10 Songs To Introduce You To…Guided By Voices

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There are a few people who will tell you that Guided By Voices is the greatest band of all time.

Now they’ll probably tell you that The Beatles or The Rolling Stones are the greatest band of all time – because that’s the answer you’re supposed to give – but they’ll tell you, after a few drinks, that no band means more to them than that band from Dayton, Ohio made up of thirtysomethings who recorded most of their albums on 4-tracks. They’ll also tell you that band leader and main songwriter Robert Pollard is the greatest songwriter of a generation, a man who was Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ray Davis, and Michael Stipe all in one who could write minute-long buzzy guitar anthems that could change your life if you were 12 or 42 years old. Their classic album Bee Thousand is considered one of the definitive albums of lo-fi. Some of their fans include PJ Harvey, Radiohead, R.E.M., The Strokes, U2, and a good portion of 90s teenagers.

And yes, they’re actually that good.

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GBV are a beloved band because, other than their great music, they took a very atypical path to fame. They’re made up of a bunch of buddies who loved music (and drinking) and recorded songs that they wanted to make for themselves. Yes, this sounds like every other band ever formed, but while every other band ever formed either compromised or broke up after the strains of failure or the pressures of success, GBV never compromised; in 2014 they still sound as noisy and great as they did in the late 80s.

They took inspiration from widely different genres – from jangle pop to fuzzy post-punk to British Invasion to prog rock – and crammed them all into songs about Tractor Rape Chains, Teenage FBIs, Salty Salutes, and other strange things that meant everything and nothing at the same time. Their song titles sound more like jokes than works of art, but the punch line is that these are some of the best rock songs of the 90s.

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GBV was also never intended to become anything more than just a hobby. Everyone in the band was in their 30s and had careers and families of their own – Pollard was a 4th grade teacher until Bee Thousand. For the first few years the band never played outside of Dayton and the early records were just handed out to close friends. Even when success and fame did find them, they still acted (and sounded) like a bunch of drinking buddies who accidentally became rock stars. Even if there was always drama and tension between Pollard and the ever-changing lineup (over 40 musicians have come and gone through GBV) the band managed to carry on through over twenty years of success, failure, and indifference.

GBV was also proof that you didn’t have just a short window of time to create something beautiful and meaningful and that you didn’t need to give up your life for the sake of art – Pollard was 37 years old when Bee Thousand was released. With cheap recording techniques, the band proved that you didn’t need fancy equipment to sound incredible. And even when the band traded in their 4-tracks for higher quality studios, they never compromised their core sound. They are one of the few bands who managed to gain massive success without compromising or selling out, and for that they are an essential band to hear.

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From 1987 to 2014 they recorded over 20 (!) studio albums and countless EPs and bootlegs and none of them are really that bad, making their discography one of the most prolific and impressive runs of any rock band. However, it can be intimidating trying to navigate through all that music, which is why many people just stick to Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, the only two GBV albums that are universally praised by indie-snobs and diehard fans alike. Those two albums are indeed their best, but there are so many more great songs that go unheard of that are stuck in weaker albums.

That’s where I come in. This is not the definitive list of GBV’s best songs, but it’s a place for newbies to start.

 

1) “Captain’s Dead”

GBV’s story began sometime around 1987 with the release of their first LP Devil Between My Toes. It’s not a great album, but Pollard and the gang had already figured out that their songs were going to be short, loud, and to the point (though “A Portrait Destroyed By Fire” is a whopping 5-minutes long), and, though it doesn’t necessarily sound lo-fi, it’s lo-fi in spirit. A band has to start somewhere, but GBV were already heading somewhere promising.

 

2) “Long Distance Man”

There are two types of GBV songs: short loud songs that are awesome and short acoustic songs that are awesome. Off GBV’s second album Sandbox, this is my favorite of the acoustic songs. For a whole minute we get to hear the kind of Rubber Soul inspired harmonies and thumbing acoustics that make it sound like a Beatles song.

