You’ll hear a touch of pedal steel, honky tonk piano occasionally, and a little Southwestern noir when he feels like it. But most of his albums don’t really sound anything like country as most of us know it. The exception: 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights, which has more bluegrass than you’ll find in any of Adams’ other albums. There are several highlights, but the best is the simple, straightforward western mosey of leadoff track “A Kiss Before I Go,” which is as accessible as it is rich in its arrangement.

best Ryan Adams songs HeartbreakerOh My Sweet Carolina
from Heartbreaker
(2000; Bloodshot)

There are more songs on Heartbreaker like “Oh My Sweet Carolina” than there are tracks like “To Be Young,” but this one still stands out a little more than the rest for its gentle, heartfelt sincerity. It also doesn’t hurt to have backing vocals from the one and only Emmylou Harris, who provides a gorgeous contrast to Adams’ vocals. It’s a gorgeous and emotional tribute to Adams’ home state, North Carolina, and one of the prettiest songs in his repertoire. He still plays it live frequently, so good luck keeping those eyes dry.

best Ryan Adams songs GoldWhen the Stars Go Blue
from Gold
(2001; Lost Highway)

When Ryan Adams released Gold, he delivered one of his biggest musical statements to date, and one that largely had roots in a number of artists from the ’60s and ’70s — Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Neil Young, the Stones, etc. “When the Stars Go Blue,” however, felt separate from a lot of the classic rock-isms going on throughout the record, and instead found Adams delivering an elegant, mostly acoustic ballad with a breathtaking arrangement and some wonderfully understated guitar work. The lyrics are pretty simple, but Adams makes them count: “Where do you go when you’re lonely, I’ll follow you/Where the stars go blue.” It’s also been covered by The Corrs (with Bono) and Tim McGraw, but you really can’t do better than this version.

Ryan Adams - Cold RosesMagnolia Mountain
from Cold Roses
(2005; Lost Highway)

Cold Roses is easily in the top three albums Adams has ever released — and that includes his work with Whiskeytown — and as someone who isn’t much of a Grateful Dead fan, it says a lot that an album so heavily influenced by albums like American Beauty is, coming from me, one of the best. That’s partially because the thing that makes Cold Roses such a standout is mostly to do with Adams getting back to the kind of folk-rock that he’s done so well throughout his career. “Magnolia Mountain” is one of only a few tracks that actually leans toward jam-band on Cold Roses, but it’s not meandering or loose. It’s a tightly composed and arranged track, and the three-guitar breakdowns are less free-form noodling and more just awesome. It also kills live, so that helps.

best Ryan Adams songs Rock n RollAnybody Wanna Take Me Home
from Rock N Roll
(2003; Lost Highway)

There’s an odd consensus of sorts that “Wish You Were Here” is one of the only salvageable songs from the oft-maligned Rock N Roll album. That’s preposterous — there are at least half a dozen good songs on the album, and that’s not one of them. However, “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home” most certainly is (and was added later to the tracklist of Love Is Hell, on which it fits a little more comfortably). It’s a jangly, Manchester-inspired number that’s both catchy and melancholy, in a way that heavily resembles Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” Adams even drops a line worthy of Moz himself: “So I am in the twilight of my youth/ Not that I’m going to remember.”

Ryan Adams self titledShadows
from Ryan Adams
(2014; Pax Am/Blue Note)

Stereogum included Ryan Adams’ self-titled record in its list of 2014’s Top Five Tom Petty Albums, which was both funny and fair. It’s definitely a straightforward rock album, the likes of which Adams hasn’t released in a longtime (if you can even call albums like Gold “straightforward”). But it has its moments of quiet nuance and light psychedelia, the best example of which is “Shadows.” It’s all atmospheric, ambient mist and a tense, snare-only pulse backing what would have otherwise been a dramatic psych-rock lullaby. That beat, however, makes it into a harder to define and much more compelling piece of music. It’s a curious diversion on one of the rare albums where Adams mostly plays it straight.

best Ryan Adams songsNight Birds
from 29
(2005; Lost Highway)

There are few albums in Ryan Adams’ catalog that are as divisive as some critics would have you believe. Most of them are OK to great as a matter of consensus, with only Rock N Roll and 29 really representing Adams’ most controversial material. In the case of the former, he sounds like he wasn’t trying very hard. In the latter, it’s more a matter of inconsistency. It’s a ballad heavy album, which Adams has knocked out of the park before (see: Heartbreaker), but it’s in the uptempo numbers — like the Dead homage of the title track, or the overblown flamenco exercise “The Sadness” — where Adams misses the target. Much more successful is “Night Birds,” one of the shorter tracks here and likewise one of the prettiest. Driven mostly by piano, it’s dark and delicate, but reaches a stunning climax with Adams’ line “…into the ocean” as a cue for the thunder to come crashing. It’ll give you chills.

best Ryan Adams songs Love Is HellI See Monsters
from Love Is Hell
(2003; Lost Highway)

At the risk of going against consensus, I might go so far as to say that “I See Monsters” is Ryan Adams’ best song. I’m not even sure it’s really that controversial — a haunting acoustic track among many songs of varying shades of melancholy on Love Is Hell, “I See Monsters” is a swirl of sweetness and darkness that hits just a little bit harder than most. It’s a song as much about love as it is about fear, insecurities and possibly drug addiction, all of which hits a climax when Adams sings, “People are shouting/ People are screaming/ My baby’s dreaming.” Whatever the origins behind it, it’s one of the prettiest songs he’s written, juxtaposing an emotional layer of strings against intricate finger-picked guitar. It’s stunning.

best Ryan Adams songs HeartbreakerCome Pick Me Up
from Heartbreaker
(2000; Bloodshot)

Alright, here’s the one that everyone’s been waiting for — the fan-favorite, the show closer. And it belongs here for a reason. If “I See Monsters” is Ryan Adams’ best song (and you’re welcome to disagree), then this is at least a close second. It’s a country-rock masterpiece, lush with piano, harmonica and Hammond, and a classic sad-sack, glutton-for-punishment lyric engineered for late-night, drunken sing-alongs: “Come pick me up/ take me out/ Fuck me up/ Steal my records/ Screw all my friends/ They’re all full of shit/ With a smile on your face/ And then do it again/ I wish you would.” On a record appropriately titled Heartbreaker, this is Adams at his most heartbroken, but that’s alright. It’s a cathartic vent in the form of a folk-rock ballad.

You might also like:

Uncle Tupelo
10 Essential Alt-Country Albums
Sufjan Stevens greatest hits
Greatest Hits: The best Sufjan Stevens songs
Celebrate the Catalogue: Beck
Celebrate the Catalog: Beck
View Comments (5)
  • I got “Love is Hell” when it first came out as a single album and that started my sycophantic fandom. Anyways, I *just* figured out what “This House Is Not For Sale” is really about like six months ago. Totally unlocks the meaning and now it has probably jumped to my favorite song on that CD.

  • This is a great list. I would add–and maybe this will be controversial?–the lead track from Rock N Roll, “This is It,” and “Chains of Love” from Ashes & Fire. What can I say? I’m a sucker from three song titles on his Something and Something records.

  • I was hoping to see songs like

    oh my god whatever etc
    go easy
    my love for you is real
    wish you were here
    the shawdowlands
    please do not let me go
    ashes and fire crossed out name
    dear john
    strawberry wine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll To Top