The band is best known for its wild frontwoman, who emits punk energy with every breath. Love has never been afraid to speak her mind, and the band is easily one of the most successful female-fronted rock acts of all time since the Runaways. This has resulted in Courtney Love becoming a feminist icon, with the band’s discography containing repeated references to women’s issues, including body image and sexual exploitation.
During the early days, Love worked as a stripper to fund the band. At this time their music focused on a “no-wave” sound (an avant-garde version of punk) and they were signed to Caroline Records in 1991 to record their first album. Pretty on the Inside was an unapologetically punk album that proved to be a sleeper hit, earning the band a cult following and considerable critical acclaim.
Hole’s sophomore album, Live Through This was released in the first quarter of 1994, just one week after Kurt Cobain, Love’s husband, was found dead. The album was a breakthrough for the band, spawning many hit singles, and was noticeably less aggressive than its predecessor. Rumors suggested Cobain had been responsible for a lot of the album, but the band denies it to this day. As if the death of Cobain wasn’t enough, the band’s bassist, Kirsten Pfaff, tragically died of a drug overdose later that year.
1998 saw the release of the band’s third album Celebrity Skin which cemented the band’s mainstream status. This record was far slicker and more mature than anything the band had done before, so it was no surprise that it earned the band four Grammy nominations and their only number one single.
After dropping out of a disastrous tour with Marilyn Manson, the band enjoyed continued success before disbanding in 2002 to work on solo projects. This absence lasted for seven years until June 2009, when Love announced she would be reforming the band with British guitarist Micko Larkin. Nobody’s Daughter was released a year later to moderate success, though Love later admitted she should have released the album as a solo record rather than use the band’s name.
Although Hole seem to be on good enough terms at the moment, only time will tell if they ever return to the charts. But even if they don’t, their inimitable discography is quite a legacy to leave.
# 10 – Credit In the Straight World
Not many people realize that this album track from Live Through This is actually a cover of a little-known song by a Welsh post-punk band from the 70’s called Young Marble Giants. Perhaps this misconception is down to the fact that Love so effortlessly makes the song her own, meaning it flawlessly fits into the album’s sound.
The track begins with some creepy organ chords which Love’s double-tracked vocals ominously chime over, sounding almost like a warning. This is the type of sound you might expect before a vampire awakens from a thousand year slumber. Bizarrely, this chilling atmosphere then completely disappears from the song and is replaced with deep and slightly buzzy guitar riffs and some bouncy bass.
Whilst, in the intro, Love’s vocals were deep and threatening, they soon become sweet and harmonious, though never lack her trademark throatiness. The song’s lyrics are (as always) open to interpretation but the titular “straight world” seems to refer to the everyday life of most people, the life you are expected to lead, free of drugs and danger. The song seems to suggest that even those who live “basic” (in common parlance) lives are destined to die, just like everyone else – so why bother trying to live a “boring” life.
This is a jagged and memorable song – the funky and whiny guitar solo, brief though it is, will stay with you – and, despite being a cover, it absolutely sounds like something Love and co would craft. An underrated but utterly brilliant track.
# 9 – Awful
This third single from Celebrity Skin perfectly illustrates the band’s sonic evolution from cult punk status to mainstream success. Gone is any semblance of DIY grunginess, which has been replaced with a shiny and sharply produced pop-inspired alternative rock sound. That’s not to say to one is better than the other, just that the rousing and upbeat guitar of this track could not be further away from the band’s original sound.
Despite an (inevitable) growth in sound, the band has lost none of their subversion or edge, as evidenced by Awful’s subject matter, which, living in a post-Britney-shaving-her-head world, seems painfully ahead of their time. The track discusses the reality of being in the music industry as a young woman, and, as the track’s name suggests, it’s not easy. The band state the (male-dominated) music industry will systematically exploit women for all they’re worth, using their talent and body for their own gain – even touching on how artists are manipulated into always being in financial debt to their label.
Though a bleak picture is painted, the track ends on a positive note, suggesting that women should break free from the shackles of the current music industry and create a new and fairer one. Despite its pop-rock sound, Awful is a risky and poignant track, letting Love use her own experiences and observations as a warning to future female musicians.
# 8 – Nobody’s Daughter
The title track of the band’s most recent album, Nobody’s Daughter is a tragic and deeply personal song that sees Love lament her loneliness. Estranged from her parents, and her husband who died by suicide, Courtney Love has had a difficult life and this really comes out on this song, which is a pained and heated dirge, dripping with agony and torment.
Love asserts that she has learned to cope with hardships in her life because she has had no other choice. No one has been there for her and so she has realized she must become her own guardian and look out for herself. Love’s vocals are strained, deep and anguished on the track, which features venomous and visceral lyrics full of potent bitterness.
