In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Alabama Shakes- “Hold On”
PEAK: #93 on March 9, 2013
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”
For as long as I’ve been old enough to pay attention to music, one common complaint I’ve heard is how rock music is dead or more specifically how rock music isn’t as popular or relevant as it used to be. While there are plenty of artists who are still making rock music, it is true that compared to previous decades it doesn’t have the cultural weight or relevance as it once had. In terms of the pop charts, as the great critic Chris Molanphy pointed out recently, rock music has only gotten big when it has gotten mixed with the more mainstream dominant sounds whether it’d be the SoundCloud rap of something a la “Mood” or the trap pop of Post Malone or the bedroom pop of Taylor Swift’s recent releases. You don’t get many hit songs that are unequivocally rock is all I’m saying.
There was one small glimmer of hope recently when 2021’s breakout pop star Olivia Rodrigo debuted at #1 with “good 4 u,” a song that’s indebted entirely to ‘00s era pop-punk that you can’t mistake it for anything other than a straight-up rock song. But real down and dirty rock music made by actual bands that build themselves up through constant performing before getting a record deal, that’s been harder to come by.
All of this makes the 2010s success of Alabama Shakes really impressive. They’re a group that with their old-style approach to Southern-based blues-rock and soul along with frontwoman Brittany Howard’s raw and fiery singing make them look very out of place in almost every version of ‘10s pop music. While acts of their kind would have largely settled with performing in bars and netting a small but devoted fan base, Alabama Shakes managed to rise above it and break out nationwide through online and critical buzz leading to two hit albums, awards, and major performance opportunities at big festivals and opening for bigger artists.
Against all odds, Alabama Shakes managed to chart one single on the Hot 100 which remains their most well-known song about the anxiety of reaching adulthood which true to their nature grew out of a jam session. It didn’t peak very high or for very long but considering the difficulties of rock music in recent years, that’s a big accomplishment.
As their name implies, the four members of Alabama Shakes all hail from Alabama specifically the northern town of Athens. Howard got into music as a teenager when she started playing guitar to help deal with a tumultuous childhood that saw her sister die from retinoblastoma along with her parents separating. (The #1 song in America on the date of Howard’s birth was an actual rock song which was Def Leppard’s “Love Bites.”) Soon, Howard began playing and singing in various local bands but it wasn’t until she met bassist Zac Cockrell and guitarist Heath Fogg through school and that’s when things started to get going.
Immediately bonding over their love of music, Howard, Cockrell, and Fogg soon started playing together with drummer Steve Johnson joining not long after. Together, the band formed as the Shakes and by 2009 were performing in public at local bars on weekends playing the usual covers of classic rock and soul songs. In between their gigs, the group were all working in a variety of jobs with Howard working as a carrier for the Postal Service, Johnson working at a local power plant, Cockrell working at an animal clinic, and Fogg in charge of painting people’s houses.
Not long after, the band began to record an album through sessions in Nashville they paid themselves. It was around this time when a prominent music blogger and radio host named Justin Gage came across a picture of the band performing. After reaching out to the band, Gage posted their song “You Ain’t Alone” to his blog leading to lots of attention from various record labels with the group signing with ATO Records which is when they added Alabama to their name when they learned a bunch of groups already shared the name The Shakes. The newly renamed group soon released a four-song self-titled EP in 2011 which garnered them NPR-Esque buzz and set the stage for their debut album Boys & Girls released in April 2012.
For the album’s lead single, everything came together in a very spontaneous manner. Fogg and Cockrell first came up with the sticky riff that drives the song but soon the band began playing a groove as Howard started writing lyrics on the spot and premiered it shortly after in one of their performances. As Howard herself said in a 2015 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, when the band began playing what would be “Hold On,” the audience picked up on their new creation even singing along as if they already knew the song.
