Rumors of rock and roll’s demise have been greatly exaggerated for almost as long as there’s been rock and roll, so it’s not like this generation has a monopoly on rockist panic. But as today’s most popular rock acts cease to be rock acts — Mumford And Sons’ pop-folk, Eric Church’s country-fried wallop, the car-ad concept art that is Imagine Dragons — rock purists have found themselves increasingly rudderless against the Billboard chart’s current. While it’s true that rock has been losing ground with young people for decades, it’s typically been to other genres. Now the other genres eat it from within.
This development, in and of itself, isn’t tragic. Pop culture cycles through its zeitgeists at a merciless clip by definition. The tragedy is that the cultural historians of the future will have a lot of “rock and roll is dead” think-pieces to wade through from this past decade, and they’ll risk missing one of the most exciting mini-eras in rock history. I’m talking, of course, about the already diminished but still ongoing reign of the Springsteen-indebted, punk-inflected bar band.
In that corner of the rock game, the Hold Steady remain peerless. Founding members Craig Finn and Tad Kubler came up through the Minneapolis punk scene in the ’90s with Lifter Puller (or LFTR PLLR), a critically acclaimed and locally beloved band that was never fully able to tap into a wider audience. (The attention paid to a set of reissues released in 2009 prevents the word “underrated” from being particularly accurate here.) If Lifter Puller’s white-hot collision course saw that act burn out from necessity, then necessity too brought Finn and Kubler back together four years later with a new band, obsessed with ’70s rock mythology and unafraid to pursue it to ends that wouldn’t fly in the DIY art-punk world. Their songs would be dance numbers, their albums would be parties, and their lyrics would be set in a seedier “Jungleland” with harder drugs.
2014 marks the Hold Steady’s tenth year as a band, and in those ten years, the following bands have formed and found success: The Gaslight Anthem, Titus Andronicus, The Men, The War on Drugs, Japandroids. Now, I certainly don’t mean to imply that these bands ripped the Hold Steady off, or even that they particularly sound similar. It does seem, however, that the road to a certain combination of rockcrit acclaim and fanbase passion runs through what the Hold Steady does best. The Boss, Thin Lizzy, Big Star, The Stooges, and The Replacements loom large, but it’s not mere pastiche that makes 800 kids scream in unison to songs their dads would like. It’s a mashup of the self-awareness that indie rock demands with a genuine belief that rock can be a great and powerful thing, a life-saving ether, and a legitimate medium for expressive, relevant art. In that regard, no one trumps Finn and Kubler.
This list was constructed to show the range the Hold Steady is capable of when they’re operating at their peak, and as such, no songs from 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever made the cut. It was the band’s first record after the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, and it suffered for his absence. It took four years for the band to complete the follow-up, and it only takes one listen to see why. Teeth Dreams is the sound of the Hold Steady gracefully accepting middle age. On past records, the parties usually took place in the present tense, or at the very most, as a hungover reflection on the night before. Here, Finn conjures those memories across what feel like centuries, and the tightness of the band’s instrumental work matches his own more controlled yelp. It’s not the same kooks that blacked out on your living room floor ten years ago, but here we have a smarter, more sober Hold Steady, one that we’ll hopefully be able to enjoy for decades to come.
10. “Atlantic City” (from War Child Presents Heroes, 2009)
For most rock bands, citing a song they didn’t write as one of their best would come across as an insult. That’s not the case for the Hold Steady, who present a version of one of Springsteen’s best songs as if it had been written for Born To Run instead of Nebraska. Even this blatant act of hero worship comes with Finn and Kubler’s fingerprints all over it, though, and the result is undeniably a Hold Steady song. Ominous piano replaces the original acoustic guitar through the first minute or so, but when it gives way to saxophone, that foreboding turns into the kind of slightly scary party music this band has perfected. A few brilliant splashes of electric guitar and a chant-like repurposing of the song’s refrain (“Everything dies, that’s a fact/ Maybe everything that dies someday comes back”) close things out in appropriately bar-band fashion. Nebraska is perfect the way it is, but credit these dudes for making us a little wistful for a version co-starring the E Street Band.
