Celebrating 20 Years of Wilco – Top 10 Tracks
Adrian Pedić considers the Chicago-based group’s ten finest offerings:
Wilco might not be the most recognisable name in music today. However, progressing from their alt-country roots into the more ambiguous, subtle sound they’re known for now, they have gathered a strong fan-base in their 20 years. I don’t hesitate telling people that front-man Jeff Tweedy is the finest songwriter I’ve heard in my lifetime. Their masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is the best album I’ve ever heard. They have provided me with countless hours of unrivalled musical enjoyment for years, and they were also the best live band I’ve ever seen.
It has been 20 years since they released their debut LP, AM and, to celebrate, here are our picks for the top ten Wilco tracks, in no particular order. This was a difficult one, as you might have gathered if you read the aforementioned gushing adoration.
“One Sunday Morning”- The Whole Love (2011)
The simple, albeit devastating, “One Sunday Morning” closes out The Whole Love with the sort of ambition we’ve come to expect of Jeff Tweedy in recent years. With the relatively simple acoustic progression and vocals comprising the 12-minute song, the heart lies in its wrenching story of a prodigal son. Tweedy tells the story of the breakdown of a relationship between a father and son on the grounds of the religion, but minus the Biblical happy ending. Despite its length, it’s impossible not to get lost in the immediate melancholy, and Tweedy even warns us of the length in the first line: “This is how I tell it/ Oh, but it’s long.”
“Impossible Germany”- Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Sky Blue Sky marked an important shift for Wilco – arrival of celebrated guitarist Nels Cline cemented the new line-up, and provided a now crucial component to the band. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the standout track, “Impossible Germany”. While its verse/chorus sequence is typically downbeat, it’s in the extended instrumental passage that the song earns its place here. Combining three guitarists playing into a single, crystalline trail, it was a showcase of not only Cline’s skill on the instrument, but the new and exciting ways that this was being incorporated into Wilco’s song writing. Anybody who’s seen this live will know what all the fuss is about.
“Muzzle of Bees”- A Ghost Is Born (2004)
A Ghost is Born is a curious entry into the Wilco canon; as the highly anticipated follow-up to their critical and commercial peak, it took the band once again into uncharted waters. It also chronicles Tweedy’s increasingly prominent physical and mental health issues, in the usual pragmatic fashion. On “Muzzle of Bees”, the group capture this moment in time, and all of the uncertainty, with a crushing precision. Despite the deceptively mellow acoustic sound, the song is a compression of doubt and anxiety: “Dogs laugh, some say they’re barking, but I don’t think they’re mean/ Some people get so frightened of the fences in between”. It all culminates in an increasingly frantic and desperate guitar solo, which ends abruptly at fever pitch- it’s unsettling, and also impossibly beautiful.
“Misunderstood”- Being There (1996)
Wilco followed up in the lukewarm reception to AM with the sprawling double album, Being There. While it certainly has its highs and lows, the opening track, “Misunderstood”, proves impossible to top. It was their first attempt at opening an album with a sprawling, long track, and as a rough outline for the greatness that the band would go on to achieve, it totally worked. Marking a radical shift from their early alt-country sound, it incorporates all of its elements seamlessly: the cacophony of noise, the quiet and understated verses, the gradual build-up and resulting release. It’s all here, and seeing as how they began most of their subsequent albums with similarly ambitious songs, it was the first success in maturing their sound.
“Art Of Almost”- The Whole Love (2011)
From their experiment with album openers to their most recent attempt; “Art Of Almost” showcases how far they have come. Making all of their previous openers seem tame, this track is an impossibly dense, industrial enigma that sees Wilco at their most focused and ambitious. From Glen Kotche’s strange rhythmic percussion, to Tweedy’s affecting nonsense lyrics and Nels Cline’s restrained guitar work. It’s hard to describe, though as a statement of intent, Wilco have rarely been as direct. This is saying something, given that it’s seven minutes long.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
I mentioned earlier that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is their masterpiece. As another opening song, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” operates in an entirely different manner. It is ambient, weird, Absurdist, stripped down, and the perfect indication of what’s to come. With Tweedy providing some of his most creative lyrics (“Take off your band-aid ‘cos I don’t believe in touchdowns”), along with some of his most abstract song writing and arrangement, it’s the surprisingly emotional undercurrent that makes it the perfect opener to the frequently analysed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: just listen to the music, don’t take it too seriously, and relax.
“A Shot In The Arm”- Summerteeth (1999)
While describing the previous songs took a lot of long, erudite words, “A Shot In The Arm” is much easier. It’s simply Wilco making fantastic pop music. On what is probably their most “pop” album, this song stands as a highlight. The lyrics are beautifully vivid and typically bittersweet (“The ashtray says/ You were up all night”), Jay Watson’s piano playing is airtight, and above all, it’s relentlessly upbeat. While writing about Wilco can be reductive in that it requires overthinking, this one is just sheerly a pleasure to listen to.
“Passenger Side”- AM (1995)
Despite AM often being considered their weakest album, it’s also an unexpectedly pleasant and simple affair. The songs are straightforward yet effective, Tweedy still sounds young, and this retains the album’s charm. As one of the only songs from their early material that they still play live, “Passenger Side” sees the band at their most relaxed and light-hearted. “You’re gonna make me spill my beer/ If you don’t learn how to steer”- the songs protagonist loses his license and describes his dislike for riding in the passenger side. The song doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s a great track largely for this reason.
“Deeper Down”- Wilco (The Album) (2009)
Wilco (The Album), despite being their most simplistic, and occasionally boring release, also features one of their most complicated and thoughtful songs. The catch is that they trimmed it down to a tidy three minutes. On first listen, it’s easy to miss it, but “Deeper Down” features some of the most interesting Jeff Tweedy song-writing to date, both in the composition and arrangement, and some of the most existential Wilco lyrics so far: “I adore the meaninglessness of this that we can express”. As with many of their other top material, it’s also thoroughly emotive, though in a rarely sensitive manner. It achieves sounding “fragile”, yet there are few songs in their catalogue that are so confident or intelligent.
“Jesus Etc”- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
This is probably the one everybody was waiting for. As their most well-known and highly-rated song, it would be easy to dismiss it. Despite the cliché phrase, there’s a very good reason for it being so successful. I’ll save you the trouble of reading this, and just let you listen to the song.
Words by Adrian Pedić.