Ryan Adams Albums From Worst To Best
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.
11. Rock N Roll (2003): Far and away Ryan Adams's most unloved album, Rock N Roll probably deserves defense more than it does criticism at this point. A reaction to the Strokes-led millennial rock revival (the first track is titled "This Is It," answering -- incorrectly -- the question posed by the Strokes' debut), it could be argued that Rock N Roll is a genre exercise along the lines of the Finger and/or Orion, and thus not meant to be taken seriously … except for the fact that it was treated as a major release by Adams's label at the time, Lost Highway, and its subsequent skewering probably derailed Adams's career to some degree. But it is not without its charms: Adams's melodic gifts are on full display here (though his lyrical gifts are, um, not) and the album's back half is littered with minor highlights, including "Burning Photographs," "Do Miss America," "Boys," and "The Drugs Not Working," all of which should be enjoyed for the music, not the words. My favorite song here is "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home," which sounds more like the Smiths than anything ever recorded by, say, Smiths clones Gene, due more to Adams's note-perfect mimicry of Johnny Marr's guitar work than his near-perfect mimicry of Morrissey's vocal delivery.
10. Demolition (2002): Not exactly an album, per se, Demolition gathers tracks from a handful of Adams's unreleased works (including The Suicide Handbook, The Pinkheart Sessions, and 48 Hours), the cream of which had already been harvested for the 2001 double album, Gold. Adams himself has said that he doesn't care for Demolition, and it is a bit aimless (not surprising considering its provenance), but all of these disclaimers -- including the album's idiotic title and artwork, which position the thing as a hastily assembled collection of sloppy first-takes (which is not, in fact, the case) -- detract from the many excellent songs here. Delete the rockers, make this thing an EP of country songs and ballads, and it vaults up this list.
9. III/IV (2010): III/IV was recorded during the same sessions that produced the quiet, introspective Easy Tiger, although the only track on Easy Tiger that would have fit here is that album's lone rocker, "Halloweenhead." And where Easy Tiger feels like the album Ryan Adams fans wanted from the man, III/IV feels the like the album Ryan Adams himself wanted to make -- not that he'd dare release another "rock" album after Rock N Roll. (NB: Adams's concept of "rock" is curious at best -- it's kind of like Replacements tunes as played by the Killers; not a bad thing by any means but definitely a weird one.) In fairness, III/IV is better than Rock N Roll, largely because it doesn't attempt to be some grand pronouncement on the state of the genre. A double album of what are essentially outtakes then, it's simply too damn long to sustain its running time, and casual fans will ignore it completely, but it's a treasure chest of gorgeous melodies, crisp rhythms, and crunching guitars.
8. Ashes & Fire (2011): Like Cardinology and Easy Tiger before it, Ashes & Fire is Ryan Adams operating in a warm, lovely, comfortable space. Sonically, it's a stunning work -- it sounds as good as Whiskeytown's miraculous Pneumonia (oddly, Pneumonia was produced by Ethan Johns, while Ashes & Fire was produced by Ethan's father, Glyn). Ashes & Fire is Adams's first post-Cardinals album, and some of his experimental tendencies seem to have disappeared with his band, although that could be due less to his collaborators than his state of mind: This is Ryan Adams at his most serene, surely owing in some respects to his now-established sobriety and his reportedly happy marriage to Mandy Moore. The album starts in first gear and just coasts, but it's a sheer pleasure to listen to him in such a contented, contemplative state.
7. Gold (2001): Ryan Adams' sophomore release came with fairly substantial expectations, and it initially seemed to fall short of most of them. A double album with numerous sonic and emotional textures, it was met with middling criticism ("clean, shiny, and over-the-top," said Pitchfork; "emotionally hollow" said AllMusic). But the album's sheer magnitude has served it well over time, and it has aged gracefully. The ballads here are the best of Adams's career -- in particular, "La Cienega Just Smiled," "Wild Flowers," and "Harder Now That It's Over" are works of massive and magnificent beauty. The uptempo numbers aren't always quite so successful, but the best of them are still pretty great. "When The Stars Go Blue" has somehow become a mainstream country standard covered by everyone from Bono with the Corrs, to Tim McGraw, to Blake Lewis on American Idol. That may be a testament to the album's own commercial yearnings, but when Adams sings it, it still brings me to my knees.
