Essentials: The Top 10 Josh Ritter Songs

Photo credit: Sam Kassirer

Josh Ritter is one of those artists who ticks every box: his vocals are smooth and warm, his words possess a rare poetic lyricism and his ability to craft and compose consistently beautiful songs is hugely impressive.  His songs range from delicate folk balladry to fluid, rolling songs with irresistible rhythms, flowing instrumentation and tumbling words.  Above all, and quite simply, the common factor in Ritter’s songs is arresting, melodic beauty.  The tunefulness feels so natural, so instinctive, so assured; there’s a timeless grace to his songwriting.  Yet his writing also feels meticulous, each note carefully composed, each instrumental layer built with precision and perfect timing.  Ritter’s creative gifts meet his technical songwriting skills in a confluence of musicality.

A published novelist, Ritter’s sensitive use of language is a key aspect of his songs.  Narrative detail, including everyday, almost-conversational and direct phrasing is often blended with perceptive metaphors and considered symbolism.  The precise sits alongside the abstract, the personal with the universal, the commonplace with rich descriptions of love, loss and life in all its murkiness and glory.

Having now released eleven full-length studio albums, Ritter has displayed a remarkable level of creativity over time; as a measure of this, my initial list had 45 songs on it, covering each of his albums.  Whittling that down to a top 10 was a challenge and I am certain I’ll have missed many fans’ favourites – do let me know where I’ve got it wrong in the comments section below.

Number 10: ‘Horse No Rider’ from ‘Spectral Lines’ (2023)

Quietly epic, ‘Horse No Rider’ is outstanding lyrically, the poetry of vulnerability and exposure.  When he sings: “I’ve somehow lost the lights of shore, and the outboard motor’s failing,” the feeling of loss and grief is understated but powerful.  The subtle and ethereal backing vocals and instrumentation are adventurous – Ritter has come a long way from the folk of his early work and this album is a departure, or a growth, in many respects.  However, he’s never lost any of the beauty in his words and music.  There are several songs on 2023’s ‘Spectral Lines’ that could have made this list; after a quarter of a century of songwriting, Ritter’s output is remarkably consistent in quality.  ‘Horse No Rider’ represents the most assured and subtle song craft and is an absorbing first entry in this list.

Number 9: ‘Old Black Magic’ from ‘Fever Breaks’ (2019)

‘Old Black Magic’ has a different feel from many of Ritter’s songs.  It is positively driven along, propelled by insistent rhythms and powerful chords that mirror the song’s grittier lyrics.  The delivery is a passionate mix of resignation and resoluteness: “I tried to be a good man // Something changes in the wind // I got that old black magic rollin’ in.”  For ‘Fever Breaks’, Jason Isbell took on production duties and Ritter was backed by 400 Unit and there’s no mistaking their sense of purpose.  ‘Old Black Magic’ closes with a mighty guitar solo that bursts forth, engulfing the song and, like the rest of this fine album, demands an emotional and physical response.

Number 8: ‘Joy to You Baby’ from ‘The Beast in its Tracks’ (2013)

I simply love the repeated chord progression that somehow never feels repetitive throughout ‘Joy to You Baby’.  Over this, Ritter’s fluent vocal melody is gorgeous and his words – a common theme in this list – are beautifully composed and profound.  His phrasing and choices of words and metaphors are always intriguing: “There’s no ghosts in the graveyard // That’s not where they live // They float in between us // ‘What is’ and ‘what if’.”  He really is a poet who happens to set his verse to equally engaging music.  The message about how relationships can end is important: being able to release the past without bitterness, finding acceptance and offering genuine forgiveness from the heart.  He sings: “And joy to you baby, wherever you are…There’s pain in whatever // We stumble upon // If I never had met you // You couldn’t have gone // But then I couldn’t have met you // We couldn’t have been // I guess it all adds up // To joy to the end.”  And that’s what I feel whenever I hear this song: joy and peace.  ‘Beast in its Tracks’ is a deeply personal album, more so than many of Ritter’s releases.  Musically, this is reflected in more stripped back, spare arrangements, which actually makes the songs more powerful.  ‘Joy to You Baby’ feels particularly significant in the context of the whole album as this is the point at which Ritter allows himself to experience happiness again and move on.

Number 7: ‘Showboat’ from ‘Gathering’ (2017)

The upbeat ‘Showboat’ showcases everything that Ritter does so well.  The song craft and arrangement are superb, with delightful layers to savour, such as the flourishes of horn.  His voice flows through gorgeous melodic currents and the overall feel is busy, lively and fun.  Of course, the nature of the music hides a more world-weary message: “I’m just a showboat // Pretending I can stay afloat.”  We can all be guilty of pretending – Ritter recognises and describes these emotions perfectly as the music sweeps by.  This is just so enjoyable to listen to.

Number 6: ‘Empty Hearts’ from ‘The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter’ (2007)

Next up, we have ‘Empty Hearts’ from Ritter’s fifth album, ‘The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter’.  This song is a beautifully poetic prayer for the year to come. Amidst all of the drinking with friends, the narrator is longing for something more meaningful: “And she’ll know me by the sound of my hoping.” Note that his heart is empty, not broken.  There’s a cliché-defying difference.  This is a perfect Josh Ritter song: swaying rhythms, warm vocals, smart lyrics and a gorgeous tune that manages to feel both fresh and familiar at once, which is a very neat trick to pull off.  In fact, it requires some kind of songwriting magic.

