Ted Leo has pretty much done it all in the world of indie rock. He cut his teeth in the New York/New Jersey hardcore scene in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, playing in Citizens Arrest, Puzzlehead, Hell No, and Animal Crackers before moving to South Bend, Indiana to attend college at Notre Dame. There he picked up an English degree as well as a new band, Chisel. Starting off as another lo-fi ‘90s indie guitar band, Leo’s growth as a songwriter and the group’s interest in mod music eventually led them to evolve to a more fully-realized sound. After moving from Indiana to Washington D.C., Chisel showed off that new sound on two stellar albums; 1996’s 8 A.M. All Day and 1998’s Set You Free. Despite successful tours with bands such as Blonde Redhead, the Dismemberment Plan, and Fugazi, Chisel called it quits in 1998.
Leo’s journey as a solo artist began the next year as he hit the road for what would become a nearly a decade of almost nonstop touring. This resulted in a challenging and often-frustrating solo debut in 1999, tej leo(?), Rx/pharmacists. The next year he recruited a full band for the Treble in Trouble EP, naming them the Pharmacists. At first the group was a rotating cast of friends from across the east coast who helped him tour and record. After releasing the stunning album The Tyranny of Distance in 2001, Leo recruited bassist Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson and began touring (often joined by other musicians) as a set band. Hearts of Oak, released in 2003, followed in Tyranny‘s steps, featuring songs exploring the vast world of pop while firmly rooted in punk. Pruned to a power trio, the Pharmacists released the politically-charged Shake the Sheets just before the 2004 election and the broader, more expansive punk opus Living with the Living in 2007. Now touring as a four-piece with James Canty (of Nation of Ulysses fame) on guitar and Marty Key replacing Lerner on bass, they’ve slowed down considerably. Their most recent record, The Brutalist Bricks, came out in 2010.
Throughout his career, Leo has earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working, nicest, and most principled people in indie rock. Although his touring pace has slowed in recent years, he goes the extra mile to connect with fans, playing small cities, sleeping on floors, posing for pictures,and signing autographs—and he does it all with a smile. His Twitter is consistently entertaining, as is his blog, which might feature a mix for a fan, funny stories from the road, or a seemingly endless stream of covers (ranging from Sade to the Dead Kennedys). He’s the epitome of a cult favorite, always seemingly knocking on the door of the mainstream, never quite squeezing through, but enjoying unparalleled respect within the indie and D.I.Y. world.
With a resume as long as Leo’s, it’s often hard for newcomers to know where to start. The knee-jerk response from fans would be to get The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak and go from there (and they’re not wrong), but that can be a tall order. As Leo embarks on another tour with Aimee Mann, to be followed by a series of shows in small, D.I.Y. venues, we present you his top ten songs as a starting point for his career. They show that over last decade Ted Leo has amassed a songbook as strong as anyone in rock.
(Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead EP, 2003)
Leo started his solo career by going on the road with just his guitar and a tape machine, and every so often between full-band tours he’ll head out on his own. The Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead EP captures some of his favorites from his solo sets at the time including this corking original. This captures Leo at his vitriolic, mad-strumming best, blasting out a chunky riffs on his Gibson while railing against the world. Leo responds to being called a sellout (a charge he would return to in “Some Beginner’s Mind”) with an effortlessly damning kiss-off. “I’m not impressed with your desire to be the biggest in the bowl” he sneers, “You’ll still just be a little shit in a world that’s just a big shithole”. Leo is, was, and remains one of the hardest-working, most principled artists out there and he knows that the road is long, hard, and littered with wannabes who will soon find out that “no one’s gonna drive [them] home”.
(The Brutalist Bricks, 2010)
A crowd favorite from The Brutalist Bricks, “Bottled in Cork” has become a singalong staple of recent live sets. Nick Lowe’s influence is all over this song, with Leo grabbing lyric inspiration from “So It Goes” and marrying it to a breakdown straight out of “Nutted by Reality”. At first it sounds like another angry screed with guitars flying and Leo complaining about UN resolutions before the band stops, slows down, and falls into a laid-back acoustic groove. It’s a travel song with Leo hitting the road but thinking about home. Along the way he gets insulted by Canadians, mistaken for a New Yorker, and slammed with some serious roaming charges, but he takes it all in stride. “Sometimes the path of least resistance can gain you the most”, he admits before cutting to the song’s stein-hoisting crescendo. Wherever he goes, he ends up in a watering hole, finding solace in other humans and sorting everything out over a few pints. “Tell the bartender I think I’m falling in love”. Leo croons sweetly as the song slowly winds down. If all goes according to plan, by this point the listener will echo the sentiment.
(Living with the Living, 2007)
“The Sons of Cain” was a song built on the road over the course of two years and it shows the Pharmacists at their power-trio best. The song starts with Leo’s sizzling guitar riff exploding out of the speakers and directly into the back of your brain before Dave Lerner’s rock-steady bass drops in, softly cradling it and helping it keep driving ahead. Light acoustic guitar and a funky piano breakdown give it a manic, cow-punk feeling as Leo wails against a world populated by descendants of humanity’s first murderer. He knows he can’t change things by himself, but declares that “alone I’ve got to sing just to EXIST /... and to resist”, which is practically the raison d’etre of his career. “Sons” ends on a powerful crescendo with the band going into overdrive trying to match the intensity of Leo’s throat-shredding scream of “yeaaaaah!” He may be an English major, but Leo knows as well as anyone that when words fail, music still makes sense.
(Shake the Sheets, 2004)
Shake the Sheets came out just before the 2004 American presidential election, and it felt like a beacon of hope to liberals already battered by four years of Bush and girding themselves to the possibility of another four. Built around Leo’s wiry, caffeinated guitar and Lerner’s meaty, menacing bass, the song is a musical workout, with the band thundering forward, then pulling back, then forward again. On top of this, Leo’s lyrics spoke directly to those desperate times, but also had a measure of universality that ensure that they don’t seem like dated, mid-2000s postcards. Lines like “If you’re not content to just believe / And you don’t consent to just let it be / Stretch you legs and dance with me / All night” seemed to describe his live shows perfectly, but what really won people’s hearts was the coda. As the band slowly drops out, Leo keeps repeating “It’s alright” like a mantra until you’re almost ready to believe that it’s true. As one fan put it, “Some days you really do need to hear it 150 times.”
(Hearts of Oak, 2003)
If you’ve never heard Ted Leo before, “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” is not the place the start because it sounds like nothing he’s done before or since as a solo artist. Minus a few chords in the intro, Leo’s guitar is nowhere to be heard. Instead, Dave Lerner’s filthy fuzz bass and Chris Wilson’s feral pummeling provide a musical interpretation of the tale of hatred, alienation, and abuse being presented. As he does so well, Leo packs multiple meanings into the title, with the Sin Eaters being both his own briefly-lived post-Chisel band and figures of Celtic mythology who would symbolically consume people’s sins to absolve their souls. The song’s narrator is an American abroad (presumably during the lead-up to the Iraq War) who absorbs all the scorn and anger the world has to offer for his bellicose country. Drifting from the UK to Spain to Syria and beyond, he finds nothing but disdain and abuse. Meanwhile Leo mockingly asks, “You didn’t think they could hate you, huh, did you?” Then he delivers the final cut: “Oh, but they hate you / They hate you ‘cause you’re guilty.” “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” is another powerful, poetic wake-up call from the heart of the Bush years that still sounds sadly relevant today.