One of the first things we hear Craig Finn snarl on his band’s 2004 debut album is a simple declaration of intent: “We gotta start it off with a positive jam!” This — and Finn’s decade-by-decade American history barrage that precedes it — is where the legend of the Hold Steady, America’s premier bookish, beerish, don’t-call-them-a-bar-band bar band, begins.
Both positivity and jamming have remained the Hold Steady’s mission statement for nearly 15 years. In that time, they’ve lived a dozen lives across six albums, hundreds of whiskey-drenched shows, and minor lineup retooling. Now, the band’s enjoying a career high point, reunited with beloved mustachioed piano man Franz Nicolay (who rejoined in 2016 after six years away) and playing multi-night blowout shows whenever they want, freed from the burdens of album-cycle touring. There’s also their newest music, three excellent pairs of standalone tracks that began dropping in late 2017.
Long before the horn-drenched glory of last month’s “The Stove & The Toaster,” the rallying cry at the crux of “Positive Jam” resounded widely, solidifying the band’s most ardent fans into what came to be known as the Unified Scene. In 2008, on a kind of status-report title track “Stay Positive,” Finn acknowledged their role in the Hold Steady’s enduring success: “It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam / And it’s another to see it on through / We couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you.”
As fitting as that tale is, it goes even deeper. The Hold Steady has even humbler beginnings in a decidedly more rudimentary-looking hand-pressed 7″ vinyl, also released in 2004 and limited to 500 copies. The A-side held a six-minute druggy spy movie set to coy guitar licks called “Milkcrate Mosh,” which begins with a very different but equally literary declaration from Finn: “You know, the gin was just like Gideon.” And in those eight words, you find the proverbial hot soft light central to this band: the boozy and the biblical, the dangerous tales of irresistible characters. Guitarist Tad Kubler offers his best scheming lead lines, in sync with the bold rhythm section of Galen Polivka on bass and Judd Counsell on drums (soon replaced by Bobby Drake).
“Milkcrate Mosh” later found resurrection on Almost Killed Me’s deluxe version. It’s just one of a large handful of essential Hold Steady B-sides that add to the band’s mythology — the ever-expanding exploits of Gideon, Hallelujah, and Charlemagne — and occasionally, their beloved and famously libationary live sets. Below are the best of the bunch, which means not every single one is represented. They’re certainly not all positive jams, but they all matter, and each one is required listening to help soundtrack your own massive nights. As Finn expectorates early on in that earliest Hold Steady single, “Nervous cough, and now we’re off.”
“Milkcrate Mosh” (from the Almost Killed Me era, 2004)
Backed with a rambling cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” this early slinker inaugurates Finn’s sketchy regulars at its onset, with a scene where would-be wizards wave lit cigs like magic wands. Naturally, Kubler’s beer-soaked guitar riffs are a blast, but it’s Finn’s parting thought that punctuates everything like a burn hole in your favorite jacket: “Whatever you put in your mouth, it always gets into your mind.”
“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came To The Dance With)” (from the Almost Killed Me era, 2004)
“This is a drinking song, but it’s told in a metaphor,” Finn presages this two-minute blitz on the A Positive Rage live album. And it’s true: Legend has it, he scribbled these bleary lyrics down after more than a dozen beers and a few fingers of Scotch. As yet another patented Hold Steady drinking song, though, it seems odd to have never ended up on a proper Hold Steady album. Thankfully, it found a welcome home in the band’s live set. Its message, after all, is timeless.
“Hot Fries” (from the Almost Killed Me era, 2004)
One of Finn’s most blistering and vicious vocal performances is unsurprisingly one of the most fun. When he’s not dissing the subject of his ire for having cliche, sad, druggy tastes — “Elliott Smith seems like a mess to me,” he utters, less than a year after Smith’s death — he’s spouting a gloomy mantra that a darkest-timeline Hold Steady might’ve opted for: “The things that make you high will make you die.” Lucky for us, we live in the realm where positivity has staying power and resurrections are real.
