The Best Albums of 2010: 3. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever

3. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
Vagrant

Heaven is whenever
We can get together
Go into your bedroom
And listen to your records.

– We Can Get Together

I believe in rock ‘n’ roll.

Ever since, just like in the Velvets song, Nirvana taught me the world from my bedroom – and saved a non-English speaking kid from dropping out of high school and being a factory worker for the rest of his life – I believe rock ‘n’ roll can save us.

And it’s rock ‘n’ roll – not music. It’s the fiery, guitar/bass/drums, a killer voice and a message. Of all the musics in the world, rock ‘n’ roll is still the best mix of a punch in the face and a light to the mind. Other music may make more physical impact. Others might be more lyrical.

But rock ‘n’ roll is still the only perfect mix of the two.

2010 was, for me, a deeply personal reclaiming of rock ‘n’ roll. Whether it was new albums Surfer Blood, Titus Andronicus, You Am I, Manics, Springsteen or whoever – it seemed to be a year of rock. Coupled with a rediscovery of many old rock records I loved in the past.

Listening to this music is always dangerous – I find myself making big life decisions a few months later. I certainly did this year.

That is a long preamble to introduce the 5th Hold Steady album – the bible to my rock ‘n’ roll religion. Not only does the band rock, they also believe that rock ‘n’ roll can save you. And they set about proving it.

They set it all up in We Can Get Together – which could well be their greatest achievement to date. They have started to really nail the slow, Stones-y ballads. And in it, singer Finn discusses Heaven – whether it’s the Pavement song Heaven Is A Truck or the UK band Heavenly.  It’s as though the first thing we rock believers think of are songs about Heaven. But the final message is heaven is listening to this music. For a band made on anthems, this could be their greatest.

Every few years a band comes along that feels like it’s just made perfectly for you. For me, the Hold Steady are one. The passion of hardcore. The rock blues licks of the Stones. The smarts of Bob Dylan. And the story of their career has been them getting more tuneful, and giving up some power for beauty.

For the first time they open with a ballad. The slide heavy Sweet Part of the City (the place with the bars and restaurants) sounds like Exile On Main Street. It is a confident move from a band trying to do something different.

But, in the end it’s the rock. Hurricane J. Rock Problems. Weekenders. And more. All come on like a rush, and lifts you from your place. It’s filled with the most powerful messages used in rock. We are damaged but not that much. Life can be better and it’s up to us. I’m having fun and I’m allowed to to have fun. I’m older but the passion is not gone. Messages we’ve all heard before, and love hearing again.

41 minutes. 10 songs. Not a wasted second. It’s a fucking stunning record. One that leaves you believe again. I bow to the Hold Steady for being around. They are the best band at brandishing that ancient fire we call rock ‘n’ roll.

Best tracks: Heaven Is Whenever, Hurricane J, Rock Problems

Official site – The Hold Steady

No clips for this album, but here’s an acoustic version of Hurricane J. It misses the rock power but still a great song.

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Top 10s of 2010 (so far)

It’s been a while between blogging. But lots of writing being done – just not so much the publishing.

So hence, a quick intermission.

Top 10 albums of 2010 (so far)

1. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
(Virgin)

A huge leap from her already pretty great debut. A mournful album about growing up and womanhood, wrapped up in stories of timeless darkness. She mixes old time-y weirdness about husbands, devils and letters with stunning guitar playing and vocals. The name Joni Mitchell is bandied about a lot in reviews.

‘Women’ is not a genre, but it seems of late even the gals have forgotten that, with so many carbon copy pop stars out there. And here we have someone who doesn’t use her image (or her body) to sell her music. As she says herself – “There’s a mind under this hat“. That maturity is even more impressive when you take into account she wrote and recorded this album at age 19.

My favourite track by a long way is Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), and the singles so far are Devil’s Spoke and Rambling Man.

2. The Soft Pack – The Soft Pack
(Kemado/Heavenly)

This is turning into a year of great rock ‘n’ roll records, coming off several years of slim pickings. For me, the Soft Pack are leading the charge. Their sound is a perfect storm – short, catchy rock, great riffs, great voice, no excess. At 35 minutes, the album whizzes by at a pace, but the choruses and the hooks stick with you. It’s punk-y, it’s garage-y, it’s pop-py, it’s rock-y – it’s perfect.

This is a really easy album to fall in love with. It’s immediate and easy. Most people I play it for love it. Crackers like C’mon, Down On Loving and Answer To Yourself are hit songs. Then they even up the aggression on Pull Out. And then they pull it all back on the penultimate track, the laid back, sweet Mexico.

