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12. Cardinology (2008): It bears asking: Which would you rather see, Ryan Adams taking a few chances and coming up with severely mixed results, or Ryan Adams playing it safe and delivering something … safe? There's no correct answer to that question, but I feel like Adams's music serves as his own response: Since his insane 2005 (more on that later), Adams has slowed his pace (slightly) and produced music that (mostly) falls squarely into the framework established on his three most revered albums: Heartbreaker, Cold Roses, and Jacksonville City Nights. Cardinology is by no means a bad album, but I'd say it's the closest Ryan Adams has come to a "generic" album. Some of the songs are magical, of course ("Go Easy," "Stop"), others are forgettable ("Fix It"). If I were introducing someone to Ryan Adams's music, and I had to choose between, say, Rock N Roll or Cardinology, I'd give them Cardinology every time, because it more perfectly encapsulates what the man does, but if I'm reaching for one or the other, it's probably Rock N Roll, because that album has a flawed charm its very own, while Cardinology has been done better elsewhere.

This is impossible. Ranking Ryan Adams’s albums is like ranking … I dunno, episodes of Seinfeld or something. They’re all good. They’re all kind of similar, even the weird ones. They’re all loaded with brilliant details and moments you may have missed at the time that jump out at you when you revisit them, years later. They all have highlights and flaws — though the highlight:flaw ratio varies a great deal from one example to the next. And there are so goddamn many of them that they all sort of blend together at some point.

It’s amazing, really, to consider the depth of Adams’s catalog already. Of course prolificacy was always one of his defining qualities, but even if you strip his output to its bare essentials — leaving out the horrible detours into punk and metal (the Finger and Orion, respectively, neither of which demands serious consideration from fans of those genres), leaving out the EPs and the Pax-Am singles, not to mention the hundreds of yet-unreleased songs/albums (we’re still waiting for the apocryphal 20:20 box set which is said to compile much of that material) — you’re still left with a dozen studio albums since the split of Whiskeytown in 2000. Moreover, THREE of those are DOUBLE albums … and the dude “retired” from music in 2009! (Came back strong in 2010, natch.)

Of course anyone can churn out song after song — and Adams sure does that! — but almost nothing in his extensive catalog feels utterly cast off or wasteful (again excepting the Finger and Orion here). That’s not to say it’s all entirely essential, of course, nor that quality control has never been an issue. This list takes under consideration only Adams’s 12 post-Whiskeytown albums (both solo and with the Cardinals), ranking them from worst to best — putting aside the vast alternative-universe discography mentioned above, as well as the three excellent albums from Whiskeytown (whose inclusion would have made this task exponentially more difficult — no small feat, considering it was impossible to begin with). The countdown starts here; make your case for Demolition in the comments.

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Comments (79)
  1. I love that I’ve been religiously listening to Ryan Adams for years now and have yet to really dig into Cold Roses. It’s like I still have an unopened present to get into one of these days :-)

    • It’s the only Ryan Adams CD I’ve ever bought, and I tried to get into it, but just couldn’t. Love is Hell, for me.. hands down. I’m not a real fan though, I just pick and choose from his vast works and fawn over their individual brilliance.

    • I’m jealous. I come back to Cold Roses and listen to it non stop at least once a year.

  2. so much blood. so much blood will be shed in these comments…

  3. Wow, I think I mostly agree. Except for 29, that would be dead last for me.

  4. I think you overrated 29 and underrated Rock n Roll, but otherwise pretty spot-on.

  5. DJ Reggie.

  6. Gold should be way higher than 7.

    • Gold is like Easy Tiger to me in that the songwriting is pretty great but a lot of the songs were way better live, they had more energy and grit and were freed from the glossy production

  7. Whadda you know? I was just listening to Heartbreaker earlier today. That’s one hell of a classic record.

  8. Screw Demolition, get the four albums it’s comprised of instead, and other unreleased sessions and albums hopefully come out, like Darkbreaker and Blackhole… I mean the guy has so many awesome b-sides taht a lot of people don’t hear. Ryan should do a real b-side’s compilation like Oasis did with the Masterplan…

    For example I’d say the best songs from Cardinology era weren’t even on the record (Heavy Orange & Memory Lane) and two great songs from around when Ashes and Fire came out that were only on 7 inch singles (Empty Room and Star Sign).

