The Over/Under: Ryan Adams


It’s been 10 years since the release of Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams‘ first post-Whiskeytown effort, and these days he is sober, married and seemingly well-balanced. Unless you were paying attention, you might not know the whole story—with the endless string of movie-star girlfriends and the drug-fueled, spoiled-rock-star antics. There was a time when Adams physically threatened his critics and routinely threw violent hissy-fits with damage bills in the thousands of dollars. He was a brash, arrogant diva, partly due to his own buying-in to the vast amount of bullshit surrounding him and partly due to all of the cocaine and heroin he was snorting. I don’t think we’ve had another artist so roundly dubbed the “second-coming of Dylan” since Adams was given the designation a decade ago, so it might be hard for a 20-something listener today to comprehend the level of hype that was dumped on him when he was emerging as a solo artist. It was blinding. With a staggering amount of unreleased material—including multiple albums that were shelved and several website-only releases under numerous band names—he’s since become one of the most prolific recording artists of his time, inarguably responsible for some certifiable modern classics and future rock standards. This might not go well; judging by Adams’ vocal disdain for MAGNET in the past, just writing about him is going to piss him off. Nobody tell him where I live. Anyway, here are Adams’ five most overrated and five most underrated songs.

The Five Most Overrated Ryan Adams Songs
1. “New York, New York” (2001)

The video for this song, the lead single from Gold, was recorded in front of the New York City skyline a mere four days before the terrorist attacks on September 11. The World Trade Center featured prominently in the background of the video, and when “New York, New York” was released, it became a sensation, playing endlessly on MTV and providing Adams mainstream exposure. Without the tragic, coincidental timing, it’s hard to imagine the song becoming as big of a hit, though. The production of the album (and especially this song, which definitely sounds like it was given the “hit single” polish more than the rest of the tracks) is as slick and clear as glass, and depending on who you ask, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s still Adams’ best-selling record to date.

2. “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad Is To Be High)” (2000)
Almost every rock ‘n’ roll song blatantly written about drugs or getting high is overrated. I’m not saying there aren’t some good ones, but there are tons that get audiences stoked just because the lyrics are about drugs. People like to party and be validated, so it makes sense, but this Heartbreaker song is just a loose, tossed-off blues jam with a bridge. For what it is, “To Be Young” is a great loose, tossed-off blues jam, but it doesn’t deserve to be the song that gets the biggest response from the crowd of the night.

3. “Fix It” (2008)
The lead single from Cardinology sounds like late-’80s Don Henley. It’s hard to believe “Fix It” is coming from a former punk rocker with a guilty passion for black metal. “Magick” would have been much better suited for radio play—it’s heavier, catchier, and unlike “Fix It,” it actually rocks. Not surprisingly, there were better songs recorded during these sessions that didn’t even make the album.

4. “Desire” (2002)
Primetime drama is a fitting grave for this hammy Demolition song, which has now been used as the soundtrack for several hammy scenes on various hammy television shows. Adams can do a wide range of styles, but “contemporary Christian” is probably not one he should explore further. “Two hearts fading/Like a flower/And all this waiting/For the power.” I just puked on my keyboard.

5. “29” (2005)
Lifting a melody from the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” 29‘s masturbatory title track is about Adams’ drug problems and bad behavior. It’s an unoriginal vocal line, it’s repetitive, and it lasts about three minutes too long. As the opening track for an album, it’s a terrible choice.

The Five Most Underrated Ryan Adams Songs
1. “Walls” (2001)

From the unreleased 48 Hours, which was recorded over a period of only two days. Adams once again collaborated with producer Ethan Johns to quickly get out a handful of songs, some of which would come to be known as among his best. Part of 48 Hours was cannibalized for compilation album Demolition, but for some reason “Walls” was not one of the songs chosen. This is that classic Adams country sound: soft ringing acoustic, pedal steel and organ with an original, contagious chorus and subtle harmonies. Another band would have turned this into a hit single, but with Adams, it remains in the vault.

2. “Ah, Life” (2004)
Ryan Adams meets the Beatles. Released on the Moroccan Role EP, this song is a swinging-’60s-tinged R&B skiffle. Adams is capable of making any album he wants. He’s done country, rock, punk, metal—he’s even put out some awful rap albums under the name DJ Reggie. He could do an entire album of songs like this, and it would be fantastic. This should have at least appeared on a proper album.

