The Hold Steady Stay Positive

The Hold Steady: Albums Ranked from Best to Worst

For me, The Hold Steady were the last gasp of a prolonged musical adolescence that reached into my mid-twenties. My first Hold Steady album hit me hard. I played it repeatedly, enjoying its intoxicating modernisation of classic rock, topped by Craig Finn’s literate lyrics. The Hold Steady sound like a blend of The Replacements and the E Street Band.

Finn spits out quickfire cultural references like a rapper, touching on everything from Tusken Raiders to LeBron James. The early Hold Steady albums often revolve around densely connected narratives about rebellious Catholic youth in Minnesota’s twin cities, preoccupied with sex, drugs, and Jesus. Tad Kubler has a vast repertoire of classic rock-derived guitar riffs, while Franz Nicolay adds colour with sophisticated piano and organ parts.

The Hold Steady recently celebrated their 20th anniversary with their ninth album, The Price of Progress. It’s a good opportunity to look back at their impressive catalogue.

The Hold Steady: Albums Ranked from Best to Worst

#9 Heaven is Whenever

The Hold Steady struggled to find their voice on their first album after Nicolay’s departure. Their sound is less interesting without the keyboards fleshing it out. Finn attempts to compensate for the absence of Nicolay’s supporting melodies by singing more conventionally, but this takes away the band’s edge. Rockers like ‘Hurricane J’ and ‘The Weekenders’ are strong, playing to the Hold Steady’s remaining strengths.

Hurricane Jesse’s gonna crash into the harbor this summer.
She don’t want to wait.
She said it only gets harder

Hurricane J

#8 Teeth Dreams

The Hold Steady added guitarist Steve Selvidge to their lineup for the sixth album. The extra guitarist gives them a bigger, tougher sound. The songs aren’t as memorable as their best work, however. There are some interesting ideas that expand their sound – the closer ‘Oaks’ is their longest song, inspired by Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music for a Film’, while the relaxed sound of ‘The Ambassador’ works well.

I heard the Cityscape Skins are kinda kicking it again
Heard they finally got some discipline
Running up the score and stocking up like it’s World War IV
I heard that some are getting sprung and some are back in

I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You

#7 The Price of Progress

The Hold Steady describe their ninth album as joyful and exciting to make, marking their 20th anniversary as a band. But despite the happy recording experience, The Price of Progress is The Hold Steady’s darkest album, relying on minor keys. This makes the songs less catchy, blunting the band’s anthems, but The Price of Progress is a solid manifesto of a band growing old gracefully. The closing rocker ‘Flyover Halftime’ is my favourite song on the record.

We were drinking from a cooler in thе hatchback of a Honda
He had borrowed from his brother causе his truck was in the shop

Flyover Halftime

The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me

#6 Almost Killed Me

The Hold Steady’s formation was inspired by Finn and Kubler watching The Band’s The Last Waltz together, and wondering why no one made music like that anymore. Their first album sets the tone for their career, with Kubler serving up classic rock riffs and Finn spitting out lyrics like a rapper. There’s a rawness to the debut where Finn’s voice is rougher and the songs seem less structured than they would become.

I’ve been trying to get people to call me Freddie Mercury
But people keep calling me Drop Dead Fred.


#5 Thrashing Thru the Passion

Thrashing Thru the Passion marks Nicolay’s return to The Hold Steady. Immediately they sound more comfortable, and Thrashing Thru the Passion sounds less laboured than their other records from the decade. In particular, the propulsive closer ‘Confusion in the Marketplace’ is light-hearted and fun.

Princess came to breakfast looking puffy from the Prednisone
Someone’s little sister had me marching to the metronome

Confusion in the Marketplace

#4 Open Door Policy

If Thrashing Thru the Passion was an impressive comeback record, Open Door Policy is even better. It’s arguably The Hold Steady’s most diverse record – the closer ‘Hanover Camera’ sounds inspired by the slinky grooves of Steely Dan. The multi-part ‘Unpleasant Breakfast’ is one of the most unique Hold Steady songs – there’s an impressive section just before the outro that recalls 1970s Springsteen.

