musicians on their own music

The Hold Steady Picks the Best Hold Steady Songs

Photo: Vulture.

The Hold Steady released its first record in 2004, back when being a Brooklyn-based band meant something totally different. Ten years later, the group is still going strong and is touring in support of its sixth studio album, the acclaimed Teeth Dreams. To celebrate a decade of the Hold Steady, Vulture asked the band’s two principal songwriters, lead singer Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler, to pick the best track from each album. Read on to see their selections, and then listen to the full list, below. (The two interviews were conducted separately.) We’re going to start it with a positive jam, literally.


Craig’s choice: “Positive Jam”

Craig: It’s obviously our first album and I wanted to make something kind of like a declaration — a thesis statement if you will. It had that line, “I was bored when I didn’t have a band, so I started a band.” It’s meant to bring everyone up to speed like, “Here we are, and this is an album. The Hold Steady is here.” It actually says “hold steady” in the lyrics. You know, “We’re gonna start it with a positive jam” is sort of self-aware, as it’s our first song on our first album.

Tad: “Positive Jam” is such a weird song. It doesn’t have a typical song structure at all. It’s like this modus operandi, like “This is what we’re going to do. You’re either part of this or you’re not. And it would be cooler if you were part of this.”

Tad’s choice: “The Swish”

Tad: This was one of the first songs I really remember Craig and I writing together in his kitchen. I’d pick up a 6-pack or a 12-pack or a case or whatever, and then we’d go back to his house and I would sit at his kitchen table with this old Telecaster not plugged in through anything and just play, and he would drink beers and pace back and forth in his kitchen and we would write songs. It’s one of my favorite melodies of Craig’s and it’s one of my best memories about writing with him.

Craig: “The Swish” is a close second for me. “Positive Jam” sets it up — “Here we are, we’re the Hold Steady, we’re a rock band.” Then “The Swish” is actually a song. So it’s a one-two punch there.


Craig’s choice: “Multitude of Casualties”

Craig: It’s become one I really love live. It’s a little laid back compared to a lot of our stuff, so it has a different groove. Depending on the night, it can be where the audience takes a breath or it can get this weird, almost halftime groove. I don’t think there’s another song in our catalogue that’s quite like it in feel.

Tad: I just really love that last line: “Youth services always find a way to get their bloody cross in your druggy little messed up teenage life.” It sums up the whole thing to me a little bit.

Tad’s choice: “How a Resurrection Really Feels”

Tad: It was really the first record where it was like, “Okay, I’m going to be in charge of the music and Craig’s going to be in charge of the words.” There became this understanding and mutual level of respect. And there are all these moments in the studio when Craig’s doing vocals and I’m sitting in the control room listening, and there’s a particular line where the hair on the back of my neck stands up. With “When she said Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?” I thought, Fuck, holy shit! That’s the best thing I ever heard.

Craig: Because we’re a little older and came of age during albums, we work pretty hard on the last songs on the album. “Resurrection” is the culmination of that album when she comes into the church. People always ask me, “Did she die?” But I don’t like to comment on that.


Craig’s choice: “Stuck Between Stations”

Craig: Boys and Girls in America is an album that ended up being a lot about love, and it was timed well because I was going through a divorce. But when I first started writing the record, I was thinking more about the relationship between art and mental health. I had gone through a period where I tried to clean up a little bit and was really running a lot and was trying to not drink, because I realized I was getting a lot of my material from being hung-over. Obviously, there’s a huge history of this. Sometimes you’re a little off or you can’t quite get there, but that one I was happy with it being a concise way of saying what I wanted to say.

Tad: The piano is just really — I don’t want to say in a bad way, I don’t want to piss anybody off — but it’s so loud to me it’s almost oppressive. I was so excited to have a piano in the band because when you’re a guitar player, there’s this tendency toward not feeling like a real songwriter or not feeling like a real musician. So, when we started to work with a piano, we wanted that to be at the forefront because it felt more legitimate, especially after Separation Sunday and Almost Killed Me, when we certainly perpetuated the whole bar rock thing.

Tad’s choice: “You Can Make Him Like You”

Tad: To be honest, “Stuck Between Stations” is probably my favorite song on that record, but because Craig picked it I wanted to pick something else. “You Can Make Him Like You” was the first song that we wrote entirely in the studio. I was drunk, and we were dicking around. I was playing that guitar part and Franz [Nicolay, the Hold Steady’s former piano-keyboard-accordion player] had an accordion. The next day, the producer was like, “I want to play you guys what you were doing last night.” Craig wrote some words to it and it came up just really quickly and spontaneous. You always hear stories about bands doing that. I never used to believe it. I was just like, “That’s not true. They probably rehearsed the hell out of it and took four fucking years to write.” But sure enough. “Stuck Between Stations” is probably the best song on that record, but “You Can Make Him Like You” is my favorite because it was of the place and time and how it came together.


Craig’s choice: “Slapped Actress”

Craig: I was watching Opening Night, and there’s a scene where they’re doing a dramatic play. The play calls for the guy to slap Gena Rowlands, and he wants to really slap her and she says, “No, it’s just a play, you can fake slap me.” Then he says, “No, then it won’t look real.” I thought that was weird. I was taken at the time by this “all the world’s a stage” idea — that we’re all out there acting or throwing these signifiers out, especially more and more as we act out online. Especially in the bridge: “Sometimes actresses get slapped / Sometimes fake fights turn out bad / Sometimes making it look real makes someone get hurt.”

