The 25 Best Hold Steady Songs of All Time (For Now)

A couple of weeks ago, the Hold Steady, a Minneapolis-by-way-of-Brooklyn indie rock band that sings about lost teenagers, drifting adults, various scenes, and other bands, put out their sixth record, Teeth Dreams. It’s their first album in four years, and basically the only time any of the band’s fans have had to wait any real appreciable amount of time for something new; the first five came out in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010, never more than two years apart. This daunting pace was eventually slowed by some lineup shifts, extensive touring, lyricist and singer Craig Finn taking a solo-record detour, and, you know, life and stuff. The first three Hold Steady records are, to this fan’s ears, basically masterpieces, and the others are pretty damn good, too; it’s probably inevitable that the band would need a break from eighteen-month album cycles.

In celebration of this fresh batch of songs, the editors of SportsAlcochol.com decided to poll some other Hold Steady fans and come up with a definitive Top 25 Hold Steady Songs (So Far). Fourteen people, including many writers and zero professional music critics, composed top ten lists that were either weighted (if ranked) or distributed equally (if not). Points were tallied, songs were ordered, ties were broken by number of list mentions, cases were made, and, probably, feelings were hurt.

With a band that so smartly engages with the pleasures and dangers of nostalgia, there’s a very real danger and palpable pleasure that a list like this becomes a catalog of greatest hits from everyone’s favorite couple of albums — mid-aughts nostalgia for nostalgia about a time, nonexistent for anyone participating in this poll (as far as I know) when the eighties almost killed us. As to whether that actually happened, well, read on. Individual top tens seemed like the right number to ask for, given that, by my count, the band has fewer than 100 original tunes — but it nonetheless forced us all to make some hard choices. I will say that while no songs from Teeth Dreams made the list, consider this: “Oaks,” the new album’s nine-minute closer, came close, outscoring several stone-cold Hold Steady classics in the process. That seems to me a sign that this band will continue making great songs for years to come. My personal pick for a future classic: “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” the propulsive narrative that opens Teeth Dreams with classic severe understatement. The point us: we compose this list not to eulogize the band on the tenth anniversary of their debut record, Almost Killed Me (it came out April 20, 2004), but to pay tribute as they set out on their latest tour.

Finally, before we get to the countdown, please allow me to introduce our esteemed panelists:

Rob, Sabrina, Marisa, and Jesse are all co-founders of SportsAlcohol.com and they’re going to see the Hold Steady together in Albany on Friday.
Jeremy Bent is a writer, comedian, and bassist.
Timothy DeLizza is a lawyer, a fiction writer, and a gentleman.
A.A Dowd is the film editor for The Onion’s AV Club.
Joshua Max Feldman is a novelist and playwright whose novel The Book of Jonah is out now and should appeal to Hold Steady fans who love the band’s rocky, passionate relationship with religion.
Derrick Hart is a librarian and works in a bookstore so what we’re saying is, he knows where that book goes.
Craig Iturbe has a PhD, so don’t even start with him.
Kate McKean is a literary agent, writer, and crafter.
Cristina Moracho writes fiction and her novel Althea & Oliver drops this fall. You can find her in the pit.
Ben Morrison is a business man in addition to a business, man. He is also the person who put the Hold Steady on a Best of the First Half of 2005 mix CD and placed that mix CD in Jesse’s hands.
Lorraina Raccuia-Morrison edits textbooks and creates beautiful pottery.

Now, on with the business:

The Top 25 Hold Steady Songs, So Far

25. Hornets! Hornets!

Separation Sunday, 2005
“She mouthed the words along to ‘Running Up That Hill’ — that song got scratched into her soul. And he never heard that song before, but he still got the metaphor. Yeah, he knew some people that switched places before.”

It’s fitting to start our list with the leadoff track to The Hold Steady’s critically acclaimed concept album Separation Sunday. “Hornets! Hornets!” isn’t the first time Craig Finn told us about Hallelujah (Holly to the scene), a good Catholic girl who falls into drugs and worse before getting reborn. However, I think it might be her most vivid introduction. There is some ambiguity in exactly what’s happening, but you feel like you’re in that Minneapolis apartment, listening to Kate Bush, Bones Brigade videos strewn on the floor. Whatever it is, it’s all about to happen.