    I’ll say Jacksonville and Cold Roses are 1A and 1B, and it would be cool to see that documentary about 2005 if it ever comes out, maybe with some live show stuff too

  9. What this article needs is more commas and parentheses.

  10. How they rate to me. I happen to think Demolition is really good.

    1 Heartbreaker
    2 Gold
    3 Easy Tiger
    4 Demolition
    5 Cold Roses
    6 Jacksonville City Nights
    7 III/IV
    8 Rock N Roll
    9 Ashes and Fire
    10 Love Is Hell
    11 29
    12 Cardinology

  11. Thanks for putting me on a Ryan Adams kick. Love is Hell is about to get worn out

  12. i’d have to agree with most of this list and the tone of it is much more fair, which is more than i can say for the pearl jam best to worst entry

  13. Easy choice for #1, but I agree with other commenters that Gold should be much higher. Very good album.

    Also, what’s with the hate for Rock N Roll? That’s actually a very decent album. “Wish You Were Here” is still one of my favorite Ryan Adams songs.

  14. Love is Hell 1&2 best, Rock n Roll very underrated, loved that album, but lets be honest he’s been boring since the mid 2000′s. Mandy Moore?

  15. Funny how subjective this whole thing is…I’d share your top 3, but then I’d follow with Demolition and Rock N Roll. No point to make, here, I just love those albums. Especially Demolition. Some days it would be my #2 behind Heartbreaker. It’s been hard to give any of his albums repeated listens since Jacksonville City Nights. There have been some great songs (“Oh My God…”), but I’m getting used to being bummed out by each new record.

  16. NIGHT SWEATS

  17. I find Easy Tiger and Cardinology to be pretty similar, yet they’re quite far apart on this list. I’d probably knock Easy Tiger down and put Gold higher, but definitely a good list. And Cold Roses probably beats Heartbreaker for me, but I know it’s hard not to put Heartbreaker first.

    Really enjoying this Counting Down feature too. Keep em comin.

  18. Love is Hell Part 1&2. That would be first for me. The intensity, the beauty, the songwriting feels raw while the production is so spacey and ethereal. I am British and not so much into country but like Alt-country/indie (Wilco, Bright Eyes, The National etc) I appreciate that most fans grew with his early work Heartbreaker/Gold or Whiskey Town, but i came in half way through, He started delivering the metaphysical angst on ‘Fuck The Universe’ and ‘Love is Hell’. As for disc 1 aping Jeff Buckley, he does it much better than say Muse. When you listen to ‘Shadowlands’ you can picture the landscape of desolation, it is authentic, rather than formulaic on Jacksonville. Love ‘Dear John’ though with Nora Jones that is a prime cut. 29 seems narratively strong and Rock n’Roll is a fascinating detour, the lyrics are trashy but kind of cool.

  19. only per my tastes:

    1. Love Is Hell
    2. III/IV
    3. Heartbreaker
    4. Cold Roses
    5. Easy Tiger
    6. Demolition
    7. Rock & Roll
    8. Gold
    9. Ashes & Fire
    10. Cardinology
    11. Jacksonville City Nights
    12. 29

  20. OK, so I’m going to have to listen to III//IV more, aren’t I.

  21. love is hell, such a dece gem

  22. Well, this is the second straight Stereogum “Worst to Best” countdown where the 2 they said are the worst are my favorite ones. Sigh. I love “Rock N’ Roll.” Oh yeah, and I love rock n’ roll, too.

  23. I honestly don’t understand how Rock N Roll can be so low on this list, especially after reading the comments here. Seems like everyone finds that album underrated, which should actually make it properly rated as more than good. Plus, that album is riffy rock’n awesomesauce.

    Other than that, and Jacksonville City Nights being so damned high, I agree with most of this list.

  24. I’d have put Gold and Rock N Roll a bit higher, Love is Hell and Cold Roses a little lower. Other than that, pretty much spot-on. Nothing as egregious as Monster’s rating on the REM list at least.