Most of the song’s instrumental is broad and moody, the thick Led Zeppelin type guitars acting like a wall of sound that somehow manage to envelop and smother Love’s vocals. This is a clever choice, as it seems to echo the song’s claustrophobic and oppressive imagery, serving to give the listener a taste of what the lyrics describe.
Although much of the song focuses on Love’s negative feelings, there are glimmers of hope throughout the track, most notably during the second chorus in which Love asserts that, despite everything she’s been through, she is still standing strong. These slivers of optimism are easily lost in the rest of the song’s tidal wave of sorrow but anyone paying full attention will understand – and agree – that, after everything, Courtney Love will have the last laugh.
# 7 – Teenage Wh*re
An intense and brutal track, Teenage Wh*re was the first track to be released from their debut album. The song failed to make a splash in the US but did rather well on the other side of the Atlantic, charting at number one on the UK Indie Charts.
The track is characteristic of the band’s early sound, which blends punk, grindcore, and noise rock. As such, it’s an extreme and abrasive song, full of grimy, gritty, and thrashing guitars. Fans of the band’s later work will get quite a surprise listening to early works like this, which is scratchy and nasty (in a good way) when compared to their lush, post-Celebrity Skin sound.
Lyrically, the song sees Love reflect on the relationship between her mother and her teenage self. Famously, the two had a very fractious relationship, with her mother even writing a tell-all book at one point. The extent of their estrangement is palpable in Teenage Wh*re, in which Love describes how her mother’s behavior made her feel lonely, ignored, and angry, causing her to act out (though it is believed the title is purely symbolic). Love snarls and screams her way through the track, in a way that suggests she was always destined to become a key figure in rock. It really is genuinely frightening and impressive how much angst and acid Love manages to inject into her vocals on this track, making it utterly impossible to ignore.
Although the song’s heavy sound might not be for everyone, there are few tracks which better display Love’s extraordinary early talent than Teenage Wh*re. Although the band had already released a couple of tracks, in many ways this was their true debut, and it was quite a way to explode onto the music scene.
# 6 – Reasons to Be Beautiful
This album track from Celebrity Skin is somewhat of a grunge throwback when compared to the rest of the album, full of buzzy and grinding, sometimes wah-wah guitar, which gives the song a thick and syrupy atmosphere well suited to the track’s subject matter.
The song seems to be about Love looking for meaning in life, which she seeks to find in a lover. Of course, fully devoted to Kurt Cobain as she was, she finds that this is no easy task. A lot of the lyrics can be read as being directly addressed to her departed husband, and even reference song lyrics he included in his suicide note at one point. Throughout the song, Love takes full advantage of her adopted last name, playing on the possibility of double meanings in witty and clever ways.
Whilst most of the song is a raucous and intoxicating affair that perfectly complements Love’s pained and impassioned vocals, the song’s final minute is sweet and tender, the perfect foil to the rest of the track’s fiery atmosphere. The wild guitar becomes nothing more than a thoughtful and quiet strum as Love mourns her lover, perhaps suggesting that with Cobain gone she can no longer find any reasons to be beautiful.
Like a lot of things about Courtney Love, this track is contradictory – it is simultaneously angry, sweet and intimate, completely capturing the heart-wrenching emotion of losing someone close to you. But even more than that, it’s a real banger.
# 5 – Doll Parts
Thought to have begun life as a poem, Doll Parts, from Live Through This, is one of the band’s most recognizable songs. The track was written in 1991, just after Love met Cobain and deals with her insecurity regarding their relationship. Kurt Cobain was at the very height of success at this time, so the lyrics reflect Love’s belief that a rock star like him could have any girl he wanted, meaning their courtship could only end in her heartache. The track’s instrumental part is thoughtful and sincere, consisting of restrained guitar and an appropriately simple drum beat. This is one of those songs where the breaks and silent sections say just as much as the music.
As well as symbolizing an artificiality and lack of reality, the song’s doll motif comes from a gift Kurt Cobain gave her – a heart-shaped box (the inspiration for the Nirvana song of the same name) that contained a porcelain doll. Whilst the track’s forlorn guitar was originally intended to compliment the song’s themes of insecurity, once Kurt Cobain had passed away (after the song was recorded but before the album had been released) it gained an even more painful poignancy. Studying the lyrics with the knowledge of how their relationship ended is a powerfully tragic thing, making the track an unfortunate example of how context can affect music.
Doll Parts is a devastatingly effective song (even if not for the reason Love intended), which has rightfully become one of the band’s trademark tracks.
# 4 – Skinny Little B*tch
This lead single from the band’s most recent album was Hole’s first single since 2000’s Be a Man and their first release not to feature Eric Erlandson. Skinny Little B*tch is a stormer of a track, eerily reminiscent of the band’s early punk-inspired work, full of big, noisy riffs, gritty lyrics and Love’s distinctively throaty croak-scream. Whilst the energy and vibe are completely in line with Hole’s first album, the production values are (of course) far higher, allowing the sonic insanity to sound better than ever.