I also think that “Hornets! Hornets!” stays with me because (like a lot of people) it was the first thing I heard the first time I listened to one of the band’s album front to back. It’s kind of the perfect introduction to the band with the classic rock sound and the literate soul of a singer-songwriter — a cliched description of the band, but no less apt. When the Frampton-style talkbox shows up towards the end of the song, it doesn’t sound out of place. It even sounds good. I think that’s the best testament to this band I can give. -Rob

24. Slapped Actress

Stay Positive, 2008
“Don’t tell my sister about my most recent vision. Don’t tell my family; they’re all wicked strict Christians.”

The only thing I love more than the first ten minutes of a Hold Stady show are the last ten minutes — exhausted, elated, covered in sweat and confetti I will be finding around my apartment for weeks to come, and when they pull “Slapped Actress” out as a closer (just as it closes the Stay Positive record) I always get a little extra emo. The song is about the relationship between the artist and the audience (“they’re holding their hands out/for the body and blood now”) and the toll that art often takes on its creator (“sometimes making it look real/might end up with someone hurt”), something I became all too familiar with as I wrote and revised and finally sold my first novel, basically spending half a decade perpetually broke and sleep-deprived. -Cristina Moracho

23. Girls Like Status

B-side, 2006
“It was song number three on John’s last CD: I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me. And it almost killed me.”

Anyone passingly familiar with online dating can confirm that women without profile pictures and men without jobs have thin inboxes, and yet (notwithstanding every female lead paired with Woody Allen) most people I actually know pair off with folks of similar status and looks. So, whatever, either everyone is guilty of both stereotypes or neither one.

Here, though, the Hold Steady seem to be doing more than just reminding us of the debate. Craig often introduces this song by noting that “Guys go for looks, but girls they go for status” was advice from his father during his “slothful teenage years,” thus distancing himself slightly from the sentiment of the chorus, but then he sings the chorus over a cheerful beat like a taunt, seeming to embrace it as a cold truth. Then he plays with the listener again — describing how the cliche plays out in unexpected ways in an imagined hardcore underground full male dealers and female druggies. There, a guy’s access to drugs is all the status the girl needs, while the guy’s are attracted and entertained by girls with druggie visions (seeking revolution and emancipation), erratic behavior and violent affections. Everyone ends up bruised and damaged and engaging in false intimacy — ultimately suggesting that what status and “looks” you seek are local to the values of the scene you frequent. -Tim DeLizza

22. A Multitude of Casualties

Separation Sunday, 2005
“We spent a few years nodding off in matinees, high as hell and shivering and smashed. We were hoping for an action/adventure — something loud that we could feel through all the Feminax.”

Leave it to the Hold Steady to make their road-trip song a ballad. Most driving songs — the kind that talk about “how a cool car makes a guy seem that much cooler” — are up-tempo with a strong drum beat, something you can picture yourself singing along with as you roll down the windows and cruise on a highway. “A Multitude of Casualties” is more like a road-trip song for people who have nowhere to go. It takes its time, pausing between each of the lines, so you can listen to the tinkling of the keyboard. The drums don’t even kick in until the first verse is over.

It makes sense, though, because the characters in the song aren’t working towards a particular destination, either. They’re wandering around deserts and cities and into matinees, they’re scrounging and foraging, they’re hoping for a “vision quest,” they end up finding religion. (At least one of them does, anyway.) It’s a song about people who are lost, and looking to feel something strong enough to punch through a druggy haze. In the end, this song does both things for me: It makes me feel something, and I also want to sing it out the windows while I’m driving. -Marisa

21. Don’t Let Me Explode

Separation Sunday, 2005
“Yeah we didn’t go to Dallas, ’cause Jackie Onassis said that it ain’t safe for Catholics yet. Think about what they pulled on Kennedy, and then think about his security. Yeah, then think about what they might try to pull on you and me.”

The biggest proponent I know of “Don’t Let Me Explode” is my buddy Derrick, so in his stead I’m going to attempt to approximate what he loves about this song so much. First, it’s a ballad. Derrick has a weakness for Hold Steady ballads, as he and I and Rob and pretty much anyone else who knows him will know. My first instinct would be to say, come on, dude, you’re talking about one of the most exuberantly fist-pumping classic-slash-punk rock bands of the past decade or two, and you still lean towards the uncharacteristic ballads? Even say you think Separation Sunday could use another ballad or two? My second instinct, though, is to wait a bunch of years, continue to age, realize how many great goddamned ballads this band has, even start to look forward to new ones, maybe dance with my mom at my wedding to the one about heaven being getting together and listening to records, and think, OK, he’s got a point on the ballad thing. Oh, and also “Don’t Let Me Explode” is a lovely piano ballad that periodically works itself into a pummeling, pogo-worthy guitar hammer, which I think we can all agree is a great way to do a ballad (see also “The Ambassador” on Teeth Dreams, albeit in more traditional power-ballad form).

