Overrated, Underrated, and Properly Rated: The Hold Steady

On February 19th, The Hold Steady released their eighth studio album, Open Door Policy. This may not be a big deal to you. But I can assure you that there are some people for whom this is a VERY big deal, because there are some people for whom The Hold Steady is not just a band, but a cornerstone upon which a quasi-religious cult following that counts going to concerts, drinking lots of beer, and yelling “The theme of this party is the industrial age/And you came in dressed like a train wreck” among its sacraments, has been built. I am one of those people.

If you’re still confused, let me start at the beginning: The Hold Steady are a New York-based band that was founded by lead singer Craig Finn and lead guitarist Tad Kubler, two good Midwestern boys from Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively, out of the ashes of their previous band Lifter Puller1You’ve probably never heard of that band, either, but you should listen to “Nassau Coliseum” immediately. in 2003. They were more or less formed as a reaction to the prevailing musical trends of the time — namely the post-punk revival and dance punk2 “At least in dying you don’t have to deal with new wave for a second time” — Craig Finn, “A Multitude of Casualties” — and quickly became a singular force in the New York scene, rejecting all pretenses of style and embracing the big riffs and barroom boisterousness of rock and roll’s roots. They stood out from other rock revivalists not only because they favored Bruce Springsteen and The Band over Joy Division and The Jam, but also because of Craig Finn’s dense, narrative lyrics, which are peppered with Catholic imagery, nerdy musical references, and reminiscences of Finn’s hard partying youth. This formula made them a hit with the critics — 2005’s Separation Sunday placed eighth in that year’s Pazz and Jop poll — and the group also attracted a legion of devoted fans through not only their recorded output but also through their rowdy and joyous live shows. 

The 2010s weren’t especially kind to The Hold Steady. They released two middlingly reviewed albums and their style fell pretty hard out of the cultural zeitgeist and, to hear them tell it themselves, they nearly called it quits. But their shows remained well attended and their fans ever devoted, and eventually the band released Thrashing Thru the Passion, a “back to basics” kind of comeback album in 2019, and then Open Door Policy this year, hailed by some critics as the band’s best album in a decade.

Seeing as how The Hold Steady have become something of a legacy act now and that they’re one of my favorite bands of all time, I thought I’d revive a format occasionally explored by Steven Hyden and determine what aspects of the band are overrated, underrated, or properly rated. I’ll concede that the mere presence of the Hold Steady poster that I’m typing this article under might make me a somewhat unreliable source, but I’d argue that what I may lack in objectivity I will make up for in a deep knowledge and love of this band, which I have seen live four different times across four different cities and two continents. So crack open a beer, drop the needle on your favorite THS album, and let’s get to some ratin’.

The Albums

Almost Killed Me (2004)

There are generally two kinds of debut records: the kind where the artist has already mastered the formula that they will both try to replicate and deviate from for the rest of their career (Is This It, The Cars) and the kind that resemble an artist’s influences and past projects more than what their career would become (Pablo Honey, Kill ‘Em All). Almost Killed Me is certainly one of the second kind, a more refined version of what Finn and Kubler were trying to accomplish in Lifter Puller, and as a result the punkiest and the thrashiest of The Hold Steady’s eight albums. Granted, this band isn’t exactly known for their melodic prowess, but Almost Killed Me lacks even the anthemic choruses that would go on to define so many of the band’s hits, which has almost certainly hurt the staying power for a lot of these tracks. But it’s still a great album that has found its place in the band’s catalog and their live show: “A Positive Jam” is a hell of a mission statement (and one time regular show opener), “Knuckles” shows how wit, humor, and storytelling can be applied to a track that sounds like a barroom brawl, and “Certain Songs” is an early attempt at integrating the heartland rock elements that set The Hold Steady apart from their peers. You’d never introduce the band to someone with this album but it’s integral to understanding where they come from and what they’re trying to do — I doubt that this is anyone’s favorite album, and anyone who insists the opposite is trying a little too hard, like the people who insist that Jeff Tweedy ruined Wilco. PROPERLY RATED.

Separation Sunday (2005)

Separation Sunday is very important for two reasons: it’s the first to feature keyboardist Franz Nicolay as a full member, and it’s also the first where Craig Finn goes really heavy on the Biblical allusions. For a lot of people, The Hold Steady’s success is directly correlated with whether or not Nicolay is a member of the band or appears on a record. As someone who came of age in the inter-Franz era I’ve always had mixed feelings about this but there’s no question that he expanded the dynamic range of the band’s sound and dragged them further away from sounding like bar band Husker Du and closer to hipster Springsteen, even to the point where they end up incorporating the occasional horn section and glockenspiel. As far as the Biblical allusions go, they really let Finn come into his own as a songwriter and let him discover a volume other than shout-until-I’m-hoarse, although there’s still plenty of that on this record too. There are a lot of great reasons to choose this album as your favorite Hold Steady record — “Your Little Hoodrat Friend!”, “How a Resurrection Really Feels!” — but for me it’s always felt a little too unrelenting. It’s got more sweet moments than Almost Killed Me but a lot of the jagged edges still remain. That said, this is the record that made The Hold Steady The Hold Steady, and its status in the band’s mythology is both secure and warranted. PROPERLY RATED.

