Just a little over a week ago, Ryan Adams surprise-released a mammoth box set of live recordings, including 15 vinyl albums and dozens more digital downloads. While a seemingly huge release to non-avid Adams fans, this box set just scratches the surface of the multi-faceted artist who has become known for pumping out songs in his almost two-decade long career.
But it’s hard to get a gauge on how much exactly Adams has put out, as his vast discography has become littered with various jokes (a hip-hop song called “”Dot Com Rap); personal, indulgent experiments (an album self-described as a “fully-realized sci-fi metal concept album”) and what feels like billions of singles and bootlegs floating around the internet. Listening to his entire body of work could easily become a life-long undertaking, immensely intimidating and at times lopsided, so let us help with our top 12 Ryan Adams tracks.
12. “A Kiss Before I Go” – Jacksonville City Nights
As Jacksonville City Nights focuses on whiskey-soaked, rambling country, “A Kiss Before I Go” lies at the high-water mark of the album. “One shot, one beer and a kiss,” Adams drawls in a tune that could easily have come straight out of an old, ‘60s country album.
11. “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, To Be High)” – Heartbreaker
Adams best opening song to date—to get the full effect, it must be listened to coupled with a recorded argument he and Dave Rawlings have over Morrissey, which is technically the first track on the album. But even all by its lonesome, “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, To Be High)” is, true to its name, a tumbling, energetic tune that sings straight to the core of youth.
10.”Everyone Knows” – Elizabethtown Sessions
Off of the 2005 release of rough lo-fi recordings, “Everyone Knows” was one of the many songs that didn’t make it into the film. Although it was later released on Easy Tiger as “Everybody Knows,” the much less-produced original recording showcases Adams playing with beautiful harmonies and riffs that didn’t make the final cut.
9. “Wish You Were Here” – Rock N Roll
Off of his aptly named rock-heavy 2003 release, “Wish You Were Here” is one of his few rougher, non-country tunes that stand up to the rest of his canon. Explicit and rowdy, it draws ever-so-slightly on the metal that Adams loves dearly, finding a nice middle ground with his softer work to create a track fully worthy of his lofty album title.
8. “Oh My Sweet Carolina” – Heartbreaker
Adams often draws heavy on his sense of place, using it to demonstrate where he is emotionally, as well as physically. Emmylou Harris provides soothing back-up vocals on his longing-filled ode to his home state of North Carolina.
7. “Dear John” – Jacksonville City Nights
A duet with pianist Norah Jones, the duo’s voices sink into each other in sultry turns of melody. The haunting track is largely a departure from Adams’ typical style, as he sings much higher than usual to balance with Norah’s low rasp. Lyrically it follows a widow as she mourns a husband and a life.
6. “Hotel Chelsea Nights” – Love Is Hell
A song of stagnation and addiction, “Hotel Chelsea Nights” is the last track off an album that has been rumored to totally be about his long-term stay at Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea—the same hotel that Patti Smith and Rufus Wainwright have called home, and where Sid Vicious allegedly killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Part serenade, part wistful lament, it is Adams at his most damaged.
5. “Come Pick Me Up” – Heartbreaker
Most likely his most well-known song off of his most well-known album, it is a track that fully lives up to the hype, filled with some of the most eloquent and pitch-perfect break-up lyrics ever written. And while Adams is known to pick up his harmonica on more songs than just this one, it is only with “Come Pick Me Up” that the harmonica line manages to cut straight to the heart.
4. “September” – Jacksonville City Nights
The track off the 2005 release is much less twang-infused than the rest of Jacksonville City Nights, one of the albums he recorded with as Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, although it’s just as hard-plucking as the rest. Following the grief of a loved one taken away by sudden illness, the emotionally charged track is filled with haunting lyrics such as, “I ain’t never gonna see the winter again.”
3. “English Girls Approximately” – Love Is Hell
Although much more upbeat than the rest of the down-in-the-dirt album, “English Girls Approximately” has a clever and kitschy twist on some typically despondent Adams lyrics: “Said you didn’t love me, it was right on time/I was just about to tell you but okay, alright.”
2. “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part” – 29
Off of one of Adams’ least-known albums, this largely instrumental gem stands out in the middle of a sea of rightly unknown. On one of his few piano-dominated tracks which he has claimed is about a friend’s lost child, he softly and longingly coos for the first half of the track, backed by a solemn and simple piano before breaking into an uplifting instrumental.
1. “I See Monsters” – Love Is Hell
Hidden deep in the 16 tracks of Love Is Hell, “I See Monsters” is another song largely forgotten by those not within Adams’s cult following. Arguably his most beautiful track, it embodies everything at once heartbreaking and beautiful about the height of Adams’ angsty, drug-ridden songwriting: he sings to his sleeping lover about how much she makes him want to be a better man, but how he knows he’ll never have the strength to be.