The Collegian
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Music Mondays: The underappreciated Ted Leo

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

“Don’t meet your heroes,” they say. They say. Is this the same “they” that swears up and down that the way to access a man’s heart is through his stomach? Um, I think I’ll stick with the medical consensus of the right atrium, thank you very much. With such a misguided understanding of basic human anatomy, why should anyone trust their advice about heroes? I sure didn’t when I met one of my own heroes, indie/punk rock legend Ted Leo. And guess what? When — after about a half-hour of lingering — I finally breached the forcefield my social anxiety constructed around his general vicinity to meet him, he was incredibly humble and personable. Hah!

But, more importantly, I got the opportunity to express to Ted my adoration for his 2001 album “The Tyranny of Distance.” I told him the truth: that I believe it is a masterpiece and that it is the first album I recommend to anyone. Were I not holding myself back from entirely geeking-out, I would have also told him he is the most underappreciated artist of all time. Despite Leo’s songwriting and lyrical expertise, one-of-a-kind experimental mind, and widespread critical acclaim and cult devotion, he is rarely discussed and recognized today.  

First, allow me to introduce this “Ted Leo” guy. Theodore Francis Leo has been a prevalent undercurrent of the underground punk scene since his emergence in the early 1990s. He first broke into the Washington D.C. punk landscape in his college days with mod-punk band Chisel. They garnered acclaim and a loyal following with their album “8 a.m. All Day,” which established the foundation for Leo’s track record of genre experimentation and critical recognition. Following the band’s breakthrough, they went on to open for notable underground acts such as Blonde Redhead and Fugazi before releasing their follow-up, “Set You Free.” Despite the success of the album, Chisel never evolved past its supporting status as they broke up in 1997 just before their scheduled headlining tour.

This was just the beginning of a lengthy career for Leo, though, who proceeded to form Ted Leo and the Pharmacists in 1999, where his penchant for sharp-political lyricism and genre-blending coalesced like never before. Through the Pharmacists, Leo would come into his own and release two of the best albums of the 2000s: my beloved “The Tyranny of Distance” (2001) and my other marginally less so, but still nonetheless beloved “Hearts of Oak” (2003). Both projects were met with critical praise, with Pitchfork placing “The Tyranny of Distance” at a frustratingly low 120 on their “Top 200 Albums of the 2000s” list. Although subsequently, Leo would never quite recapture the uproarious and genuine spirit of these first two releases, they were all he needed to cement his status as a true titan of punk.

Both albums are incredibly special, not only to me but to punk as a genre. Among a sea of traditionally structured and thus similar punk, Leo’s diversification of the genre stands out. Whereas most punk adheres to strict and bare regulations of sound — power chords, raw drumming and shouted vocals — the Pharmacists are punk in lyrical content and energy rather than aesthetics. While yes, many of Leo’s songs are raw in production and feature their fair share of power chords, many of them also center on aspects of reggae, indie and pop-reminiscent catchiness.   

No song better represents Leo’s blending of these influences than the title track of “Hearts of Oak.” To me, this is the best-written song of all time. The track opens with a single, bouncy guitar riff before the bass jumps in like a powderkeg to blast the song into high gear with an explosion of reggae percussion and a reverbed up-strum. Atop the blistering drum, bass and guitar is a shaker that injects the song with danceability rare to other punk tracks. What really elevates the track, however, are the vocals. Leo sings with unbridled passion accompanied by these incredibly fun background vocals during the chorus and pre-chorus. The background vocals are especially apparent during the pre-chorus which, along with booming yet funky drumming, make it endlessly addictive. On the lyrical end, Leo discusses the power of music to create solidarity among individuals through the narrator’s relationship with an unnamed woman singing, “I was listening to this song by this friend of mine/ I was hearing what she said, I was feeling her rage.” Eat that, “Imagine” by John Lennon. 

Despite his track record of critical and cult acclaim and the addicting inventiveness of his music, Ted Leo is almost unknown in today’s generation of music listeners. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have only 50,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and both Leo’s solo projects and Chisel have a measly 2,000 monthly listeners, with the majority of Chisel’s discography disappearing from streaming following a March 14th announcement that the band will be re-releasing their catalog in chunks throughout 2022. In spite of this Leo is still active, releasing his last full-length album, “The Hanged Man,” in 2017 and in March launching a series of monthly EPs on Bandcamp — all of which are stellar. Now, here I am, practically on my knees, imploring everyone who is reading this article and every fan of music to — for the love of all that is good in this world — listen to Ted Leo. 

I don’t know what “they” say about him, but what I say is he is so worth your time that even if you are hanging from a cliff face by a protruding branch, you may as well expend your last bit of energy to jam out to “The Tyranny of Distance.” 

Contact columnist Zac zibaitis at

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