Hot Water Music are one of those bands that, if you haven’t heard already but like your punk rock, you’ve probably heard them second hand. They’re namechecked frequently and vociferously by a surprising number of bands, from folk musicians who play up their strong, gruff-sung but big hearted lyrics, to fellow gutsy rockers whose raw throated barking and snarling riffing owes much to those expertly deployed by the two arguable figureheads of the band – which is to say the two guitarist/singers, Chris Wollard and Chuck Ragan.
Both men are physically and sonically contrasting which plays a big part in Hot Water Music’s unique sound; the burly, muscular Ragan’s lower growl is offset by the lanky, shaggy-haired Wollard’s higher pitched rasp, while their guitars weave in and out of each other like a punk rock Ron Wood and Keith Richards. They’ve been categorised as many genres; punk rock, post-hardcore, ‘Org’core and (hilariously) beardcore. But whatever they are, there’s no escaping the fact that they are one of the best bands to have ever come out of Gainesville’s punk scene.
And now to the impossible task which I have before me, which is narrowing their sprawling, consistently excellent oeuvre down to their ten best songs. I would like to point out that this is in no particular order, and not even in chronological order. But it’s as best I can do. Let us begin.
1: Remedy (from Caution, 2002)
It was always going to be “Remedy”, wasn’t it. One of the few Hot Water Music songs that actually got a music video, “Remedy” proved that in spite of this being their second record on a so-say ‘big label’, that absolute bludgeoning fury that powered their early days at the Hardback hadn’t mellowed them one bit. If anything, it sharpened that to a keen edge, the song’s under-three-minute running time only heightening its freight train impact. Ragan re-voices the tired trope of time healing wounds in a way that instils it with a new power and meaning, giving the thrilling aggression a sombre, grounded base. Brian McTernan’s stellar production has to be also credited, as he renders the Gainesville’s quartet in the sharpest focus, as he did on any of his three records with Hot Water Music.
2: Jack Of All Trades (from A Flight And A Crash, 2001)
Perhaps one of the most underrated songs from this record, “Jack Of All Trades” is that big anti-corporate fuck you song that legions of punk rockers have tried to write but end up tripping over their own tongue with one toothless screed after another. Hot Water Music’s decision to keep things mid-tempo, with simmering, crunchy guitars that avoid the trap of mall-punk saturation gives the song a keen edge, with focus given to Ragan and Wollard’s harmonised vocals. Lyrically Ragan takes to task careerist musicians with a terse, vicious pen, eviscerating his targets with every line: “So you've got a tale to tell / Well how about something real? / Feel free and stifle someone / Go on and belittle someone as well / Oh but fucker yeah you'll get yours / So fill up your pockets, and watch them swell.”
3: God Deciding (from Alkaline Trio / Hot Water Music, 2002)
Anti-war songs have been a punk rock tradition since the genre’s very inception, and they’ve been done with varying degrees of success. “God Deciding” is one of the very best examples. Eschewing the frequent didacticism that plagues this kind of subject matter, it’s led by a piercing, repeated hook in the verses that really bolsters the whole song, with another of Jason Black’s astonishingly mobile basslines grounding the whole lot alongside George Rebelo’s crashing drums. Ragan’s lyrics in this particular cut are impressionistic but totally compelling, as he manages to distil the whole sordid nature of bloody combat across the years and time itself, critiquing the human cost as well as the vile chickenhawks who push the violence to such ugly ends; “So who will pay for all the tears / All the lives, from either side? / All the years, all the time of living blind / Playing "God Deciding?" And who will die next in line / For the lie, justified / For the rise of sitting high playing "God Deciding?”. One of Hot Water Music’s most powerful songs, without question.
4: The Bitter End (from BYO Split Series Volume I, 1999)
Opening with an almost delicate hammer-on/pull-off lick from Chris Wollard, this is one of the lengthier songs in the Gainesville foursome’s repertoire, but fortunately it’s so excellent you’d rather it didn’t finish. One of the things that defines Hot Water Music is that, for a gruff, growling guitar band, the sentiments expressed in their music are often big hearted and indicative of a deep and abiding love for humanity’s best aspects and the inherent power of tolerance, love and acceptance, rather than simply resorting to nihilistic flailing. “The Bitter End” is a perfect example of this, as Wollard’s keening rasp opines; “When you let your / Hate endure / More prominent / Than your love / Or your trust you / Let it push us away .” The music spits and roars, dynamically changing between a comparatively sparse verse and a guitar drenched chorus before splitting open into a soaring, spiralling outro, with Ragan and Wollard’s six string fury duelling as much as it embraces, until it finally, sadly, comes to an end, with one last note ringing out into nothing. A finish befitting of the song’s title.