This still could be number 1 at the end of the year. I’ve been playing this non stop since February. Time will tell.

The film clip for Answer To Yourself features some of the cast from the movie Kick-Ass.

3. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
(Vagrant)

The Hold Steady have made themselves one of my favourite bands in the last few years. They do that “rock and roll can save you” thing better than anyone else around at the moment. Craig Finn is a believer – spouting lyrics mainly about rock, drugs, girls and other important things like that. Their 5th album is as good as their past works – just listening to it makes me feel alive, and that life will be ok.

Heaven Is Whenever is a different beast than their earlier albums. The loss of the keyboard player brought the guitars forward, and with them come some stunning slow moments. We Can Get Together is the absolute highlight – mixing songs about heaven with the band Heavenly, and how that drummer died. But ending with the most quoted lyric in reviews this year

Heaven is whenever we can get together
Close your bedroom door and listen to your records

It’s poetic, it’s romantic and it rocks. It’s what these guys do best. From the opening kiss of The Sweet Part Of the City throughout a healthy portion of rockers (Hurricane J and Weekenders are the best of them), it shows a slightly new sound but the same old heart and soul. And I think of this band, and Craig Finn, and the more I think he’s right about everything.

4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
(DFA)

For me, Sound Of Silver was one of the 5 greatest albums of the last decade, and I wasn’t the only one. So the pressure was on for James Murphy, main man for LCD Soundsystem, and their 3rd album. They do an admirable job. Although it lacks some of the highs of Sound Of Silver, it’s still a fantastic record.

Drunk Girls divided people, but it was fun bubblegum garbage like Song 2. But the depth of Murphy’s songwriting is better expressed elsewhere. I Can Change, All I Want, You Wanted A Hit – sort of crap titles but Murphy is totally in charge of these dance pop numbers. The sounds, the lyrics, the moods, the feel – all spot on.

There’s the stuff that has made LCD Soundsystem so legendary – chaotic messes that somehow stick together like Pow Pow. Beautiful ballads like Home. It’s all here, and again, I’m still listening to this record, discovering new things.

5. Hot Chip – One Life Stand
(EMI)

I don’t know what happened in the lives of Hot Chip since their last record, but they are in love and not afraid to show it. Two great records so far were full of humour and cheeky fun. This record is something new – it’s straightfaced and affectionate. Sometimes you are waiting for the smartarses to reveal themselves but they never do.

In a way, the songs are the simplest they’ve ever been. It’s a pleasant record. If the beats weren’t just a little too hard, and the synths weren’t a little too loud, these could be teen pop songs. As they are, they keep that Hot Chip-ness. It’s just that it’s Hot Chip, the love balladeers.

And to boot – video of the year so far.

The rest of the top ten so far are:

6. Spoon – Transference

7. Vampire Weekend – Contra

8. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows

9. Dr Dog – Shame Shame

10. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast

Obviously a lot more will be written at the end of the year. And some of my favourite artists are coming up to bat – Belle & Sebastian and Darren Hanlon amongst them.

It’s been a great year so far. Many records are just bubbling under, and still have six months to prove themselves as well…

100 for 2000 – #89. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2008 – #9. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
(Vagrant)

Coming off the success of Boys And Girls In America, the Hold Steady came back not one year later with an album even more anthemic and heartfelt. Stay Positive is a perfect distillation of what this band is about. It serves as both an album and a manifesto for them.

The Hold Steady, and Craig Finn in particular, often talks about the influence of 80s US hardcore on him and his music. I’m not sure what Ian MacKaye would think of them, but there was something in the heart of hardcore which was about staying positive. Do better. Eat better. Play better. BE better. Get off your ass. Don’t waste your life. Think for yourself. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Play incredibly difficult to execute music. It’s that inspirational and aspirational attitude that is wrapped up in this record.

It opens with Constructive Summer, a get-off-your-ass anthem if there ever was one. We’re all our only saviours/We’re gonna build something this summer. The title track talks of the long game, of how scene leaders go, drugs get everywhere but hey, another revolution is around the corner. It’s exciting to hear in this age – the world can be better, and soon.

The rest of the record breaks up in two other ways – story songs and songs about girls. Of the story songs, Sequested In Memphis is the best of the lot (and the first single). A nod to the city (complete with horns) and one of their most rousing choruses yet. But there’s also the biker gang drama of One For the Cutters.

