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Ranking: Every Ryan Adams Album From Worst to Best

The unpredictable journey from being young, sad, and high to being a prisoner of love

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    I’m not the first person to compare Ryan Adams to Neil Young (hi, Stephen King!), and I certainly won’t be the last. It’s not that their voices or personalities are all that similar — where Adams has an eccentric silliness to him, Young is just plain eccentric — or that they even appreciate the same music — Young has a genuine love for country; Adams hates the stuff, despite having recorded an endless amount of it. But their careers are astoundingly twin-like. Both found success in roots music and recorded some of their best work with a reliable, shaggy-dog backing band, only to alienate some of their stuffier fan base with a string of genre experiments. Critics have since warmed up to Young’s forays into jazz and rockabilly, but many still wince at Adams’ stab at metal, including us.

    So, let’s do this. Give our rankings of all his proper studio full-lengths a read, and then come back to it in 10 years to see what’s changed. Young has decades over Adams, enough time for the public to view his time in the ditch and beyond as the mark of an artist who follows nothing except his heart. And I think everyone will eventually view Adams the same way. In fact, maybe we’ve already started to. (Just look at the grades we gave 2015’s batch of Taylor Swift covers and his latest release, Prisoner.) One thing’s for certain, though: Regardless of how you feel (or will feel) about his career as a whole, you can’t deny that it’s been interesting, which makes his albums irresistible to rank. So, here they are: Ryan Adams’ studio albums, from worst to best.

    –Dan Caffrey
    Senior Staff Writer

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    16. Orion (2010)

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    Just like 1984 isn’t quite hardcore, Orion isn’t quite metal. No matter the genre, Adams’ hooks will always be sugary, a trait that suits a 13-minute sorta punk record better than a 30-minute concept album that tries to emulate the thrash of Vovoid. Adams never commits to his sci-fi theme — nor his heavier arrangements — in the way that a band like, say, Mastodon, does, making the whole thing more of an interesting experiment than a substantial work of music. –Dan Caffrey


    15. Cardinology (2008)

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    If only Cardinology had been an EP. Adams, his voice clearer than ever after over a year of sobriety, laid down some of his best and most succinct work on the last album (chronologically speaking) with his backing band, from the urban contemplation of “Crossed Out Name” to the nonsensical junk pop of “Magick”. Sadly, much of the rest is pure filler — not bad, but paling in comparison to even some of his roughest bootlegs. Cut out the yawningly acoustic back half of “Natural Ghost”, “Sink Ships”, “Evergreen”, and “Like Yesterday” (which would take you right from “Crossed Out Name” to redemptive closer “Stop”), and you not only lessen some of Cardinology’s piecemeal nature, but you get one of Adams’ finer records. –Dan Caffrey


    14. 29 (2005)

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    Maybe releasing three albums in one year, with one of those being a sprawling double album, was just too much for Ryan Adams’ fans and critics to process, but even with nine years to fully take it in, 29 is unequivocally the weakest of his 2005 trilogy. After the success of the Grateful Dead-inspired sprawler Cold Roses and the classic country twang of Jacksonville City Nights, 29 is messy and scatterbrained, but not in the charmingly ramshackle ways that made his other albums great. Both opener “29”, with its well-trodden bluesy thump, and “Strawberry Wine”, which is elongated to a herculean eight minutes, drag on for a couple minutes too long. That’s not to say 29 doesn’t have its moments; like any offering out of Adams’ massive catalog, there’s a lot to love here. His southern howl on “Carolina Rain” is particularly strong while the punch-drunk pianos of “Night Birds” makes for a lovely atmosphere. Unfortunately, this feeds fire to the longstanding criticisms that Adams needs an editor —Josh Terry


    13. Demolition (2002)

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    Ryan Adams dismissed Demolition, his third studio album made up of demos from three of his “lost albums,” The Suicide Handbook, The Pinkheart Session, and 48 Hours, when he said, “I don’t much care for this record. The rock songs are plodding, and the quiet songs belonged to better records.” He’s not wrong to think that as MOR thumpers like “Gimme a Sign” are awkwardly sandwiched between tranquil and excellent acoustic numbers “Dear Chicago” and “Tomorrow”. However, there are lot of great songs on this record. Lead track “Nuclear” soars on shimmering slide guitars and a characteristically punchy chorus from Adams, while other songs like “Tennessee Sucks” are carried by Adams’ wit and ear for compelling full-band arrangements. It’s much easier to think of this release as a collection of singles rather than a cohesive unit. Still, it’s worth more than a few listens for even the casual Adams fan. –Josh Terry


    12. Ashes & Fire (2011)

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    It had been four years since the last “Ryan Adams album” proper by the time Ashes & Fire came out, but Adams had released several (less-than-lauded) albums in between them, including multiple Cardinals efforts and his metal exhibition Orion. Ashes is a pleasant, occasionally very good return to his singer-songwriter game (centerpiece “Do I Wait?”, especially), but a reasonably self-conscious one. “Kindness don’t ask for much but an open mind/ Kindness can cure a broken heart/ Honey, are you feeling kind?” he sings on “Kindness”, and it’s tough not to hear him angling just a little bit for listeners to go nice on him. His imagery was all danger, but Adams plays it safe here — which is not always a bad thing. –Steven Arroyo