9. “Sequestered In Memphis” (from Stay Positive, 2008)
In a 2005 interview, Craig Finn talked about his love of hip-hop. He name-dropped half the Rhymesayers roster and Jay-Z and said “Hip-hop is so much about lyrics…as a lyricist it’s hard not to be inspired by it.” The hip-hop influence in Finn’s lyrics is both blindingly obvious and surprisingly difficult to actually pinpoint. I’ve always though the pre-chorus to “Sequestered In Memphis” was a particularly brilliant bit of rap-cribbing: “In bar light, she looked alright/ In daylight, she looked desperate/That’s all right, I was desperate too/ I’m getting pretty sick of this interview.” In four lines — bars, really — we get a slant rhyme, an alliterative word replacement, and an ABCC rhyme pattern. Finn’s slurred delivery rolls over a rumbling sax that threatens to explode but never quite does, and the song ends with an AC/DC gang vocal bit and a drum solo. It’s an incredible song, smartly cloaking its nods to hip-hop in a pile of hard rock hallmarks, and it’s an effective antidote to every band who has ever played self-described rap-rock while understanding neither genre.
8. “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” (from Teeth Dreams, 2014)
The first single from the Hold Steady’s de facto comeback album sounds a lot like the leanest tracks from their early career classics, at least at first blush. Repeat listens reveal a few critical differences. First of all, whoa, there was a scene that terrified Craig Finn? This is a dude who found peace and serenity in a pair of near overdoses less than a decade ago. As Jarvis Cocker might put it, something changed. In keeping with Finn’s apparent maturation, the band’s playing is in rhythmic lockstep, and the production is crisp and clean. This sounds like a song that will have to be adapted from the studio to the bar rather than the other way around. Teeth Dreams is full of such cuts, but “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” admirably sets the tone for the record from the side-A needle drop. The chaos that dictated the band’s earlier albums has been dialed back, but that just makes Finn’s payoff lines hit even harder.
7. “South Town Girls” (from Boys And Girls In America, 2006)
Thus begins the impossible task of picking the best songs from Boys And Girls In America, one of the five or six best rock records of the last decade. Skipping around the track listing to listen to the ostensible highlights is a bit like turning off Pulp Fiction after the burger scene, but a few of the Boys And Girls bangers do bang just a bit harder than the rest. The closing track, “South Town Girls,” is one of them. It opens with a wobbly Finn a cappella that’s soon joined by his bandmates’ voices, then their instruments, but the Thin Lizzy break at the two-minute mark effectively washes away the memory of everything that came before it. In just under a minute, we get the best guitar solo in the Hold Steady’s discography, then their best twin lead guitar harmony, then a ripping harmonica solo. The vocals return, but they don’t really need to. If only this one time, Kubler’s whammy bar says more than Finn’s lyrics sheet ever could.
6. “Killer Parties” (from Almost Killed Me, 2004)
A sizable subset of the Hold Steady’s fan base believes that Almost Killed Me was their best record and that they’ll never top it, because it was their first record, and that’s how these things work. It’s not actually their best album — they sound self-assured, but the songwriting, and especially the performances, hadn’t yet caught up with the ambition. Still, “Killer Parties” is essentially the urtext for the Hold Steady aesthetic, with its admission of “Killer parties almost killed me” serving as equal parts drunken rallying cry and hungover whew, that was close. That duality lives at the core of the Hold Steady’s discography, and when the band staggers across that line more than once in the same song, the result is almost always good. (Also of note: The live recording of this song from A Positive Rage is nearly twice as long as the studio version, and Craig Finn is at least four times as drunk. It fucking rules.)
5. “How A Resurrection Really Feels” (from Separation Sunday, 2005)
Nearly all of the Hold Steady’s records have included references to Holly (née Hallelujah), Charlemagne, and Gideon, but the underrated Separation Sunday is the only album that sees Craig Finn slotting his noble-savage sleazeballs into a narrative rock opera. “How a Resurrection Really Feels” concludes the story, with the troubled, presumed-dead Holly storming into Easter mass and giving the priest a real-world illustration of that Sunday’s scripture. The musical accompaniment starts out in the mold of a classic Hold Steady barroom brawler, but it takes a profoundly sad turn as Finn invites us to reflect on everything our protagonist has been through. The song winds down with Nicolay’s piano, a tasteful Kubler guitar solo, and some very restrained guest horns before a gorgeous harpsichord coda brings the album to its conclusion. The concept album is a broadly maligned medium these days, but of course a band as devoted to the sounds of the ’70s as the Hold Steady would manage to make one as genuinely moving and unpretentious as this.
