Brooklyn’s the Hold Steady has become one of the hardest working, critically-acclaimed live indie rock bands of the past decide. Its concerts are characterized by frontman Craig Finn’s infectiously energetic delivery style and the band’s magical, classic rock-infused chemistry. The Hold Steady’s music represents a delightfully perverse amalgamation of the Rolling Stones’ unbridled sexuality, Jack Kerouac’s open-road spirit, and the Replacement’s independent sensibility. While the group’s live shows are often venerated to a sacred level above itss five studio LPs, the astonishing performances wouldn’t be possible without a prodigious collection of skillfully constructed songs.
Listed below you will find ten songs that represent the Hold Steady’s straightforward yet contagiously energetic sensibility. Each of these tunes stands out not only as a staple at Hold Steady concerts (with one or two notable exceptions), but also as the most memorable moments in the band’s varied recorded catalog. No doubt, any of these ten songs would make a great “gateway drug” for anyone interested in discovering the charms of the group for the first time. Happy listening!
10. “Stay Positive”
“Stay Positive” serves as the de facto theme song for the Hold Steady at live shows. The band, with its upbeat music and optimistic vibes, tries to live up to the ideals expressed in this tune. The song speaks of changing times and values (“The kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own / The sing-along songs will be our scriptures”). Craig Finn rather brilliantly refers back to “Positive Jam”, the first song from the group’s debut record Almost Killed Me (“It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam / And it’s another thing to see it all through”). Musically, the song’s jaunty, eighth-note-driven rhythm reflects the sunny lyrics. It’s always a highlight of the concert when the band’s fans sing out “whoa-oh-oh-oh, we gotta stay positive” in unison.
9. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
Lyrically, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” could be considered a template for virtually every Hold Steady song. It addresses such classic Hold Steady topics as ambiguous relationships, drug culture, and specific locations in Minneapolis. Musically, it embraces the kind of simplicity that makes it a favorite sing-along at the band’s shows. It’s a relatively short song and has no solo breaks or lead lines. For a group that is known for playing extended jams at times, the recorded version reflects a kind of admirable brevity. The song’s emotional honesty is infectious; as the speaker insists, “I ain’t never been with your little hoodrat friend”, the listener is inclined to believe him.
8. “Sequestered in Memphis”
Here’s a funny little story. The speaker, apparently talking to the cops, relays a tale about dancing, things “getting heavy when we got to the bathroom”, and going to “some place where she cat-sits”. The protagonist has been “subpoenaed in Memphis” and “sequestered in Texas”. The fact that the crime the speaker is accused of is not spelled out for the listener in black and white reflects the ambiguous fun of many Hold Steady lyrics. The saxophone on the chorus adds a different texture for the band, and Hold Steady crowds have fun singing this track’s desperate, geographically-specific chorus over and over again.
7. “Positive Jam”
(Almost Killed Me)
Of all things, the Hold Steady began its recording career with a history lesson. The lyrics here speak of waking up “in the ’20s and there were flappers and fruits in white suits”. The speaker then takes the listener through the ’40s (“There were wheelchairs, guns, and tickertapes”), ’50s (“Holding hands and going steady”), ’60s (“Some Kennedys got shot and you were screwing San Francisco”), ’70s (“We woke up on bloody carpets”), ’80s (“Some Kennedy OD’ed while we watched on MTV”), and ’90s (“Put it all down on technology and lost everything we invested”). Through it all, though, Finn insists that “we gotta start it with a positive jam”. The Hold Steady immediately laid the groundwork for the musical qualities that would follow tit the rest of its career, with Finn’s pseudo-spoken word delivery style, imagery-heavy lyrics, and guitar-driven choruses. As Finn states in this song, “I was bored when I didn’t have a band.” Thank goodness he got over his boredom.
6. “Stevie Nix”
“Stevie Nix” may just be the most pure fun the Hold Steady has ever laid down on tape. From the opening, Exile on Main Street-like guitar riff, to the gentle organ on the bridge, to the multiple pop culture references in the lyrics (Stevie Nicks, Mary Tyler Moore, Rod Stewart, etc.), this track covers a lot of ground. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay is also at his best here. A slow, quiet section in the middle of the tune features the most unguarded, emotionally resonant piano part in the band’s catalog. The gentle touch of the piano reflects the song’s lyrics about the passage of time (“Lord, to be 17 forever… Lord, to be 33 forever”). The track then builds to some killer dual lead guitar parts that end the song, leaving the listener feeling as if he or she’s truly been on a fascinating journey.
