Ryan Adams had a big 2014. His self-titled album was his best in almost a decade, and one of the best Tom Petty albums that Tom Petty didn’t release last year. Critics and fans were both into it, and he settled into a great groove with this stuff live, aided by his backing band, the Shining. This year was another high-profile one for Adams, but this time around, it wasn’t via music of his own — it was his album-length cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, a project that garnered him a broader kind of mainstream attention. On Adams’ Spotify profile, only two of his current 10 most popular songs are not from 1989, and one of those is his cover of “Wonderwall,” which probably remains his most widely recognizable song.
Adams’ interpretation of Swift’s album also yielded some of the most in-depth critical evaluations of his work in years. Analyses of this thing were far-ranging — excited Adams fans, dubious Adams fans, poptimists who felt it was a genuine love letter and personal rendition of the album, poptimists more cynical and of the belief that there was something backwards about Adams’ version. Some people felt like he’d brought it wholly into his own world, that it just felt like another Ryan Adams album and we could enjoy it separately from Swift’s original; others were eager to point out he didn’t improve upon any of the originals. In our own review, Tom Breihan prefaced his generally positive opinion of the album with some important things to remember:
One of society’s great blights is the plague of sensitive acoustic-guitar-slinging white guys playing ironic-not-ironic covers of big, sparkly pop songs. Every once in a while, some dipshit will come along and attempt to convince you that Travis’ “Baby One More Time” or Ted Leo’s “Since U Been Gone” is the best version of the song. These people are psychopaths, and you should back away from them very slowly. The myth of the acoustic-white-guy cover is that it reveals a song’s hidden strengths, or maybe lays bare its insipidness, by stripping away all the attention-grabbing production trickery.
Tom eventually fell on the side that this is not what Adams was doing with 1989, and I’d tend to agree. Covers have long been a big part of Adams’ arsenal: He infamously toyed with an album-length cover of the Strokes’ Is This It?, and there’s the prominence of “Wonderwall” in his career. Whether it’s something clearly in his DNA (the Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat”) or something more surprising (Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like The Wind”), Adams’ tendency is to deliver sparse, solo acoustic readings of the material he covers. He’s all about getting down to some kind of inner identity of a song, working within that old tradition of “If it sounds good with just vocals and acoustic guitar, it’s a legitimately good song.”
This is an obvious direction to go in if you play the kind of music Adams does. Obvious because it’s tried and true, but obvious to the point that your mileage will vary from song to song. Regardless, he’s aged into a mellow, middle-aged classic-rocker skin, and something that’s different in 2015 than, say, 2005, is that when he does these interpretations, you know they’re coming from a place of genuine respect for (and, in the instance of 1989, relation to) the music in question. So, given how big a deal 1989 was in Adams’ year and the music world’s discourse for a few weeks there, we decided to compile some of the other notable covers Adams has played this year. A note on some omissions: Apparently Adams covered Sun Kil Moon’s “Glenn Tipton” recently, but there isn’t a video on YouTube. Also, “Wonderwall” doesn’t count, because that’s so ingrained in his career now it’d be like including the Whiskeytown songs he plays occasionally as “covers.” (Also, “Wonderwall” would be the ludicrously easy pick for #1; his version still gives chills.) Not all of them were new to Adams’ oeuvre in 2015, but here’s a breakdown of the other covers that flitted in and out of his sets this year.
8. The Grateful Dead – “Wharf Rat”
Adams has been covering “Wharf Rat” here and there for a very long time, and he brought it back out recently at the 29th Bridge School Benefit Concert. And while it’s hard not to imagine what this would sound like right now with the Shining behind him doing their perfectly lived-in thing, his solo acoustic rendition is still pretty and emotive.
7. Bryan Adams – “Run To You”
Last year, Adams officially did away with his long-running agitation at people drawing parallels between him and Bryan Adams based on their similar names. He debuted a cover of the latter’s “Run To You,” a fitting choice considering the substantial ’80s mainstream rock strains that ran through Ryan Adams. In hindsight, it was more of a prelude to his cover of “Summer Of ’69” (more on which, in a moment), but he brought this one back a handful of times this year, too. One version floating around YouTube is a solo acoustic reading at a show in Cork back in the spring. That one’s nice, but the best rendition is the one with a full band from October 2014; the Shining imbue the cover with a shaggy, Replacements kind of vibe that successfully brings the song perfectly into DRA’s world. If that was the version we had from this year, it’d be ranked higher.