Number 5: ‘Bright Smile’ from ‘Hello Starling’ (2003)

‘Hello Starling’ is one of my all-time favourite records, covered here in one of my classic album reviews a few years ago.  At the time, I wrote about ‘Bright Smile’: “The warm finger-picking and understated, almost-drowsy vocal of ‘Bright Smile’ make for an absorbing opening track.  Its strength is in its structural directness and seeming simplicity.  Crafted into a perfect musical shape or frame, the song guides us to the beauty of its melody and Ritter’s delivery.”  I stand by that assessment – it’s one of those songs that just feels right.

Number 4: ‘Homecoming’ from ‘Sermon on the Rocks’ (2015)

Over the years, Ritter’s songwriting, arrangements and use of instrumentation have developed in subtly different ways.  But the cornerstone of all his work has remained its artful beauty.  The introduction to ‘Homecoming’, gently tumbling keys, draws you in before the percussion starts and then Ritter’s spoken words – his musical talk-singing cadence like the best performance poetry: “I feel a change in the weather // I feel a change in me // The days are getting shorter and the birds begin to leave // Even me, yes, yes, y’all // Who has been so long alone // I’m headed home // Headed home.”  Ritter is great at writing about universal emotions and the sentiment, cleverly conveyed, is something many of us will associate with.  The song builds in layers with the interplay between his voice and the percussion at its heart and the subtly growing vocal melody, elevated by gorgeous backing, is sublime.

Number 3: ‘Wolves’ from ‘The Animal Years’ (2006)

The introductory notes and drums give ‘Wolves’ a dramatic feel.  Then the vocal begins and, as is often the case in a Josh Ritter song, it becomes all about the melody, insistent and irresistible.  As ever, the words and symbolism are immediately engaging: “I still remember that time when we were dancing // We were dancing to a song that I’d heard // Your face was simple and your hands were naked // I was singing without knowing the words.”  The words are disarming in their directness and the memory of joy in the moment.  The narrative takes a darker turn as the lovers grow apart, their doubts and problems represented by circling wolves drawing ever-closer.  But the narrator always returns to that memory – the deep sadness in the loss is balanced by the warmth of remembering.  Without the relationship, doomed as it was, the positive memory wouldn’t exist.  This is sensitive writing that stays with you long after listening.

Number 2: ‘Right Moves’ from ‘The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter’ (2007)

Bright and upbeat, this is a song to lose yourself in and dance to. As already established, Ritter’s song writing craft is outstanding and this is a perfect example for the uninitiated.  Right from the opening beats on the drum, ‘Right Moves’ flows and moves like a turbulent, tuneful, musical river.  Meanwhile, Ritter’s words tumble out in a stream of romantic consciousness, often in a simple and direct conversational style that feels open-hearted and genuine: “…did you dream about me now and then? // Did you look up at the stars and feel something for the constellations?”  Musically, ‘Right Moves’ is rich and full, glorious and joyous.

Number 1: ‘Kathleen’ from ‘Hello Starling’ (2003)

Ritter’s vocals are smooth and understated, wrapping around the triumphant melody in ‘Kathleen’.  Gloriously layered, this is an instant classic, timeless and perfectly formed.  His use of language in the swirling, soaring romanticism of ‘Kathleen’ is impossibly, brilliantly, unselfconsciously romantic: “All the other girls here are stars – you are the Northern Lights // they try to shine in through your curtains – you’re too close and too bright // they try and they try but everything that they do // is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you.”  I have returned to this song so many times – it’s simply joyous and moving and all we want from music.

About Andrew Frolish 1438 Articles
From up north but now hiding in rural Suffolk. An insomniac music-lover. Love discovering new music to get lost in - country, singer-songwriters, Americana, rock...whatever. Currently enjoying Nils Lofgren, Ferris & Sylvester, Tommy Prine, Jarrod Dickenson, William Prince, Frank Turner, Our Man in the Field...
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Steve

Always dead good live as well. Radio Days was an impressive first album

Jonathan Aird

What an interesting selection. Interesting is such a useful word, here it means “is this man mad, I mean, yeah, absolutely with you on the choice of Josh Ritter, but really how could you leave out…

Another Top 10 might be:

1. The Torch Committee
2. The Curse
3. Minds Eye
4. To the dogs
5. All some kind of dream
6. Monster Ballads
7. Right Moves
8. Getting ready to get down
9. Wings
10. Girl in the War

Now, admit it, that’s an interesting list 🙂

Andrew Frolish

Some great choices there Jon! Love Girl in the War particularly. Good choice for number 1. But no Kathleen!???!! You’re just trying to upset me!

Mark Whitfield

Great list Andrew. My “I can’t believe you missed this song off!” comment is… A Certain Light, not just my favourite Josh Ritter song but one of my favourite songs of all time https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PCG9hpO36A

Andrew Frolish

Sorry Mark! I feel an alternate top ten coming on. A Certain Light is a great choice – which one from my list would you let go to make way for it?

Mark Whitfield

Ah that is above my paygrade, he’s such a great songwriter I couldn’t choose one. Good job as Fred says there may be another list on the way!

FredArnold

Maybe supports the need for a double helping of Josh Ritter – in fact we may need a third Feature!

Andrew Riggs

I’d find room for You’ve Got The Moon.

Andrew Frolish

Great choice! I felt bad that by the end of slimming down the long list, I hadn’t included anything from the first couple of albums. The opening three songs from that album are all brilliant – Come and Find Me, Me & Jiggs and You’ve Got the Moon.

Andy Davidson

It’s a good list. It’s your top ten. Respect.
My favourite’s not there.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWfosrRzs00

Andrew Frolish

That’s a really lovely song – an excellent example of his song craft.