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5. “Chips Ahoy!”
(Boys and Girls in America)
Among other positive qualities, the Hold Steady possess the rare gift of storytelling. “Chips Ahoy!”, a favorite track from Boys and Girls in America, weaves the fascinating tale of a girl who is able to predict which horse will win the big race and pops pills routinely. The speaker’s exasperation in dealing with this complex woman pours through the song’s understated lyrics (“She’s hard on the heart / She’s soft to the touch / She gets migraine headaches / When she does it too much / She always does it too much”). The real story here, though, rests not in the song’s complex narrative, but rather in the infectious bridge, which features an energetic rolling organ part and one of the edgiest guitar riffs of the band’s career.
4. “Stuck Between Stations”
(Boys and Girls in America)
Craig Finn wears his unbridled love for all things Jack Kerouac on his sleeve. Therefore, nobody was surprised when he started the band’s third LP with the line “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right / Boys and girls in America, they have some a sad time together.” In fact, this line could sum up the lyrical content of almost every Hold Steady song ever written. Clearly, the group is infinitely fascinated with the simultaneous pleasures and frustrations of human relationships. The group speaks with a kind of universalism, despite the often distinctive Midwestern milieu it depicts. Finn sums it all up when he says “These Twin City kisses / They sound like clicks and hisses.”
3. “The Swish”
(Almost Killed Me)
It was on this, the second track from the band’s first LP, that the Hold Steady really came into its own. With a repetitive, supremely catchy guitar riff as the backdrop, Finn talks about an odd, scary, and exciting night on the town. With references to Beverly Hills, “hazardous chemicals”, and a one-hour photo place, the narrative is more impressionistic than crystal-clear. The song launched not just the band’s career, though, but many a fan’s love for the weird, wonderful world the Hold Steady creates through its material. When Finn at the end sings, “I did a couple favors for these guys who looked like Tusken Raiders”, we’re bound to believe him, even though we might not have a clue what he’s talking about.
2. “The Weekenders”
(Heaven Is Whenever)
“Chips Ahoy!” was such a great song that the band decided to pull off the rare feat of creating an explicit sequel, as “The Weekenders” finds the couple depicted in the previous track a few years down the road. The group begins by breaking the fourth wall that is often set up in pop music between the speaker and the audience. Finn talks directly to the listener, saying, “There was that whole weird thing with the horses / I think they know exactly what happened / I don’t think it needs any explaining.” Quite simply, “The Weekenders” consists of the most mature, emotionally resonant set of lyrics of the band’s career. The narrator begins by musing “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t your first choice / I think I was the last one remaining”. In a particularly clever line, Finn notes that “The theme of the party was The Industrial Age / And you came in dressed like a train wreck.” In one of the Hold Steady’s most notable bouts of realism, the speaker insists that “If you swear to keep it decent / Then, yeah, I’ll come and see you / But it’s not gonna be like in romantic comedies / In the end, I bet no one learns a lesson.” The song’s lyrical acuity is matched by an irresistible eighth-note bass groove, one that is sublime in its simultaneous simplicity and off-kilter nervous energy.
1. “You Can Make Him Like You”
(Boys and Girls in America)
“You Can Make Him Like You” may seem like an odd choice to top a list of the greatest Hold Steady songs. Sure, it touches on the most commonly expressed themes in the Hold Steady’s vast catalog: the complexities of relationships, the never-ending quest for increased self-esteem, and the varied aspects of American drug culture. The speaker, talking directly to a woman whose identity is apparently bound up in her lover’s, somewhat sardonically remarks that “You don’t have to go to the right kind of schools / Let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools / You can wear his old sweatshirt / You can cover yourself like a bruise.” However, if things don’t work out, “There’s always other boyfriends / You can make them like you.” This track is a somewhat atypical representation of the Hold Steady partially because of its decidedly precise lyrics, for mystery and ambiguity don’t creep into this song as much as on many other classic Hold Steady tunes. In addition, this cut is decidedly melodic, featuring one of the most painfully beautiful main guitar/piano riffs in the band’s entire songbook. For a group known for Finn’s often pointillist, spoken-word style, this is probably the tune most likely to make it into the Billboard Hot 100. However, it’s the Hold Steady song that I return to the most often. Its musical symmetry and lyrical clarity is refreshing amongst the group’s often challenging — yet always rewarding — repertoire.