 

3) “Exit Flagger”

1992’s Propeller was the first album of the GBV classic lineup, which consisted of Pollard and some other people I don’t know (this is a joke because it’s easy to think of GBV as the Robert Pollard show – the classic lineup consisted of Pollard, Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell on guitars, Greg Demos on bass, and Kevin Fennell on drums). You can immediately hear the improvements – “Exit Flagger” is leaner and catcher than many of their songs up to that point – as GBV are slowly coming into their own. This is also when the band started to become more famous outside of their hometown Dayton and began attracting a larger audience. This was supposed to be the band’s last album, but instead it was the first of many classic albums.

 

4) “Hardcore UFO’s”

If there’s one GBV album you’ve already heard of (or think you’ve heard of) it’s Bee Thousand. It’s their best album, and it went on to become the band’s breakthrough and one of the most beloved albums of the decade (you know your album is ok when Rolling Stone calls it one of the greatest albums of the 90s).

“Hardcore UFO’s” is one of the most unusual opening tracks of any rock record. It sounds like it starts in mid-track, as if by accident, and the guitars are clashing but in a strange way that makes you want to tune in and hear how they resolve. The song, like the album, sounds “off” in the best way possible. And what the hell is a Hardcore UFO? I don’t think anyone, including Pollard, actually knows, but that’s the beauty of this song and of this band; you don’t need ultra clarity to speak something universal and make people feel emotion.

Now individually many of these songs might not seem special, but the whole album is something to appreciate in its entirety, with all its strengths and weaknesses. “Hardcore UFO’s” is only the beginning of something truly special – listen to whole album.

 

 

5) “Game Of Pricks”

Bee Thousand is the stronger album, but Alien Lanes showcases the best of GBV. Twenty-eight songs clocking in just over 40 minutes, with only 6 of those songs going over the 2 minute mark, and most of them range from “meh, this is pretty good” to “Oh my God if The Who and The Kinks had a baby it would be ‘Game Of Pricks’ this song is amazing”. There are many forgettable moments, but some of the band’s best songs – “A Salty Salute”, “A Good Flying Bird”, “Motor Away”, “My Valuable Hunting Knife” – are all present here. Again, another album that must be heard in its entirety.

 

6) “I Am A Tree”

1997’s Mag Earwhig! was the transition record from the short lo-fi songs of the classic lineup to the long hi-fi songs of a new lineup. It was essentially a new band (Pollard pretty much fired everyone and hired Cleveland punk band Cobra Verde to back up his songs), but Pollard still wrote some brilliant tunes, and “I Am A Tree” (actually written by new guitarist Doug Gillard) is proof that hi-fi doesn’t necessarily mean a song is less authentic. This is also probably one of the few GBV songs that could have been on Guitar Hero.

 

7) “Hold On Hope”

This is actually the first GBV song I ever heard. When I heard this song during Scrubs I had no idea who the band was, but I immediately loved the song. I don’t want to call this a sellout song, BUT if I had to pick one it would have to be this – is there another GBV song with so many clean instruments? Lyrically this is also a very straight forward song about, well, holding onto hope, which may turn off some fans of Pollard’s typically cryptic lyrics. But hey, even a sellout GBV song is still great.

 

8) “Fair Touching”

2001’s Isolation Drills is one of the better albums of GBV’s more recent albums, and surely it’s the most accessible of their hi-fi album. “Fair Touching” might be one of my favorite album openers of any album by any band, and the rest of the songs sound good on their own, something you can’t even say for some songs on Bee Thousand. Other highlights include “Chasing Heather Crazy” and “Glad Girls”.

 

9) “Obvious #1”

This isn’t a GBV song, but you should know that Robert Pollard has a decent solo career worth checking out. Warning: like his band, his song (and albums) are also very hit and miss.

 

10) “Planet Score”

This is the sound of GBV in 2014. Motivational Jumpsuit came out this year, yet it sounds just as dirty (and great) as the band did in the 90s. It’s a beautiful thing knowing that Pollard can still write great songs this late into his already extensive career.

Here’s to the future. The club is open.

