Ryan Adams has a lot of records. Some say too many.
The notoriously prolific alt-country troubadour has befuddled critics and listeners alike with his unchecked output since his 2000 solo debut, and it's gone on unabated ever since. Adams released three studio albums in 2005. No one knows why. No one asked him to. He just did it. His record label let it happen. Weird, huh?
Still, Adams is an indisputably gifted songwriter and his voluminous (albeit intimidating) catalog is worthy of your time. So, ahead of his two shows at the Palace Theatre this weekend, we assembled a comprehensive ranking of 14 Adams studio albums, omitting only his metal album, Orion, and his version of Taylor Swift's 1989.
14. Cardinology (2007)
For most Adams diehards, it's almost as if Cardinology never happened. And if his recent concert set lists are evidence of anything, Adams would like to keep it that way.
Highlight tracks: “Like Yesterday,” “Let Us Down Easy.”
Mood/tone: Laid back, listless.
13. Rock ’N’ Roll (2003)
Rock ’n’ Roll has been called a flat-out terrible album, and maybe it’s supposed to be a flat-out terrible album. After all, Adams recorded it in just two weeks after his label, Lost Highway, refused to release Love is Hell. Its scattershot production and flippant lyrical content (see “Note To Self: Don’t Die”) makes it feel like a middle finger to an industry eager to make him a star. With guest vocals from Billie Joe Armstrong and Parker Posey, and an inexplicable U2 impression on “So Alive,” Rock 'n' Roll has its moments. But moments are all they are.
Highlight tracks: “Wish You Were Here,” “Burning Photographs,” “Rock 'n' Roll.”
Mood: Defiant, brash, unfocused.
12. III/IV (2010)
I have no idea why Adams released this three years after he recorded it, but goddamn can he write some good rock songs when he tries.
Highlight tracks: "No," "Wasteland."
Mood/tone: Swaggering, crisply produced.
11. Ashes & Fire (2011)
Quite possibly Adams’ most inoffensive record to date.
Highlight Tracks: “Ashes & Fire,” “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say.”
Mood: Wistful, reflective.
10. 29 (2005)
One of Adams' three 2005 albums. Maybe the same sort of manic energy that makes an artist so prolific is also also keeps them from making wise professional decisions. 29 is a grim meditation on the songwriter’s 20’s, with each track representing a different year. Some truly beautiful verses sprinkled about but the bulk of the songs sound like they belong on a b-sides disc.
Highlight tracks: “Strawberry Wine,” “Carolina Rain,” “Blue Sky Blues.”
Mood: Brooding, casually suicidal, like the bastard child of Love is Hell.
9. Gold (2001)
The combination of high expectations and artistic ambition can make a major label debut a dicey matter. Following praise from Elton John and Bono, Adams released Gold, a mixed bag. A marked departure from the homespun melancholy of Heartbreaker, it wasn’t a failure by any measure. Though a little rosy and on the nose, it’s early evidence of Adams’ uncanny penchant for fusing folk-rock instincts and radio-ready pop rock. It just misses the mark of being essential.
Highlight tracks: “Rescue Blues,” “Wild Flowers,” “When The Stars Go Blue.”
Mood/tone: Commercially viable, uncharacteristically sprightly.
8. Jacksonville City Nights (2005)
As close you'll get to another Whiskytown record. While it pales in comparison to its counterpart, Cold Roses, it's chockfull of rollicking tunes Adams still revisits in concert every now and again. Norah Jones even shows up at one point.
Highlight tracks: “Dear John,” “A Kiss Before I Go.”
Mood/tone: Jubilant, freewheelin'.
7. Easy Tiger (2007)
The obligatory sobriety record can often reek of pretension and performative enlightenment. On Easy Tiger, Adams deftly dodges cliché and delivers a polished, return-to-form slab of earnest folk rock. It ain’t great, but it ain’t bad. It’s just good. And that’s just fine.
Highlight tracks: “These Girls” “Two” “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old.”
Mood/tone: Optimistic, like Neil Young at his least self-serious.
6. Ryan Adams (2014)
In retrospect, this feels like a precursor to Prisoner. Adams doesn't really try to reinvent himself but he certainly seemed to have reach a maturation point, both sonically and personally.
Highlight tracks: “Kim,” “I Just Might,” “Stay With Me.”
Mood/tone: Somber, confessional.
5. Demolition (2002)
At once a severely underrated record and a half-assed one, Demolition contains some of the songwriter’s most emotionally resonant moments and has aged better than most of its counterparts.
Highlight tracks: “Tomorrow” “Starting to Hurt” “Tennessee Sucks.”
Mood/tone: Melancholy, mellow, like if Kurt Cobain wrote a folk rock album but still wanted to get airplay on Cities 97.
4. Prisoner (2017)
Adams' latest record is his best in years. Written after parting ways with his wife, Mandy Moore, Prisoner repurposes some of the radio rock sensibilities left over from Adams' Demolition days and creates some of the most personal and profound work of his career.
Highlight tracks: “Doomsday,” “Tightrope.”
Mood: Sentimental, Definitive Breakup Album, Adams doing his best and also his worst Springsteen impression.
3. Love is Hell (2004)
This was supposed to be Adams’ Big Sad Masterpiece, but Adams’ label thought it was too bleak, so they released it in two installments. No wonder. It was recorded at the height of his well-publicized substance abuse. Adams’ girlfriend Carrie Hamilton had died of cancer in 2002, and he's confessed he’d been shooting speedballs in Abbey Road Studios between recording sessions. But for all the aggressive gloom and doom, a lot of Adams’ smattering brilliance finally becomes fully realized on this record. That it even exists is something of a minor miracle.
Highlight tracks: “Hotel Chelsea Nights,” “Anybody Want To Take Me Home,” “Please Do Not Let Me Go.”
Mood/tone: Horrifically bleak, nihilistic.
2. Heartbreaker (2000)
The songs here were written in the midst of Whiskytown’s dissolution, and Adams launches his solo career with something to prove. He was successful too. Widely considered the high water mark of Adams’ catalog, it’s a classically executed country record that convinced listeners that the freshly impish Adams was a Serious Singer-Songwriter ready to be taken Very Seriously.
Highlight tracks: “Why Do They Leave?” “Come Pick Me Up,” “Sweet Lil’ Gal (23rd/1st).”
Mood/tone: Wistful, exuberant, what you listen to when you’re 19 and just watched Almost Famous for the first time.
1. Cold Roses (2005)
A tour de force of emotive roots rock that finally channels all of Adams’ spotty brilliance into a cohesive whole. It’s the second album he released with his now-defunct group the Cardinals in 2005 and it's as close to a perfect Adams record as you’ll find. If you were on the fence with him, this could tip you over.
Highlight tracks: “Beautiful Sorta,” “Sweet Illusions,” “Now That You’re Gone”
Mood/tone: Plaintive, romantic, like if Adams had cut a record with the '70s Grateful Dead.