In September, Ryan Adams released a cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album that created lots of heated discussion in the music world. Some saw it as a bold re-imagining of Swift’s album, while others saw as a mopey dude ruining all the fun. But whatever you felt about the album, it certainly earned Adams a lot of publicity, and plenty of new fans. Of course, Adams was making noteworthy music long before this, but it was rarely mentioned in the pop world. So, if you’re curious about Adams’ discography after hearing his take on 1989, here’s some killer songs to get you started.
“Houses on the Hill”
Before embarking on a successful solo career, Adams fronted the legendary alt-country group Whiskeytown. This band could practically do no wrong, and I’d recommend any of their songs, but “Houses on the Hill,” in particular, is one of their most beautiful ballads. If you’re looking for an intro to Adams, or the entire alt-country movement, this song, and the entire Stranger’s Almanac album would be an excellent place to start.
“To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”
The first track of Adams’ first solo album, Heartbreaker, this is an ode to lost love that is alternately bitter, wistful, and surprisingly rocking. Adams’ gnarled delivery of “I got high-igh-igh!” is both effective and hilarious. This has deservedly become one of Adams’ most beloved songs. Also, you get the amusing introduction where Adams and David Rawlings argue about whether or not Morrissey’s “Suedehead” was on Viva Hate, as well as Bona Drag (it was).
“New York, New York”
Before the attention his take on 1989 gave him, the closest Adams came to the mainstream was in 2001, when his Gold album was released, and quite quickly gained a following. As with many of Adams’ early works, there’s no truly bad racks here, but the opening “New York, New York” definitely gets things started on the right track. It’s a cheerful, brisk-paced ode to the Big Apple, and it ranks as one of the more upbeat songs Adams made at this point in his career.
With 2003’s Rock n Roll, Adams looked to get away from his alt-country roots, and… well… rock ‘n roll. The album received mixed reviews, and was not his most consistent effort, but the anthemic “So Alive” is one of the best songs he’s ever written. From its soaring chorus, to its awesome guitar tone, everything here just works so well, as we lead up to the final climax of “I’m so aliiiiiiiiiiiiivvvvveeeeeee!” This is the song that U2 has been trying to write ever since All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
Adams’ stunning take on the classic Oasis tune is as a good of a cover as you’ll ever hear, and a perfect example of an artist redefining a song in their own image. Interestingly, the arrangement actually doesn’t differ too much from the original; what changes it is Adams’ delivery. His inflections give the song a far darker tone than those of Liam Gallagher. The original version might have been a fun singalong, but Adams’ rendition sounds more like a severe warning.
I don’t totally understand what it means to have a “Halloween head,” but based on this song, it can’t be an especially positive experience. In this song, from Adams’ 2007 album Easy Tiger, he talks about being frustrated and restless, in one of those kind of moods where you want to do something crazy just because you’re bored. This clever, evocative song is a fine example of Adams’ considerable skills as a lyricist.
Adams is not shy about experimenting, and that was never more true than on his 2010 metal concept album Orion, which was only released on the internet. This isn’t Adams’ best album, but it is interesting, and it shows how much he’s willing throw himself into whatever he’s doing, even if it’s far beyond his comfort zone. This particular track is a pretty solid headbanger, although there are a few weird noises in the background that are difficult to make much sense of. Oh well, all part of his Heavy Metal Vision.
“Gimme Something Good”
On 2014’s self-titled effort, Adams combined his country beginnings with a rock edge, and the result was one of his most focused, consistent efforts. The single “Gimme Something Good” was as close to a quintessential Ryan Adams song as you can get, as he sings of the frustration and dissatisfaction that has marked so many of his best songs. The organ gives this song an extra chilling effect, and adds gravitas to Adams’ brooding lyrics.