The pop music world is still buzzing over last week’s release of 1989: Not Taylor Swift’s pop-cultural juggernaut, but alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams’ cover album of 1989 “in the style of The Smiths.” A quick review of the iTunes comments on Adams’ version of 1989 reveals that a not insubstantial portion of Swift’s fanbase hasn’t gotten a handle on his angle or his appeal, while the mainstream music press is agog over Adams’ guile and audacity.
Adams, for his part, has insisted that the project stems from his sincere admiration for Swift’s songwriting, and that it isn’t the ironic, attention-seeking stunt performance it might appear to be on first impression. But Adams has always been a difficult artist to take at face value. He trades in irony and artifice, and his persona can perhaps most charitably be described as “rakish.” Even when he isn’t giving interviews about how much he does “not fucking like country music” or trolling his fanbase with indulgent stylistic pivots, Adams can be a difficult artist to love because he rarely gives the impression that the feeling is mutual.
But it’s his talent that inspires such admiration— it’s not for nothing that he was one of the artists burdened with the “Next Bob Dylan” tag in the early aughts. The most frequent knock against Adams is that he needs an internal editor, and it’s true that his enormous catalogue includes as many clunkers as it does real gems. But, at his best, Adams fully deserves his reputation as one of his generation’s finest singer-songwriters and one of the leading artists of the alt-country movement. Given his elevated profile with 1989— which, it’s worth mentioning, isn’t a terrible introduction to Adams’ style— it seems like the right time to dig into his extensive back catalogue and offer up a Starter Kit.
“Excuse Me If I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” from Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac (1997)
Adams first garnered attention as one of the principal artists behind alt-country band Whiskeytown, who released three excellent albums before Adams and his cohorts (including Caitlin Cary, a terrific singer-songwriter in her own right) went their separate ways. And, however much he might try to distance himself from country music, the pure honky-tonk weeper “Excuse Me If I Break My Own Heart Tonight” proves his facility with the genre. The brash attitude and wry turns-of-phrase that would become two of Adams’ trademarks are fully on display here.
“To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is to Be High)” from Heartbreaker (2000)
After a brief gag reel bit in which he and producer David Rawlings argue about Morrissey, Adams’ solo debut kicks off with the raucous “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High).” The acoustic guitar work is loose-limbed and roughshod, a testament to the album’s short recording time, and Adams begins his solo career by embracing his reputation as alt-country’s problem child who is eager to chase extremes by getting mopey and getting high.
“Come Pick Me Up” (featuring Kim Richey) from Heartbreaker (2000)
Kim Richey provides typically stellar harmony vocals on what is arguably the best-written song in Adams’ catalogue. Adams does melancholy and self-loathing better than just about anyone, and “Come Pick Me Up” cuts particularly deep. There’s no delusion that Adams’ come-on is anything more than begging someone to help him feel literally anything but his ongoing pain. He doesn’t care about the lasting consequences— “Screw all my friends,” “Steal my records,” “Lie on my back,” he implores at various turns— he only cares about getting out of his head for a brief reprieve.
“New York, New York” from Gold (2001)
The closest Adams has ever come to having a hit single, “New York, New York” became something of an accidental mini-anthem in the days following 9/11, thanks to a video that Adams had filmed with the World Trade Center as a backdrop in the late summer of 2001. The song itself is wondrous for the nostalgia that informs its particular brand of melancholy, as he looks back fondly on a relationship that is defined by a sense of place. And “Found myself a picture that would fit in the folds of my wallet and it stayed pretty good / Still amazed I didn’t lose it on the roof of that place when I was drunk and I was thinking of you” is simply the best couplet Adams has ever written.
One of the common criticisms of Adams’ songwriting is that he relies too often on pastiche, trying to emulate specific genres or even specific artists rather than trying to come up with something original. In terms of style, “The Rescue Blues” may want for originality, but with its soaring gospel choir, foregrounded Hammond B3 organ, and Adams’ yearning vocal performance, it’s perhaps the most genuinely soulful track Adams has committed to record.