6. 29 (2005): In 2005, Ryan Adams was ridiculed for his hubris -- early on, he promised to release three albums during that calendar year, hardly necessary considering he was already averaging one per annum at that point -- but by year's end, Adams had silenced nearly all of his detractors. 29 came out in the final month of '05, and it sounds like December music. It's an uncompromising concept album (each track documents one year of Adams's 20s) and probably the darkest work in Adams's oeuvre, worth noting for a guy whose album titles include Heartbreaker, Love Is Hell, and The Suicide Handbook. Over the course of its nine tracks, 29 has moments of sheer grace and sublime beauty -- "Strawberry Wine," "Nightbirds" -- and in its way it is unlike anything else in the man's catalog.
5. Easy Tiger (2007): The best of Ryan Adams's post-2005 work, Easy Tiger was also his first album since 29, as well as his first since getting sober. Easy Tiger almost feels like a Bizarro greatest hits collection, borrowing very specific elements from all of Adams's previous incarnations: "Goodnight Rose" easily could have come from Cold Roses; "Two" is a lush ballad that might have been lifted off Gold; "Halloweenhead" is straight off Rock N Roll; "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc." is a spare, haunting ballad that would have fit seamlessly into Heartbreaker; "Tears Of Gold" is pure country a la Jacksonville City Nights; and so on. In that regard, frankly, Easy Tiger might be the quintessential Ryan Adams album, because you get so much of what he does in one concise package. Of course, the album lacks an identity of its own for precisely that reason. Still, it doesn't feel like a greatest hits collection merely because it seems to span the man's career -- it feels that way because these songs are really, really good.
4. Love Is Hell (2004): Ryan Adams (ostensibly) plays country music, but his real musical loves -- as he has stated time and again -- are Britpop and heavy metal. His metal chops are, of course, pathetic, but his forays into Britpop have been immensely engaging. Love Is Hell features a cover of an Oasis song (a devastating take on "Wonderwall") and an ode to Beth Orton ("English Girls, Approximately") alongside much of Adams's best Marr-worship on guitar. But none of it really sounds like the source material; it's a uniquely depressive strain of American country filtered through numerous British musical paradigms (or vice versa, perhaps). Love Is Hell has some missteps (the Jeff Buckley-aping "Political Scientist" is a slog) but it has some of the most emotionally raw material to be found in Adams's catalog. Initially (and idiotically) released as two EPs for contractual reasons, the second half of the album (or Love Is Hell, Part 2, if you prefer) is flawless: stark, intense, harrowing.
3. Jacksonville City Nights (2005): The second of Ryan Adams's three 2005 albums, Jacksonville City Nights is as much a genre exercise as Rock N Roll or Orion, except that the genre here is classic country, which is, obviously, not entirely distinct from the alt-country hybrid that Adams made his name on in the first place. Jacksonville City Nights may appear to be one of Adams's lesser works, but his songwriting has never been sharper than it is here, and his laser focus serves him well: Borrowing from a genre built on melody and storytelling, Adams delivers some of his own best melodies and stories. Jacksonville City Nights is not necessarily joyful, but it is a joy to experience.
2. Cold Roses (2005): Cold Roses was the first of Ryan Adams's three 2005 albums; it was also his first album with the Cardinals, the band he worked with from 2005 though 2008, the band that seemed to center him following a long period of aimlessness. Cold Roses was a revelation at the time of its release: After years of frustrating, overreaching, uneven output, here was a Ryan Adams album -- a double album, no less -- that seemed totally confident and relaxed. Even its length presented no issue -- after all, these Dead-inspired tracks demanded exploration from their creators. But Cold Roses isn't a collection of endless, anonymous jams -- Adams is front and center here, with an arsenal of crack collaborators and a surfeit of sick tunes. Cold Roses is 18 tracks over two discs, and every minute of it feels essential.
1. Heartbreaker (2000): What else could possibly claim this place in any ranking of Ryan Adams's work? Even if you were to include all three of Whiskeytown's album's -- a catalog that contains one, and arguably two masterpieces -- Heartbreaker remains unparalleled. It's a genuine classic, maybe one of a few dozen produced during the entire decade of the aughts. It lives up to its title -- this thing is deeply, profoundly, romantically sad -- but it's also witty and funny and crazy and wise. It's loaded with memorable lines and licks and riffs. It is an album to get lost in, to get drunk with, to live with for a lifetime, to grow with. It seems impossible to imagine Ryan Adams ever again crafting a work of this magnitude, and it's probably unfair to expect that of him, or even to compare his catalog to this instant of bottled lightning. Heartbreaker deserves its adulation, just as Ryan Adams deserves the devotion of the fans who found him through Heartbreaker and have stuck with him because of Heartbreaker. They may not ever again reap such glorious rewards, but they have been given no shortage of treasures.