When he cancelled all those concerts there were rumors that he died
Someone made a joke about the camel in his eyes
I guess the needle was implied

Me & Magdalena

The Hold Steady Separation Sunday

#3 Separation Sunday

The Hold Steady’s second album is their most narrative-driven, with its tales of Craig, Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne. A lot of fans would probably rank it even higher. It’s the purest expression of The Hold Steady’s uniqueness, even if I find some of their other albums more musically satisfying. The highlights are propulsive rockers like ‘Your Little Hoodrat Friend’, ‘Stevie Nix’, and ‘How a Resurrection Really Feels’, powered by terrific Kubler riffs.

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 had switched places before

Hornets! Hornets!

The Hold Steady Stay Positive

#2 Stay Positive

Craig Finn has stated that The Hold Steady’s fourth album is about the idea of ageing gracefully. It feels like a conclusion to the band’s first and best phase – the title track references ‘Positive Jam’, the first song on their debut, “‘Cause its one thing to start it with a positive jam/And it’s another thing to see it all through.” There’s less of an alternative flavour, and it leans more into classic rock, referencing Led Zeppelin on ‘Joke About Jamaica’. It’s a great follow-up to a classic.

This guy from the north side comes down to visit
His visits, they only take five or six minutes

Lord, I’m Discouraged

The Hold Steady Boys and Girls in America

#1 Boys and Girls in America

Where Separation Sunday avoided big choruses, Boys and Girls in America embraces them. It packs the biggest punch of any Hold Steady record, with exciting and literate rockers like ‘Hot Soft Light’ and ‘Chips Ahoy’. I once accidentally left ‘Stuck Between Stations’ on repeat 28.8 times in a row, but I still love it. ‘South Town Girls’ is a great closer, with its huge chorus and a capella introduction. The centrepiece is the youthful disenchantment of ‘First Night’, building to its thrilling conclusion.

Don’t bother talking to the guys with the hot soft eyes
You know they’re already taken
Don’t even speak to all those sequencers and beats boys
When they kiss, they spit white noise
When they kiss, they spit white noise

First Night

What’s your favourite Hold Steady album?

What Is Your Favourite Album by The Hold Steady?

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Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.


  1. Well this is a topic I could discuss for hours. My ranking would be completely different, and yet… I’m loving your work here. AKM and Thrashing are two of the best for my money.

    • Thanks for reading! Thrashing Thru the Passion is a really good comeback. I figure a lot of people probably like AKM more that I do – I have a track record of not enjoying raw debuts as much as more polished, eclectic follow-ups. Preferring Stay Postive (for instance) over AKM is right on brand for me.

    • It’s mainly the piano that’s similar, right? I like them a lot more with the pianist on board – he kind of compensates for the half-spoken singing and it works really well.

  2. Based on what I’ve heard thus far, I like The Hold Steady. I’ve only listened to some songs from their two most recent albums “Open Door Policy” and “The Price of Progress”, which I “discovered” as part of my weekly new music revue. At first, I wasn’t very fond of Craig Finn’s vocals but they work with the band’s songs. That said, I’m not sure I would want to hear an entire album in one go. But a few songs in a row every now and then sounds like a good proposition!

    • Here’s the Hold Steady’s singer on Kiss’s singer: “I love KISS. That’s the problem. I can talk about little else sometimes. What I love about them is, Gene Simmons has made untold millions of dollars, and he’s still mad that critics don’t like him. Which is hilarious.”

        • Craig FInn: Paul Stanley has always been my favourite member of KISS. I’ve always liked KISS. They were probably the first band I ever got into. They were the first band who was ever marketed to someone my age. I got into them in like second or third grade. I liked Paul because he’s the singer, really. It was that simple. As I got older I got into punk rock and KISS seemed a lot less cool. But I’ve always held a candle for them. They’ve always been something I can talk about because I just spent so much time with those records. They were important to me and when you hit something at that early an age it just kind of permeates. But for a long time I hid it.

          My favourite band is The Replacements and when I heard they covered Black Diamond… I was like okay. Maybe it’s alright to like KISS and punk rock.

  3. The expanded editions of their albums are hoovering up a lot of fan favourites and B-Sides and things but I always felt a Incesticide style B-Sides Compilation or two would best represent the band as a whole.

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