Boys and Girls in America (2006)

Now this is the album to introduce new fans to. Not only is “Stuck Between Stations” an under-discussed contender for best Track 1, Side A in rock and roll history but the album as a whole pulled off the seemingly impossible by modernizing arena rock in an era where arena rock seemed unsalvageable. It has sledgehammer riffs (“Hot Soft Light”), woah-oh-oh choruses (“Chips Ahoy!”), and even a fucking power ballad (“First Night”). Finn’s narratives become more universal without losing any of their intelligence or specificity,3The Hold Steady have the reputation as a very male-focused band, but the sensitivity displayed towards the female subject of “You Can Make Him Like You” reflects a recurring, almost brotherly perspective Finn takes to women in crisis. Nicolay’s piano comes into its own (the “Stuck Between Stations” breakdown, need I say more), and Kubler is the most inventive he’s ever been in his entire career (the dancey stabs of “Party Pit,” breaking out the acoustic for “Citrus”). This is my favorite Hold Steady album, one of my favorite albums of all time, not enough good things can be said about it, and most people tend to pay it the requisite homage. The less said about “Chillout Tent,” though, the better. PROPERLY RATED.

Stay Positive (2008)

So this list has been pretty boring so far, huh? Three albums, three properly rateds. Well, here’s where I’m gonna start to piss some people off.

There is absolutely no denying that “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis” are two of the best songs of The Hold Steady’s career, or that “raise a glass to Saint Joe Strummer” is one of the greatest lines Craig Finn has ever written. “Slapped Actress?” A shibboleth to separate the real fans from the casuals, a live staple. “Lord, I’m Discouraged?” Probably a better ballad than “First Night” and the vessel for an all time Tad solo. The title track? It rips. But when’s the last time you made time for “Yeah Sapphire” or “Magazines?” Or “Joke About Jamaica?” It’s not that the deep cuts on this album are bad, per se, but they’re just kind of boring, and when they aren’t boring, they venture into territory that the band has no business venturing into. The macabre harpsichord on “One for the Cutters” is the first time Franz Nicolay sounds like the guy he looks like, the synths on “Navy Sheets” are cheesy and intrusive, and “Both Crosses” is a weird, plodding Zeppelin tribute that feels entirely out of place. There are tracks on this record that are on constant replay in the Lovito household, but I gotta be honest, sitting through this album all the way through is a chore. It’s overly mannered and overproduced, an album that tries to expand the band’s perspective but only neutralizes what made them special in the process. But because it was the last one Franz was on before he (temporarily) left the band, it’s always put on a pedestal as the last gasp of The Hold Steady’s prime. Well, no more. The time has come to bravely declare that this album is and has always been OVERRATED.

Heaven is Whenever (2010)

I have a very weird and personal relationship with Heaven is Whenever, the first Hold Steady album I ever bought and the first I ever listened to all the way through. On the one hand, I recognize that it’s not their finest effort and that the one-two punch of “The Sweet Part of the City” and “Soft in the Center” is probably the weakest opening of the band’s career. But I do think the perception of this album is unfairly colored by 1) It being the first post-Franz album (the band’s better with him in it, no doubt, but I don’t know that there’s anything about this record he could fix) and 2) The fact that most critics listening to it were not 16 at the time. I cannot begin to explain to you how much a songs like “Our Whole Lives,” “We Can Get Together,” and “A Slight Discomfort” meant to me, a Catholic teenager who was definitely not partying but who definitely wished he was partying and felt very conflicted about that feeling. They’re not Finn’s most incisive takes on the relationship between faith and debauchery or the healing power of music (“Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Sit down on your floor/And listen to your records” is an all time underrated line, however) but they felt reflective of the community I grew up in, and were the first songs I heard that tried to juggle the contradiction of wanting to be “good” despite that not always feeling “good,” and therefore being drawn sometimes to things you’ve been told are “bad.” It spoke to me in a way few records did; Craig Finn felt like he was singing to me. It’s far from perfect, but it’ll always have a special place in my heart.

