The 5 Best Unreleased Ryan Adams Songs

Considering how prolific and unfettered the man is, it’s kind of suprising that there are any songs Ryan Adams hasn’t released.  Even in semi-retirement, he still managed to release the double album III/IV, recorded with his Cardinals cohorts, a true clearing house collection if ever there was one (there’s a couple of winners on there, but I’ve probably only listened to the whole thing all the way through twice).

The man writes in his sleep, though, so there seems to be a never ending stream of unreleased material, as you can see here (the list is old, so some may have been officially released since).  A lot of those songs have made an appearance in concert a few times, but probably plenty of them are classic Ryan clunkers, maybe a nice idea that just never came together.

Still, if you know where to look, you can actually find legitimate recordings of some excellent unreleased songs.  Albums worth of music were recorded in the early years of his solo career, including 48 Hours and The Suicide Handbook (actually a double album), but were never released.  A few of the songs on those albums were later cannibalized and re-recorded for other official releases.  But most of the songs never got a proper release, and that’s a shame because some of Ryan’s finest songs are in the bunch.

Here are my pick for the top 5 unreleased songs in Ryan Adam’s vast stable.  Here’s hoping he gets around to pulling them out for official release.

Song: “Memories of You” – Unofficial Appearance: Destroyer

I have this recording in my collection.  It sounds like it’s probably a live performance, but it could have just been an intentional low-fi recording (à la “What The Devil Wanted“).  Either way makes sense.  As is, it sounds like a Whiskeytown b-side, but add a little harmonica in there and this would have been a wonderful addition to the already near perfection that is Heartbreaker.

Song: “Walls” – Unofficial Appearance: 48 Hours

Ryan has never sounded more country.  And I don’t mean alt-country.  I just mean country.  And that, it turns out, is a great thing.  Twangy, melancholy and melodic, this is why country music used to be the genre that ‘real men’ listened to, before it became  a force of pop sheen and jingoistic propaganda.

Forget all that, and just listen.  The backing vocals remind me of the best appearances by the Cardinals, which were always about accenting Ryan’s worn but still entrancing voice.  If you love Ryan’s Whiskeytown output or his most countrified moments with the Cardinals, this is the hidden gem you need to have in your library.

Song: “Idiots Rule The World” – Unofficial Appearance: The Suicide Handbook

Certainly not treading any new ground, “Idiots” details Ryan’s longing for a girl he’s lost.  The thing is, no one writes these kinds of songs better than Ryan, so I’ll gladly take as many as he wants to put out.  This is a bit of a strange one from him, though, as it actually sounds like an outtake from Love Is Hell era Ryan, which could be thought of as a dig, but isn’t.  At his best, it doesn’t matter what style of music he’s playing because the underlying song works in any genre.

The canned drum shuffling in the background is a bit odd, but I love the guitar work in this song and, let’s face it:  That’s a great title.

Song: “Angelina” – Unofficial Appearance: 48 Hours

Oh, that harmonica.  I’m not sure if Ryan gets just how great a weapon that is in his arsenal, but it pretty much automatically makes every song at least 25% better, and here it does not let down.  As much as I enjoy Ryan when he’s all broken up about a girl, there’s something special when he mixes in a little more cocky bitterness.  This Angelina sounds like a real piece of work, and all the sexier for it.

I love the lyrics, I love the swing of the melody and I love the harmonica.  Doesn’t get much better than this from Ryan.

Song: “Karina” – Unofficial Appearance: 48 Hours

As you can see, this makes 3 songs on this list from 48 Hours.  When they make those lists of unreleased classic albums, it deserves to be on them.  I’m convinced if Ryan had released 48 Hours after Heartbreaker (instead of Gold, an album I like just fine), he would have bought himself at least a half decade of good will before the critics started turning on him.  Oh well.

On a great album, “Karina” is the heartbreaking and stunning climax, a song that (despite no harmonica) hits all the right notes and manages to feel as forlorn as anything on Heartbreaker but with a sturdy resolve that suggests the narrator of “Come Pick Me Up” is finally moving on.  I don’t know who Karina is, but I’m in love with her.

“Everytime I tell myself there’s nothing left, may I always say your name and think of you.”

Honorable mentions:

Perfect and True” off of The Suicide Handbook

Goodbye Honey” off of Making Singles, Drinking Doubles (technically this isn’t ‘unreleased’ as it appears officially on a compilation album, but it’s never been on a proper album and, well, damn, it’s just a great drunken kiss off to a girl.  With harmonica!)

Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been a bit occupied with Fan Fair, an orgy of every big name in the contemporary pop world of Country music that brought in thousands upon thousands of tourists from across the nation in order to buy boots, wear jean shorts and eat steak and spaghetti.  Oh yeah, and listen to music.