Tad: I had originally brought “Slapped Actress” in for Separation Sunday, and I think it was maybe Craig who said, “I don’t know, that sounds too modern rock.” So, then I brought it up again, trying to pull a fast one on them. I brought it in again and he was like, “Oh, that’s awesome.”

Tad’s choice: “Lord, I’m Discouraged”

Tad: A lot of my guitar solos are just sort of aimin’ the plane toward the side of the mountain and going for it. That was one I did manage to pull off fairly well. Craig’s lyrics: I would say that was the most of him, or his life, that I’ve ever heard him put in song. I remember listening to the rough mix and thinking, Jesus Christ, this is probably closer to him than I think people would realize. It’s very intense for a lot of reasons.

Craig: I got that title looking at this Charlie Patton boxed set and there was a song called “Lord, I’m Discouraged” and I lifted the title. It was also because my mom used to say that things were discouraging, if she didn’t approve of something, and I always laughed about that.


Craig’s choice: “We Can Get Together”

Craig: I feel like it’s a sister song to certain songs from the first album. It’s about rock and roll and how we find a song that buoys us during hard times. There’s a Built to Spill song that’s similar and it’s almost a nod to it. That song has to do a little bit with this band called Heavenly, which was not a huge band, from England. It was a real upbeat poppy band. I read somewhere that the drummer had committed suicide and it sort of struck me because the band was this upbeat, twee pop band. It got me thinking about these songs versus our real lives, and how they intersect. Even though the song does concern the guy’s suicide, there’s something kind of sweet about that versus a lot of our mellow songs that are pretty sad.

Tad: I was listening to a ton of Smiths albums, so that record there’s got a lot of what I’ve always referred to as sparkly bits. So that’s that one. Again, the lyrics to that song are some of my favorite because where a lot of Craig’s lyrics are so polarizing and so specific, that was one where you can really put yourself into and not just listen to this narrative that he’s laid out.

Tad’s choice: “The Sweet Part of the City”

Tad: That was one of the first songs, maybe besides “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” that was in an alternative tuning. The idea for it came up as an exercise for me to learn how to play slide guitar. And listening back, it’s obvious that I don’t do it very well. It never really gets super huge. It’s just kind of laid-back and more vibey — if I can use that word, which sounds kind of douchey.

Craig: Yeah, and that’s a great one. I was thinking a lot about this idea of a young person in their twenties, how living in the cool part of town is enough. You know what I mean? Your troubles aren’t that big if you can go out and get a couple of beers, if you live near the cool bars.


Craig’s choice: “On With the Business”

Craig: In it I mention “that American sadness.” I read David Foster Wallace talk about this particular American sadness where, no matter what, through drugs or alcohol, especially consumer goods, we can’t seem to fill this void inside of us. The song is really about consumerism and people screwing other people over to get ahead, to get more stuff. Also, it’s really heavy and I like that. At 42 years old and on our sixth record, I was proud to make a heavy record this time around.

Tad: I think that song is a great example of the interplay between Steve [Selvide, the band’s new second guitar player] and I on the record. We both have really similar influences and we come from a really similar place — we were even born on the same day, just a few hours apart. But stylistically, as guitar players, we’re very, very different. I think that song is a really nice snapshot of that. Craig had a tough time finding where the words were going to fit because it’s dense and there’s a lot of guitars, and I remember rehearsing it and just being able to barely hear the lyrics, and then we’d get to the chorus: “On the carpet, on the mattress, waking up with American sadness.” When we finished and I said, “Are you saying ‘American sadness’?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “That’s fucking awesome. That’s perfect.”

Tad’s choice “Oaks”

Tad: I think we became super obsessed with Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film).” There is a way those guys can really concisely convey an emotional element. There’s something really dour and lonely about that song. There’s a feeling of real hopelessness in it. I’m not saying that “Oaks” is anything like that song or even remotely as good as anything Radiohead’s ever done. I mean, those guys are far and beyond what any band could aspire to. I don’t know if you have any friends that have had problems with drugs or anything like that, but I wanted to try to somehow portray this particular emotion that comes up when you’re saying good-bye and you walk away knowing that that’s the last time you’re going to see them.

Craig: That’s again, the big last song, our longest song ever, and that was one that, I don’t know, it’s an obvious ender. At nine minutes, it couldn’t have gone anywhere else, but it’s a big dramatic ending on the album. The coda is something we added later because I felt otherwise it was really dark and I didn’t want to go out on this hopeless note. That was one that came together in the studio and surprised everyone. We thought it was a B going in; we thought it was an A when we were done.


Craig: I think “Stuck Between Stations” is still in some way the definitive because when that opening kicks in when we’re playing it live, I’m like “Yeah, that’s all right.” I love all our songs. You have to. But that one’s an all-time favorite.

Tad: Oh, shit. That’s a hard one. I knew you were going to ask me that and I was going to try to come up with something clever. [Laughs.] At this point, when we’ve gone to having Steve as part of the band now and not touring with a piano player and stuff like that, I would say that in this moment in time, “On With the Business” really kind of encapsulates what we’re about, because it’s got Craig doing his thing, it’s got a lot of the chords in it that I tend to fall back to, and it’s got some melody in there; it’s also got some dissonance to it. But if you asked me tomorrow, I’d probably tell you something different.

The Hold Steady Picks the Best Hold Steady Songs