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10 Songs To Introduce You To…Lou Reed

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In the 1960s New York had two great musical poets. One saw New York as a place full of musical history and possibility, and he helped jumpstart a musical revolution. The other saw New York for what it was – a lonely city both alluring and repulsive for the same reasons. This poet would go on to start a musical revolution of his own, but it would start small and grow slowly over the years. The former was Bob Dylan, who brought poetry to popular music. The latter was Lou Reed, who made poetry cool in popular music.

It’s easy to think of Dylan as the more influential of the two, but when you look at all the music that came after the 1960s, especially glam and underground/indie rock, more bands tried to write like Reed.

For those who don’t know who Lou Reed was, he was a leader of The Velvet Underground, one of rock and roll’s seminal bands. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is considered one of the most important albums of rock music that comes with the famous tagline that it sold very few copies but everyone who bought it started a band. After the band broke up, Reed would go on to have an eccentric solo career full of classic albums (Transformer), bad ideas (Lulu and Metal Machine Music), and hit singles (half of Transformer).

And it’s because of Reed’s influence that his death is still so shocking and sad. I wish I was talking about Reed under a different circumstance, but with Reed’s passing this weekend I wanted to reach out to all those who might not be familiar with Reed and share a few essential songs from one of rock’s greatest poets. You might be surprised by how much Reed you actually know.

1) “Femme Fatale”

The Velvet Underground’s famous first record was so successful (well, artistically at least) for two reasons: Andy Warhol’s guidance over the recordings (and him essentially paying for the entire sessions) and Nico’s strong vocals. The influence of both these artistic figures is strongest in “Femme Fatale”, a song with very direct lyrics and Nico’s disarming vocal presentation.

2) “Heroin”

The first time you hear “Heroin”, and I mean the first time you really sit down and listen to all 7 minutes and 13 seconds of it, is a special moment. The changing pace of the drums and guitar matches Reed’s pace with his singing, going from clam and collected to scared and timid then back to calm again. This is what Heroin sounds like.

3) “White Light/White Heat”

The title track off The Velvet Underground’s second album is one of the band’s few straight up rock and roll songs, but it’s one of their most enjoyable tracks. This 12 bar blues is so drenched in electric static that you can barley hear the doo-wop’s and the boogie piano.

4) “Rock & Roll”

In an opinion that is completely bias and absurd, there are about 20 or so perfect songs in rock and roll music. “Rock & Roll” is one of those songs.

5) “The Kids”

Berlin is one of Reed’s most (in)famous albums for how hard it is to enjoy if you don’t already listen to a lot of Reed. It’s a concept album about a couple that falls into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and other cheery things, and “The Kids” is specifically about the mother having her kids taken away from her.

6) “Walk On The Wild Side”

Reed’s most famous song, and the one you already know. Is there anything else to say about the most popular song about transvestite oral sex in recent memory?

7) “Coney Island Baby”

For all of Reed’s gritty and druggy storytelling, a song like “Coney Island Baby” is very disarming (Wait, Reed is just like us and wants to fit in with everyone else?). It’s also the most beautiful song he ever made. To hear Reed tell a deeply personal story about wanting to play football for a team that he admired is very different from “Heroin”, but it’s just as wonderful.

8) “Perfect Day”

Transformer is the most accessible of Reed’s solo albums (David Bowie’s help in producing surely helped) and “Perfect Day” is one of its many highlights. The song is either about enjoying a day full of life’s simple pleasures with that special someone or it’s a three-and-a-half minute metaphor for being high on drugs, so everyone wins right?

9) “Dirty Blvd.”

Similar to Dylan’s exhausting catalog of albums, most of Reed’s albums are more miss than hit, though the few albums that were good were fantastic. Reed still wrote great songs in his latter years, but they were all scattered within many forgettable albums. One of my goals with this list was to find good late-Reed songs, and “Dirty Blvd.” is an example of a still sharp Reed In his older age telling a great story while also making you dance.

