Recently, I took part in a mixtape exchange where, instead of sharing the tracks we were listening to the most, the purpose was to highlight the work of one artist we loved. Pretty much the only major guidelines were that mixes were to be 5 songs max, and no longer than 25 minutes.
For my mix, I chose Josh Ritter. He’s my favorite songwriter and performer, and it bewilders me that someone so completely awesome is not more well known.
Josh has 7 full-lengths, 8 EPs, and 4 live albums. The way I see it, the only way the mixtape would give a true representation of Josh’s work would be if it covered as much ground as possible, if it showed how much he’s progressed from his first album, released in 1999, to the newest album, which was released just last week. So in addition to the 5‑song/25‑minute rule, I also imposed another rule on myself: No two songs on the mixtape could be from the same album.
Below are the 5 songs I chose for my mix. They’re not necessarily my top 5 favorites, or the top 5 best songs of his, but I think this collection gives the general gist of Josh’s work and is a good place to start when exploring his extensive discography. Because it was really, really hard to narrow down which 5 songs to include, the end of the post features my honorable mentions, which are worth checking out as well.
Mixtape Track 1: “Come and Find Me” – Golden Age of Radio (2000)
Golden Age is Josh’s second full-length, but the first album in which his skill in storytelling really comes out and he truly defines his signature style and sound. “Come and Find Me” is the album’s quiet, wistful opener. “Literary” isn’t usually a term used to describe music, but one listen to this song and you’ll know why Josh has come to be known as one of the smarter, more thoughtful musicians around.
As Golden Age was one of Josh’s first albums, the vocals are a little rough. In 2009, Josh re‑released the album and included a bonus disc with new, solo, acoustic re‑recordings of all the songs. The re‑recorded version is beautiful, but I couldn’t find a version of that to link to from YouTube. If you liked the original version in the video above, buy the album with the bonus disc and prepare to be even more amazed.
Golden Age Honorable Mention: “Harrisburg”
Mixtape Track 2: “Good Man” – The Animal Years (2006)
The Animal Years is the gold standard of Josh Ritter albums. Each song individually stands up on its own, and the album as a whole is the definition of perfection. If I were to make a playlist of Josh’s 5 best songs, I could easily have made it using just songs from this album.
Picking a song from this album was definitely the hardest out of all of them, and I put off choosing a track from here until I had the others all figured out. By the time I had to choose, I already had 3 slow, serious songs, and in favor of balance in sound, for this album I wound up choosing “Good Man,” which I view as the catchy, hit single of The Animal Years.
Animal Years Honorable Mention: “Girl in the War”
Mixtape Track 3: “The Temptation of Adam” – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)
The perfect song. Incredible storytelling and sincerely sung. The images, the witty turns of phrase, just — everything. Everything about this song is perfect.
“Temptation” is undoubtedly the standout song on Historical Conquests, but the studio version always seemed to me to be just a touch too overproduced in comparison to the rest of the album. I prefer the rawness of the live versions, such as in the video above or in the recording from Josh’s Daytrotter session.
Historical Conquests Honorable Mention: “Right Moves”
Mixtape Track 4: “Joy to You Baby” – The Beast in Its Tracks (2013)
Josh’s latest album grew out of heartbreak. Following his divorce, he recorded his most autobiographical songs to date. While some break-up records are bitter and vengeful, Josh recorded this album after putting some distance between himself and the divorce, resulting in songs that are more sad and resigned.
“Joy to You Baby” is the penultimate song of the album, and it is gorgeous. Focused on acceptance and forgiveness, this song and “Lights” close the album out perfectly.
The Beast in Its Tracks Honorable Mention: “Hopeful”
Mixtape Track 5: “Snow is Gone” – Hello Starling (2003)
You don’t really know Josh Ritter until you’ve seen him live. While his studio albums are calm and contemplative, he’s developed a reputation for his unbelievably energetic and exhilarating shows.
To close out my mixtape, I chose a live version of “Snow is Gone.” An optimistic, joyous song performed with unbounded enthusiasm, Josh often plays this toward the end of his set, guaranteeing you leave his shows with a smile on your face.