3. “Cracks In A Photograph” (2002)
This was part of the unreleased Suicide Handbook, recorded between Heartbreaker and Gold. A number of the tracks from these sessions would later appear on Gold, but “Cracks In A Photograph” remains a forgotten gem. It might be one of his best songs, sounding a little bit like Lyle Lovett or Damien Jurado.

4. “Decapitated Chicken” (2006)
“Decapitated Chicken” was part of a barrage of online-only releases through Adams’ website. From the album This Is Shit! by the band the Shit (the members of which, aside from Adams, are a mystery), the song has a hardcore-punk sound similar to the Germs or Iggy Pop. (Other releases from the Shit have ranged from drunken-hillbilly music to strange, psychedelic/punk holiday albums.) This song is another in a long line of examples of Adams’ ability to shapeshift between genres. It would be great to get an album from him with a wide variety of styles, sounding something like switching radio stations on a road trip. He could have his hardcore-punk songs next to his acoustic-country ballads and pop/rock anthems.

5. “Heavy Orange” (2008)
Included on a bonus seven-inch with vinyl versions of Cardinology, this weighty outtake sounds like some great lost U2 track. Though “Heavy Orange” doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the alt-country feel of Cardinology, it would have broken up the blandness of the album nicely. It could be a liberating thing for Adams to stop worrying about his LPs having one cohesive sound and instead try to just relax, write some great tunes and put them all together on one interesting and diverse record.

—Edward Fairchild

29 replies on “The Over/Under: Ryan Adams”

Halloweenhead should be on the underrated, maybe. It was a solid rocker in a sea of boring adult-alt lite stuff like “Two.” “Two” should be on the overrated list too, UGH that song makes me want to die. Good to see a Shit song on the underrated. That might be in my top three favorite things he’s ever done.

I couldn’t agree more about Fix It. And I’m with Joe G on Two. What I’m really trying to say is that Cardinology and Easy Tiger really shouldn’t have happened.

Overrated = “Gold” & “Heartbreaker”

Underrated – “Jacksonville City Nights” & “Cold Roses”

Great post and choices but how about:

Over Rated:-When the Stars Go Blue-Carolina Rain-So Alive-Evergreen-English Girls Approximately

Under Rated:-Disco Queen-Starlite Diner-Liar (RNR sessions)-What Sin Replaces Love-Go Easy-Faker (Exile OMS)-Idiots Rule the World (SHB)-Tomorrowland-Black Clouds-Pa….and on and on and on!

I’ve always enjoyed “Chin Up, Cheer”.

Actually, his most underrated song ever is likely one with Whiskeytown, “Factory Girl”.

“I took this shift because of her”. Who doesn’t remember doing that?

“What I’m really trying to say is that Cardinology and Easy Tiger really shouldn’t have happened” – 100% in agreement.

Loved this article. My two favourite underrated songs would probably be “Just like a whore” and “When the music don’t come” 🙂

The “Ah, Life” selection is spot on. But it’s not a Beatles rip off. It’s pure Smiths thievery, especially the vocal delivery at the outset. And it’s awesome for that very reason.

I’d throw “Rosalie Come And Go” somewhere on the underrated list.

Well, sorry guys, it’s on Gold so it’s automatically disqualified.

It makes me really sad the “Rock & Roll” is so loathed. I really like that record… It’s four songs too long but I love it nonetheless. Be gentle…

To Be Young (Is To Be Sad Is To Be High) probably isn’t the best choice, as it was cowritten by David Rawlings, not to mention recently recorded and released by him, so obviously it wasn’t just Ryan’s hand in there. I’d put a lot of the sap from Gold on the list, like Answering Bell.

It’s weird, as most artist stand the test of time with me (Costello, Replacements, Pixies, Grandaddy, and a million more), but for some reason I can’t seem to go back to tunes by this guy that I once enjoyed.

So there are no underrated songs on a regular Adams release? How pretentious, Mr. Fairchild. I guess I’m not a true fan if I’m not familiar with everyone of Adams’ non-official releases.

One of my favorites will always be “in my time of need”
still gives me a little chill, as cheesy as some may think that is…

SheaG, isn’t that joke dead yet? Uggg.