“Hold On” is by and large a very simple song. Brittany Howard spends the song contemplating her life so far counting her blessings while not feeling sure of what she’s going to do. She’s got so much she wants to do but she ain’t got much time and didn’t think she’d make it to 22 years old. To persevere through tough times, Howard calls out to a higher authority that is telling her to pick herself back up. Basically, that authority figure is telling Brittany Howard to hold on. But Howard also sounds in conflict with that advice saying she doesn’t want to wait to see what will happen in her life. It all works with her howling delivery where you can feel the uncertainty she feels about growing up. While many modern blues and soul singers often default into imitations of the greats, Brittany Howard internalizes her influences to create her own style that helps us connect with her lyrics.
As someone who’s turning 22, Brittany Howard’s lyrics certainly appeals a lot to me. In an NME interview, Howard explained the meaning behind her lyrics, “It’s not necessarily that I didn’t think I was going to make it to 22, it’s just like, you know when you’re younger and you can’t imagine yourself ever being grown? I didn’t like my job and I didn’t like where I was living and I didn’t like the way my world was. You’re holding on but at the same time, you’re tired of waiting for things to get better. Why have you always got to want something better.” That hits a lot. When we’re all kids, we all think of adulthood as some far-off thing that you can never imagine coming so quickly. Even being a teenager can feel a ways off. While my life is good with graduating college, starting a steady new job, and in a good living condition, I’ve had those feelings of waiting patiently for the right moment to come in life to get ahead and feeling frustrated at it.
Aside from its message, “Hold On” also works as a good blues-rock song. Like the rest of Boys & Girls, the song sounds like the band you’d see playing at your local bar. The song is driven by a steady drumbeat and a catchy guitar riff with a piano sprinkled in and a fuzzy synth-like noise shows up toward the end as the song slows down to its end. All of this while only two chords are played with possibly only one note being played on the bass. Howard adjusts her voice to the song singing in a quiet and reserved style on the verses and when the music gets loud her voice gets loud too and by the end, her voice goes into a whisper holding out her last notes in an uncertain ending. It’s a simple yet effective song from a band that knows what it’s doing.
It took time for “Hold On” and Boys & Girls to reach its chart peak. The album had originally peaked at #8 during 2012, pretty good for a blues-rock-based album in an era of thumping EDM. The band also got lots of critical love with Rolling Stone naming “Hold On” as their best song of 2012. When Alabama Shakes performed at the 2013 Grammys where they were nominated for awards including Best New Artist, the buzz from their performance spurred renewed interest in their album helping it reach a new peak of #6 eventually going platinum. With “Hold On,” the song hadn’t even cracked the Hot 100 when the group performed on a February 2013 episode of Saturday Night Live. But like the Grammys, the SNL performance spurred people to listen to their music helping “Hold On” to break onto the chart a couple of weeks after peaking at #93 in its second and final week on the Hot 100.
After the success of “Hold On” and Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes held on for one more album with 2015’s Sound & Color, which saw them expanding on their soul and blues-rock sound. None of the singles from Sound & Color crossed over to the Hot 100 but the album did better than Boys & Girls debuting at #1 eventually going gold. It also got the band and got the band a nomination for Album of the Year at the Grammys but ultimately lost to 1989. They also did soundtrack cuts for the movies Silver Linings Playbook and The American Epic Sessions. They opened for Jack White and got gigs at major festivals including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.
By 2018, Alabama Shakes announced a hiatus as members began various solo projects. Brittany Howard released her album, 2019’s Jaime, to critical acclaim while Hogg released an album in 2020 under the name Sun on Shade. But there’s been also been band turmoil. Johnson and his wife divorced leading to horrific charges of domestic violence which he pleaded guilty to being sentenced to a year in prison and two years probation. A few months ago, Johnson was in trouble with the law again over charges of child abuse which is still ongoing. We’ll see how all this affects Alabama Shakes going forward but from the look of it, it doesn’t look like they’ll be getting back together anytime soon.
BONUS BEATS: I performed “Hold On” a couple of times during high school but I can’t embed the videos of those performances so instead let’s go with this 2012 clip of Foster the People and Luke Pritchard of the English indie band The Kooks performing a largely faithful version of “Hold On” in London:
(Foster The People’s highest-charting single, 2011’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)