“So Alive” from Rock N Roll (2003)
Gold was the album that was supposed to make Adams a bone fide rock star. When that didn’t happen, he offered the tossed-off Rock N Roll, the first of his proper studio albums that saw his status as a critics’ darling start to erode. Though most of the album’s homages were far too obvious, “So Alive”– not a cover of the Love & Rockets single of the same name, though Adams could totally pull that off if he chose to– remains one of Adams’ most affecting performances. Adams isn’t known as a particularly dynamic singer, but his vocal turn on “So Alive” is a full-throated, plaintive wail that sells the song’s outsized arena-rock chorus.
“Political Scientist” from Love Is Hell (2004)
If Adams’ work were to be summarized with a single word, it would be disaffected. His songwriting reflects a jaded point-of-view that’s endemic to many people who grew up feeling that the prosperity of the 1990s was illusory, only to have those suspicions proven correct. There’s a real cynicism to much of his songwriting, and the effective central metaphor of “Political Scientist” shows how that cynicism informs his perspective on relationships: Love Is Hell.
“Let It Ride” from Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ Cold Roses (2005)
Adams assembled an ace backing band, The Cardinals, for one of his most prolific periods. Returning to the country-rock aesthetic of Heartbreaker, Cold Roses was a return-to-form for Adams. The ambling “Let It Ride” was one of the standout tracks on the double album. The song’s laid-back optimism and laissez-faire credo were a refreshing change of pace for Adams, making “Let It Ride” one of his most effortlessly likable cuts.
“My Heart is Broken” from Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ Jacksonville City Nights (2005)
Jacksonville City Nights was the second of the three albums Adams released in 2005, and he reunited with Whiskeytown’s Caitln Cary for “My Heart Is Broken.” Despite his claims that he hates country music, “My Heart Is Broken” is an exceptional bit of stone country that is more staunchly traditional than anything the genre’s current A-list acts have ever recorded. Heartbreak is something he does well, so this style of vintage country is a natural fit.
“Pearls On a String,” from Easy Tiger (2007)
Again, despite his protestations to the contrary, Adams shows a real affinity for a variety of country music forms. Driven by gently plucked banjos and mandolins, boasting lovely vocal harmonies in its chorus, and noteworthy for its concise running time and economic use of language, the lilting “Pearls On a String” veers into a Bluegrass territory. When Adams notes, “Tomorrow’s on its way/And there’s always new songs to sing,” it’s a playful bit of auto-critique about the rapid pace of his creative output.
“Dirty Rain” from Ashes & Fire (2011)
On “Dirty Rain,” Adams looks back upon the ruins of a long ended relationship, revisiting specific memories and comparing them to how things have changed. “Last time I was here it was raining / It ain’t raining anymore.” He makes excellent use of repetition throughout the song, and his observations make it seem like he’s being mocked by the Pathetic Fallacy itself: “So let the needle move the record round til the walls cave in / You and I out there dancing in the dirty rain.”
“Am I Safe” from Ryan Adams (2014)
Releasing a self-titled album fourteen years after his debut signaled something of a creative rebirth for Adams: It’s his slickest and most streamlined album to date, incorporating the influences of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and especially Paul Westerberg into a style that pays homage to the rock of the late 80s without being explicitly derivative. The nervy “Am I Safe” finds Adams weighing his options for getting out of a relationship that is long past its sell-by date. Looking at “pictures on the wall from when we used to smile,” he wants out, but he doesn’t necessarily trust his partner: “Am I safe if I don’t want to be with you?”
Counting only his proper studio albums and not any of his various EPs or live albums or unreleased bootleg material, Ryan Adams has released more than 180 songs since 2000: The sheer depth of such a songbook makes it nearly impossible to winnow Adams’ catalogue down to a dozen songs for a starter kit. But these tracks run the gamut from his beginnings as an alt-country wunderkind to his current status as a seasoned indie-rock veteran, and they showcase the songwriting and country (and country adjacent) style that make Ryan Adams an artist worth knowing for far more than just a killer rendition of Taylor Swift’s “All You Had to Do Was Stay.”