The girl songs – usually ballads – are real weepers. Lord, I’m Discouraged is one of Finn‘s very best. Finn‘s noted his long and troubled relationship with faith and God, and seeing a sweet and innocent girl from around covered in bruises shakes him to the core. More by the numbers but no less stunning is Magazines – a drunken, desperate come on for the lonely.

I love this band. I love what they are about too. They treat rock ‘n’ roll as something to believe in. And in turn, I believe them right back. I am trying to hard to learn the lessons from this record.

Do something this summer. Staying positive. Being better.

Stay Positive – a new kind of anthem, and something to believe in.

100 for 2000 – #74. The Hold Steady – Boys And Girls In America

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2007 – #4. The Hold Steady – Boys And Girls In America
(Vagrant)

Just this weekend I was listening to an interview with the band Spoon, taking questions from NPR listeners, when there was a slightly dorky question. ‘Do you still believe in rock ‘n’ roll?’ But you have to ask yourself this when one approaches the Hold Steady. On Boys And Girls In America, they served up meat and potatos rock ‘n’ roll, with all the classic moves, classic sounds and amazingly, some new classic songs.

I’d heard about this band for a while but never investigated further. People compared them to the Replacements, and as much as I love the Mats, bands who love the Mats are usually emo dross. But this album, which was so American, won over the UK press. So, not a note heard, I took a punt and bought the album at the now non-existent Fopp in Westbourne Park.

And woo! What a rush. Anthems. Guitar solos. Springsteen piano. KISS riffs. And this spastic, gruff voiced beat poet in Craig Finn up front. What the hell was this? There wasn’t anything truly new on here, but it had been so long since a band sounded like this. And these guys hit it with such fury it’s tough to deny.

The more I listen to Craig Finn, whether in interviews or songs, the more I like the guy. We have some life beats in common – a teenage love of hardcore and the hardcore scene, loving beautiful but wrecked women, a romantic attachment to rock music that is all out of proportion to reality, that troubling but constant relationship with God. If you believe that rock is something that can save you, then I’m looking at Craig Finn more than anyone else these days to save me.

So the songs. Stuck Between Stations was the first one I heard, and still one of my favourites. A drunken, blurred dream of the poet John Berryman and the devil, talking on Washington Avenue Bridge in 1972, moments before Berryman threw himself off, ending his life. It’s got it all in one song. Boys, girls, life, death, poetry, the city, alcohol, loneliness and music. That’s pretty much all the essential elements of rock and roll right there.

And those themes recur and recur and Finn takes stock of his time and place in history. It goes from celebratory (Massive Nights – why was this not a radio anthem?) to intense and pitiful character studies (You Can Make Him Like You). Through it all, the energy never waivers, the intensity never drops.

This record broke the band out of the indie scene. I really think they could make it into the mainstream. A couple of the songs on here could have been big hits. More than anything though, they are now a big band for me. It’s amazing to think how long I waited for this band to come along.

7. The Devil And John Berryman


7. Boys And Girls In America – The Hold Steady

The name that gets dropped with this band is Springsteen. They mix that urban poetry, that hopeless romance, that growing old feeling, with grinding guitars and rapid fire lyrics.

But many have done this before (hello, Marah) but the Hold Steady have gone for the throat. The album is called Boys And Girls In America for fuck’s sake. Let’s put aside the freakiness of a 37 year old (lead singer/songwriter Craig Finn) singing about teenage girls, and celebrate a doomed youth.

Most of the songs have to do with the great unwashed, and how beautiful that is. Chillout Tent is about being taken out of a festival and catching the eye of another outcast of the opposite sex (and never meeting). You Can Make Him Like You is about a girl who is seeking boyfriend who comes from a better school.

I love the album cover. Just a bunch of kids partying. And how those weekend nights will add up to their life. And how important it is to them, to us. And the title of the album, declaring that they are going mass market. Indie band is going for the suburbs. It’s all there in the standout, Massive Nights, about liquor runs, fights, girls with something to prove, and one of my favourite lines:

“Everyone was funny, everyone was pretty
And everyone was heading to the centre of the city.”

This has got to be the getting-ready-to-go-out record of the year. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the best record to feel nostalgic about the times when you did that.

The best song on the record though, the one that’s gotten the most talk, is the opener, Stuck Between Stations. An inflated, overly romantic retelling of John Berryman’s suicide. It imagines his depression, walking with the devil over Washington Bridge, the moments before his suicide. And hidden not very far below the cleverness and the wit, is a big fat slab of riff rock.

The perfect record for a massive night.