American singer-songwriter Ryan Adams is without a doubt my favourite living artist. I was introduced to his work around 2004, with the EP Love is Hell Pt. 1 – which would later be reissued with Pt. 2 as a full album as originally intended – and have rarely been disappointed with his output.
Every year I have at least one massive Adams binge, where I listen through all his main records over a couple of weeks, a task which is no easy feat as the dude is frustratingly prolific. Since the turn of the millennium, Adams has released 14 proper studio albums (2 of which are double albums), 1 metal album, a ton load of EPs most of which feature all new material, as well as a Taylor Swift cover album which I wish we could all pretend never happened.
As I am currently re-experiencing the full Adams’ back catalogue, I thought I’d compile a handy list of my Top 10 favourite Ryan Adams songs. Some albums, such as his last two major releases, are not represented here, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t any good, just that I have my particular highlights.
So here we go:
10 – Dance All Night (Cold Roses) – The giddy upbeat cousin of the cynical Come Pick Me Up. It may be one of Adams’ more frivolous, throwaway songs, but it fills me with teary eyed joy whenever I hear that opening blast of blistering harmonica and the answering country guitar riff.
9 – Dear John (Jacksonville City Nights) – It’s parent album is probably my least favourite of his* but Dear John is a real gem, an exquisite duet with Norah Jones, where unusual for a guest appearance it is Jones who takes lead vocal duties, with Adams wailing harmonies in the background as the titular dead husband John echoing his widow’s lament.
8 – Firecracker (Gold) – I’ve always seen Adams’ sophomore album Gold as Heartbreaker with spit and polish. It’s slightly more “produced”, more playful, and finds Adams flexing his songwriting muscles with forays into gospel, blues and good old fashioned rock ‘n roll. The album remains one of my favourite summertime records. For me, Firecracker encapsulates the album’s looser, more joyful vibes with great singalong lyrics – “Everybody wants to go forever / I just want to burn up hard and bright”
7 – The Shadowlands (Love is Hell) – Adams sings of an addict’s broken marriage over a three-chord piano mantra that quietly bubbles with tension. When that transcendental guitar outro arrives, it hits you like a breath of fresh air after a heavy muggy rain.
6 – Anybody Wanna Take Me Home (Love is Hell/Rock N Roll) – A glorious, shimmering drunken plea for a one night stand. This track was recorded as part of the Love Is Hell sessions but was initially released on the Rock n Roll LP. The track was later added to the full Love is Hell release when it was reissued as an album (as it was originally issued as two separate EPs). Personally, I prefer the Love is Hell version which includes an extended instrumental intro.
5 – Mockingbird (Cold Roses) – An acoustic prayer for a failing love. Features what is probably my favourite Adams lyric: “The rivers they run/ They run until they get too tired / Until they run behind the houses / And they become a creek / When I was a child / I ran until the creek became a river / When it turned into the ocean / I wondered why He’d made it so deep”
4 – Dirty Rain (Ashes & Fire) – The opening track from what was then billed as Adams’ return to his classic Heartbreaker heyday – an unfair sentiment, as I really believe his best work came after his debut. That said, Dirty Rain (and the following track Ashes & Fire) really play into the comeback narrative with water and fire images that can easily stand in for symbols of rebirth. Bluesy and soulful, this track is pure class.
3 – This House is Not for Sale (Love is Hell) – A song about a ghost couple trying to stop their house from being sold and all their possessions being taken away. A driving skeletal two-chord verse with haunting bell-like guitars and Adams at his throaty, hoarsey best gives way to a caterwauling chorus of “calm down” as one ghost tries to comfort the other. A touching heartfelt song that would be downright ridiculous in less capable hands.
2 – Cold Roses (Cold Roses) – The title track from my favourite Adams album is brimming with duelling guitar licks, icy gospel-esque harmonies, and a hypnotic soaring solo. I was never 100% sure what the song is about, but I believe it chronicles a girl’s comedown the morning after a heady Saturday night out.
1 – Come Pick Me Up (Heartbreaker) – Arguably the quintessential Ryan Adams song. Downbeat, folksy Americana, that manages to find beauty in a dysfunctional relationship and includes a healthy dose of glib humour – “Come pick me up / take me out / fuck me up / steal my records” and “I wish you’d make up my bed / So I could make up my mind” – All the more remarkable for the fact it was released on his debut. This is the track I immediately reach for when I want to introduce Ryan Adams to a newbie.
10 (AMAZING) HONORABLE MENTIONS:
In chronological order
- Damn, Sam (Heartbreaker)
- When the Stars Go Blue (Gold)
- Desire (Demolition)
- World War 24 (Love is Hell)
- English Girls Approximately (Love is Hell)
- Let It Ride (Cold Roses)
- Starlite Diner (29)
- Everybody Knows (Easy Tiger)
- Do I Wait (Ashes & Fire)
- Am I Safe (Ryan Adams)
And if you are on TIDAL, then you can listen to all the mentioned songs via the playlist I created. Click link below
WANT AN ALBUM RECOMMENDATION? If you’re looking for a great Ryan Adams album to start with then you can’t go wrong with his debut Heartbreaker. However I would equally recommend Love is Hell, Cold Roses, and Ashes & Fire as great jumping off points.
*Unless we’re counting Demolition which was released by the record label against the artist’s wishes , and is a mismatched hodgepodge of previously unreleased album tracks and offcuts.