4. “Hot Soft Light” (from Boys And Girls In America, 2006)
As great as the Hold Steady are at crafting epics in miniature, some of their best songs are designed more as short, sharp shocks, knocking you down with a fat, vicious riff and leaving the room before you have time to gather yourself. “Hot Soft Light” is one such song, all power chords, sleazy shredding, and gurgling organ. Finn elevates it with one of his finest lyrical blends of the specific and universal, using Minnesota geography and the setlist of a heavy metal cover band to tell a story about a good night that got dark. Its beauty is in simplicity, and for a band with a predilection for the song-as-event, it’s a refreshing change of pace. P.S., Craig, can you put me in touch with the band that plays “Screaming For Vengeance” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” before my wedding?
3. “One For The Cutters” (from Stay Positive, 2008)
In his great dissection of Bruce Springsteen’s discography for Grantland, Steven Hyden took exception to the idea that “an artist’s least characteristic work should somehow be considered superior to his most characteristic.” He was writing about Nebraska, which is quite possibly my favorite Springsteen album, albeit not necessarily because it doesn’t sound like any other Springsteen album. It holds a special place in my heart because it was my gateway to a fuller appreciation of the Boss, and “One For The Cutters” had a similar effect on my relationship to the Hold Steady. I fell in love with the rickety harpsichord and the quiet desperation (and familiarity) of its narrative — this is the best piece of Bloomington, Indiana-related art ever made, no disrespect to Breaking Away — before I fully gave myself over to anything by the Hold Steady that sounds like the Hold Steady. Even now, it holds up for me as an example of just how weird an already idiosyncratic band could get without compromising the foundations of their musical ethos. The darkness of Finn’s lyric couldn’t be bound by the usual electric bounce of his band’s sound, so they didn’t force it and instead came up with one of the best things they’ve ever done — characteristic or not.
2. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (from Separation Sunday, 2005)
“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” might be the best piece of characterization on any concept album ever. In four minutes, and without one throwaway line, we learn as much about Holly as Mark Twain ever taught us about Huckleberry Finn. We learn about two of her homemade tattoos: a neck piece that says “Jesus lived and died for all your sins” and a tramp stamp that says “Damn right, I’ll rise again.” We learn about her claddagh ring, and about the rowdy scene, where she drinks and smokes with our narrator — but doesn’t do anything sexual with him. The lyric is ushered along by a ceaseless lurch of palm-muted guitar and rumbling organ, and even though we’re taking in a lot of information, we hang on every word. Three decades after the concept album’s reign, and six years before Fucked Up made “Hello, my name is David/ Your name is Veronica” into one of hardcore’s best live sing-alongs, Craig Finn made us care enough about a fictional character on a rock record to want to learn everything about her. “Hoodrat” is an essential Hold Steady song because we can hear how much Finn cares about her, too.
1. “Stuck Between Stations” (from Boys And Girls In America, 2006)
If someone wanted to learn what the Hold Steady is all about but only wanted to listen to one song, you’d show that person “Stuck Between Stations.” It has everything the band hangs their hats on — the heady, referential lyrics, the tales of misspent (or simply spent) youth, the fat grooves, the insistent rhythms, the brilliant guitar-piano interplay between Kubler and Nicolay, and Finn’s barely-even-trying-to-sing warble. But the greatness of “Stuck Between Stations” isn’t just that it contains everything a great Hold Steady song is supposed to contain. It’s that it sees the band figuring out how to individually perfect all those elements and then coax them into working together more seamlessly than they’ve managed anywhere else. If Boys And Girls in America is a monument to everything good about this band, “Stuck Between Stations” is the keystone. It feels slapdash at first, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more meticulously assembled rock song written in the last ten years. That it’s so well-disguised as workmanlike is a testament to the mastery of its makers.