Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. But I had a little bit of spare time over this past holiday weekend, so I thought I’d take the chance to kick it old school and write a Music Monday post. The topic of today’s discussion will be the artist who over the last couple of years has become my favorite singer-songwriter: Ryan Adams.
Adams has been putting out acclaimed records since the mid-’90s, first with the band Whiskeytown and, starting in 2000, as a solo artist. I discovered him fairly late, and honestly, it wasn’t even by hearing one of his songs. Back in 2007, I was leafing through an issue of The New York Times, and I came across an article headlined “Ryan Adams Didn’t Die.” The story opened with an anecdote about Steve Earle and Adams shooting the shit at the famed Electric Lady Studios (I’m an eternal nut for both Earle and Jimi Hendrix) that included Adams cracking a joke about doing speedballs in the studio. I was sold without ever pressing play.
Of course, when I did hear the music, I was instantly impressed. That Times article came out in the press availability leading up to Easy Tiger, so I went out and bought that record, Gold, and Heartbreaker, and they immediately became staples in my listening rotation. I saw Ryan play with his band, the Cardinals, at the Berkeley Community Theater on the ensuing tour (as part of a very awkward group that included my girlfriend and a different girl that I had a crush on at the time), and totally dug their Grateful Dead–influenced sound.
My connection with Adams’ music only deepened over time. As I’ve written about at times on this blog, 2010 and 2011 were very hard years for me. I spent a very depressing, unsuccessful year in New York, broke up with a long-term girlfriend (the same one from the show in Berkeley), and then watched as she died not long after our breakup. Those were a couple of shitty fucking years, and I can honestly say that Heartbreaker helped me get through them.
And I’ve had my times with quite a few of Ryan’s other records. When I lived in the Lower Haight in San Francisco, I listened to Cold Roses constantly. I don’t think I ever drove across the Bay Bridge during that year without listening to Magnolia Mountain or When Will You Come Back Home. And when I drove across the country at the beginning of 2012 to move back to New York, I bought a ton of CDs (yeah, CDs, my car didn’t have an Auxiliary jack), but ended up just listening to Love Is Hell for pretty much the entire drive. And over the last few months, since Ryan released Live at Carnegie Hall—a special treat, since I was at the second of those shows—I’ve had that album on almost constant repeat.
So yeah, Ryan Adams didn’t die, and his music has kept me going for nearly a decade as well. So, in honor of that Carnegie Hall album, and in recognition of my current favorite artist, and just for the hell of it, here are my Top 10 Ryan Adams songs. Enjoy.
Honorable Mentions: Ryan’s such a versatile musician, and I love pretty much all of his stuff, from the honky-tonk stomp of A Kiss Before I Go to the spare, echoing piano of Sweet Lil’ Gal (though I could probably do without the dalliances in death metal). Carolina Rain is a great three-quarter time ballad about doom befalling a Carolina town. Damn Sam has always spoken to me because, well, I love a woman that rains. (Really, every song on Heartbreaker could be on this list.) And I love being drunk in New York during the winter and singing “Strung out like some Christmas lights, out there in the Chelsea Nights.” But the hardest cut was to say no Whiskeytown songs. I love 16 Days, Avenues, Easy Hearts, Jacksonville Skyline, Faithless Street and a bunch more of these as much as any hardcore DRA fan, but if I don’t make some tough choices, this list will end up being 40 songs long. God, I hate myself. Now the top 10.
10. Cherry Lane
This may seem a strange song to make the top 10, especially as it’s the only track from Cold Roses that makes my list. I still have a hard time believing that, as I love the sound on this epic double album, which, as I said, I spent so much time listening to in San Francisco. But as much as I enjoy the music on that record, the songs don’t have the same emotional resonance with me as some of Ryan’s other work—with Cherry Lane being one of the exceptions. It’s a classic Ryan tune about loneliness and longing for someone, but the high country wail he uses for the first half of the song leavens that feeling somewhat, as does the sort of optimistic tone that he conveys when he sings “I wanna be the one who walks you home tonight.” What really does it for me, though, is the bridge, when he slows down and sings “I could never get close enough to you,” before giving way to a lovely acoustic guitar outro. What can I say, I just dig it. It’s a killer song.
9. New York, New York
I know, it’s an obvious one. But for anyone who lives in the Big Apple, this song captures the energy and the craziness of the place—an energy that keeps you going even when you’re out on the tiles on hard drugs and a broken heart. And the opening scene of the video, with the Twin Towers behind him, filmed four days before 9/11? Gets me every time.
8. Please Do Not Let Me Go
On Live at Carnegie Hall, Ryan called this his “favorite song,” while also describing how he had no memory of writing it, other than being really fucked up that night. It’s pretty amazing to me that someone could write something this poetic and touching while totally blacked out, but hey, that’s why he’s Ryan Adams and we’re the rest of us. I love the chord progressions he uses, and the piano solo, and the simple, touching sentiment of the title lyric. And my favorite line from the song is one everyone who’s been through a breakup can relate to: “I’m all alone now and I’m feeling fine/I don’t feel much like doing anything.” Also, I chose this live version because that jumbo black Harmony is the coolest goddamn guitar on the planet and I want one so bad.
7. Call Me On Your Way Back Home
When I wrote my Top 10 Breakup Songs list, this one took the top slot. It’s one of the most devastating tracks ever put on wax, with that mournful call of “I just wanna die without you,” and that harmonica solo that makes the sound of a heart ripping apart. Of course this song had to go on an album called Heartbreaker.
