Taking the Ryan Adams fan universe by storm this week is the “BEST DRA SONG 2017” challenge, a tournament-style bracket to determine Ryan’s best-ever song as determined by fan vote. More than 600 people voted in the first round and there weren’t any huge surprises with the results, as all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the second round and only a few underdogs pulled off upsets. But on a personal level, I have to say that I found one of those lower-seed victories immensely satisfying: From the “2011-Present” region, No. 9 “Jacksonville” knocked off No. 8 “Gimme Something Good” (yes!).
Voting for round two is open through 11:45 p.m. Thursday (June 15), and then it will be on to the “Sweet 16.” The winner should emerge sometime around June 25.
This admirably ambitious project is the work of superfan Christopher S. Bradley, an attorney at a Pennsylvania-based law firm. He was kind enough to entertain a few questions about his methodology, which are below (lightly edited).
(1) Did you come up with the seedings and pairings yourself, or did others have input?
I originally came up with the bracket and regions (eras) first. I had to think of a way to distill his massive catalog down to a field of 64 without picking and choosing MY personal favorites. So I went through each “era” and pulled the songs off of albums and EPs from that era and made a “Group.” I was as transparent as possible when doing this, I listed what albums and EPs I pulled from in each group. I did not do doubles in the same group (“Anybody Wanna Take Me Home” was only listed once in the so-called “Heartbreaker” Group). However, I did include “This Is It” in the “Heartbreaker” group and the Cardinals Group. What resulted was a massive group play survey wherein respondents would choose 15 songs in each group and songs would be seeded according to number of votes received. Any ties were resolved by coin flip and any ties of three or more were winnowed down to a coin flip choice by random number generator (this only happened in the Cardinals Group). A song was assigned “heads” based on alphabetical order. The full results in PDF form can be found here.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, that 15×4 does not equal 64. I know there is a segment of the fanbase (myself included) that celebrates a lot of the unreleased material. So I created a fifth “Play-in” group with unique songs from “The Suicide Handbook,” “48 Hours,” “Pinkhearts 1 & 2,” “Darkbreaker,” “Destroyer,” “Fasterpiece,” “Let it B Minus,” “Swedish Sessions” and “Exile on Franklin Street.” The respondents were asked to select eight songs from this group that would be matched up highest to lowest seed and voted upon to make four 16 seeds. Only 50 people voted on the Play-In Matchups.
I deliberately left out the genre joke projects like Werewolph, The Shit, Sleazy Handshake, DJ Reggie, etc. While some of this stuff is fun, I made the executive decision deeming those projects outside the scope of this particular foray into superfandom.
My survey was not without mistakes, I left out some of the great tracks from the deluxe reissue of “Strangers Almanac” in the Whiskeytown Group, and many of the unreleased albums I have are missing some tracks here and there. I don’t believe this skewed the final results; many of the people I confided in correctly predicted it would more than likely come down to many of the more popular songs. The biggest surprise that made the field of 64 was “Jacksonville” off of the Pax Am Singles Series EP of the same name. All told, 260 people voted on the Group Play Survey.
(2) I presume the criteria was that songs had to be “officially” released in some fashion — no bootlegs, or songs that just existed live?
I did limit it to official releases, but in order to have people get a say on the unreleased material, I created that fifth group drawing from the bulk of his unreleased stuff. I had those winners seeded 16 because they’re unreleased and I didn’t feel comfortable having something Ryan didn’t officially release be above stuff he worked hard to polish into an official release. If a 16 seed were to upset a 1 seed in the tournament portion, then that segment of the fanbase who feels “Come Pick Me Up” is somehow worse than “Walls” would be vindicated in a more democratic fashion rather than including unreleased material by era and having it lose badly during group play.
I was pretty close to leaving out EPs and such from each group. But in the end, especially in the 2011-Present group, I decided to include them because there are a lot of amazing songs there. Part of me wanted people to discover more and more of his music. We can’t all be rabid superfans!
I don’t believe I included any live tracks or even the ones played live that are allegedly on “Blackhole” such as “Catherine” and “The Door.” To me, these would fall under the “unreleased” category; if I included some live music then I would have to include a lot of other live songs such as live covers Ryan has done many times. But album-released covers are fair game because, like “Wonderwall” and the entirety of “1989,” they’re his arrangements and versions of those songs.
(3) Part of the fun of being a Ryan Adams fan is that we’ve all got our favorite phases and stages — Whiskeytown, Cardinals, Gold and so on — which we insist are the best. What’s your favorite era of his?
Oh man, this is a hard question. I suppose I deserve it because I’m asking all these people to choose between some of their favorite songs. I guess if I were to choose it would be the Cardinals, because a lot of that music is one of the things that got me through law school with my sanity nearly intact.
The best part about music in general is its subjectivity; there is literally no way I can unequivocally tell you what I like is better than what you like because you can’t make someone not like something if it is their personal taste. This is the most scientific way I could come up with that would objectively pick the best Ryan Adams song. But if you’re a fan you still have the freedom to believe the Cardinals were the best thing since sliced bread and everything else is trash.
I am in a lot of the DRA Facebook groups where people are constantly making blanket statements like, “‘Ashes & Fire’ sucks,” “Why bother with anything Ryan does nowadays, he hasn’t been good since the Cardinals,” “Ryan Adams peaked with Whiskeytown,” “‘Love Is Hell’ is Ryan’s best work don’t @ me.” No one backs these statements up, because it is their personal preference; to me all of those statements are true depending on how I feel that day.
(4) What’s your background — where are you originally from, and when/how did your DRA fandom start?
I grew up in the rural northeastern portion of Pennsylvania where bro country rules the airwaves. I am a huge Bob Dylan fan and anyone with a passing interest in Dylanology can see the broad similarities between him and Ryan. They both refuse to be pigeonholed into any genre, they’re both prolific writers, they change their musical style album to album, era to era, and don’t give a flying fajita what the masses think. Hell, I’m sure Ryan would spit out his tea if he saw me even making that comparison. Late in my high school career I was turned on to Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Bottle Rockets, Son Volt, DBT, et. al. This of course led me to Whiskeytown and DRA.
I attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for undergrad and law school. During that time a lot of Ryan’s music got me through tough papers and finals and what not. I probably drove my various roommates insane by playing a lot of songs on repeat (I do that now to my wife). But to me, all of his music is timeless.