It’s been a long few days.

Country Music

As a teenager, it was simple to say I didn’t listen to country music.  It was a definitive statement, easy to defend.  I liked rock and punk and even some pop.  Country music need not apply.

But it’s harder to dismiss the genre whole hog these days.  Ryan Adams, Old 97’s, Wilco, Lucero; all acts I love that all make songs in the vein of Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons.  On the surface, Alt-Country is almost more a statement of politics than music style.  Country musicians are Republicans who hate Arabs and just want to drink beer or fall in love or both.  Alt-Country musicians are, well, not Democrats, but liberal-ish, and they hate themselves more than anyone else and drink hard liquor and split their time between Austin and New York City or Chicago and the women therein.

Those are gross simplifications, not fair or all that accurate (though, I think the Dixie Chicks can attest to the dangers of being a Pop Country act that doesn’t fly the Conservative flag).  To be honest, I’ve been having a hard time trying to explain why I can love a legitimately country ballad by Ryan Adams such as “In My Time Of Need” (as country in subject and tone as any song out there) and yet I cringe at the thought of listening to Toby Keith or Keith Urban.

The Evolution of a Genre

Part of it is how country music has evolved.  The music of Cash and Parsons (or Loretta Lynn for that matter) was filled with rebellion.  You could make a pretty strong case for a connection between truly old school country music and the punk ethos.  Obviously, country music is also rooted heavily in Christianity, too, which creates an interesting dichotomy, an internal conflict that Cash personified dramatically.

One need only listen to “The Pill” to know that country music has not always been a bastion of socially conservative family values.  In fact, country music is probably the first place women in music were allowed to espouse feminists notions of freedom and independence (music history majors, feel free to correct me).

I enjoy the rebellion of country music just as I enjoy the rebellion of punk music.  Just as I enjoyed the inherent rebellion of the Beat Generation.  Perhaps you’re sensing a pattern.  I like artists who encourage a healthy dose of status quo-questioning.

And this is, I suppose, what I dislike about so much of modern pop country music.  *Warning:  I am about to make a sweeping generalization that probably isn’t fair, and I’m okay with that.  It’s just my impression based on personal experience.*  The ‘rebellion’ in a lot of today’s country music feels fake, like a market researched version of rebellion (this is my problem with a lot of modern punk music, too).  In the heart of the Bush years, when social and political conservatism was running rampant, a lot of country musicians were writing ‘rebel’ music that seemed to imply extreme patriotism and rabid xenophobia was somehow subversive and cool.  *Here is where I point to one example, because it’s the only one that comes to mind.*  For Example.

Now, my issue with this sort of song isn’t exactly the sentiment (after 9/11, we were all in a bit of an ass-kicking mood), but rather how manipulative and manufactured it feels.  “And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.”  Really?  For a song that’s subtitled, “The Angry American,” it has less bite than a karoake version of “I Will Survive.”

(Compare that song to punk goddesses Sleater-Kinney and their post-9/11 album One Beat, specifically the angry, confused, heartbroken and terrified masterpiece, “Far Away.”)

It’s hard to take modern country music seriously as the music of rebels when it’s the biggest selling music genre in the country and it’s blaring out of the SUVs of pretty little princess-sorority girls.  Nothing against sorority girls, but they just aren’t exactly known for their aversion to authority.

Silly Love Songs

The other strain of modern country music that I just can’t relate to is the hyper-silly, overly romantic ballads.  I blame Taylor Swift.  Actually, I don’t really have a problem with Taylor.  She writes music like a teenage girl would write, and that’s what she is (or was), so I can’t fault her.  But, as she and her fans grow up, their outlook should, too.  If she’s 30 and still writing heartbroken songs about losing the boy next door (even though she’s a fucking hot blond), then someone needs to cauterize her mouth shut.  (She’d instantly be 200% more popular with men.)

(I appreciate that her “Mean” is sort of a country music, less-overtly gay version of “Born This Way“, so more power to her; still not my cup of tea.)

And so, that is my problem with modern pop country music.  It feels childish and lacks subtlety.  Alt-Country, on the other hand, seems like it’s written by adults with realistic (pessimistic) views of romance and nuanced understandings of our global environment.

Is that an unfair and biased view of the genres?  Uh, yes, obviously.  I’ve been saying so all along.

But it’s just music.  Music either affects you or it doesn’t, and for that reason, I find Whiskeytown’s “Dancing with the Women at the Bar” to be a gorgeous, emotionally honest work of art, whereas Keith Urban’s “Without You” is sweet but entirely uninteresting to me.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, I like country music.

Just depends who you mean.