10) “Street Hassle”

Lou Reed’s most ambitious song is nearly 11 minutes long and is divided into three parts. The lyrics are (I think) about a hookup between Waltzing Matilda and The Sexy Boy (Part 1), Matilda ODing and the argument of whose fault her death was (Part 2), and the bittersweet reflection of a love loss (Part 3). Most of the song is played by an orchestra and features a Bruce Springsteen monologue in the middle of the song (“Y’know tramps like us / we were born to pay”).

This all sounds strange right? It is, but what’s even more strange is how beautiful it all sounds.

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10 Songs To Introduce You To…Radiohead

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How the hell do you introduce someone to Radiohead? Seriously, where do you start? “Creep”? Ok Computer? “Paranoid Android”? Kid A? In Rainbows? The “Lotus Flower” music video? Where do you start?

A lot of how Radiohead is appreciated, in addition to their excellent catalog, is by how they’ve helped change and define rock music in the past 20 years. But for someone who missed out on hearing Ok Computer back in 1997 or hearing the band’s radical transition to Kid A back in 2000 or paying whatever price they wanted for In Rainbows the trick is to hook the person onto the music and not onto the backstory.

But how do you introduce a band that is known for great albums instead of great singles? That’s like introducing Quentin Tarantino to someone by only showing the best scenes from some of his movies — the true learning experience comes from watching all of his movies and seeing how one artist can have so much vision and range. This is the issue that is faced with Radiohead. They have eight albums that are all excellent in their own ways (yes, even Pablo Honey is great in its own skin). And yes, they have a couple of songs that you already know and/or would recognize, but praising just “Paranoid Android” makes no sense when you take out the rest of Ok Computer.

But alas, I’ve tried to cover Radiohead’s glorious career in only ten songs, because I like the challenge (and probably because I’m an idiot for thinking that this can be done). I tried to represent each Radiohead album on this list to show how diverse each album is, but if it were up to me I would simply tell you to go listen to all their albums right now. But you probably don’t have the time (or the desire) to do that, so here’s my attempt to (hopefully) give you a solid introduction to one of the best rock bands of recent memory.

For all my fellow Radiohead fans, I hope you understand my selection. For everyone else, let’s travel back to 1993.

1) “Creep”

The song that started it all. If Radiohead never made anything after Pablo Honey they would still be known as the band that made “Creep”. It was one of the first big hits in the post-Nirvana 90s, and, contrary to how the band might feel today, it’s still a great song. The first time you hear Jonny Greenwood’s guitar explosion into the chorus is a special moment.

 

2) “High And Dry”

After going through The Bends, I considered making a separate list called, “10 Songs To Introduce You To…The Bends“. Radiohead’s sophomore album is full of fantastic songs that showcased the flexibility and songwriting chops of a young band that was getting better at an alarming rate. Of all of Radiohead’s albums, The Bends is the one that has the best mix of songs that standout on their own, and most of the songs stay within the stadium-guitar-rock-via-The-Smiths ballpark that Coldplay would eventually go on to perfect (When someone compares Coldplay to Radiohead, they’re talking about The Bends).

“High And Dry” off The Bends is my favorite Radiohead ballad and, along with “Fake Plastic Trees”, is one of the band’s best overall songs.

 

3) “Bones”

The flipped side of the Bends coin is the loud guitar rock that was greatly improved upon since Pablo Honey. The album is full of great guitar moments (“The Bends”, “Just”, “My Iron Lung”), but I put “Bones” on the list because it shows how Radiohead can turn the guitars all the way up without sounding overbearing.

 

4) “Paranoid Android”

We each have our different picks for favorite Radiohead songs, but it’s hard to find a better Radiohead song than “Paranoid Android”. A three-song-in-one approach was taken from the White Album-era Beatles, and the end result is an incredible example of a piece of art that was hugely ambitious yet strangely accessible.

 

5) “Everything In Its Right Place”

One of the most infamous album openers of all time. When Kid A came out in 2000 it sounded like nothing else being made in popular music, and “Everything In Its Right Place” literally sounded like it came from outer space. Thirteen years later, Kid A still sounds exciting, but if it sounds somewhat conventional to you, then that’s a testament to how important Kid A was for music in the early new millennia.

