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Ten albums later (and one hours from dropping), Wilco comfortably sit atop a dense, audacious, and bewildering catalog. For over two decades, they’ve carved out their place in rock ‘n’ roll with their genre-defying brand of Midwestern alternative rock, one that crosses over into everything from folk to experimental to bluegrass.
When Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston came together to form Wilco in the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s demise, none of them knew what would follow — and most wouldn’t follow. Today, the only remaining original members are Tweedy and Stirratt.
Since then, Wilco’s had its lineup shaken but hardly stirred, ultimately proving to be resourceful and resolute enough to stave off any drama that might otherwise bury a band six feet under. To that notion, they’re a complicated outfit to fully crack, which is why we decided to assemble this breezy guide for the assist.
So, withhold any “Reservations” and stop wondering “Where Do I Begin”. Ahead, you’ll find 10 tracks that best encapsulate the entire Wilco catalog, and don’t worry, we’re going to walk you through them “One by One”, that way you can keep listening “On and On and On”. If anything, consider this your “Radio Cure”.
“It’s Just That Simple” From A.M. (1995)
Country twang, gang vocals, fiddles swaying, and banjos plucking … sounds like Wilco right? The band just can’t seem to shake the spirit of their alt-country roots, and we don’t want them, too. Simple songs laid the solid groundwork for Wilco to build upon over the last 20 years, and “It’s Just That Simple”, written and sung by Stirratt (whose tenor rings solid and true over Lloyd Maines’ signature steel guitar), is a perfect example of those humble beginnings. Songs from 1995’s A.M. still lovingly haunt the band, and sometimes we catch a glimpse of the (cherry) ghost that was Tweedy before he realized every circle needed a center. To date, it’s the only Wilco song Tweedy didn’t write or sing. ::cue piano crash or eerie strings::
Wilco 1.0 Peak
“Misunderstood” From Being There (1996)
Looking back, the six-and-half-minute epic that cracks open Wilco’s 1996 sophomore effort, Being There, is the true, original calling card of the Wilco we know and cherish today. It’s the first song Tweedy wrote for the album, a pseudo-dialogue between a tortured rocker and a fan that’s told more or less from the latter’s point of view. “It’s only a quarter to three/ Reflecting off of your CD/ You’re looking at a picture of me/ You’re staring at a picture of me,” he seethes. Chaos reigns as Jay Bennett, the late multi-instrumentalist who had joined to replace guitarist Brian Henneman, goes hog wild with crunchy noise and screeching strings, previewing the kind of sonic tinkering that would follow on Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Pay Your Respects
“California Stars” From Mermaid Avenue (1998)
How do you put music to lyrics written half a century ago? Well, you get Wilco and Billy Bragg in a room and hand them the keys. Approached by Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter in the late ’90s, the great collaborators took a stab at fleshing out a handful of tracks written by the late singer-songwriter but never set to music. If not told by someone in the know, few probably notice that “California Stars” is not a Wilco song. Tweedy’s country roots (see: Uncle Tupelo) are unearthed here and blend perfectly with Guthrie’s lyrics, breathing life to this mix of Depression-era optimism and true love. “I’d love to feel your hand touching mine and tell me why I must keep working on,” Tweedy sings. “So I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you.” Fans continued to dream that dream with Bragg and Wilco into Mermaid Avenue Vol. II & III.
“A Shot in the Arm” From Summerteeth (1999)
Or, Tweedy and Bennett’s beautiful, dark twisted fantasy — well, for at least one of them. On 1999’s Summerteeth, the band’s sonically bright and lyrically black-lit third album, the pop song is Tylenol — not a product of good times but protection from disease. “A Shot in the Arm”, for one, is a crutch for cigarette-happy insomnia and self-medication cravings, featuring Tweedy literally singing about the positive power of the major key. Were these synth-frosted hits tantamount to “This Is Fine”? Or were they prayers for change? Either way, everything wasn’t fine, not on a song with a one-mantra coda like, “What you once were isn’t what you want to be any more.” It’s just like a big, toothy, forced grin that doesn’t resolve any worries but adds plenty of wrinkles.
Wall of Sound
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” From Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)
Like a devious younger brother (think: Eli to Peyton Manning), “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” took what “Misunderstood” accomplished two albums prior and one-upped the son of a bitch with aplomb. The Yankee Hotel Foxtrot opener spans seven minutes and dazzles with a sonic landscape that would give Brian Wilson and Phil Spector heartburn. Tweedy soars high above Chicago, working in genius metaphors (“Let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning/ Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers) with plaintive questions (“This is not a joke, so please stop smiling/ What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?”), all while musician/engineer Jim O’Rourke roped it all together. Bennett’s role on this album cannot be discounted, as he was responsible for programming, guitar, piano, keyboards, synthesizers, organ, bass, drums, percussion, lap steel, glockenspiel, vibraphone, bells, vocals. Jesus (etc.) Christ!
