Scratched Into Our Souls

Top 12 Hold Steady Songs | September 6, 2010

It’s no secret: The Hold Steady rank amongst my absolute favorite bands of all time, coming second only to The Greatest Band That Ever Was (if you don’t realize I’m talking about The Beatles, shame on you). This year has really been a huge Hold Steady year for me, too. The band released a new album in May, the absolutely fantastic Heaven Is Whenever, and the band has played seven shows in Southern California, all of which I attended. Adding those seven shows brings my running total of Hold Steady extravaganza’s up to a grand total of twelve – by far the most live shows I have seen by any band. So, what more is there to say about The Hold Steady’s perfectly balanced blend of classic rock riffage, punk-rock energy, and party-rock enthusiasm? I’ll propose a place to start and certainly something that ought to stir up some anxious discussions fueled by fiery fan passion: a list of the Top 12 Hold Steady Songs, presented by yours truly. So, why wait when we can jump right in? Sit back, get a drink, and listen and read as I count down the dozen best songs by my favorite band. 

12. “Knuckles” from Almost Killed Me, 2004

Craig Finn has never been funnier. “Knuckles” provides something of an outline for understanding a big part of The Hold Steady mythos: portraits of shady characters, tongue-in-cheek lyricisms, and wars going down in the middle-western states. I’m not sure what this song has more of: killer guitar riffs or wise-cracking puns.

Watch: “Knuckles”

11. “Chillout Tent” from Boys and Girls in America, 2006

Some of the best art gives a snapshot of a feeling or an event, giving the audience the opportunity to return and experience that feeling all over again whenever they like. “Chillout Tent” is just that, a snapshot into the day in the life of a boy and girl who get messed up on the music at a festival and subsequently hook up when they come to in the medical tent. The verdict? “It was kinda sexy, but it was kinda creepy.” No lyric quite captures the nostalgia of the moment like the line “and I never saw that girl again.”

Watch: “Chillout Tent” fan video

10. “Chips Ahoy!” from Boys and Girls in America, 2006 / “The Weekenders” from Heaven Is Whenever, 2010

The second single from Boys and Girls in America was the fantastic “Chips Ahoy!,” a song about the frustrating relationship of a boy and a girl that can predict which horse will win races at the track, featuring Franz Nicolay’s best organ-solo and some of the band’s most fun sing-along ‘woah-oh-ohs’ ever. Who knew that the sequel would be just as good? “The Weekenders” captures the two of them catching-up years after the candle of romance has long flickered out, but still yearning to rekindle the flame that made “Chips Ahoy!” such an endlessly fascinating song. In the end, I bet no one learns a lesson.

Watch: “The Weekenders” live

9. “Stay Positive” from Stay Positive, 2008

The title track from the more mature and darker-themed Stay Positive album is centered around the belief that things will always get better if you believe they will. The darkest hour always comes before the dawn, and in the case of “Stay Positive,” Craig Finn sings from the point-of-view of a character who has nothing left to believe in. When your world crumbles around you, we gotta stay positive. 

Watch: “Stay Positive” music video

8. “Ask Her For Some Adderall” from Stay Positive (vinyl), 2008

The Hold Steady have a plethora of incredible b-sides that range drastically in style and tone, but none of them hit quite as strong as “Ask Her For Some Adderall” (it was included in the middle of the track-listing on the vinyl release of Stay Positive, but not on the CD). The song is a rip-roaring rocker that blows past you in less than three minutes, as Craig Finn weaves a careful story by giving you all the details and none of the plot. It’s a circular head-trip that sounds just as fresh today as it did the first time I heard it, all the way back at my first Hold Steady show in November of 2007. 

Watch: “Ask Her For Some Adderall” at the famous Ybor City show

7. “Barely Breathing” from Heaven Is Whenever, (2010)

The exceptional second-half of Heaven Is Whenever is anchored by this dark, mischievous rocker that finds lyrics about the self-implosion of the hardcore punk scene tumbling from Craig’s lips. You’ll be hanging off every word, all the way up until the fantastic clarinet solo that proves definitively that clarinets can rock, too. It ends with a message that everybody should take to heart: no one wins at violent shows.

Watch: “Barely Breathing”

6. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from Separation Sunday, (2005)

This might actually be The Hold Steady’s most accessible song. It’s a portrait of Finn’s favorite lyrical character, the messed-up Hallelujah that the kids all call Holly. Finn’s lyrical dexterity is matched brilliantly moment-for-moment by a suspiciously catchy guitar line that blows up into hugely anthemic chords. The Hold Steady absolutely perfected the cliched tension and release technique with the final minute of this song, as Finn sings about how “city center used to be the center of our scene.” Nobody goes there anymore, but you’ll always return to this song. Damn right you’ll rise again.