 

6) “Idioteque”

Ask me to play you one song that’ll make you “get” Kid A and I’ll probably play you “Idioteque”. I believe this song, more than any song off Kid A, helped usher in a new era of popular music that allowed more digital sampling. Too bad I’ve yet to hear anything that is as catchy as this song.

 

7) “I Might Be Wrong”

It’s pretty common to title Amnesiac as The Godfather Part II to Kid A‘s The Godfather. Both albums came out of the same studio sessions and both albums focused less on guitars and more on electronics and experimentation, but there is still a clear distinction between the two albums (to me Kid A sounds more like the rejection of isolation while Amnesiac sounds like the embracement of it).

“I Might Be Wrong” is on this list because it restates the fact that, no matter how experimental Radiohead will get, they will always be rooted in guitar music. Plus, it’s a killer song.

 

8) “2+2=5”

I have mixed feelings for Hail To The Thief. I initially dismissed it as an album with no direction and as the first bland Radiohead album. But over time I’ve grown attached to Radiohead’s weirder side (I hated Kid A when I first heard it, but now I love it), and now Hail To The Thief sounds like a great fusion of experimentation and grounded guitar songwriting.

But all feelings aside, “2+2=5” has been and always will be my favorite Radiohead album opener, which is a high honor considering that literally every single Radiohead opener is great. The song matches the paranoia that is hinted in the Orwellian title by the nervous guitar picking and Thom Yorke’s singing that transitions into a glorious freakout midway through.

 

9) “Reckoner”

It was this or “House of Cards”. Or “15 Steps”. Or anything else off In Rainbows.

In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead album because it introduced me to Radiohead, and “Reckoner” stood out to me immediately because of how the song matures so much in so little time. Do yourself a favor and listen to all of In Rainbows.

 

10) “Lotus Flower”

The King Of Limbs is the most recent Radiohead album and, like Hail To The Thief, I initially had mixed opinions. We’ll see over time if this album grows on me, but I included “Lotus Flower” on this list because A) it’s a pretty good song and B) the music video.

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10 Songs To Introduce You To…Ryan Adams

Welcome to the first post in a new series called “10 Songs To Introduce You To…”.

Here I try to find ten songs from a particular artist/band and discuss how those songs represent certain key periods of that band’s career. These songs include solo songs and songs with other bands, their biggest hits, their famous covers, and anything else that’s worth sharing. Warning: these posts are not for the diehard fans but rather for the curious newcomers.

I’d like to kick off this segment with one of my all time favorite artists — Ryan Adams.

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Part of me thinks that it isn’t a good idea to start off this series with Ryan Adams since I have such a personal connection to his music. He’s my go to answer whenever anyone asks me who my favorite musician is, and each of his albums have played very memorable roles in my life – like how many people do it with other albums, I tend to define certain periods of my life by what Ryan Adams album I was listening to at that time.

But it is because I love his music so much that I want you to know who he is. Now I’ve set the limit to ten songs, which means that I’m excluding two-hundred other great songs of his that I wished everybody could hear.

But oh well, here goes something.

Mr. David Ryan Adams hails from Jacksonville, North Carolina and first received major attention as the main singer-songwriter of Whiskeytown, one of the premiere bands of the y’alternative movement of the mid 90s.

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Whiskeytown, like the genre they helped popularized, combined punk attitude with country songwriting, and Adams, at the very young age of 20, was already a more than capable songwriter. Whiskeytown released three great studio albums (Faithless Street, Strangers Almanac, and Pneumonia) and a handful of EPs before breaking up in 2000. Though Adams had the largest writing and singing presence, the band wouldn’t have been nearly as good without Caitlin Cary on the fiddle and backup vocals and the rest of the band backing up Adams.

1)  “Midway Park”

The album opener of Whiskeytown’s first album Faithless Street. For many people, this not-quite-punk-but-not-quite-country song was the first time anyone heard Adams sing.