5: All Heads Down (from The New What Next, 2004)
Comparing a song to Fugazi is always a compliment, and this is no exception, with a jerking, almost funky single note guitar line in the verses from Chris Wollard complimenting the quieter, ringing line from Ragan in the background, with the slow, steady thump of the drums insistently marching into your brain. The chorus explodes into a restrained yet furious maelstrom, and thematically this could be taken as one of the most politically inclined songs that Hot Water Music have ever written before or since. Ragan completely takes to task the sickening, shameless behaviour of corrupted demagogues with line after line of gruff vitriol; “All I ask is how we carry on / Tricked and blind / Raped and robbed / […] Freedom fades like / Promises made for the trade of a vote in the game.”
6: Paper Thin (from A Flight And A Crash, 2001)
I would be both remiss in calling myself a fan of Hot Water Music, and also piss off a lot of people, if this one didn’t appear. Fortunately the song itself is so excellent it completely validates its vaunted position in their body of work. Clocking in at just under two and a half minutes, the song is a perfect paean to the pain in having a loved one in hospital, as heart-breaking as it is rousing. Chris Wollard heads the song with a consummate, rugged fury, giving a powerful voice to a topic that could easily veer into the maudlin with a careful hand, while the song itself is about as perfect and concise a punk rock song as it gets, with a simple, memorable hammer on/off lick and a chorus that sticks in the chest and the heart; “White white walls, and hospitals / All of us feel trivial / Paper thin, tentative and waiting.”
7: Turnstile (from Fuel For The Hate Game, 1997)
One of their oldest songs, “Turnstile” is the sound of a young band raging as hard as possible with complete righteous energy – which it to say it’s not perfect, perhaps lacking the more considered approach of Hot Water Music’s later material, but the song makes up for this with sheer, ripping energy. It’s a live favourite for that same reason, with the building blocks that would make up Hot Water Music’s captivating sound beginning to take shape; the interlaced guitars and dual vocals, with dynamic shifts and changes. The song barrels along at a righteous pace before the outro almost literally explodes, with a bellow of “Lift yourself up” from Ragan, while the time signature shifts and the drums employ an off-kilter, almost jazzy pattern, both shattering the listener’s eardrums and tingling their spine.
8: Alachua (from Never Ender, 2001)
Although production-wise, this track recalls the fuzzier, looser early Hot Water Music sound, the song within is a classic. This track is led by Chris Wollard, who seems struck by the trials and tribulations of growing up and losing adoration for things once loved; “[…] So show me how this all works / ’cause all these things just seem empty / And that’s what hurts.” The chorus is one of their best and most original, as it has both Ragan and Wollard singing completely different lyrics, weaving in and out of each other in much the same way as their instruments, as if in a stream of desperate consciousness. Meanwhile the music backing it all is exemplary, with a muscular palm muted guitar hook from Wollard that sets up the huge charge of each chorus.
9: Home (from Till The Wheels Fall Off, 2008)
This was a song originally intended to be on 2004’s The New What Next, and for some reason it was left off. I will never understand why, as it’s one of the best songs Hot Water Music have ever recorded. It manages that duality of being a gutsy, crunching slab of punk rock while at the same time being a sweet, tenderly written song for anyone having to spend time away from those they love. This is Ragan’s song through and through, as his gravelly bark gives real strength and weight to the song’s lyrics, with some really beautiful lines; “Still so far away from you, it cuts so quick and clean / Still so far away from you but I still want more / I can close my lips before I taste ours soaked in wine / Lay my head upon your breast and count your beats and smiles.”
The song is also notable for being unabashedly melodic, even as it rampages through its slightly-over three minute length, and in a relatively rare instance, contains a guitar solo which simply shreds – completely blowing back your hair before the endlessly repeatable outro brings it all to a close.
10: Trusty Chords (from Caution, 2002)
I simply couldn’t leave this one out. It’s arguably their best known song, clocking in at just shy of three minutes, with an unbeatable chorus that is just specific enough to catch the ear but relatable enough for anyone to smile in nostalgic recognition; “I hate this place but I love these chords. “An empty fate just means an even score. / And the pain this morning... / It filled my head. / It's Jameson. / It means that I'm not dead.”
It’s been covered more than a few times, with varying degrees of success, but no one gets it done quite like the original four. Vocally this is almost entirely Wollard, with his cracked, yearning roar elevating the song to a whole different level than any other mall pop punk bottom feeder. While musically “Trusty Chords” sounds simple, it’s one of those truly great pieces of music that reveals its complexity the more you listen to it. The guitar parts are so excellently counterpointed, for rather than just idiotically thumping the same power chords, Ragan rides sustained legato notes in the verses while Wollard bounces between octaves, and as the chorus bursts into life Wollard’s barre chord fury is matched by some nimble hammer on/pull off work from Ragan, really adding some sparkle and texture to the mix. It’s perhaps a microcosm of the band in a single song; simplistic on first glance but richly layered and rewarding the listener with something new each time it’s heard. It’s a classic, in short.
Well, that was extremely hard, if I’m perfectly honest. There are plenty more songs that could have made the list, but for the sake of brevity they had to be omitted for now. Either way, pick any one of these, as you can’t really miss, and then just buy the record it’s from if you like what you hear. Chances are it’ll make you buy their whole back catalogue anyway. Which you should.
This top ten was written by Omar Ramlugon.