“Curves & Nerves” (from the Almost Killed Me era, 2004)
Apart from the prototypical gorgeous punk poetry on display here, “Curves & Nerves” does some heavy lifting to fill in some gaps in the story of Hallelujah, Finn’s favorite tragic heroine. Namely, she went to LA and ended up in front of the camera at some cheap porn shoots. But Finn makes a meal out of the syllables: “She did a movie called Revenge Of The Pervs / There were screams and jeans and curves and nerves.” The pop-punk arrangement makes Holly’s woes both tragic and ecstatic. Behind it all, two vocal tracks (one aggressively talk-singing, one more melodic) allow dueling Finns to embody the present and the future of the Hold Steady.
“Modesto Is Not That Sweet” (from the Almost Killed Me era, 2004)
While recording Almost Killed Me, Nicolay hadn’t officially joined the band yet, but he guested on a few key tracks. His accordion here brings the necessary levity, softening the crushing reality of how Holly’s trip out west ended up a massive bust. The music tells us that she’s lost out there, but she’ll be back — and that ultimately, she’ll be OK in the end. Technical performance practicalities aside, the fact that this large-hearted power ballad is not a setlist staple is nothing less than a minor crime.
“The Most Important Thing” (from the Separation Sunday era, 2005)
Is the most important thing that the bar band is playing the Stone Roses? That it took a few years for them to break stateside but that Americans eventually found them? That right before things got real hazy someone turned on Music From Big Pink and the night closed on a good note at least? That Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne (“Charly” on this one) each get their own verse? Or that when the big bookshelf fell down at the end, a Bible hit your head and that’s how you got born again? Trick questions — the answer is all of the above.
“212-Margarita” (from the Separation Sunday era, 2005)
The Hold Steady’s reflective musings on unsavory characters often tap into the wisdom etched into tavern bathroom walls. Here, it becomes explicit: “Call me 212-Margarita / Cause I’m salty and I’m sour and I’ve had too much tequila.” The New York area code suggests an origin, but maybe it’s not even Holly’s own number she’s offering up. Later, she gives another option: 612-Bloody Mary, suggesting both another identity and a different city (Minneapolis, of course). As such, it’s a tasty additional bit of the playful deceptions and scams Holly pulls to get by.
“Girls Like Status” (from the Boys And Girls In America era, 2006)
“Guys go for looks, girls go for status” is exactly the kind of bullshit toxic slogan you’d hear from the messiest guy at the bar at last call. But set the wisdom of Finn’s father to the sha-la-las of his son’s band and you’ve got a hell of a university narcotics singalong! In fact, the Hold Steady pack so much into barely three minutes here that it cements the Boys And Girls In America era as the band’s creative peak.
“For Boston” (from the Boys And Girls In America era, 2006)
On this ode to doping in Beantown (where he went to school and started up his first band, Lifter Puller), Finn avoids the obvious Cheers references, opting to center the action in the city’s heart. There’s a townie both holding and hiding a blade, more blackout collegiate drama, and getting high as hell but not yet born again. Nicolay’s keys here add a gorgeous nighttime gleam, giving off the same warm buzz Minneapolis gets on the band’s most essential song.
“Arms And Hearts” (from the Boys And Girls In America era, 2006)
The cover art for Boys And Girls In America renders the image of this song’s chorus physical; it’s also the one that serves up a slogan for the band itself: “Arms and hearts and alcohol and faith.” While the first half of the song is coy and a little uncertain of whether it’s angry, anxious, or just shiftless, it eventually, like all the best positive jams, charges into a proper anthem.
“Teenage Liberation” (from the Boys And Girls In America era, 2006)
Producer John Agnello was “really good at saying, ‘This song isn’t going to make the record,'” Kubler told The New York Times in 2006, shortly after Boys And Girls’ release. This three-minute piece of piano fornication was one of the fallen, and probably for good reason — the best and most essential Hold Steady songs are the ones with a little muscle, maybe a crunching guitar part and some quintessentially American solo work. Still, it’s an important one to revisit to see just where Finn’s head lived when writing awkwardly about young love, in all its fumbling glory: “Teenage heat is a warm and wet and heavy situation.” Not exactly from the handbook, is it?