Lyrically, the song returns to Love’s well-trodden path of examining her former self, often concentrating on her body and appearance. Rather than being reductive or repetitive, Love’s ideas are as potent as ever – it’s fascinating that even in her late forties, and after a ten-year hiatus, she still clearly feels such resentment and anger about her youth. The bridge is especially evocative, brimming with foul imagery.
From start to finish Skinny Little B*tch is a rip-roarer of a track, with Love still fizzing with the anarchic energy she did in the 90s. The rolling riffs are impossibly catchy, and it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to resist joining in with the outro’s screamed repetition of the song’s title. This track was perfect for a comeback, reassuring fans that – despite the new lineup – the band are as spiky and electric as ever.
# 3 – Malibu
A lot of the songs on Celebrity Skin make reference to California and the associated lifestyle, but nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s second single, Malibu. This was one of the band’s best-received tracks amongst the general public, even earning a Grammy nomination in 1999.
Many assumed the track referred to Cobain’s time in a Malibu-based rehab clinic, but Love asserts that it is actually about her time living in the city with her first boyfriend. This is one of the band’s lyrically sweeter songs, lacking the bite often associated with Love’s writing. Similarly, the instrumental is rather gentle and light, with its rousing and airy chords (and, of course, the song’s title) somehow recalling sun, summer, and beach life. Perhaps this is what made it so popular with the public – it’s a very approachable track. This is not intended to be a criticism, in fact, its calmer atmosphere acts like a breath of fresh air in the band’s either wise quite heavy and intense discography.
This is a gorgeous and luscious ballad, full of calm and soothing backing vocals as well as chiming guitar riffs which manage to embody the new-age and tranquil lifestyle associated with the city. Saying that, there is quiet sadness that lurks beneath the surface, as, essentially, the song is about escaping one’s problems.
Malibu is a stealthily brilliant track, in which layers of guitar and vocals wash over you like the titular city’s stunning beaches. This is one of the few songs that live up to its hype.
# 2 – Violet
When a single’s cover art is a real-life photo of a dead Victorian girl you know you’re in for a wild ride and, Violet, the opening track of Live Through This, does not disappoint. This is a heavy alternative rock /grunge song which Love claims to be inspired by her relationship with Smashing Pumpkin singer Billy Corgan.
Love often inhabits various different characters in her music so the song should not be taken as a direct description of her time with Corgan. The track discusses dark and upsetting themes such as abuse, be it sexual, physical or emotional, and the lasting scars which these leave on a person. It’s no surprise, then, that this is a dark track, full of crunchy, fuzzy and distorted guitar from Erlandson, and bitter, vitriolic lyrics spat angrily by Love.
Violet sees the singer at her most furious, screaming herself into an awe-inspiring frenzy throughout the track, barely taking a breath, even during the slower-tempo verses. Love’s sheer rage is remarkable on this song, in fact, you can practically imagine her bursting into flames as the track reaches its furious crescendo. One can only imagine what it must have been like to see her perform the track live in her heyday.
This is a brutal song, which tackles a tough subject matter and tells a twisted, tragic story. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, Violet is truly something to behold.
# 1 – Celebrity Skin
Celebrity Skin, the lead single from the album of the same name is without doubt Hole’s most popular song. Even upon first listen it’s quite obvious why this would be the case. That guitar riff is utterly irresistible and surely ranks somewhere up there amongst rock’s absolute best of all time.
Lyrically, the song explores Love’s relationship with the media and Hollywood superficiality. She discusses how women are dehumanized by tabloids (and the patriarchy) and are encouraged to play down their talent and substance in favor of their outward appearance, being celebrated only for their ability to fit into meaningless beauty standards. The song’s title is believed to come from an indie adult magazine although Love has joked that it was chosen because in her time she’s touched a lot of celebrity skin.
After those truly sensational riffs, the most notable bit of the instrumental is that of the post-chorus. There’s something somehow jangling and glossy about the strumming in these sections which manages to recall the flash of paparazzi bulbs and the glitzy glamour of sparkly dresses – perfectly suited to the accompanying lyrics. This is every inch the quintessential Hole song, containing almost all of the band’s recurring tropes – from outstanding riffs to Love’s wonderfully grizzled vocals, not to mention the feminist themes and veiled references to Cobain.
From start to finish Celebrity Skin is an absolute riot of a track, with storming, iconic, instrumental and themes that are still so depressingly relevant today. This is, without doubt, the crown jewel in Hole’s considerable treasure trove of songs.
Over their extraordinary career, Hole has created some ridiculously accomplished rock music, managing to evolve their sound without compromising on quality. Although the band’s lineup has been inconsistent, the notorious Courtney Love has always been there, and with this rock goddess at the helm, you can be sure that Hole will be forever remembered.
Top 10 Hole Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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