    11. Rock n Roll (2003)

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    Middle fingers are supposed to be crude, flippant, knee-jerk gestures – not albums we still return to a decade later. At odds with his label over his vision for Love Is Hell, Adams took two weeks to crank out this more, say it Michael Douglas, “economically viable” record. Rock N Roll – even the title feels like an F-U to label suits – largely bears the stamp of its expedited origins: impromptu, scatterbrained, and excessive as all hell. Still, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that these straight-out-of-the-garage songs, for all their shortcomings, are the most fun batch Adams has ever put out. Sometimes a middle finger has some staying power. –Matt Melis


    10. III/IV (2010)

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    III/IV is Cold Roses’ more reckless twin brother. Both double albums with The Cardinals, the latter is almost exclusively concerned with deep relationships and the majesty of the south, while the former keeps its oddball roots in other dimensions and New York City, where Adams wistfully reflects on pizza, his addictions, sewer wishing wells, and searching for his Wookie in Chinatown (spoiler alert: he runs into ninjas). But what makes III/IV so enjoyable isn’t just the strange subject matter (which, to be honest, can get a little disposable at times) — it’s the musicianship. The Cardinals have never sounded tighter, with the playing on standout tracks like “Ultraviolet Light”, “Users”, and “Kill the Lights” creating the juxtaposition of a well-groomed weirdo. Think The Great Gonzo in a tuxedo or, better yet, one of his plum-colored suits. –Dan Caffrey
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    09. 1989 (2015)

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    The oft-made argument that Ryan Adams’ 1989is an improvement over Taylor Swift’s original simply because it relies on guitars and not synths is nonsense. If anything, his reinterpretation only proves how great Swift’s album is to begin with, enforcing that all 13 of its tracks transcend genre. Whether “Shake It Off” bursts through speakers as a pep-rally anthem or a haunted Springsteen meditation doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, it’s an unbeatable fucking song about working your way through negativity. The optimism may be more explicit in Swift’s version, but Adams’ whispered, more-tempered approach is also valid. It reminds us that music affects us all in different ways, even if we’re all dealing with a universal struggle such as ex-lovers (“All You Had to Do Was Stay”), ex-friends (“Bad Blood”), or ex-lifestyles (“I Know Places”). That makes Adams’ 1989 folk music, folks. And like it or not, Swift’s 1989 makes it good folk music. —Dan Caffrey
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    08. Jacksonville City Nights (2005)

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    Adams’ second album with The Cardinals and second out of three he would release in a seven-month span in 2005, Jacksonville City Nights is the closest the prolific singer songwriter ever got to a full-on country record. Where Adams has always fallen under the alt-country designation, despite experimenting with Strokes-like swagger rock on Rock N Roll and moody Smiths-inspired alt-rock on Love Is Hell, this album is pure, rustic twang. Despite the pretty much seamless transition to golden roots music with pedal-steels on every track, sometimes the songs can register as failed experiments, like “Dear John”, the ill-advised duet with Norah Jones, which finds both vocalists at their worst. Even with the occasional misstep, Adams deftly channels the ‘70s Nashville sound and updates it with his strong songwriting. Woozy barroom-based heartbreak anthems like “My Love Is Gone”, “A Kiss Before I Go”, and “The Hardest Part” further prove that Adams can wear as many musical hats as he damn well pleases. –Josh Terry


    07. Ryan Adams (2014)

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    Even some of Ryan Adams’ most dedicated fans have dismissed his self-titled album as too simple, too direct, too brooding. But that’s exactly what makes it such a distinct minor masterpiece in his catalog. Unlike 29, Cardinology, and other scattershot works, Ryan Adams adheres to discernible minimalism, almost stubbornly. More or less free of crescendos and abrupt shifts in tone, each song locks into a mood and sticks with it. “Shadows” gets by with little more than guitar and hesitant drum palpitations while more rollicking tunes like “Gimme Something Good” and “Feels Like Fire” surf on Benmont Tench’s adrenalized organ textures. Ryan Adams is like Tom Petty in that way here, his power-pop simplicity blown open by a group of ace musicians and an unwavering commitment to atmosphere over experimentation. Couple that with the fact that he may have been writing about his marriage ending (his ex-wife Mandy Moore even lends backing vocals to two tracks), and Ryan Adams might be more complex than it initially seemed. —Dan Caffrey


    06. Gold (2001)

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    Gold, as it turns out, ended up going gold and acted like a musical olive branch to the masses, who, sadly, probably wouldn’t last through a more subdued, ruminating album like Heartbreaker. From those opening strums of “New York, New York” (which, entirely unplanned of course, became a love song to the city in the wake of 9/11), Adams made it clear that you’d be able to “shake that thing” some while listening to this record. It’s a tightrope walk to be sure, but he finds a neat balance between jubilant, country-flavored rock (“Firecracker”), sing-along-worthy ballads (“When the Stars Go Blue”), and quieter pondering (“La Cienega Just Smiled”). There’s more album here than there needs to be – and Adams had intended on even more but ran into label squabbles – but that can be said about most Ryan Adams records. Adams, in his own words, set out to “invent a modern classic.” He may have fallen a bit short of that aspiration, but there’s certainly something here for everybody. –Matt Melis


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