“Ask Her For Adderall” (from the Stay Positive era, 2008)
A live essential on par with “Girls Like Status,” “Adderall” packs a ton of field reporting into one brazen tale ultimately about scoring chemicals. That war going down in the middle-western states? Needs more gauze. General anxiety levels? Still through the roof. But hey, Finn also gets a quick win for the band in there, referencing their 2007 opening slot for the Rolling Stones in front of 85,000 people at Dublin’s Slane Castle. No Klonopin needed for that.
“Cheyenne Sunrise” (from the Stay Positive era, 2008)
After three breakneck albums released in three consecutive years, Stay Positive showed what the future of the Hold Steady might sound like now that Finn knew his way around a chorus. This outtake suggested the precise kind of sepia-toned rumination conveyed on the album art, and the tempo matches the dustiness. Where “Modesto Is Not That Sweet” hits bittersweet like a found postcard, “Cheyenne Sunrise” evokes the very act of writing one, and the half-empty bottle that sits next to the author’s hand.
“Two Handed Handshake” (from the Stay Positive era, 2008)
At some point around 2008 or so, Finn’s predilection for capturing the massive highs and crushing lows of boys and girls in America shifted slightly to something more melancholy. Instead of drinking out of purses in the bathroom at prom, here’s a song about deciding whether or not to bail on the post-work happy hour because, you know, the office is a bit gossipy — and also about falling asleep with makeup on and suffering a pimple as a result. Ordinary things are still so seismic when we’re living through them. This one, and later, “Hurricane J” offer hard and fast proof.
“40 Bucks” (from the A Positive Rage era, 2009)
The Mountain Goats shout-out on “Girls Like Status” makes sense on a number of levels; Finn and John Darnielle have been held up as the Springsteen and Dylan of our time, for better or worse. But “40 Bucks” sounds like a true collaborative effort between the pair. It’s not, of course, but the wonky horns and buoyant rhythms evoke the Mountain Goats’ Transcendental Youth — despite being four years ahead of it. The next time your petition-making friend talks about a Finn/Darnielle dream team-up, put on “40 Bucks” and crack open a couple beers. You’re both in for it.
“Spectres” (from the A Positive Rage era, 2009)
Where the seediness of showbiz bled through “Slapped Actress” via group chants and power chords, “Spectres” examines the negatives via Nicolay’s bright piano and a load of fluttering violin strings. Finn’s voice is strong here, previewing his more downbeat, contemplative solo releases several years later. What’s another way to say “Wwe make our own movies”? You might try, “We’re all actors and actresses” — though the second one sounds so goddamn defeatist, doesn’t it?
“Ascension Blues” (from the Heaven Is Whenever era, 2010)
What this crunch fest has on fellow Heaven leftover “Touchless,” besides a much better title, is the virtue of not sounding like a contemporary Oasis cut. Instead, “Ascension” pulls off its own levitation, sweating out a hyperbolic church scene that feels like a bad trip and, most importantly, staying on theme. Finn nervously spouts off about a thousand words here, but the most essential are in the refrain: “We’re gonna all be friends in heaven.”
“Criminal Fingers” (from the Heaven Is Whenever era, 2010)
Eventually released in 2013 with the Game Of Thrones contribution “The Bear And The Maiden Fair,” the twinkly, duplicitous “Criminal Fingers” saw some time in rotation on the band’s 2010 tour supporting Heaven Is Whenever and has popped up for a few cameos since then. Instead of muted anger and redemption at stake here, this one is all about the swampy lines separating right and wrong. If the song title doesn’t alert you to the danger at hand, perhaps Kubler’s murky guitar tone, or Finn’s panicked declaration midway through that “we should probably get our stories straight” will do the trick.
“Records & Tapes” (from the Teeth Dreams era, 2014)
The persistent knock against Teeth Dreams, that its gooey core was drowned in too many layers of alt-radio guitars, still has some merit. At 48 minutes, it’s a bit taxing without the prior reprieves of Nicolay’s piano interludes, which fled the band with him in 2010. But this warm-centered B-side finds the perfect balance of loud-quiet-loud, allowing a refrain of milky oohs to careen in at the exact right times. “Every single story has a few different versions,” Finn sings, summing up the ever-evolving, glorious, comeback story of his characters as well as his band. “You tell the one that makes you look better.”