I can’t quite recall who first pointed me in the direction of The Hives but I owe them some sincere thanks because this band rocks. Formed in Sweden in the late 90’s, The Hives+ have released some consistently great rock and roll. They’re loud, aggressive and slightly unhinged – all things I like in a rock band.
One of the things I like about The Hives is that they are what I term an “AM rock band.” AM radio’s sound quality was always significantly worse than FM when I was growing up. When I used to drive around in my old Plymouth Fury (AM radio only), there was a persistent static buzz no matter where I set the dial. Furthermore, poor audio dynamics meant that complex music (like Steely Dan or even The Cars) often sounded flat on AM. Other bands sounded great on AM – 50’s rock in particular sounds just fine on AM. The Hives, admittedly, sound better when you can hear their full dynamic range, but they frankly sound just fine when you strip a lot of that away. It’s the kind of music they play and how they play it. This is particular important to me just at the moment because I am currently working with the worst //*set of headphones ever sold.
The Hives have only released five albums in 20 years (I recently read an interview with singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist where he mentioned that the five band members take a long time to make records because they always have five directions they want to go in) which is both a shame and kind of cool because each album is a fast and furious delight. The Hives don’t really have any songs I dislike, so let’s just assume this list is divided between the typical good Hives songs and the really elite Hives songs.
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21. “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones”
From 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives, Second Single
Even though I like this song (and it’s a huge fan favorite) this is my least favorite Hives song. I like the speed and the borrowed-from-the-Monkees guitar riff but something about this song just doesn’t rock as hard as their others for me. On the other hand, the song is a beast when played live – watch this video and play close attention to drummer Chris Dangerous. As Wikipedia describes it “Grahn switches between his snare drum and mounted tom-tom with his left hand, while playing eighth-notes on his hi-hat cymbals.” Fans say he has bionic arms. So, yeah, I genuinely enjoy even my least favorite Hives songs because the band is bad ass.
20. “Fall Is Just Something Grownups Invented”
From 2007’s The Black and White Album, Bonus Track/Digital Single
This was a bonus track to their Black and White Album but was also released as a digital single on iTunes. There were fives digital singles released from this record, each with a photo of a single member of the band. The front cover of this one is of Nicholaus Arson, brother of lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist. The Hives claim that all of their songs wer written by an honorary sixth member of the band named Randy Fitzsimmons, but evidence seems to suggest that Arson may actually be the primary songwriter. “Fall is Just Something Grownups Invented” is a classic “I don’t want to go to school” rock song that was apparently used as a bump on the Cartoon Network at one point (see the video). It’s sort of a spiritual descendant of “Summertime Blues,” though The Hives’ track sounds more like a call to teenage revolution than a resigned recognition that summer is ending.
19. “Won’t Be Long”
From 2007’s The Black and White Album, Third Single
The digital single for “Won’t Be Long” features drummer Chris Dangerous on the cover (it was also an actual released single). Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist is fearless when it comes to using his voice – if something is just outside of his range, he’ll go for it anyways and makes it work. The higher notes on the chorus here sound like they should be a reach for him but, nope, he just makes them rock. The theme of “Won’t Be Long” is the classic rock and roll theme “I am tired of this town and I’m going somewhere where I can rock harder.” They don’t specifically mention “rocking harder” in the lyrics, but its implied. The Hives would only go to a place that they could rock harder.
18. “A.K.A. I-D-I-O-T”
From 1997’s Barely Legal, Promotional Video
The Hives’ first album was 1997’s Barely Legal. While no singles were released from the album, a video was made of the song “A.K.A. I-D-I-O-T.” Opening with a machine gun drum riff from Chris Dangerous, the song is a fast, hard two minutes of Hives glory. The Hive have had a pretty clear sense of who they are musically and what they should look like since the start. They often wear matching outfits much like the 60’s bands they seem to revere. More than most early 21st century rock bands, The Hives embrace the 60’s garage rock aesthetic (even more than the punk aesthetic). This track’s lyrics are centered on another classic rock and roll theme – the laughed at outsider who knows, in his heart, that the table will soon be turned on the people laughing (because he’s going to rock so hard that they will feel stupid for laughing – again, this part is implied).
17. “Supply and Demand”
From 2000’s Veni Vidi Vicious, Third Single
The first Hives album I owned was Veni Vidi Vicious and, as far as I’m concerned, it could have been called The Hives Greatest Hits. You can’t release every single track on a record so let me point out that you should take a moment to listen to “The Hives Introduce The Metric System In Time” and “A Get Together To Tear It Apart.” The Hives gleefully slide between break-neck rock and irresistible hook-driven garage rock on this record. This track (and most of their singles) is the latter. You know that sound an electric guitar makes when you slide your fingers down the string? Sort of a scrape/woosh? I feel like Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist manages to make that sound with his voice as they go into the chorus of this song.
16. “A Christmas Duel” (with Cyndi Lauper)
2008 Stand-Alone single
I love Cyndi Lauper so much and she’s on my list of musicians to write about eventually.