Second, the Catholic stuff. Derrick and I went to Sunday school together, got confirmed together, stopping going to church after getting confirmed together (actually, I bet Derrick has been to mass more times in the past five or six years than I have). The Hold Steady is the best lapsed-Catholic band I can think of, and that line I quote above about avoiding Dallas because of what happened to Kennedy is a beautiful expression of perverse Catholic pride, dirtbag paranoia, and general American mistrust. So, OK, well-played, Derrick: this song is masterful. -Jesse

20. Certain Songs

Almost Killed Me, 2004
“B12 is for the speeders, and D4 is for the lovers, and the hard drugs are for the bartenders and the kitchen workers and the bartender’s friends.”

“Certain Songs” isn’t the best Hold Steady song; with its lack of a big guitar riff, it’s barely even a Hold Steady song. It’s an apology, but in the religious sense—a justification for the Hold Steady doctrine.

“Born into the only songs that everybody finally sings along,” Meat Loaf and Billy Joel. Finn isn’t describing good songs, or at least he’s not describing songs that cutting edge bands use for creative inspiration, or ones that rock critics of the early aughts were writing about. So when I first heard the Hold Steady, this is the song that told me what I was going to hear — more than “Positive Jam” or “Barfruit Blues” when you meet Holly for the first time. “Certain Songs” is the song where Holly (or someone like her) goes to the jukebox for the first time.

The first time I heard this song was in a record store in Williamsburg. The band was promoting Separation Sunday with an acoustic show. The second time I heard it was when they headlined Bowery Ballroom for the first time. My memory is of the keyboardist doing dramatic flourishes — with much more bravado than what is on the recording. It was like “Layla.” But, then again, it was a different keyboardist, and the band was in its ascendency. No recording I’ve ever heard as been as transcendent as those performances.

Now, there’s no keyboardist. If the band plays it, it’s a lazy song that everybody sings along to. It’s more for the band to catch their breath. “Certain Songs” can never be played as good as when I first heard it, and that’s the point. Like Springsteen or Meat Loaf or Billy Joel,  Hold Steady songs are about fading memories, things you don’t quite remember, trivial things that were the most important things when you lived them. Thing that are only as important again when you are in the middle of your life and things haven’t turned out the way you wanted them to. So you long to remember the taste of warm beer, the smell and feel of summer smoke, how her shirt tails were out, and the sound of certain songs. -Ben Morrison

19. Sequestered in Memphis

Stay Positive, 2008
“Now they wanna know exactly which bathroom. Dude, does it make any difference? It can’t be important. What the hell, I’ll tell my story again.”

Listen to it live, clapping along with the crowd. Imagine that you’re alone in a field somewhere outside of Memphis, spinning around in the dark, screaming the lyrics to the sky. Then come back the rhythm of the crowd. -Lorraina Raccuia-Morrison

18. Killer Parties

Almost Killed Me, 2004
“If they ask about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague.”

Here was the first hard evidence that the Hold Steady were destined for more than the taverns of the Twin Cities: The last song on the band’s first album is a grand survivor’s anthem, its bittersweet post-rock big enough to fill an arena. And has Finn ever penned a better bit of blackout-blues poetry than, “If she says we partied, I’m pretty sure we partied, I really don’t remember, I remember we departed from our bodies”? -A.A Dowd

17. Party Pit

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“Gonna walk around and drink some more.”

I’ve read in many places that the Hold Steady draw an older crowd for an indie rock show due to their Springsteen-style appeal. My personal experience, however, is that I keep getting kicked in the head when I see them live. My wife is not the type of person who likes going to shows where people get kicked in the head, but we’re both going to see The Hold Steady this weekend. Their shows are one of the few places both my Morrissey-loving wife and bunches of drunk, bro-hugging dudes hang out for fun. “Party Pit,” her favorite Hold Steady song, speaks to this unifying appeal. Who doesn’t want to walk around and drink some more? -Rob

16. The Sweet Part of the City

Heaven is Whenever, 2010
“St. Theresa showed up wearing see-through; it was standard issue. We went out to get some more wine.”