“Poor Places” From Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)
Wilco’s Summerteeth is to OK Computer as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is to Kid A, a follow-up that grasped an ever-developing sound and took it to places they had yet to tread. “Poor Places” captures that ingenuity with a scattered and improvisational atmosphere, punctuated with carefully planned percussion, courtesy of then-newcomer Glenn Kotche, who pumped fresh blood into the band’s veins. Contemplative droning rings as Tweedy sings, “It’s my father’s voice trailing off, sailors sailing off in the morning.” It’s a song that sounds like a memory turned into a full-on lucid dream with lyrics that feel pasted together, similar to the cut-up method Bowie and Thom Yorke employed so many times prior. Drowning us in a futuristic Americana, we lose ourselves again and again in a barrage of sound undercut by what would become one of Yankee’s finest.
Wilco 2.0 Peak
“Muzzle of Bees” From A Ghost Is Born (2004)
Critics like to toss around the word “assured” all too often. (Trust me, this writer is guilty as hell of it.) But there’s perhaps no better word for “Muzzle of Bees”, the band’s elegant five-minute stunner that towers over A Ghost Is Born, an album oozing with so many memorable ballads and rockers that it’s easy to lose yourself even two tracks in. Nobody loses grasp of this one, however, as every personality in the band collides to create something so timeless, so sacred, and so emotional. With Bennett out, Tweedy took over on lead guitar, channeling Television to mirror his own words, and he does. When he strikes down at 4:01, he hammers straight into the honeypot, unleashing a swarm of zzzs that electrocutes the hairs and punctures the tear ducts. It’s earned because the band exhibits so much finesse, much thanks to Mikael Jorgensen, who hopped on for the album and whose keys add a cinematic glaze to the proceedings. All you have to do is sigh.
Guitar Forest Fires
“Impossible Germany” From Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Wherever you fall on Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s abrupt revert into wholesomeness, it’s tough not to wonder if the album might have been completely scrapped if not for “Impossible Germany”, the album’s and Wilco 3.0’s proof of concept. For many, Sky Blue Sky’s soft-edged DNA that came along with the full-time addition of two chops-specialists — most visibly, lead guitarist Nels Cline — fell somewhat flat. “Impossible Germany”, though, showed that this new system could work, that it was at least capable of producing excellence, if not exactly fertile ground for it. And it did that by doubling down on the guitar solo, of all things, last heard being used to the opposite effect one album prior on “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”.
“Art of Almost” From The Whole Love (2011)
By now, you’ve probably learned a number of things about Wilco, among them being their ability to open an album. Both “Misunderstood” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” set the respective tones for Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the same could be said for “Art of Almost” and The Whole Love. Let’s be real: Few bands ever sound so refreshing or revitalized eight albums in, but when Wilco returned that autumn in 2011, they waved hello with an extraterrestrial anthem that made their fanbase stand still. Cline’s plutonium-soaked guitar work, Jorgensen and Pat Sansone’s 11th dimension textures, Stirratt’s dense transmissions on bass, and Kotche’s buttery popcorn percussion culminated to turn Tweedy into something straight out of The Twilight Zone. It was scary, it was invigorating, but above all, it was remarkable. Still is.
Wilco 3.0 Peak
“One Sunday Morning” From The Whole Love (2011)
The Side-B opener of Being There was a six-minute outlier called “Sunken Treasure”, a slow-burning jam about rows of houses and burning leaves that unfurled on no one’s schedule, had nothing to do, and nowhere to be. It was an early argument for Wilco’s sustainability precisely because it was an outlier: If they could sound that good trying something different, who knew what else? Sixteen years later, they closed out their comeback album, The Whole Love, by returning to this world for the first time.
Except on “One Sunday Morning”, the idea is fleshed out twice as long — 12 minutes in total — and it’s a little clearer what they’re reflecting on here. All six members are equally present, but never talk over one another, while Tweedy comes prepared, but definitely not excited, to confront the awful feeling of discovering a fundamental difference with someone who’s closest to him — and the dread that comes with knowing that gap can undermine everything.
It’s a long exhale, a stream of cold air, and possibly their best work of the decade.