I have friends who will kill me over these rankings, but I gave this a shot with Tom Petty’s albums so why not for another of my all-time favorites, Mr. Feelings himself, Ryan Adams. I’m loving his new album Prisoner, so I decided to test myself and see where it ranked on my own list of his albums. I should note this list does NOT include any of his compilations or live albums, none of his Whiskeytown stuff, or any of his many singles, bootlegs, unreleased tracks and albums, or side projects. Just Ryan Adams studio albums and his longer EPs.
I’d also like to say there’s only one album listed that I don’t like to some degree, so yeah, I’m pretty biased and this was ridiculously hard. Ok, let’s get in there.
18. Orion (2010)
This one is a bit of an outlier album because it’s his only attempt at sci-fi metal/punk. As you can imagine, it’s not the genre for which he’s known, but like a handful of his other albums, it’s a tribute to one of his musical inspirations, specifically the band Voivod. It’s fast, it’s loud, it’s Adams screaming scratchy vocals over a frenetic robotic space opera. It’s exactly what you think it sounds like too—an acquired taste of an album that he made for himself above all else. Which is fine. But it ranks dead last for me.
Favorite tracks: “Ariel”
17. 1984 (2014)
It feels wrong to place this so low because it’s a kick-ass little project. It’s another one-off paying tribute to the 80s garage punk rock, and this time it’s Husker Du that gets the nod. It definitely has some outstanding tracks, but after a few spins you start to miss his more intricate, detailed songs when he’s taking his time breaking your heart rather than thrashing his way through a quick 18 minute set. Fun, fast, and contains a few of the best one-minute songs ever belted out, but that’s about it.
Favorite tracks: “Change Your Mind”, “Rats in the Wall”, “Wolves”
16. III/IV (2010)
When this album hit I was excited to have SO much new music from DRA, a full double album of mostly upbeat, guitar-driven rock-and-roll songs, the first time Adams had stayed so consistently charged in a whole album since Rock N Roll. Made during a contentious period with his record label, you can tell he’s playing some escapist rock here, nerding out and having fun in the studio and doing any damn thing that comes to mind. But none of it feels very deep, and after a while a lot of the tracks start to sound the same. It’s a fun record to pop in now and again, but overall this barrage of songs doesn’t stand a chance against his better albums.
Favorite tracks: “P.S.”, “Wasteland”, “Ultraviolet Light”
15. Cardinology (2008)
I was obsessed with this album when it came out, and then I didn’t listen to it for almost 4-5 years. And when I finally picked it up again it felt far less inspired than I remembered. And when I play it now it feels a little hollow, like Ryan was writing the songs while searching for some sort of theme to come to the fore that never quite does. It came out after a breakup but it isn’t a breakup album. It’s not an album where he “found himself” either. It’s…just an album. Still, there’s an interesting balance here between yearning hopefulness (“Born into a Light”) and mournful wandering (“Crossed Out Name” and “Stop”) that creates a sort of yin-yang of music that blends well throughout but never rises into greatness.
Favorite Tracks: “Fix It”, “Magick”, “Go Easy”, “Evergreen”
14. 1989 (2015)
Yes, yessss, let the hate flow through you. Adams took a shit ton of flak for re-recording Taylor Swift’s entire album, and the critics have some points to make. The production value feels too echoey and murky, and some of the acoustic re-imaginings of Swift’s upbeat pop hits feel really goddamn depressing, and not in the beautiful way his other albums were able to pull off. Still, the more driving and upbeat songs here really work for me. If he’d written “Style” and “Bad Blood” people would be shitting themselves over this album, but hey, maybe I’m the only one who feels that way. I can live with that. Oh yeah, and I love his Springsteen-esque take on “Shake It Off”. But an album that is half fun and half dirge does not a great album make, so this one lands right about here on my list.
Favorite Tracks: “Bad Blood”, “Shake It Off”, “Style”, “All You Had To Do Was Stay”
13. Demolition (2002)
This is an album Adams never wanted to release because his record company pieces it together by taking tracks from a handful of his unreleased albums, so the production style and emotional depth varies noticeably throughout. Still, there are some really excellent songs here, with “Desire” and “Hallelujah” being huge standouts in my opinion. In retrospect, I hope someone at the record company realizes that the songs deserved to stay with their original collections, but despite that Demolition is worth owning, faults and all.