Hello Starling Honorable Mention: “Kathleen”
Being limited to just 5 songs on the mixtape, I couldn’t cover all of Josh’s full-lengths. View the Honorable Mentions section to see what I would’ve picked from So Runs the World Away and Josh’s first album if I had the space.
The Honorable Mentions
“Harrisburg” – Golden Age of Radio (2000)
One of the best songs to see live. This track is already wildly energetic, but Josh makes it even more fun by segueing into other songs right before delving into the track’s final verse. In the video above, Josh’s mustachioed bassist Zack covers Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” In other performances, he’s snuck in snippets of Modest Mouse, The Temptations, and The Talking Heads.
The only reason this didn’t make the mixtape is because the studio versions pale in comparison to the live versions, and all the live versions contain entertaining, but long digressions that take focus away from the song itself.
^ back to the mixtape
“Girl in the War” – The Animal Years (2006)
If I was in a more contemplative mood when I was finalizing the mixtape, this would’ve made it in. But I chose which track to use as I was eating breakfast and I don’t know about you, but when I’m getting ready for work, I like listening to songs that make me feel good. “Girl in the War” is a phenomenally good song, but it isn’t feel-good.
That being said, “Girl in the War” is a must-listen. As is “Monster Ballads.” And “Thin Blue Flame.” And…ahhhh, screw it, the whole album is a must-listen. I don’t even know why I tried.
^ back to the mixtape
“Right Moves” – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)
If you couldn’t tell by now, Josh loves to sing about love. He sings about all aspects of it: being in love, in pursuit of it, or of its loss. This upbeat track about a lost love who’s returned covers all bases.
^ back to the mixtape
“Hopeful” – The Beast in Its Tracks (2013)
For a break-up album, Beast is surprisingly optimistic. Chronicling how his life “went up in flames” following the end of his first marriage, and how he’s begun to heal during the start of a new relationship, Josh packs a lot into this deceivingly simple song.
^ back to the mixtape
“Kathleen” – Hello Starling (2003)
“Kathleen” seems to be the fan favorite when it comes to Hello Starling. This one is for all the romantics out there.
A digression: I made the mistake of going to one of Josh’s Valentine’s Day‑themed shows a couple years ago. I say “mistake” because I was single, and doing anything Valentine’s Day‑themed while single is a huge no‑no. But I went anyway because I love Josh’s shows. Well, during this song, he encouraged everyone to start slow‑dancing. There might have been a smooth jazz sax solo. If there was ever a Forever Alone moment of my life, that was it. The awkwardness of that event may or may not have influenced my decision to exclude it from the mixtape.
^ back to the mixtape
“Another New World” – So Runs the World Away (2010)
If Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe had a lyrical lovechild, this would be it. The haunting tale of a futile expedition led by an Ahab-like explorer, this song proves Josh to be one of the best storytellers around.
But, as epic as this is, I chose not to include it (or any other songs from So Runs) on the mixtape. All the tracks here are good, but the album appeals more to people who are already fans of Josh’s work than it does to newcomers (even among Josh’s fans, this album is divisive). I recommend checking out his other stuff first.
“Stuck to You” – Josh Ritter (1999)
Josh originally went to Oberlin to study neuroscience, but changed course and created his own major in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music.” As a former pre-med student turned English major, I get that. But, as this song shows: once a science nerd, always a science nerd.
“Stuck to You” is a bonus track on Josh’s first album. I heard him play it the first time I saw him live, and I hope he plays it again because, man, do I love nerds. Shocking to see how he went from Wrangler‑wearer to this:
And there you have it. Hope you guys like the songs I picked out, and if you do, I encourage you to visit Josh’s site, listen to more of his music, and buy some of his stuff. Maybe even go to a show or two. I guarantee you’ll have a good time. Unless you go to one of his Valentine’s Day shows alone. Don’t do that. Learn from my experiences.
Listen to Josh Ritter.
RIYL: folk, americana, storytelling, science, smiling