The slide guitar pulls you in like a bear hug, and suddenly we’re back on Hennepin with old friends, Craig and his bandmates turning up the twang to conjure the inviting atmosphere of a late-summer reunion. “We like to play for you,” Finn croons over the back-porch balladry, but the pleasure is all ours. -A.A. Dowd

15. The Swish

Almost Killed Me, 2004
“She said my name’s Rick Danko, baby, people call me One-Hour Photo. I got some hazardous chemicals. So drive around to the window.”

For years, profiles of the Hold Steady would mention Craig Finn was working on a novel. Later on he regretted talking about it in the press because he had nothing to show for it. I imagine him toiling away like Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, writing thousands of pages with large portions spent on the genealogy of horses, no detail or backstory spared. Thinking and writing about the band again in advance of seeing them live for the first time in a long time, I always go back to the breadth and scope of the story Craig is telling. The thing that makes the Hold Steady really appealing to me, though, is that almost all of their songs work separately from knowing the backstory of Holly, Charlemagne, Gideon, et. al.

For example, take “The Swish.” It’s a song that introduces a couple of popular Hold Steady themes: the power of names, being compared to celebrities, and hanging at City Center. Knowing about that greater world they’re creating is cool, but this is just a damn good song. You can enjoy this tale of kids trying to stay cool and have fun with mixed success on its own. The fact that Craig Finn is the George R.R. Martin of indie rock is just gravy. -Rob

14. Chillout Tent

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“He was rough around the edges. He’d been to school but never finished. He’d been to jail but never prison.”

A “Summer Night”-style musical meet-cute via The Hold Steady, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, and The Reputation’s Elizabeth Elmore. Our drug-addled Romeo and Juliet’s “kinda sexy” but also “kinda creepy” hook-up in the recovery tent at a festival starts weird, gets funny and then surprisingly tender, all inside of four minutes. It’s not the most meaningful relationship of either of their lives, but it is a perfectly captured rock memory: a Hold Steady specialty. -Jeremy Bent

13. Ask Her for Adderall

B-side, 2008
“If she asks tell her we just opened for the Stones. It’s her favorite band except for the Ramones.”

I heard this song for the first time when they were touring in advance of Stay Positive and I remember being totally shocked when it didn’t make it onto the album proper (it appears only on the initial pressings of the CD, as a bonus track run in with two other songs). It is, to my mind, the Hold-Steadiest song ever written by The Hold Steady. It has all of the classic elements:
–Very specific references to prescription drugs.
–A general status report on the state of “the scene.”
–An undefined “she” who speaks entirely in second-hand described dialogue (this, incidentally, is why “Chillout Tent” is such an outlier among Hold Steady songs; so much of their songs are reported speech that it’s really jarring to hear other people singing for themselves).
–Most importantly, the lines perfectly almost rhyme in a very particular Hold Steady kind of way. “If she asks don’t tell her that I’m living hand to mouth/ don’t tell her that I’m sleeping on your couch.” “Mouth” and “couch” don’t rhyme, exactly, but they share vowel sounds, which is how Finn tends to structure his lyrics. I don’t know why, but it’s a lot more satisfying to me than straight rhyming is – it’s like I have to do a little bit of the work. -Craig Iturbe

12. Chips Ahoy!

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“Came in six lengths ahead; we spent the whole next week getting high. I love this girl but I can’t tell when she’s having a good time.”

You know what songs don’t have enough of? Magic. This is a song about a woman who can predict the future. It’s weirdly unapologetic about that — it just drops it baldly into the early lyrics, and then asks, “what would this relationship be like?” The important thing about this fact is not its existence – which is crazy, because it totally upends our understanding of reality – but that it excuses her from holding down a job. Trust this band to explore the everyday side of precognition. -Craig Iturbe

11. Massive Nights

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“Some guys, they get a little bit uptight. Some girls, they got something to prove.”