Thanks for the underrated list. It’s hard to keep up w/ Ryan at times and nice to have a link to some of the hidden gems.

Overrated – the Heartbreaker album.

Underrated – Ryan Adams as a singer/song writer, and artist in general.

His song writing has grown to be absolutley addictive over time and for those who cannot appreciate his later works with the Cardinals I say to you please take a second listen.

Heartbreaker would have to be rated pretty high to ever be overrated:

Overrated: Gold, except “La Cienaga”
Underrated: “Rosebud”, “Magick (original version), Rock and Roll (1974/Note to Self/Luminol, This is it), “Gimme Sunshine” , “Like the Twilight” etc. etc.

“Tina Toledo’s Street Walking Blues”, def underated.
“Shakedown” overrated. Maybe because I never saw him drug-addled and solo doing it.
“Dear John” with Norah Jones, overrated and dissapointing.
“Dear John” live with Ryan and Neal, badass.
Unreleased badass song: “Mega-Superior Gold”
All this hate for “Cardinology”: his best live-band stuff outside of “Cold Roses”. “Crossed Out Name” might be the best song I have ever heard him do live.

As far as Over-rated vs. Under-rated, with Ryan Adams, it’s really an issue of the taste of the fan, I’ve noticed the ones who are all for his Alt-Country side trash the newer stuff that isn’t a throwback. That’s just what I’ve noticed.

Heartbreaker is a solid record, but “Come Pick Me Up” is over rated among his fans.

“New York New York ” sounds like John Cougar Mellencamp, and I don’t listen to him, so I won’t like a song that sounds like him

I happen to think “Fix It” is a great song, in a Stonesy mid-tempo kinda way, and that R&Bish / Bluesy riff reminds me of another tune. But “Magick” is so hooky it gets annoying.

I love “29”, not just because of the roots rock shuffle Dead riff, but the lyrics and delivery of the tune, it’s not just what it is, it’s how smoothly he pulled it off
Yeah, Crossed Out Name live is incredible live, it really comes to life, go get it at the 2008 St. louis show is premo.

Whoever mention “Liar” thanks, I remember streaming that on his site, and next to “Note To Self- Don’t Die” he pulled of the best Nirvana-like song that a was actually a pleasant listen since the days of Verbena.

5 Other Under rated songs:
Let It Ride, Shadowlands, If I Am A Stranger, Turnaround (Whiskeytown), Carolina Rain

Sad that at one time I was so anxious to see what this guy would put out next. Now I’m just wondering if he’ll ever put something out again (other than lame poetry). I hope the bachelor party was amazing because there has been nothing productive since…

Come on – the guy has averaged releasing about an album a year since 1999 and the 5 choices for Underrated are 3 unreleased tracks, a bonus track, and a song from an obscure EP. I wish the songs on the overrated/underrated lists were restricted to only songs officially released. If Adams didn’t include these outtakes on a proper album, then they should be excluded.

MMmmm …Heavy Orange is like totally like awesome…like ya know…just sayin’ can’t stop listenin’….MMmmm …

I completely agree with your overrated song choices. For you underrated choices, I will give you props, as Ryan has so many songs that are underrated or that fans have never even heard at all (unless you’re a rabid semi-obsessive fan, as I consider myself to be) that it would tough to narrow it down. Others I would include on the underrated section would include:

For No One (Long and Sad Goodbye) – Suicide Handbook
Now That You’re Gone – Cold Roses
I Taught Myself How To Grow Old – Easy Tiger
Go Easy – Cardinology*
When Stars Go Blue – Gold**

*I love the original, but there is an acoustic version floating around YouTube of Ryan and Neal Casal doing an intimate version of it that is absolutely breathtaking.

**The song itself in its original version, as well as all of the lame covers, isn’t the greatest, and I never cared much for it until, again, I found Ryan and Neal doing an slow acoustic version of it. That version is stunning.

And I know, I apparently am all about the sad Ryan. I can’t help it, the man relays heartache like no one else, and he is my ultimate go-to guy when I’ve got the blues. Now if I could only get my hands on the Suicide Handbook…

Overated: nothing. none of ryan adams music has reached its full popularity. legends just keep growing through time.

Underated: Everything. People as a whole are not realizing just how good ryan adams actually is yet. Like most legends.

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