Favorite tracks: “Desire”, “Nuclear”, “Hallelujah”, “You Will Always Be The Same”
12. Easy Tiger (2007)
Placing this one so low warrants some death threats, I know, but I was never able to find a powerful connection with this album. I had just started listening to Adams in earnest the year before this came out and I was still entranced by his earlier albums, so this one hit and faded from my own rotation. I never felt Easy Tiger had a real strong identity, and even Adams has been quoted as saying the songs were written peripherally while he focused on other projects. But there’s still a nice batch of heartfelt tracks here, and who can turn down a Halloween-themed rocker like “Halloweenhead”? I’m probably wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time, but 12th place feels right for this list.
Favorite tracks: “Everybody Knows”, “Off Broadway”, “Halloweenhead”, “These Girls”
11. Follow The Lights (2007)
My only real regret with this EP was that it wasn’t a full-length release. Every track has something fresh and wonderful going for it, even the acoustic covers of his own songs. The Alice in Chains track is incredible, and the re-recording of “Dear John” is far superior to the original on Jacksonville City Nights. But, alas, it’s just 7 tracks. It was released alongside Easy Tiger, but this one feels far more cohesive and genuine to me. I have always been delighted when tracks from this one appear in a random iPod shuffle.
Favorite Tracks: “Down In A Hole”, “Dear John”, “My Love For You is Real”
10. 29 (2005)
Ah, we enter the top ten quietly with this subdued and overlooked gem of an album. The songwriting is spectacular, and Adams sticks mostly to soft, whispered piano ballads, mixing in some acoustic stories of truckers and waitresses, night birds and lost loves, each tale haunting and heartbreaking and as a whole stands out as his best “I don’t hear a single” album. It’s just a seamless collection of songs that calms and enchants with ease.
Favorite Tracks: “Nightbirds”, “Carolina Rain”, “Blue Sky Blues”
9. Ashes & Fire (2011)
This came out after I’d lived in NYC for about a year and I still connect these songs with walking to the subway in Astoria and Greenpoint in the wintertime. And they still break me in the worst places when I get nostalgic for that easy exciting time in my life. It’s another of his lower-key albums along the lines of Heartbreaker and 29, lots of pianos and acoustic numbers, but the soul of the album has a strong undercurrent of love and wonderment, and the band is really tight, and even features Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s band The Heartbreakers. All in all a solid and genuine album full of nostalgic feelings that really strike deep.
Favorite Tracks: “Dirty Rain”, “Lucky Now”, “Come Home”
8. Rock N Roll (2003)
Ryan has called his album “fun as fuck”, and he’s right. This album jumps around from jangle-punk to feedback-heavy garage rock and blasts through every track with a “fuck yeah” attitude. Some felt it was a castaway fad album, but this one has aged really well and retains a surprising emotional depth hidden beneath the thrashing and growling. It was an album he quickly made in order for the record company to agree to release the far more complex double-album Love Is Hell, so for an album that almost never was, Adams kind of struck gold here.
Favorite Tracks: “Do Miss America”, “Note To Self: Don’t Die”, “So Alive”, “1974”
7. Jacksonville City Nights (2005)
And here Adams takes yet another complete about-face in style and makes a Whiskeytown throwback album with steel guitar on nearly every track. And like Follow the Lights, it was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs. The genuine quality and craftsmanship shows through. Whether he gets a little hokey with the honky-tonk twang or downright tear-inducing with tracks like “September” (the saddest song I’ve ever heard and legitimately chokes me up every time), these tracks all harken back to Adams’ roots and his hometown, proving he can do country, punk, covers, piano ballads, damn near anything he wants. Yeah, even sci-fi metal albums. This one is a must-own for any Adams fan.
Favorite Tracks: “The Hardest Part”, “September”, “Withering Heights”, “A Kiss Before I Go”
6. Prisoner (2017)
I wonder how I’ll feel about placing this album here in a few years, because even now it feels a little too low in the list. I’m really loving this one right now. Prisoner was delayed a few months and hearing it now makes me wish it came out last autumn, when things weren’t so easy in the heartland for yours truly. It’s a hell of a breakup album and really keeps that thread throughout without becoming too woeful. The songs are intricately pieced together and the production value is through the roof. Adams has become an A+ studio rat and it shows with these polish and beautiful songs. Some have a distinct 1980s Springsteen/Hornsby vibe to them, but by the end it’s all Adams and his ability to make a song both sad and addictive at once. A damn fine album.