Has a better prom song ever been written? I doubt it. The Hold Steady has a streak of anti-nostalgia running through its lyrics (see: “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time”) but this is nostalgia at its best. It’s not cast in a rosy glow: they remember the fights, the crowded bathrooms, and the “crushing lows”. But it mostly calls out some of the best growing-up memories: the crushes, the concerts, and those nights where “every song was right.” It should also be mentioned: One of my favorite parts of any Hold Steady show is when Finn does a little jitterbug during this song. Massive nights indeed. -Marisa

10. Southtown Girls

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“Don’t look me in the eye, look over at the theater. I’m a little bit surprised you didn’t tell me there’d be three of you.”

Craig Finn drops what feels like a throwaway chorus, but on second look, it’s got more going for it. Is it a dig on townies who never dream of leaving the town, or is it full of deep affection for those girls willing to stand by a messed-up Minneapolis loser? Either way, that Franz Nicolay organ slide after the a cappella intro — that’ll blow you away. -Jeremy Bent

9. First Night

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“When we kiss we spit white noise.”

In my Hold Steady high school superlatives, “First Night” wins Best Song for Swaying. I always love the slow songs by any band, and this is no exception. We’ve all had first nights. And gah, do I miss Franz’s piano. -Kate McKean

8. Stay Positive

Stay Positive, 2008
“Because the kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own, and the singalong songs will be our scriptures.”

I admit it: I got stupid chills the first time I heard Finn add: “And we couldn’t’ve even done this if it wasn’t for you,” a shameless bit of fan flattery if I’ve ever heard one. I’ll admit that I got even stupider chills from seeing him sing it live, adding on “and you, and you, and you,” pointing to the clamorous front row like a preacher. If I’m going to be shamelessly flattered at a rock show, that’s how you do it. Speaking of that live show: they really mastered this one live; rather than crashing right into the “whoa-oh” part like on the record, they start with the guitar riff and the rest of the band really kicks in after “taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons,” sometimes after Finn calls out GO! He sometimes affects a hardcore-singer stance during the verses, gripping the mic and getting down low. It’s absolute magic, and it works because it feeds on the communal energy of the band’s fanbase, and because it caps maybe the most unequivocally inspirational song in the band’s catalog. -Jesse

7. Cattle and the Creeping Things

Separation Sunday, 2005
“I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick, I heard the chick blamed the snake. And I heard they were naked when they got busted, and I heard things ain’t been the same since.”

Before RapGenius, NPR would devote entire segments to unpacking songs like this. Songs like this were why every rock critic I read in 2004-2005 was in love with the Hold Steady: “It’s Thin Lizzy + Catholicism and religiosity + drugs + narrative.” It was heavy—heavy guitars, heavy subjects, heavy allusions: so many bible references, you need a concordance. “Cattle and the Creeping Things” is about reading into a multitude of sources. It’s how the kids are reading the bible — getting the gist, moving on, and pulling it into whatever they want it to mean, just as long as it doesn’t interfere with the scene. What we don’t like we’ll skip it, ’cause we think we’ve heard that one before. It’s all been played out.

At the last Hold Steady show I went to they brought up Patrick Stickles to do this song. It was energetic and raw in a way that it might have been in 2005. This performance was in the midst of the band preparing a new album, but most of the songs they played were anywhere from 5 to 10 years old. It’s all been played out; I think I might’ve mentioned that before. -Ben Morrison

6. How a Resurrection Really Feels

Separation Sunday, 2005
“She crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass. She was limping left on broken heels when she said, Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Like any true passion play, Separation Sunday ends on a rebirth, welcoming back its junkie hoodrat heroine with the bittersweet fanfare of keys, horns, an indelible Southern-rock hook, and a rousing singalong. If the narrative closure is unclear — is this literal, metaphoric, or spiritual resurrection? — the emotional catharsis is overwhelmingly powerful. -A.A. Dowd

5. Constructive Summer

Stay Positive, 2008
“Me and my friends are like the drums on ‘Lust for Life.'”