On a much less personal note, “The Weekenders”  has secured a staple spot in the band’s live set and is the source of the “The theme of this party is the industrial age” line I referenced earlier, making this album a flawed yet inextricable entry in the band’s catalog. UNDERRATED.

Teeth Dreams (2014)

Coming into this list I fully expected to give this album, the first with guitarist Steve Selvidge, the UNDERRATED tag. I was a big fan of it when it came out (I wrote a 500-word review of it for my college’s radio station) but it, uh… does not hold up. The other big, non-Selvidge news going into this record was that the band brought in Nick Raskulinecz, best known for his work with Foo Fighters and latter day Alice in Chains, to produce, and that corporate rock sheen is pretty unmistakable on this album. Finn’s vocals are put through way too much reverb and processing, and the guitars are at once busy but slightly mixed down. The premise of my UNDERRATED argument was going to be that this album would’ve been better received if the band chose to focus more on songs like “Big Cig” and “Runner’s High” in their supporting tour instead of the snooze worthy “The Ambassador,” but as much as I like those songs, it doesn’t make up for the rest of the album. Not a terrible album, but one bound to be forgotten, ugly album art and all.4It’s worth pointing out that most Hold Steady album covers, like late-era Bruce Springsteen album covers, are hideous. That said, a quick ranking: 1. Separation Sunday, 2. Almost Killed Me, 3. Stay Positive, 4. Thrashing Thru The Passion, 5. Open Door Policy, 6. Heaven is Whenever, 7. Boy and Girls in America, 8. Teeth Dreams PROPERLY RATED.

Thrashing Thru the Passion (2019)

When Thrashing Thru the Passion — a kind of accidental album that features the also kind of accidental return of Franz Nicolay — first dropped, I was a little depressed with how little I felt I connected with it. My guess is that’s just because it felt out of step with what I was listening to at the time and with where I was in my life, because it’s a true “return to form” for Hold Steady Classic, even if it doesn’t hit as hard as their classic albums. “Denver Haircut” and “You Did Good Kid” are vintage quality rockers, and the piano-aided “Blackout Sam” makes a persuasive argument for Nicolay’s importance to the band. So why wasn’t it as rapturously hailed as Open Door Policy has been the past few days? No idea! UNDERRATED.

Open Door Policy (2021)

I like this album, and maybe it’s just going to take a little while for it to grow on me, but it feels a little overrated at this point — the mixing feels a little weird and there’s some stuff going on that makes it feel a little off for a Hold Steady record, kind of like they’re trying to apply the production of Craig Finn’s solo records to the full band.5Quick Craig Finn solo record ranking: 1. We All Want the Same Things, 2. Faith in the Future, 3. I Need a New War, 4. Clear Eyes Full Hearts
That said, “Heavy Covenant” is the Hold Steady song I needed as I transitioned from show hopping Catholic college student to soulless tech company employee five years ago, “Family Farm” is a classic of the form, and the guitar riff on “Spices” makes me want to hear a Tad Kubler grunge side project. So, there’s certainly room for it to grow on me, but for now, it’s a tad OVERRATED.

B-Sides, Rarities, etc.

Navigating The Hold Steady’s Spotify page is a nightmare for a novice because they’ve reissued most of their albums with a plethora of demos, bonus tracks, and the like (last year’s Heaven is Whenever reissue surfaced eight new songs alone). I could bore you with 5,000 words about what my ideal alternate version of Stay Positive would look like, but I’ll just say that any band that leaves “Ask Her for Adderall” and “Girls Like Status” on the cutting room floor has better bonus material than most bands have actual full length albums. And if you don’t believe that, just ask your neighborhood THS fan, who’ll probably whip out the setlist of every show they’ve been to and lament the fact that they haven’t seen “You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to the Dance With)” live yet (it’s me, I’m your neighborhood THS fan). PROPERLY RATED.

The Band Members

Craig Finn

Craig Finn is the reason why people who love The Hold Steady love The Hold Steady and the reason why people who don’t could never get into them. And, look, I understand if nasal talk-singing isn’t your thing, and I get that the whole Elvis Costello “music critics like him because he looks like them” rule could be applied to him as well. But have you ever considered that music critics probably look more like the average middle class schmoe than all your precious pop stars and underground heroes? Did you ever consider that seeing a guy who looks like he should be a high school English teacher get up on stage, literally spit out references to St. Peter and John Berryman and do his best hardcore frontman impression is actually kind of awesome? Have you ever considered that Minnesota should send a statue of Craig Finn to Statuary Hall? Because Hold Steady fans have considered all of these things, making him PROPERLY RATED.