6. The Shadowlands
I wrote about this one a couple of years ago here, and every once in a while someone will pop up out of the blue and leave a really long comment on the post about how much the song means to them. The truth is, as obsessed with The Shadowlands as I’ve been (this song in particular was the one that caused me to listen to Love Is Hell 1,000 times while driving across the country), it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill Adams song—until the outro, of course, which features the best guitar solo in Ryan’s catalog, and one of my favorites by anyone ever. It’s not the craziest shredder of a solo, but the tempo and tone is perfect, and it steadily builds until those licks make you feel like you’re about soar away.
There is a downside to this song: Ryan fell off the stage while performing it in 2004 and badly broke his arm (audio of that performance is here), and now he doesn’t play it live anymore. Sigh.
5. When the Stars Go Blue
As I said above, when I first got into Ryan’s stuff, I spent a ton of time listening to Gold and Heartbreaker, and this was probably the first song of his I fell in love with. (It was definitely the first one I learned to play on guitar.) I love the simple, arpeggiated guitar and the not-so-simple (for me, anyway) falsetto vocal. This song also became known for cover versions performed by Tim McGraw and Bono and the Corrs, which led to one of the funniest things Ryan—who has the best audience banter I’ve heard from any artist—ever said in concert: “I wrote that song, and now I’ve got a swimming pool made out of unicorn bones.” (I searched everywhere on the internet for that clip, and I can’t find it.) I chose the live version above because it reminds me very much of the version he played the first time I saw him live, in Berkeley.
4. Cannonball Days
All right, we’ve got a deep cut! Gold was Ryan’s biggest hit record, and it’s retrospectively become one of his more maligned ones. That may not be entirely fair (I think it holds up better than it’s given credit for), but one thing I’ve never understood was the track selection: A bunch of the songs on the second half of the record feel like throwaways, whereas Cannonball Days, The Bar Is a Beautiful Place, and Sweet Black Magic always seemed like must includes to me. I’m aware Ryan was forced to cut the track list down by his record company, but I don’t see how those songs, and Cannonball Days in particular, don’t make the cut.
Anyway, enough of my bitching. This is yet another love lost in New York City tune, an uptempo waltz through the “cannonball days” of a young, crazy love that ultimately dissolves. My favorite part is the description of that dissolution, when Ryan sings, “I feel like a stray/From the cannonball days/When all of your roses were mine.” I haven’t gotten those lyrics tattooed on my body—but I’ve thought about it.
3. My Winding Wheel
How is this song only number three? I love this song so fucking much. It’s such a great, simple little story of being head-over-heels for a girl, and feeling like she’s your everything, but that you’re either you’re never gonna get her or you’re gonna lose her. I like the bravado of the chorus, in daring her to “Buy a pretty dress, wear it out tonight, for anyone you think can outdo me,” and how he follows it with the plaintive “Better still, be my winding wheel.” A winding wheel, for those who don’t know, is the part of a watch you wind to make the movement work. This, of course, leads to the best story about this song: When Ryan met Bob Dylan, supposedly the first thing Dylan said to him was, “What the fuck is a winding wheel?”
There’s one more thing about this song: Last year I started going out with a girl I fell pretty hard for. Our first date was a Ryan Adams concert, and I remember on a subsequent date playing this song on guitar for her and the way she sang along with it, and it made me associate the song pretty intensely with her. And after we broke up, for a while it hurt too bad to listen to it. But after a couple of months off, I came back to it, and it’s just as good as ever. She may have taken a little piece of my heart, but no way was she gonna take this song from me.
2. English Girls Approximately
Love Is Hell is essentially a Ryan Adams Britpop album, and this song is full of those allusions. The jangly guitar, Marianne Faithful’s background vocals on the album version (I went with the live take above just because I like the energy of it), and the title itself. That title, of course, refers to Bob Dylan’s Queen Jane Approximately, but the more direct reference is to Beth Orton (“Come on Elizabeth, come on Bethany”), the British singer-songwriter who Ryan dated and who inspired Love Is Hell in the same sort of way Amy Lombardi inspired Heartbreaker.
I really do love everything about this song. The mix of anger and sadness in the lyrics, the way it goes from loud to quiet and back again, the allusions to other great songwriters. But my favorite part will always be the end, when he sings “Just three words my love: You meant everything,” and repeats the line over and over, building in volume before the melodic humming of the outro. So awesome.
1. Oh My Sweet Carolina
This is my favorite song of all time, and the lynchpin to my favorite album of all time. I mentioned above how Heartbreaker helped me get through a dark period in my life, and the song that I listened to the most during that time was Oh My Sweet Carolina. (When I wrote The Soundtrack of My Life last year, this song played prominently on it.) The music is beautiful, with the layering of acoustic guitar and piano, and the lyrics tell a story I could relate to, about failing at life in the big city. “Up here in the city, feels like things are closing in/Sunset’s just my lightbulb burning out” might be my favorite lyric in any song. (Ryan has said that he wrote the song at the end of a bad stretch in New York, when he was leaving the city and watching the lights recede in his rearview. I can relate.)
Am I forgetting something? Oh yeah, Emmy-fucking-lou Harris. Holy shit are her vocals spectacular on this song. When she and Ryan got together, first to do a cover of “Return of the Grievous Angel” and then to record this, she lent credence to the notion that Ryan was the Gram Parsons of his generation. There are tons of live versions of this song on YouTube, many of them great, including duets with Natalie Prass, Jenny Lewis, Laura Marling, Jason Isbell, even Mandy Moore (yikes), but come on, you gotta go with Emmylou.
So, that’s my list. Hope you like it. If you don’t … well, I’m guessing Ryan probably wouldn’t either.
This was a great read and a great list — thank you for doing it!