It’s been more than three years since Ryan Adams released his prior album, Ashes & Fire, but for such a prolific artist, it might as well have been an eternity. Notorious for his prodigious onslaught of albums, EPs and weird side projects, the singer-songwriter took a well-deserved break, during which he recorded and scrapped an entire LP and opened his new Pax-Am Studio in Hollywood.
He returns this month with his 14th solo album in 14 years, the aptly titled Ryan Adams, which ditches the twangy country-rock of his previous albums for a darker, more urban sound. It’s just one more musical twist in a career full of them. “New York, New York” may still be Adams’ best-known single, but here are 10 more essential tunes that show the range of his abilities.
“Midway Park” (Faithless Street, 1996)
The first song on Whiskeytown’s first album is their first keeper, a pensive alt-country tune defined by eloquent guitars and Adams’ gravel-throated vocals. “Midway Park” evokes a strong sense of place, in this case a military neighborhood in his hometown of Jacksonville, North Carolina. You can hear the young singer-songwriter longing to see the world that lies beyond the city limits, and when he sings, “I’ll think of you tonight, I’ll think forever,” it sounds like he’s referring to the open road rather than a lost lover.
“Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” (Strangers Almanac, 1997)
In his book Losering: A Story of Whiskeytown, the critic David Menconi describes this song from the band’s second album as a fatalistic barroom anthem. “Ryan’s narrator is on a fool’s errand he has convinced himself is an epic, noble quest: Tonight, he vows, I am gonna get so plowed I can’t even remember my name!” Alejandro Escovedo shows up on the bridge to take his keys and drive him home.
“Hey There Mrs. Lovely” (Live at Almost Blue, 1999; Extra Cheese EP, 2009)
Adams’ vast catalog is littered with one-off genre exercises and oddball EPs, so any list of his top tunes ought to include at least one fairly obscure number. “Hey There Mrs. Lovely” was originally intended for his unreleased album Destroyer and for years was only available as a bootleg before he rerecorded it as “These Girls” in 2007. This version is a quiet, acoustic show-closer with imagery that mixes the innocence of childhood with the complexities of adult lust: “We started playing Twister with our tongues/We probably should have scrapped the game.”
“Come Pick Me Up” (Heartbreaker, 2000)
Romantic ambivalence has always been one of Adams’ great themes, and this standout from his solo debut is a lovely ode to the enticement of heartache. As a harmonica moans and wails in some corner of the bar, he eyes a woman he wants to “come pick me up, take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends.” It’s impossible to tell if such devastation is a foregone conclusion, but he does sound like a man who thrives on heartache.
“La Cienega Just Smiled” (Gold, 2001)
Ostensibly named for the boulevard that runs through Los Angeles, “La Cienega Just Smiled” is a change of scenery for Adams, who moved about as far away from North Carolina as you can get without hitting the Pacific Ocean. He made sure to pack some heartbreak as he ruminates on the girl he left behind: “Feels so good but damn it makes me hurt.” That lovely guitar theme, seemingly inspired by nearby Laurel Canyon, offers him a shoulder to cry on.
“Hallelujah” (Demolition, 2002)
Adams is such a prolific songwriter, he had enough material for a rarities compilation after just two solo albums. Demolition is a collection of tunes from several unreleased albums, yet it has become a fan favorite. On “Hallelujah,” Adams sings about losing himself to the nightlife, carousing the boulevard and staring at the stranger in the bathroom mirror, but we can all sing along with the bittersweet hallelujah chorus.
“A Kiss Before I Go” (Jacksonville City Nights, 2005)
With the Cardinals as his backing band, Adams returned to his old stomping grounds on Jacksonville City Nights — not just to North Carolina but to the barroom as setting and subject matter. With its slurred count-off and weepy pedal steel, opener “A Kiss Before I Go” is Adams at his honky-tonkiest, evoking the quiet desperation of the barstool life. It may include one of his clunkiest lines (“With every girl loaded up like freights”), but that chorus is fit for a Buck Owens hit (“One shot, one beer and a kiss before I go”).
“Carolina Rain” (29, 2006)
The mid-2000s found Adams at peak productivity, releasing three albums between March 2005 and January 2006. Jacksonville City Nights was the best of them, but there are some gems on 29, chief among them “Carolina Rain.” It’s a story song, which is uncharacteristic for Adams, who typically writes in an emotionally impressionistic style. Recounting a tale of a love triangle that turns deadly, he proves himself an able yarn-spinner.
“Two” (Easy Tiger, 2007)
Easy Tiger is one of Adams’ most concise and focused albums, with a no-frills SoCal rock sound showcasing a set of songs that are as sturdy as they are succinct. Among the best is “Two,” which features a gorgeously despairing hook and backing vocal by Sheryl Crow. He might be singing from the perspective of any of his previous barfly narrators, whose loneliness and longing makes “Two” a spiritual and numerical sequel to Harry Nilsson’s “One.”
“Gimme Something Good” (Ryan Adams, 2014)
Adams’ first single in three years is arguably one of his darkest, a subdued rocker built on a foundation of minor-key guitar riffs and stormy swells of organ courtesy of the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench. Written after Adams discarded a batch of tracks for a long-awaited album, the song ponders the possibility of a new beginning, and Adams sings like the promise of something good is the only thing keeping him alive.