  25. Next week, you guys better do Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

  26. Rock N Roll is the only Adams album I connected with. I generally dislike alt-country since I find most of it boring, Adams included. The genre deconstruction he was doing on Rock N Roll just seemed more interesting, and the songs were fun in a winking at the audience sort of way. Yeah, you can see the reference points he’s taking shots at in the Strokes with the opening track and Interpol on “So Alive”, and yes they were easy targets at the time, but the songs aren’t nearly as bad as people keep claiming.

    • He isn’t actually taking shots at the reference points. He’s paying homage. He was known to be a huge fan of the Strokes. Even having rumoured to have covered the entirety of their debut album. I always thought ‘So Alive’ was his U2 take. I don’t really hear the Interpol there.

      Yeah, RNR certainly isn’t as bad as some will say, but it’s not as great as some might say either. It was a quickly conceived record and as good or bad as any of the other quickly conceived records he’d made around that time. If RA had a tasteful curator working alongside him editing down the best songs into one single 40 minute (at most) album (Love is Hell, RNR, Demos, etc.) he’d have a mid-period classic. Instead ppl argue over the greatness/weakness of these hit and miss patchy records.

      But certainly one could argue everything he’s released up until Cardinology has redeeming moments. Moments. Songs. Albums-no.

  27. My top 5:

    1. Heartbreaker
    2. Ashes & Fire
    3. Jacksonville City Nights
    =4/5. Gold
    =4/5. Love is Hell

    Not really dug into the others enough to give them a proper ranking.

  28. Yea Gold should be higher. I know it is overproduced but there is about 15 fantastic songs on that one.

  29. Also, I think most of the hate for Rock N Roll comes from how it came to be. I too have a hard time not hearing that in the music.

    • I respect Rock N Roll, but I don’t find myself returning to it often. It certainly has a few standout tracks, but isn’t solid enough as a whole to keep me interested. Heartbreaker, Gold, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City nights and, when I’m feeling down, Demolition or Love is Hell get pretty solid rotation from me.

      I haven’t spent much time with his newer efforts yet (Easy Tiger, Ashes & Fire and III/IV.) I’m very interested to dive into his b-sides and unreleased material referenced in this thread. Thanks all.

  30. I generally try not to begrudge people and their rankings, but all of you people not putting Cold Roses at least in your top 3 are idiots! ;-)

    I don’t get the hate for RnR either. It was an album he didn’t want to make, but I still think it turned out pretty damn good. My personal rankings would be:

    1. Cold Roses
    2. Heartbreaker
    3. Jacksonville City Nights
    4. Gold
    5. Easy Tiger
    6. Rock N Roll
    7. Love is Hell
    8. Ashes & Fire
    9. III/IV
    10. Demolition
    11. Carinology
    12. 29

    And honestly, I am probably somewhat unfair to 29, but after his other 2 outstanding 2005 albums came out, I was extremely disappointed when I heard 29.

  31. This is more like a “cool to awesomest” list, except I strongly believe Cold Roses should be first. I came upon Ryan Adams kind of late in the game (mid-2007) and I mostly listened (and still do) to live versions of everything, so some of the studio versions sound weird to me. Cold Roses tunes are gorgeous on both the studio version and live, so to me it’s the album most “true” to Ryan’s sound, albeit together with the Cardinals.

    Ryan’s solo work has been great, but MAN I miss the Cards!

  32. Easy Tiger is very underrated here…. And in general.

    • Per your comment, I spent some time with it last night. It really feels like one of his classic albums. It does genre-hop but never outside of the standard Adams fare. I’ll be spending more time with it now.

  33. Actually, all the episodes of Seinfeld have been ranked:

    http://splitsider.com/2011/07/the-episodes-of-seinfeld-in-order/

  34. Cold Roses is his greatest – so much warmth in that record

  35. I agree with a portion of this, but Love is Hell is a little bit closer to the top for me. Something like this, perhaps..

