a guide to the truly prolific

Understanding Ryan Adams’s 1989: Where to Start With His Unwieldy Catalogue

2015 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 3
Ryan Adams performing at Coachella earlier this year. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Keeping tabs on Ryan Adams’s creative output is basically a full-time job. You could say he’s the Robert Pollard of the sad-bastard crowd: In 2015 alone, he’s released five 7-inch singles, a live album recorded at Carnegie Hall, and, just this morning, to the utter delight of the internet and Taylor Swift, a song-for-song redo of the pop juggernaut 1989. Considering this last point, it’s easy to imagine a wave of potential new fans coming to Adams’s discography right now and having no possible idea where to start.

Although Adams’s lack of release restraint is a nightmare for completists and record collectors, it’s a boon for the rest: There’s a version of Ryan Adams for almost everybody — whether you’re into the Grateful Dead’s pickled country deconstructions, the obscure corners of SST Records’ catalogue, the Smiths’ melancholy jangle, or stripped-down folk-rock.

On the downside, combing through his back pages to find the highlights can be a chore. His resistance to editing has led to bloated album lengths and ridiculous detours — among them, the ’80s metal project Sleazy Handshake and his theme songs for the Awl. Consistency has also never been Adams’s strength, and while that’s part of his charm, it’s also produced releases that vary drastically in quality. For example, the B-side of the recent autumnal alt-country single “Willow Lane” is the jokey “Red Hot Blues,” which amounts to a stream-of-consciousness blues spoof with a drawling Muppet on lead vocals. Since it’s so daunting to figure out where to start within his unwieldy catalogue, here’s a guide to Ryan Adams’s best work across just a handful of his musical phases, if you can believe it.

Do you like classic-sounding alt-country? Go with 2000’s Heartbreaker.

Start with: “My Winding Wheel”

For a guy who’s gone on record multiple times about his hatred for country music, he sure nails everything great about the genre on his solo debut, following the dissolution of his — you guessed it — alt-country band Whiskeytown. More than any other album in Adams’s discography, he’s at his most vulnerable on Heartbreaker, between the sparse acoustic guitars, no-holds-barred lyrics, and the earnest twang in his voice on “Bartering Lines” and the Elliott Smith–esque “Amy.”

Do you gravitate toward heartache-ravaged roots-rock? Try 2004’s Love Is Hell.
Start with: “This House Is Not for Sale”

If Heartbreaker is a breakup album that’s trying to hold everything together, Love Is Hell is what happens when someone gives into the black hole of despair. Adams sounds physically weakened by loneliness and heartache — his voice is ragged and desperate, which exacerbates the harrowing “The Shadowlands” and the tortured “Political Scientist.”

Are you nostalgic for the early ‘00s garage-rock revival? 2003’s Rock N Roll might do the trick.
Start with: “Burning Photographs”

Recorded to appease then-label Lost Highway after it initially declined to release Love Is Hell, Rock N Roll is one of few Adams albums to sound of its time — which is to say it’s full of swaggering guitar riffs and echoes of 120 Minutes’ heyday via the early-to-mid-2000s rock boom. In particular, there’s a nod to his then-obsession with the Replacements (the ragged “Do Miss America”), and even a sneering punk song (“Note to Self: Don’t Die”) that sounds like a Nirvana ape.

What about heartland rock akin to early Wilco? Try 2007’s Easy Tiger.

Start with: “Halloweenhead”

Adams’s most cohesive album recorded with mid-to-late-’00s backing band the Cardinals, Easy Tiger is an easygoing, rather straightforward alt-country barnstorm with enough laissez-faire twang, prickly acoustic folk, and good-natured country shuffling to please most facets of his fan base.

Are you an ’80s underground hardcore fan? Go with 2014’s 1984 EP.
Start with: “Change Your Mind”

Unlike Rock N Roll and his pre-2010 experiments, Adams’s later forays into punk and hardcore feel much more deliberate and lighthearted. 1984 is basically a scrappy, shit-kicking collection of Hüsker Dü and Dischord Records homages that are bottle-rocket blasts of youthful sincerity.   

Are you generally lukewarm on the idea of Ryan Adams? Try 2014’s Ryan Adams
Start with: “Gimme Something Good”

It’s tempting to think that the Bryan Adams–aping cover, ’80s cornfield-rock vibe, and Springsteenian vocal warbles are just another example of Adams not taking himself very seriously. But the scorched-and-reverbed rock and roll of “Gimme Something Good” and “Stay With Me” are more resonant and accessible than anything he’s done in years, even if they (paradoxically) resemble little else in his catalogue.

If you simply want to listen to the best Ryan Adams album: 2005’s Cold Roses.
Start with:
“Magnolia Mountain”

2011’s Ashes & Fire is Adams’s most consistent, well-produced batch of songs, and the nuanced 2005 solo album 29 is one of his most underrated efforts. However, the musical camaraderie he has with the Cardinals on Cold Roses helps minimize his tendency to get lost in his own head, giving the record much-needed cohesion and structure. Plus, there’s enough variety to satisfy all facets of his listenership. Highlights include the hot-rodding “Beautiful Sorta,” the pedal-steel-curled “Magnolia Mountain,” and the country-folk lope “When Will You Come Back Home.”

The 3 Best Ryan Adams Songs

“When the Stars Go Blue”
The string-iced song of Adams’s 2001 album Gold is at once deeply romantic and full of melancholy — it’s a song about the dull ache of prolonged, hidden longing.

“Oh My Sweet Carolina”
As if the whispered acoustic riffs and Adams’s pain-wracked vocals weren’t pointed enough, the presence of Emmylou Harris on background vocals sends this tune over the top.

“La Cienega Just Smiled”
Another mellow Gold gem, this intimate, piano-sprinkled song wrestles with the ghosts of destructive relationships.

Which Ryan Adams Is for You? A Discography Guide