6. Natalie Prass – “Your Fool”
Over the course of 2015, many fans had begun to speculate that Adams and the ascendant Natalie Prass had begun dating. That’s never been confirmed, but one thing that’s definitely true is that, as they toured together, they developed a thing for each other’s music. They’ve duetted repeatedly. You can find videos of Prass guesting on Adams songs like “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” And when Prass was unable to make it to a their scheduled Copenhagen show, Adams put on a dress and opened for himself as “Natalie Sass,” playing a handful of Prass’ songs, like “Bird Of Prey.” Elsewhere, Adams covered Prass with his band, too, like this smoldering performance of “Your Fool.”
5. Patrick Swayze – “She’s Like The Wind”
Adams’ particular brand of ’80s nostalgia is an odd one, like when he and the Shining covered Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” last year. Likewise, another song he and Prass duetted on was this version of “She’s Like The Wind,” from Dirty Dancing. I get the feeling that he’s just as genuine here as he is with contemporary pop like 1989. And while a much more obvious/expected ’80s option for him would be something like the Smiths or, lately, some early ’80s Springsteen, the duo make this song work. 1989 is great music that a lot of Adams’ fans might be skeptical of, but even speaking as someone who loves almost everything ’80s, there’s no getting around the out-of-control schmaltziness of the original “She’s Like The Wind.” Hearing the two of them sing it together, it becomes a fairly interior and meditative thing. The audience only laughs twice or so!
4. Danzig – “Mother”
Here’s another song that Adams has been covering for a few years. When I interviewed Adams last year, he claimed he doesn’t listen to country music that much, a statement in line with the fact that he always seems to want to talk about metal and punk. Though that stuff has only occasionally found its way into his own musical output, of course Danzig’s “Mother” is something Adams would cover. Given that the tours with the Shining have tended to be pretty loose and jammy, often mellowing out songs that used to have a little more punch (relative to Adams’ work, that is), it’s nice to hear the band turning it up a little bit, playing something a little fast and hard. The video below is a performance from last year, assisted by Johnny Depp, so the whole thing is very rock ‘n’ roll, you know?
3. Foo Fighters – “Times Like These”
There’s a version of Adams playing “Times Like These” with the Cardinals back in the day, but his Foo Fighters cover garnered more notoriety this year, when he performed a prototypically sparse Adams-ian interpretation solo in Sydney. This rendition was in tribute to Dave Grohl, who had recently broken his leg during a Foos show, just a few weeks shy of their big 20th anniversary blowout in DC. “Times Like These” is one of the more contemplative songs in the Foo Fighters catalog, but you have to like some version of what they do to feel its pathos. Here’s an instance where Adams’ typical, hushed acoustic approach does bring out something legitimately emotional that might be hiding in the original song. When he sings it, “Times Like These” becomes a legitimate tearjerker.
2. Bryan Adams – “Summer Of ’69”
It’s one of the most infamous tales from Adams’ more petulant days in his early career: At a show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, a heckler continued to yell out requests for “Summer Of ’69,” hammering home that prevalent joke about Bryan/Ryan Adams. The younger Adams didn’t find it too amusing at the time, stopping the show and finding the fan, refunding their ticket and adamantly stating that he wouldn’t continue playing until the heckler left. In April this year, Adams finally did play “Summer Of ’69” in a callback to that incident. Last year’s “Run To You” was cool, but more of a cover that happened to fit into the aesthetic of Ryan Adams. But when he played “Summer Of ’69” in Nashville, it was inherently loaded with some baggage. There’s probably something tongue-in-cheek here, a little self-deprecation. But there’s also a real poignance to it: This is an older, more self-aware Adams, one far more comfortable with who he is.
1. Neil Young – “Cinnamon Girl” & “Old Man”
In September, the inaugural, two night Neil Fest — a charity concert/Neil Young tribute show — was held at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. Adams was there, offering up his take on “Cinnamon Girl,” as well as duetting with Norah Jones on “Old Man.” The scuzzy stomp of “Cinnamon Girl” is ideal for Adams at this point, of a piece with the way he and the Shining play many of his best songs (i.e., the ones from Cold Roses). At first, it almost feels as if their rendition is a bit too restrained here, not quite getting to that exact stomp, but more of a hazy stride. And then the big solo section kicks in at three minutes and it just feels huge, all the more climactic for how they’d held it back before. As for “Old Man” — it’s hard to think of many classic rock songs better suited for an Adams interpretation. Something about that melody, that song, just feels right for him, and him singing it with Jones is as beautiful as it seems like it would be. These songs rank at the top of the list because they’re the best of any of the songs Adams covered this year, but also because they’re his hardest-hitting covers (aside from, maybe, “Shake It Off”) from throughout 2015. There’s also a deeper resonance to seeing Adams at 40 covering two of the finest Young tracks. It establishes him in a particular kind of lineage. The rock outsider but also the classicist troubadour, the guy who will follow whatever idiosyncratic whim that crosses his mind — whether that’s Trans for Young or 1989 for Adams. He’s going to do his thing, and we’re along for the ride.