    1. Love is Hell
    2. Heartbreaker
    3. Cold Roses
    4. Jacksonville City Nights
    5. Gold (More appropriately – The Suicide Handbook belongs here)
    6. 29
    7. III/IV
    8. Cardinology
    9. Ashes & Fire
    10. Easy Tiger
    11. Demolition
    12. Rock N Roll

  36. I’m can honestly say that I have somehow managed to miss EVERYTHING Ryan Adams has ever done. It wasn’t a conscious decision, either. That’s just the way things ended up. At this point I’m OK with it, too. I figure someday I’ll get into a song or an album of his and it will trigger a full on binge on his entire back catalogue. For now, I’ve got plenty of other stuff to listen to.

  37. I think this is a pretty fair list. The dude has a ton of unreleased “albums” but I think you have to include 48 Hours, the most complete and finished sounding, in any discussion of his best work. I’d have it in the top three with Heartbreaker and Cold Roses.

    Also, I don’t think Gold was a double album.

    • A lot of ppl were unaware of Gold as a Double, and it’s a shame. Where Gold rewrites Classic Rock radio in a somewhat enjoyable yet mediocre way Side 4 recaptures the magic of Solo 1.

  38. “Rock and Roll” got snubbed man.

    Also, “Love is Hell” is his best work and should be at the top.

  39. To add to the list of influences on Love is Hell you should definitely listen to Steve Earle. But I had never noticed how much of Morrisey’s vocals are in “Is Anybody gonna take me Home.” Thanks for pointing that out.

  40. heartbreaker is number one? risky move, stereogum, picking the underdog.

  41. The only Ryan Adams song I have ever heard is “New York, New York.” Also, I have never seen a James Cameron film in its entirety (although I could tell you so much about Terminator 2 that you would never guess that). I still think I am more normal than Janet Weiss, who claims to have never had a soda.

    • I’ve never seen Braveheart and I don’t know who Janet Weiss is.

      • Janet Weiss is probably best-known for playing drums in Sleater-Kinney. She is also one half of Quasi, the drummer for Wild Flag, and was a Jick for a while. I would say she is among the best drummers ever.

    • i’ve never listened to any passion pit other than “cuddle fuddle,” and i’ve never seen the empire strikes back or return of the jedi.

      confession time!

      • I am not some crazy fanboy or anything, but I really think the original Star Wars trilogy should be required viewing for all Americans. Just go for it. I promise I’ll be a good boy and actually watch Avatar, Titanic, and the first two Terminator movies sometime before the year ends (though I think they are not quite as essential).

  42. Omitting the Whiskeytown catalog from this ranking is just silly. He fronted it, wrote almost all the songs (and all the best ones), and was the only regular member except for Caitlin Cary. He just dropped the moniker to reflect the reality of the situation and, no doubt, to retain more financial equity for himself.

    Including that catalog would add “Stranger’s Alamanac” at or very close to the top of this list.

  43. This list seems to mostly have things in the right place. My major issue: “Jacksonville City Nights” above “Love Is Hell and Gold”? And “Demolition” for that matter. For all of its lack of cohesiveness, “Demolition” contains some of Adams’ best songwriting as well as some of his least self-conscious outside of “Heartbreaker” and the Whiskeytown records. I’ve never quite understood why “Demolition” is one of his least regarded records. It makes every Ryan Adams Top 5 I can construct.

    1. Heartbreaker
    2. Love Is Hell
    3. Gold
    4. Cold Roses
    5. Demolition

    after those 5, it’s a bit of a toss up for me.

  44. Attempting to rank the body of Ryan Adams’ work is like what I’d imagine asking a mother or father which one of their kids was their favorite would be like. I say this as a super fan, of course. Though, I’m also in agreement with the majority of the visitors on this thread who find “29″ a bit out of place on the ranking. I say that also as a huge fan of “29″.

    Having said that (in my best Larry David voice):

    1.) Cold Roses
    2.) Heartbreaker
    3.) Gold
    4.) Love is Hell
    5.) Jacksonville City Nights
    6.) Easy Tiger
    7.) Rock n Roll
    8.) Demolition
    9.) Ashes & Fire
    10.) III/IV
    11.) 29
    12.) Cardinology

    … but hell, that could all change tomorrow.

    • 29 is probably Adams’ most misunderstood album. I’d say it’s right where it should be in this list, or possibly belongs above Easy Tiger. That being said, I hated it in 2005 and mostly ignored it for about 4 years. One day it just “clicked,” and now it’s one of my favorite Ryan Adams records.

