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.