2) “16 Days”

From Strangers Almanac, this is a more radio-friendly song that would become one of Whiskeytown’s biggest hits.

After Whiskeytown, Adams went straight to work on his first solo album, 2000’s Heartbreaker.

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Considered by most critics to be his best album, Heartbreaker is for many people the album that converts them into fans. This was my first album review on Headphone Nation and it remains to this day my favorite Ryan Adams album, though I don’t listen to it as much as I used to since A) I’ve listened to it too many times and B) he has plenty of other great albums.

3) “Oh My Sweet Carolina”

In 2010 this song was added to a compilation of 1,001 songs you must hear before you die, and for good reason. If you ever feel homesick (or if you’re from North Carolina) then this song will hit you where it hurts. And that’s the great country legend Emmylou Harris on vocals!

4) “Come Pick Me Up”

I’m torn about having two songs off the same album, but this song is too good to not put on here (I also wanted to include album opener “To Be Young [Is To Be Sad, To Be High]”, but you should just check that out here). This song also has Emmylou Harris on vocals, but this is all Adams here. This is his finest breakup song, and it’s the best song off his best album. A harmonica intro never sounded so devastating.

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Adams’s next album Gold earned him even more fame and established him (even if it was just for a little while) as one of his generation’s best songwriters. The album moved Adams into classic rock territory and was full of songs that could have been on FM radio back in the 70s along with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. This is the album that I would recommend to someone as their first Ryan Adams album.

5) “New York, New York”

Probably Adams’s most famous music video, since it was filmed four days before 9/11 and showed the World Trade Center in much of the video. The song itself is actually about a troubled relationship with New York as a backdrop, but the song, with its chorus of “I’ll always love you New York”, has evolved into a love letter to the great city.

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After Gold, Adams released Demolition, a collection of b-sides and various tracks, and Rock N Roll, which, as the name implies, is heavier on the rock n roll and not so much on his signature alt-country. Even to this day public opinion of these albums are split due to Adams’s sudden drastic stylistic changes, and while I personally think these two albums are great many tend to dismiss them. Still, there are some great songs from this era, including the minor hit “So Alive”.

6) “So Alive”

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Adams’s next album Love Is Hell could be Ryan Adams’s most depressing album (Heartbreaker was more sad than depressing). This album particularly showcases the large influence The Smiths and other sad Britpop bands had on Adams, but the true highlight is his incredible cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”.

7) “Wonderwall”

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After Love Is Hell, Adams formed The Cardinals and would release his next four official studio albums with the band (although 2005’s 29 and 2007’s Easy Tiger are billed as solo albums – The Cardinals played on Easy Tiger, so most consider it a Cardinals album).

8) “Let It Ride”

Off 2005’s Cold Roses, this best sums up the sound of The Cardinals, a band that reminded many people of Whiskeytown but with more country and less punk. The Grateful Dead influence is especially strong on “Let It Ride”.

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In 2007 Adams decided to get sober, and every release after 2007 tends to be pinned down as his “weaker sober albums”. I too tend to view Adams’s career as pre-Easy Tiger and post-Easy Tiger, since every album after 2007 has been a lot more mellow (he would record a science fiction metal album a couple of years later, but yeah for the most part pretty mellow).

9) “Two”

Off Easy Tiger, which was the first album released after Adams’s sobriety, this song would go on to be one of his biggest hits. This song, which features a duet with Sheryl Crow, is proof that sobriety does not mean the end of a music career.

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Adams’s most recent release, 2011’s Ashes & Fire, is a testament to where Adams has been and where he might be going in the future. The album finds Adams in a rare state of happiness, and though the album takes its sweet time it sounds like he’s enjoying every minute of it. “Lucky Now” is not only a great single but also a good summary of where the singer-songwriter is now.

10) “Lucky Now”

Well those are (what I believe to be) the ten songs that’ll get you started off the right track into the wonderful world of Ryan Adams. Look online and you’ll find many other lists with very different opinions (because he has so many damn songs!) but I encourage you to keep digging!

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