Favorite Tracks: “Outbound Train”, “Doomsday”, “Do You Still Love Me?”, “Haunted House”
5. Ryan Adams (2014)
This one gets the slight nod over Prisoner despite being similar albums, both leading off with a rock track before slipping into a mix of acoustic and mid-tempo burners exploring the darker side of failed love and the struggle to move on. I do feel this one has a better “pop sensibility” to it than Prisoner, and by that I mean I keep coming back to this album because it’s so catchy in so many different ways. It’s almost like “rock noir” at times, with Adams’ prowling guitar and vocals played through black and white blinds in “I Just Might” and stalking us through the night in “Shadows”. But “Gimme Something Good” is so quintessential Tom Petty that it remains my favorite Adams track—not the deepest song by any stretch, but the most fun to blast at top volume in the car.
Favorite Tracks: “Gimme Something Good”, “Trouble”, “Kim”, “I Just Might”
4. Love Is Hell (2004)
I wish I had this album when it came out because I was going through one hell of a breakup and this one would have helped a lot. Or made it much worse, who knows. Regardless, I remain obsessed with this one, as well as all the extra tracks that didn’t make the initial cut of this double-album. There’s enough variation between haunting melancholia (“The Shadowlands”) and jangling guitar pop (“Anybody Wanna take Me Home”) to keep the album interesting throughout, even while exploring the depths of sadness. Many are aware of Adams’ dynamite cover of the Oasis hit “Wonderwall” but that is really only the tip of the iceberg here. The album is full of stylistic exploration and remains a massive statement about the complexities of love and loss and how to move through it all.
Favorite Tracks: “Love is Hell”, “Hotel Chelsea Nights”, “I See Monsters”, “This House Is Not For Sale”
3. Heartbreaker (2000)
3rd? How dare I? Yes, it might be his best, but damn Sam, this is one heavy set. Adams’ best work comes hand-in-hand with his most painful transitions in life, and here we get another gorgeous breakup album in Heartbreaker. Almost exclusively somber save for two rollicking songs bookending the heart of the album, this might be his tightest set of woe in his entire catalog. Nobody but Adams can make sad song sound so goddamn good. Again, there isn’t a stitch of filler here as Adams explores every corner and alleyway of heartache and loneliness. While some call it his best (it very well might be) it’s not something I can visit too often, so 3rd feels right to me.
Favorite Tracks: “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, “Come Pick Me Up”, “My Winding Wheel”, “Damn Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)”
2. Gold (2001)
Released just after 9/11, and following the much-heralded Heartbreaker, Gold was another critical win for Adams, who said he really tried to prove something with this album. It shows. It was supposed to be a double album, but as it is it’s stuffed with well-produced songs that span multiple styles, from the aching softness of “Sylvia Plath” to the hook-laden Americana of “New York, New York” and “Firecracker”. Adams sounds energetic and determined here, and every song offers something unique and fresh with almost no filler to be found. This is the album I tell people to get for a solid introduction. From here you can go anywhere in his discography, because here is where you get a little bit of everything, and it’s all solid. An aptly-titled album.
Favorite Tracks: “Firecracker”, “New York, New York”, “When the Stars Go Blue”, “The Rescue Blues”
1. Cold Roses (2005)
It’s his first album with the Cardinals and the first Adams album I ever heard, and it remains, in my mind, his absolute best. Inspired by Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead, the rolling collecting of songs is hard to place under one stylistic label. Part rock, part country, part jam, part folk—whatever you want to call it, it was a fresh breath of air for Adams at that point in his career—a matter of the right players and the right songs finding each other at the right time. The first half takes a page from Heartbreaker and seems to move through the empty rooms of heartache, but there’s a little more complexity and exploration here, and that really picks up in the second set where the band finds its legs and runs through spirited tracks like “Let It Ride”, “Dance All Night”, and “If I Am a Stranger”. Adams isn’t content to tell you about the pain. We see him stand up, part the curtains, and head back out into the streets, cry out at the all beauty left in life. It’s an achievement of coming full circle. And I think that’s why this one, more than the others, really stands out as his finest album to date.
Favorite Tracks: “Sweet Illusions”, “When Will You Come Back Home”, “Let It Ride”, “Cold Roses”, “Life is Beautiful”