Top 5 recording artists: #2 Ryan Adams

So we’re on day 4 here at O&T, and down to #2 on the countdown. Thus far, for those with crappy memories, we’ve had Madvillain, Limbeck and, yesterday, City and Colour. Jacksonville, North Carolina’s favourite son David Ryan Adams (he dropped the David for his stage name) is next on our countdown.

Ryan himself, lookin nerdy.

Ryan himself, lookin' nerdy.

Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. It’s almost impossible for me to articulate just how much I enjoy his work, but perhaps this will give you an indication. From his collective projects (first band Whiskeytown, solo projects as Ryan Adams and his recent – and sadly finished – work with backing band The Cardinals), I have 14 studio albums, 3 unreleased records and some live stuff too. I recently made a compilation album of my favourite songs, limiting myself to 17 tracks on a single CD. Just choosing the tracks (the ordering took even longer) took me the best part of 4 hours.

I don’t count it as an overstatement to describe Radams (as he is oft known to his fans) as the best songwriter since Bob Dylan, and the most gifted musical artist of the last 20 years. His first albums with country band Whiskeytown are a wonderful expression of his love of country music, combining heartfelt lyricism with the yee-haw backbone of Carolina folk and bluegrass. The album Pneumonia (released 2 years after the band split in 1999) is a fantastic record, boasting an opening 3 tracks – ‘The Ballad of Carol Lynn’, ‘Don’t Wanna Know Why’ and ‘Jacksonville Skyline’ – that could rival most albums released in the last decade.

After Whiskeytown’s demise at the end of the 20th century, the 21st’s beginning marked a new stage for Ryan’s career. Known as a prolific artist, he has produced a staggering 11 full albums since 2000, when his debut Heartbreaker was released. Despite this profligate recording style, Adams’ music seldom suffers from the lack of quality control that many solo artists succumb to. 2003’s Rock N Roll is a record I’m not fond of at all (although some hold it in higher regard), but that aside, I could listen to any album, any time and love it just as much as the first time I heard it.

The album art for Heartbreaker

Album art for Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker is a record which features two of Adams’ best songs, the opening ‘To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)’ and the astounding ‘Come Pick Me Up’ (see video at bottom), one of my favourite songs of all time and the best, for me, of Ryan’s career. However, Heartbreaker still beats with the countrified heart that fuelled Whiskeytown, and although it features some cracking tunes, is not his most complete nor his best album.

By the time Adams released Gold in 2001, he was gaining some notoriety in the country music industry. However, Gold marks the first time Adams strayed a little from his country roots, delivering a barnstorming record which has been accused of being ‘too commercial’. However, these criticisms are ill-founded. Gold is one of his best albums, offering a combination of bittersweet personal accounts – ‘Harder Now That It’s Over’, ‘The Rescue Blues’ – and also delivering some the best lyrical output of his career (this from the wonderful ‘La Cienega Just Smiled’):

“And I hold you close in the back of my mind
And raise my glass ’cause either way I’m dead
Neither of you really help me to sleep anymore
One breaks my body and the other breaks my soul
La Cienega just smiles and waves goodbye”

One year later Adams released the stunning Demolition, in my mind his best album, which is ironically a selection of previously unreleased songs chosen by his dying girlfriend with new, haunting track ‘Jesus (Don’t Touch My Baby)’ to finish the album. It offers an insight not only into Adams’ troubled personal history (he had a massive heroin and cocaine addiction for several years) but also the depth of quality in his music, as wonderful songs like ‘Cry on Demand’, ‘Dear Chicago’ and ‘Nuclear’ saw the light of day for the first time.

Okay, so I’m rambling and gushing a lot. I realize this. I could give you an in-depth appraisal of every album from Love is Hell to Cardinology but I’ll refrain from doing so. These first three albums are all amazing records, rarely stumbling through a single track and containing songs of the highest possible quality. I’ll try and sum up my favourite artist of the last 20 years now, forgive a little wordiness.

Ryan Adams, I put it to you, is a genius. Not in the Pete Doherty category of (what I would deem as) drastic fan overstatement, but in the dyed-in-the-wool musical brilliance category which only artists like Elton John (in the 70s anyway), Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Johnny Cash inhabit. To produce the quantity of music he has without releasing utter shit every other album is an astonishing feat, and Radams has achieved this and more.

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Ryan Adams (centre) & The Cardinals

Add to his wonderful, wonderful back catalogue his gobsmacking live shows (anyone who’s seen him will tell you, he’s phenomenal) and you have a recipe for musical greatness. I cannot think of a better songwriter, more emotional singer or more ingenious musical mind than Ryan Adams that has existed since the aforementioned giants of the industry. Ryan should be being held up as one of the greatest ever, but he’s never achieved the level of fame his music deserves. Selfishly, however, I enjoy this fact, as I can listen to his albums personally without ever being confronted with them in the public eye.

When I tell people I like Ryan Adams, the most common reply is ‘do you mean Bryan Adams’? The groover from Vancouver he ain’t. He is, in fact, the 2nd greatest musical artist of all time, a genius without recognition and a titan of musical excellence. If talent equalled fame, Ryan would be dozens of times more famous than any Lady GaGa or Rihanna. However, it doesn’t, so until he returns to making music (and I pray he does), we’ll just have to wait and see if anyone can equal him. My money is on ‘no’.

Sickest tracks: Almost impossible, I’ll just give you a list of albums. Start with Gold to get into his style and go from there. Heartbreaker, Demolition, Cold Roses (with The Cardinals), Cardinology (with The Cardinals), Love is Hell (parts 1 & 2), 29, Jacksonville City Nights (with The Cardinals), Easy Tiger, Pneumonia (Whiskeytown), 29, Rock N Roll, Follow the Lights.

If you like this, you’ll also like: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Gram Parsons – Grievous Angel and most good music made ever.

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One thought on “Top 5 recording artists: #2 Ryan Adams

  1. Pingback: Top albums of the ’00s: 5-1 « Odessa & Tucson

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