Barring any true meta-analysis, I’ll just go out on a limb and say it’s telling that four out of the six Hold Steady album openers made our list. With his deep and interweaving mythology, Craig Finn likes to set a set a scene with track one that will take us through the whole record. “Constructive Summer” is a little different, as it kicks off Stay Positive, which could be the story of the “murder mystery” referenced in “Charlemagne in Sweatpants.” Over the course of Stay Positive, witnesses are sequestered by the cops, a nice college girl gets a townie suspect out of town, and (of course) people keep turning to drugs so they don’t have to deal with the situation. Before anyone knows it’s all going south, there’s “Constructive Summer,” a spirited proposal to “build something this summer.” People are drinking on top of the local water tower and having a good time in yet another display of Finn’s deft ability to make you feel like you’re right there. Writing about the Hold Steady usually focuses on the lyrics, but this is a tight band and the music soars here, mixing “New Day Rising” and classic rock to match the mood. It’s just too bad this optimistic feeling of camaraderie won’t last. -Rob

4. The Weekenders

Heaven is Whenever, 2010
“She said the theme of this party is the industrial age, and you came in dressed like a trainwreck.”

Continuing my superlatives: This sequel to “Chips Ahoy!” (which actually outranks its predecessor on this list, making it possibly The Empire Strikes Back of the Hold Steady) wins Best Song About That Thing You Do Even Though You Know it’s Not Good For You. See also #3, which wins Best Song About Something Personal that You Didn’t Realize Was a Bad Thing Until Later. Maybe it’s just me. THS was living my life alongside me there for a while. -Kate McKean

3. You Can Make Him Like You

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“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.”

For latecomers to the Hold Steady who struggle to understand why we’re still listening a decade later to a man name-checking obscure bands and drunk-talking to us about horse racing clairvoyance, nostalgia-for-truthfully-not-that-great-times and the sad state of the American relationship, please give this song, like, three listens and I guarantee you that you will go from “What is that weird shit? Turn it off” to “What is that weird shit? Turn it louder. “As a fiction writer, it’s got lyrics that make me jealous — that one about covering yourself like a bruise? Jesus. -Tim DeLizza

2. Stuck Between Stations

Boys and Girls in America, 2006
“She said you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life, and they didn’t, so he died.”

If the Hold Steady has a thesis statement as a band, it might come courtesy of Sal Paradise: “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” You can pick any song out of their discography — not just the ones off Boys and Girls in America — and that quote probably applies. And just like that one lyric is representative of their lyrics as a whole, “Stuck Between Stations” is basically everything good about this band distilled down into one song. It starts with those words, which ostensibly tell one story — the tale of John Berryman — but in reality tell a more universal story about success and failure, connection and isolation.

I still listen to the radio in my car (I know, I know), and sometimes this comes on, and from the very first second I still get as excited as I did the first time I heard it after buying the album after a show at Irving Plaza, mere days before its official release. It’s just a perfect opening. And even though it starts with guitar and kind of a driving drumbeat, there are still big, quiet moments for Franz’s keyboards. (By now it’s obvious that everyone misses Franz’s keyboards.) Even with its accessible sound, “Stuck Between Stations” still does that thing where it shifts to a different kind of song three-quarters of the way through — most of the songs on Separation Sunday do this, but the band does it and less as the albums have gone on, and I miss it — before coming back to the main chorus right before the end. The only thing it’s missing to be the fully quintessential Hold Steady song is a reference to another Hold Steady song. -Marisa

PS: This has been pointed out repeatedly, but Okkervil River wrote a song about John Berryman around the same time as “Stuck Between Stations,” with a similar sense of pop-music referentiality. I also like “The John Allyn Smith Sails,” but it’s nothing like “Stuck Between Stations” — it’s more cerebral and more resigned. Still, you can see how the identity of each band is wrapped up in its John Berryman song, which is something I never would have guessed would happen in popular music.

1. Your Little Hoodrat Friend

Separation Sunday, 2005
“She said city center used to be the center of our scene; now city center’s over; no one really goes there. Back then we used to drink beneath this railroad bridge; some nights the bus wouldn’t even stop, there just too many kids!”

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes tidbit for you: Points-wise, it wasn’t even close between the rest of the songs on this list and the songs that made the top two. It was, however, close between “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Stuck Between Stations” – as I would expect, as both made the top ten when a similar peer group voted on the Best Songs of 2000-2009. What I’d forgotten, though, was that “Stuck Between Stations” actually vaulted over “Hoodrat” on that list, while in the end, “Hoodrat” triumphed on this one; it was mentioned on thirteen out of forteen ballots, and ranked first on no fewer than five of them, including mine.