Tad Kubler

Along with Finn, Tad Kubler is probably the one member of the band The Hold Steady would be unable to operate without. And while he’s not as front-facing a member as Finn or Franz Nicolay, he’s ability to evolve his guitar style to the band’s needs has kind of flown under the radar. THS fans know and love him, but the fact that he was left off of Spin’s new age “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list when he absolutely should be on it makes him UNDERRATED.

Franz Nicolay

I love Franz Nicolay and what he brings to the band. He’s a fantastic rock pianist. He’s also responsible for some of the worst parts of Stay Positive and the reason why people knee jerk hated on Heaven is Whenever and Teeth Dreams. For that small speck of annoyance, I am (lovingly) declaring him OVERRATED.

Steve Selvidge

He definitely brought a new dynamic to the band when he joined up for Teeth Dreams, and while we’ve already discussed the issues with that album, I think most people also agree that its problems weren’t caused by Steve Selvidge, and seeing as how Craig doesn’t play guitar live that much anymore it’s probably good to have somebody else up there to play the “duhn duhn” part of the “duhrn duhrn duhn duhn” part of “Banging Camp.” PROPERLY RATED.

Galen Polivka 

The only time I’ve ever really thought of the bass during a Hold Steady is the during opening seconds of “Massive Nights” and in the verses of “Barfruit Blues,” but per Steven Hyden “the bass player is always underrated, particularly if you’re a band that rocks.” Bonus points for having the most Midwestern name in a Midwestern band that has always insisted that they’re actually a Brooklyn band. UNDERRATED.

Judd Counsell

The first drummer who dipped after Separation Sunday and, if The Hold Steady wiki is to believed, never actually toured. As far as 2000s indie rock drummers, he’s not quite Matt Tong of Bloc Party or Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, but he gets pretty close on some Almost Killed Me tracks. PROPERLY RATED.

Bobby Drake

The first album Drake is credited on is Heaven is Whenever, which means that I don’t know who to thank for the drum beat on “Hot Soft Light” and closing drum fill on “Sequestered in Memphis,” but he’s the guy who plays them live, so thanks for them, Bobby. PROPERLY RATED.

The Live Show

“You won’t get it until you see them live” is perhaps the most obnoxious rock fan slogan out there, but if one band can lay claim to it being an undeniable truth, it’s The Hold Steady. Seeing this band live will turn casual fans into lifers and skeptics into true believers. I’ve been to a ton of rock shows where people barely move as they stare at the performers, but THS shows always feel like all out parties, and not the kind of sweaty, aggro, moshy parties a lot of other rock shows turn into. People are there to drink and dance and get accidentally spit on by Craig Finn and accidentally spit on him as they yell his lyrics back at him. That may sound gross, but it’s a goddamn religious experience, trust me.6I should note at this point that I omitted The Hold Steady’s live album, A Positive Rage, from the album’s list, mostly because I don’t have much of a relationship with it and I feel like it doesn’t get much consideration at all in their wider catalog. While a live album for a legendary live band seems like a good idea, so much of the experience is defined by the crowd and Craig Finn’s little pantomimes that it doesn’t really capture what it’s like to be at a THS show, so I suppose its existence is on the whole OVERRATED. PROPERLY RATED.

The band’s complete indifference to music videos

You would think that a band that’s been around for over 15 years would have built up a bit of a filmography but one under appreciated aspect of The Hold Steady is that they clearly could not give a shit about music videos. Most of their videos either feature them miming a performance of their song, sometimes literally in a studio, sometimes near a black and white boxing ring or whatever, but the point is that they’re committed to not having to actually do anything in their videos outside of what they already do professionally, which is oddly charming. The one time they did venture out of their comfort zone for the “Chips Ahoy!” video, you could tell that they were not particularly stoked to find themselves in a cheesy vintage porn parody, giving perhaps the least enthusiastic “woah ha oh ha oh oh oh’s” ever captured in film. To be fair, the concept doesn’t make a whole ton of sense — why is a newscaster on the porn set? Why is one of them dressed like a cardinal? Was this the best the director could come up with for a song about a boy, a girl, and a horse? UNDERRATED.

The Band’s complete indifference to AV Undercover

It appears that the video has been scrubbed from the Internet but back during the Heaven is Whenever promo cycle The Hold Steady went on AV Undercover and brought about the same energy to this performance as they did to most of their music videos. Appearing later in the season and not having a great list to choose from, the group ended up covering Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love” with all the gusto of a visit to the DMV. The host asks them if, seeing as how they’re all 80s kids, they were into Huey Lewis back in the day and Craig goes “uh, no, I was pretty much only into punk rock then” and you can just see the disappointment all over the host’s face. They’ve covered the song live since then so I guess they had a good enough time there but I never liked the guy who hosted AV Undercover, and I love this band. UNDERRATED.