      Here’s my list (which is subject to change at any moment in time):

      1. Cold Roses
      2. Jacksonville City Nights
      3. 29
      4. Easy Tiger
      5. Love is Hell
      6. Demolition
      7. III/IV
      8. Gold
      9. Ashes & Fire
      10. Heartbreaker
      11. Cardinology
      12. Rock N Roll

  45. 1. Heartbreaker
    2. Gold Side 4 (Or Disc 2; Disc 1 or Sides 1-3 not included in this listing for it’s complete mediocrity.)
    3. Jacksonville City Nights (inc. the magnificent cover of ‘Always on My Mind’)
    4. Cold Roses (cliche yes, but didn’t need anywhere near 4 sides)
    5. A Compilation of Songs from Everything else. I have no interest in any other ‘albums’, but there are certainly some great songs.

    Cardinology marked the beginning of the end of any interest I have/had in Ryan Adams current work. ‘Ashes and Fire’ was a nice cut, but I found nothing else to get excited about. But, y’know, Whiskeytown forever! And the 4 records I mentioned will live on. Don’t believe the ppl pimping the bootlegs. Demolition was weak enough you don’t need anymore of the decadent living creative lull that was post-Heartbreaker pre-Cold Roses.

  46. Wow. Nobody seems to like “29″. That is very strange to me. I think it’s my favorite Ryan Adams record.

  47. 1. Cold Roses
    2. Love is Hell
    3. Faithless St.
    4. Jacksonville City Nights
    5. Pneumonia
    6. III/IV
    7. Heartbreaker
    8. Rock n Roll
    9. Cardinoloy
    10. 29
    11. Demolition
    12. Easy Tiger
    13. Stranger’s Almanac
    14. Gold
    14. Ashes and Fire

  48. I disagree with almost everything in this article, bizarrely. How you feel about Cardinology (“…by no means a bad album, but I’d say it’s the closest Ryan Adams has come to a “generic” album.”) is exactly how I feel about Easy Tiger. Cardinology, on the other hand, I really like.

    I’ve always said that Adams has released so much, varied material that fans will always disagree, and one man’s classic is another’s album filler.

    I can’t take any Ryan Adams list that doesn’t have Love Is Hell as number one seriously though.

    And Jacksonville City Nights is, imo, the closest Adams has ever come to releasing a poor album. And Heartbreaker is good, but not as good as everyone seems to think. It’s an Emporer’s New Clothes thing, for me.

  49. I agree with a lot of these rankings, but I would change a few major things:

    12. III/IV
    11. Cardinology
    10. Cold Roses
    9. 29
    8. Rock N Roll
    7. Jacksonville City Nights
    6. Demolition
    5. Love Is Hell
    4. Easy Tiger
    3. Ashes & Fire
    2. Gold
    1. Heartbreaker

  50. Ryan Adams is a divisive artist, partially because he’s so obviously influenced by a ton of classic rock and country acts, which makes a lot of too-cool-for-school people think he’s lame and boring. Then there is the fact that he releases so much music, much of it either bland and dreary stuff that should have stayed on the cutting-room floor or adult contemporary, john mayerish schlock. Buried beneath all that are some really great songs, but I can’t blame casual fans for tuning out when Adams makes no effort to guide anybody to his best work.

    That being said, the best Ryan Adams songs are some of my favorite songs of all time. I am still not sure why Whiskeytown wasn’t included in this list, but Faithless Street, the version with all the extra songs, is one of my favorite albums of all time by anyone. I first heard it when I was around 21, same age as Adams was when he made it, and I really identified with it. The romanticization of drinking, the emo self-pity, the combination of Hank Williams and the Replacements, it all perfectly meshed with my state of mind at the time. I find that a lot of my favorite Adams stuff mines this sad country bastard vibe.

    Love is Hell, 29, most of the other two Whiskeytown albums, Gold, Easy Tiger, and Ashes & Fire for the most part don’t really do it for me.

    1. Faithless Street
    2. Heartbreaker
    3. Cold Roses
    4. Jacksonville City Nights

    The rest don’t really inspire any strong feelings in me.

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