If I always feel like I’m engaging in a cop-out by loving the first album I heard by a band the most, imagine how deficient I feel when my favorite song by a band is the very first song of theirs I heard. And yet: every single goddamned line on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” is brilliantly evocative, breathlessly filling in details in Craig Finn’s deceptively conversational style. Tim noted back in #3 that “You Can Make Him Like You” has lines that make his fiction-writing side jealous; I’d say the same about “Hoodrat” if the quiet-loud dynamic that detonates the chorus didn’t send me into a jumping, screaming euphoria before I those jealous feelings can even form. Live, that dynamic is even more massive: when the band takes an extended breakdown before Finn comes back with the lines quoted above, there’s a build-up of tension until he gets to the part about the bus not even stopping because “THERE’S JUST TOO MANY KIDS!” I have never gone drinking under a railroad bridge or (to my knowledge) made a bus skip its stop by partying with my friends, but in that moment, I’m so into the song that I’m like: YES, I AM ONE OF THOSE KIDS AND WE ARE A NEAR-RIOTING LEGION! That, to me, is the Hold Steady aesthetic, perfectly crystallized: the sing-along songs so powerful, their lyricism can hide in plain sight before burrowing into the listener’s goddamn soul. -Jesse

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Marisa

    I love how many of these write-ups talk about what happens when you see these songs performed live. (They do it differently, you get kicked in the head, etc.) The Hold Steady is definitely one of those bands where the live show is as important as the album–I know I wasn’t totally sold on them until that first time at the Warsaw, and then I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to get on board.

    You people make me sad because these songs from my top 10 didn’t make the list:

    *Hurricane J, which had stiff competition from every other Hold Steady ballad (“You’re a beautiful girl, and a pretty good waitress.”)

    *Spinners, which I chalk up to people not getting the new one yet (“It’s a big city, and there’s just so much love.”)

    *Most People are Djs, which I think is much better than Killer Parties (“A thousand kids will fall in love in all the clubs tonight.”)

    Everything else about this list makes me happy. Let this be my annual reminder we can all be something bigger.

    • Tim

      Marisa, I totally agree. I quite distinctly remember listening to various Hold Steady songs at work right before the 2007 Prospect Park show, which I went to on account of you and Jesse, and had the expection of really digging You Can Make Him Like You, but otherwise was just in it because it was outdoors and a nice day.

    • jesse

      It’s funny, though, there ARE still some songs I tend to like better on the record. “Sequestered in Memphis,” for one, never seems to have that pre-lyrics riff loud enough in the live mix. And unlike some live acts, I don’t often listen to live versions of their songs when I’m not at the show (I will do this with the Mountain Goats, for example). But yes, the experience is definitely important and sort of feeds into the love of the records and vice versa.

  • Marisa
    • jesse

      Urgh, I should have posted that in the post like I said I was gonna. Feel free to add it to the post if you want.

      • Marisa

        Meh, it’s here now if people want it.

  • Tim

    A song that didn’t my list or this one that I think warrants an additional aside is “Bear and the Maiden Fair” which is the best of the many indie-rock pairings with HBO’s Game of Thrones. As an avid fan of the Hold Steady and the GoT books and show, I was really impressed with how seemlessly they took one of the most common songs of westros and made it seemed like it was a Hold Steady song all along. While it does not hold up to Hold Steady classics, I think that is because it is a competitive catagory rather than a slight against the song. They brought their A-game to whatt could have been a novelty cash-in.

    • jesse

      I actually wish I had the seven inch single of that song because it had a B-side I’ve actually never heard, called “Criminal Fingers.”

    • Marisa

      I care not for Game of Thrones, and even I’ve listened to “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” a bunch. It can only be described as rousing.

  • roberthenryk

    Things I really like about these blurbs, reading them all for the first time (besides mine, of course):
    1. Multiple people saying THIS is THE Hold Steady song.
    2. Everyone misses Franz. It’s like they intentionally added another guitarist instead of a keyboardist so his absence will always be felt.

  • No love for Knuckles?

    • jesse

      Knuckles was, no joke, number 26. Juuust missed. Though largely on the strength of its towering position on Cristina’s ballot.

      Almost Killed Me in general I feel could be better-represented. I love “Most People are DJs” and, though they weren’t on my ten, “Knuckles” and “Hostile, MA” (WAILING SAX!).

      • roberthenryk

        WAILING SAX!

  • Pingback: The SportsAlcohol Podcast: The Replacements and The Reunion Act()

  • Pingback: The Top Five Best Albums of 2014 - SportsAlcohol.com()