10 Best Hold Steady Songs
Almost immediately after they released their 2004 debut album, 'Almost Killed Me,' the Hold Steady were labeled the indie-rock Bruce Springsteen It's been both a blessing and a curse for the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minnesota band. Their big choruses, working-class losers, sweeping piano fills and recurring Catholic-bred characters are straight from the Boss' playbook. Still, it's a tough act to live up to. But the group, fronted by a guy whose manic stage mannerisms could fill their own Top 10 list, has sharpened its identity over five albums. We've weeded through them to give you the 10 best Hold Steady songs.
The opening song on the band's terrific second album starts with 20 seconds of a cappella exposition delivered by Craig Finn, who speaks as much as he sings his lines. Then it all kicks in: the strutting guitars, the flowing organ, the wrecking-ball drums -- all of which make the Hold Steady sound like the hardest-working bar band on the planet. It's also a perfect intro to 'Separation Sunday''s narrative thread about a quartet of folks looking for redemption through a steady diet of sex and drugs.
This is where it all starts: the stories, the characters, the Catholic imagery and the Springsteen comparisons. This rocker shows up early on the band's debut album, and it introduces a group of people who take as much interest in their own messed-up lives as they do in classic-rock history (Journey's Steve Perry and Neal Schon make appearances). Get used to them -- they're a part of almost every track on this list of the 10 Best Hold Steady Songs.
The opening cut on the band's fourth album signals some changes for the Hold Steady. The characters who repeatedly show up on the group's first three albums are either grown up or missing here, and Finn sounds more in control of his unwieldy voice. (Keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who was hugely responsible for the band's Springsteenian heft, left the group before they recorded their next LP.) Still, there are a couple of great songs on 'Stay Positive,' including the album's opener, a tough rocker about boozing away the summer months.
The Hold Steady's third album is where it all comes together. In a way, it's just a more monumental take on 'Separation Sunday''s grandiose visions, but the extra doses of lyrical and musical perception fuel, for the first time, an entire album. 'Party Pit' sounds like a leftover mini-epic from 'Darkness on the Edge of Town,' with suburbanites getting lost in their dreams and desperation as piano and guitars follow them to their stumbling end.
The band's first album without Nicolay's widescreen piano and organ fills makes it the least representative of Hold Steady's five LPs. Finn's relatively lucid vocals don't help either. The tougher, more focused sound gives many of the songs a mainstream polish that leans closer to classic rock, but the hook-filled 'Hurricane J' stands out as a hearty slice of economical songwriting that doesn't entirely forfeit the group's familiar style.
With help from Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner and the Reputation's Elizabeth Elmore, Finn tells the story of a couple of kids who do way too many drugs at a rock festival and meet cute at a makeshift hospital on the grounds as they recover from their respective ODs. It's a modern-day love story filled with hallucinogenics, paramedics and oranges.
The first single from the band's fourth album does little to push aside the Springsteen comparisons the Hold Steady undoubtedly were getting a little tired of hearing at this point. But the organ, guitars and the key changes come straight from the Boss' 'River' period (there's even a horn in there somewhere). It's also the band's most straightforward track on this list of 10 Best Hold Steady Songs.
Drugs, migraines and a racehorse named after a cookie figure into one of the band's best songs, an early highlight of the third album. Finn, as most always, plays both observer and participant, getting high with a girl who scores with her winnings. But you'd never know how bummed out everyone in the song is by the rousing "whoa-oh-whoa"s that ring throughout.
The opening song on the band's third album, its best, makes a reference to Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road,' but the aimless characters have just as much in common with '90s kids who haven't quite reached that growing-up stage of their lives yet. From its opening riff -- sorta -U2-meet-Springsteen -- to Finn's wordy narrative about, once again, sex and drugs as the ultimate redemption, it's one of the Hold Steady's all-time best.
Without specifically mentioning any of the recurring characters (Holly, Charlemagne, et al.), the track at the top of our list of the 10 Best Hold Steady Songs sums up both 'Separation Sunday''s main theme and the band's driving ethos. Jesus makes an appearance. So do the Mississippi River, at least one saint and various casual drug users. The song also features one of the group's best performances, with Finn striking a priestly pose in front of a "dirty storefront church." Heavenly.