In honor of me turning 30, I’m making mix CDs of my favorite songs from each of my 30 favorite musical artists/groups. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for this list. They’re simply my personal favorites. Coming in at number 18 is Ryan Adams.
Ryan Adams and Adam Duritz are friends. They’ve even collaborated on a few tracks over the years. Although both of them are talented lyricists and singers, their songwriting production couldn’t be much more different. Duritz and his band, Counting Crows, tend to release a new album once every three or four years. Meanwhile, Ryan Adams’ discography, which only dates back to 2000, already includes 14 albums and nearly 200 songs.
It goes without saying that trying to narrow Adams’ musical catalog down to a single CD for my 30 at 30 compilation was quite the challenge. When all the dust settled, tracks from eight different Ryan Adams albums made the final cut.
I decided to open the mix with “Come Pick Me Up” from 2000’s Heartbreaker, a slow burning song of a jilted lover who can’t get enough of this woman, even though she causes him pain. It also features some killer harmonica throughout and at the end, which transitions perfectly into the opening harmonica on my second track, “Firecracker”, from 2001’s Gold.
The next three tracks fit together more or less dealing with Adams’ romantic relationships. “Hallelujah” off 2002’s Demolition, not to be confused with the epic Leonard Cohen song of the same name (famously covered by Jeff Buckley). “My Winding Wheel” comes from Heartbreaker, and “Answering Bell” is from Gold.
Tracks six through nine all fit together with a common theme as well. On “Lucky Now” from 2011’s Ashes and Fire, Adams reflects on how “we” (presumably he and a significant other) have changed over the years as they’ve passed:
I don’t remember, were we wild and young
All that’s faded into memory
I feel like somebody I don’t know
Are we really who we used to be
Am I really who I was
“I Taught Myself How to Grow Old” from 2007’s Easy Tiger brings back the harmonica. This track is a bit of a downer, as Adams sings with loneliness and heartbreak in his voice:
I taught myself how to grow
Without any love and there was poison in the rain
I taught myself how to grow
Now I’m crooked on the outside, and the inside’s broke
Most of the time I got nothing to say
When I do it’s nothing and nobody’s there to listen anyway
I know I’m probably better off this way
I just listen to the voices on the TV ’til I’m tired
My eyes grow heavy and I fade away
Just when you can’t bear the depressing sound of the harmonica at the end of that track any longer, the soft strumming of an acoustic guitar comes in at the start of “Desire.” The harmonica comes back again with a sense of hopefulness and optimism as Adams closes the song by singing:
You know me. You don’t mind waiting.
You just can’t show me, but God I’m praying,
That you’ll find me, and that you’ll see me,
That you run and never tire.
The next track is “To Be Young” from Heartbreaker. The song was adeptly described by Stephen Byrd of Pitchfork as “misleadingly upbeat.” The song sounds happy, yet Adams sings “When you’re young you get sad.” I can’t relate to the other piece Adams talks about as I’ve never gotten high, but a good song is a good song. And this one is a blast to sing along to.
Track 10 delivers a stark shift in tone. “Wish You Were Here”—not a cover of the Pink Floyd hit—opens with distorted electric guitar, quickly introduces profanity and pretty much sounds like punk rock in slow motion for the first 1:45 before getting louder, faster, and invoking drugs. Track 11, “Note to Self: Don’t Die” turns the noise up to 11. Fittingly, after not dying, track 12 is “So Alive.” Tracks 10-12 all come from Adams’ 2003 album, Rock N Roll. And yes, they are undoubtedly the three most rocking tracks included in the compilation.
Track 13 is “Halloweenhead” from Easy Tiger. I still don’t really know what a “halloweenhead” is, but I sang this song to Jessie incessantly one Halloween. She hates it, and I love it. Track 14, “The Sun Also Sets” also comes from Easy Tiger, but it’s not about Halloween, so I’ve got nothing more to add.
“Touch, Feel, & Lose” is also incredibly fun to sing along with, particularly as Adams implores the recipient of this song to “cry, cry, cry.”
Emmylou Harris stops by to help out and crushes it on “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Adams sings of regret and what he’s left behind. The line, “I miss Kentucky and I miss my family” always hits me particularly hard because I’m always away from one or the other when I hear it.
I like the combination of tracks 17 and 18. “Please Do Not Let Me Go” from 2004’s Love is Hell sadly ends with “Crossed Out Name” from 2008’s Cardinology.
On “Two” (from Easy Tiger) Adams seems to finally recognize his flaws. Even though he has a good heart, he can’t do it all, and he admits that “it takes two when it used to take only one.” Then, on “Somehow, Someday” from Gold, Adams sings with determination:
But there ain’t no way I’ll ever stop from lovin’ you now
There ain’t no way I’ll ever stop from lovin’ you now
No, there ain’t no way and I’m gonna try and show you somehow
Somehow, and I’m gonna someday
I think “The Shadowlands” from Love is Hell is the most haunting track on the compilation. The first part of the song is just a somber piano and Adams’ voice. At the 2:40 mark, strings, guitar and drums join in and the song ends on a much more upbeat note than it began, but the lyric that stands out is the repetition of “most people never find a love.” It makes me realize how fortunate I am to be in the relationship I am. Ryan Adams has so many songs of heartbreak and relationships gone awry. They’re tremendous songs, and they help illuminate just how good I have it.
The final track is “Tomorrow”, which is about a different kind of loss. In 2002, Adams said, “I wrote that with a friend of mine, a playwright called Kerry Hamilton, who has since died of cancer. I was living in Room 1034 at the Hollywood Roosevelt, and it was written the day before she was going back to Colorado. It was the last time I was to see Kerry healthy. I’m still going through it and I haven’t been able to touch it in a song.” It’s a beautifully sad song, which this compilation has shown is something Adams does about as well as anyone.
MM 30 at 30: Ryan Adams tracklist (finalized May 22, 2014)
1. Come Pick Me Up
4. My Winding Wheel
5. Answering Bell
6. Lucky Now
7. I Taught Myself How to Grow Old
9. To Be Young
10. Wish You Were Here
11. Note to Self: Don’t Die
12. So Alive
14. The Sun Also Sets
15. Touch, Feel, & Lose
16. Oh My Sweet Carolina
17. Please Do Not Let Me Go
18. Crossed Out Name
20. Somehow, Someday
21. The Shadowlands