OK, so, sometimes I’m not quite sure how to rank a song. I don’t often include remixes, for example, on my lists because they kind of short circuit my brain – am I reacting to the song? The remix of the song? At some point I’m going to have to write about The Pet Shop Boys’ fabulous remix of Bowie’s “Hallo Spaceboy,” which is better than the original version of the song. My brain hurts thinking about. I also have avoided writing about live songs because, again, in my head I have a hard time wondering whether I’m not just reacting to the original. Cover songs, too.
But you know what really messes with my brain? Novelty songs. And Christmas songs are sort of the most popular novelty songs. They are, to some extent, a cash cow for bands because they know that every year a bunch of people will be downloading their lousy Christmas single just because they want some variety on their Christmas playlists. Every now and again, a song comes along that subverts the tropes of the Christmas song – I’m thinking of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” or The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight).” They still have a Christmas theme, but you have the reality as opposed to the myth of Christmas.
And then there’s this song which feels like its taken the inversion of Christmas themes and treated them like they’re the actual classic tropes of the genre. Lauper and Almqvist are an entirely dysfunctional couple who have slept with each other’s family members, destroyed stuff, changed wills and hired a hitman (lyrics here). Despite all this, they keep coming back to being happy they’re spending Christmas together – sort of like how the king and queen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are putting on a happy front while trying to kill each other*.
It’s a really fun song that includes musical tropes from Christmas tunes too (like sleigh bells) and Lauper is typically wonderful. But I feel like I can’t listen to it for eleven other months of the year. You know what I mean?
Edit September 18, 2017: Holy cats, I just watched that scene I linked and they’re not trying to kill each other at all. He’s trying to kill her. I haven’t watched that scene since I was a kid and I remembered it being much more mutual than that. Totally misogynistic – both the scene and my memory!
15. “You Got It All… Wrong”
From 2007’s The Black and White Album, Digital Single
The digital single for “You Got It All… Wrong” is adorned with a picture of guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem. I note in their live performance videos that the cameras tend to focus on the inhuman drumming of Chris Dangerous, the out-of-control guitar work of Nicholaus Arson and the antics of Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist. As a result, you don’t always see much of Carlstroem’s solid guitar work, but his interplay with Arson’s guitar is an absolutely essential part of the band’s sound. There are words involved in “You Got It All… Wrong,” a break-neck paced rock song, but I think the actual meaning of the specific words is less important than the general concept that somebody got it all wrong and are now being told off. The Hives have some really short songs but the length is less important than the burst of sonic destruction they unleash.
14. “Abra Cadaver”
From 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives, Third Single
I think “Abra Cadaver” is meant to be a metaphor for how people try to force you to live a boring life instead of pursuing your inherent need to rock the roof off of the house. Like I don’t think it’s literally about somebody trying to stick a dead body inside of Howlin’ Pelle Amlqvist. The fact that I can’t say that that is what it’s about with 100% certainty might be because of a language barrier or might be because they’re pretty committed to the metaphor. When Tyrannosaurus Hives came out, I was inevitably disappointed because I’d liked Veni Vidi Vicious so much. However, over time, the individual songs on that album (their third) have really grown on me. I love singing the backing vocal “ayes” along with the band on this song and feel like the Dangerous/Destruction drum and bass combo really tear the place down. Good stuff. Also, its fun to try to add a “I’m gonna reach out and grab ya” into this song (especially because they never actually sing “Abra Cadaver”).
13. “Well All Right!”
From 2007’s The Black and White Album, Digital Single
The digital single for “Well All Right” features a picture of bass player Dr. Matt Destruction. He has been absent from the band since 2013 for health reasons and is currently replaced by The Johann and Only. Dr. Matt Destruction is a hell of a bass player (he’d have to be to keep up with Chris Dangerous’ drums) and also doesn’t look at all like a rock star, which just makes me love him more. I am hoping his health problem can be beaten and he can one day return to his bass duties. “Well All Right” is another song that features great sing-a-long backing vocals, a great vocal performance by Almqvist and a tune that is instantly memorable. Half of The Black and White Album was released as singles in one form or another and its fortunate that they’re all pretty darn good,
12. “Throw It on Me” (with Timbaland)
From Timbaland’s 2007 album Shock Value, Fifth Single
Timbaland was a featured artist during my Duran Duran countdown (#39) and during the Madonna countdown (#43). This track is from his album Shock Value which featured a wonderfully diverse line-up of guest artists. I mean, they are spread out over the whole album so he never ends up in a SNL‘s Big Chris situation. He also does more than just drop Howlin’ Pelle into the chorus – the whole band is involved for most of the song. It’s really a great mix of hip-hop and rock. If you’ve not listened to it before, do yourself a favor.
11. “Blood Red Moon”
2015 Stand-Alone Single from the movie Cirkeln
This is the least Hives-sounding song on this list (and also the most recent). Recorded for the Swedish witch film Cirkeln, “Blood Red Moon” sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack to True Blood or as an outtake to a Creedence Clearwater Revival recording session. It has a touch of that swampy New Orleans rock and Howlin’ Pelle sings it at the bottom of his register (attacking low notes that might be beyond him with the same unbeatable bravado that allows him to successfully sing above his register). I have no idea if this might be a sign of what might be to come from The Hives on future recordings, but it’s certainly a tantalizing little glimpse of the band’s range. I have no idea if the film is any good.
Coming Soon: The song that woke me up every morning for two years.