Watch: “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” music video

5. “Slapped Actress” from Stay Positive, (2008)

Ending Stay Positive with this song wasn’t a gamble, it was a necessity. On an album that is a sweepingly cinematic as a Tarantino movie, no song is more sweeping and cinematic. Featuring chugging guitars, gentle keyboards, and some of Finn’s most cryptic lyrics ever, “Slapped Actress” is an anthem where life becomes art and art becomes life. “Slapped Actress” begins with a wall of guitars and ends with a choir of voices, announcing that maybe someday the characters in The Hold Steady’s songs will achieve what they’ve always dreamed of: their very own Unified Scene.

Watch: “Slapped Actress”

4. “Stuck Between Stations” from Boys and Girls in America, (2006)

Any album that opens with a song quoting Jack Kerouac is asking to not be taken seriously. Somehow, The Hold Steady pulled it off, and “Stuck Between Stations” has become their most universally adored and critically acclaimed song. With bright keyboards and powerful guitars, the band packs more energy into this song that perhaps any song in their repertoire. Lyrically, Craig Finn pulls off a hat-trick of sorts: he quotes Kerouac, narrates the suicide of poet John Berryman, and creates an anthem about drinking, being young, and being in love in America.

Watch: “Stuck Between Stations” music video

3. “How A Resurrection Really Feels” from Separation Sunday, (2005)

There has never been a more triumphant Hold Steady song than “How A Resurrection Really Feels.” Detailing the moment when our favorite hoodrat Holly returns after being disappeared for years, the band creates a feeling that makes you feel like you’ve truly been saved by rock and roll. As cheesy as that all sounds, once you’ve seen them close a concert with this song, you know it’s true. It’s all about the best guitar riff Tad Kubler has ever written. Or maybe it’s about the epic build-up and repeated refrain of “walk on back.” Maybe it’s the way that the rest of the song fades away while the gentle counter-melody of Franz Nicolay’s guitar rings in the deafening silence. Maybe The Hold Steady is how a resurrection really feels.

Watch: “How A Resurrection Really Feels” live

2. “Killer Parties” from Almost Killed Me, (2004)

The Hold Steady aren’t a band that really get comfortable while they are playing music. Every song has change-ups when you least expect them, drastically altering tempo, rhythm, tone, texture, and feeling. So, when you hear “Killer Parties” in the context of their discography, it really is an anomaly, because for seven minutes The Hold Steady sit back and simply settle into a hypnotizing, head-bobbing groove. They let the music inhabit a space, surrounding and engulfing you, swallowing you up like a pill or a shot of your favorite hard alcohol. The rhythm section keeps it tight throughout, while the guitars slowly get louder and noisier, and Craig Finn keeps it short and simple. He also delivers one line that might as well be the perfect lyric: “And if they ask why we left in the first place / Say we were young and we were so in love / I guess we just needed space.” Ending their first album, this song signaled that The Hold Steady were a force to be reckoned with, and the legend of Ybor City was created.

Watch: “Killer Parties” fan video

1. “First Night” from Boys and Girls in America, (2006)

The centerpiece of The Hold Steady’s most critically acclaimed album is “First Night,” a slow lament played on piano and acoustic guitar. Like a wise middle-aged man sitting next to you at the bar, Finn divulges snippets of information in a drunken ramble, never really making sense but giving you a vivid, particular feeling that their is a lesson to be learned in the details he’s telling you. There’s wisdom behind his words, as well as heartache and pain. Finn tells it like he’s been there, and you believe him. Not many rock songs can pull off using three-dollar words like “insatiable” or “inconsolable” as if they were tossed off in every song on the radio, but then again, Craig Finn isn’t your typical lyricist. He’s a barroom poet, a folk singer stuck in a bar-band, a punk kid stuck in a middle-aged body, and a broken heart stuck inside a world of painful memories and everlasting nostalgia. When he sings about his characters being upset “because we can’t get as high as we got / on that first night,” he’s not talking about a yearning for drugs; he’s describing the universally understood desire for the happiness and release that is created by the promise of nostalgia. The word nostalgia, after all, comes from the Latin for “pain from an old wound.” When the song reaches its violin-assisted crescendo that finds a choir of youthful strangers repeating the album’s title, you’ll be in awe. When it reaches the explosive catharsis, you’ll be inconsolable, unhinged and uncontrollable.

Watch: “First Night”

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    About Me: Chris Robinson

    A budding writer and avid music fan from Los Angeles, California, I am a recent graduate of Music History from UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. I've written for the UCLA Daily Bruin, graduated valedictorian from high school, and enjoy many different types of music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, and everything in between. I wrote my senior thesis on lyrical misinterpretations in popular music, focusing on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

    Add me on last.fm: http://www.last.fm/user/crob3888

    All music posted on this blog is for sampling purposes only. If you like what you hear, support the artists. Go out and buy their music, attend their shows, and buy merchandise.

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