Jeff Tweedy was the junior partner in alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo, playing bass and fronting the occasional song. When the group split, Tweedy formed Wilco with other Uncle Tupelo musicians – notably bassist John Stirratt, Wilco’s only other constant member. Their first release, 1995’s A.M. was pleasant, but the group made a huge leap with the 1996 double album Being There. The addition of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was a huge asset for their band, his sonic sculptures shaping experimental records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth.
Bennett was acrimoniously dismissed after the completion of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The later era of the group has been bolstered by ace musicians like drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline. Since 2004’s excellent A Ghost Is Born, Wilco have been vital on record, but have remained a popular live draw-card. Tweedy has always the emotional core of the band, his songs vulnerable and emotional.
Here’s my list of ten favourite Wilco songs – it’s a rich catalogue with many fine songs from which to choose. Apologies in advance to ‘Say You Miss Me’, ‘California Stars’, ‘Another Mans Done Gone’, ‘She’s A Jar’, ‘Via Chicago’, ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’, ‘Ashes of American Flags’, ‘Hell Is Chrome’, and ‘One Sunday Morning’.
Ten Best Wilco Songs
#10 – Bull Black Nova
from Wilco (the Album), 2009
‘Bull Black Nova’ is essentially the younger, shorter brother of ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ from A Ghost Is Born, but I enjoy Wilco’s guitar freakouts. According to Tweedy, ‘Bull Black Nova’ is from the point of view of a man who just killed his girlfriend.
#9 – Can’t Stand It
from Summerteeth, 1999
Wilco’s third studio album, Summerteeth, isn’t one of my favourites – the arrangements reach for pristine studio intricacy, but strip away too much of the band’s country authenticity in the process. Lead-off track ‘Can’t Stand It’, though, is energetic and propulsive though – “it’s all beginning to feel like it’s ending” is a great lyric hook. Tweedy’s voice cracks appealingly on “I can’t stand it”, backed by Bennett’s dynamic organ.
#8 – I’m The Man Who Loves You
from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002
2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had a troubled genesis, as captured in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. It turned out great but most of the tracks are moody and morose, making the few upbeat songs like ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ and ‘I’m The Man You Loves You’ stand out. ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’ recalls the late 1960s – the “woo woo” backing vocals are similar to those on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy of the Devil’, and the piano groove and piercing lead guitar recall late-period Beatles. There are unexpected elements too – Tweedy’s lead guitar is unhinged, while the horn section that enters late in the song adds another dimension.
#7 – Impossible Germany
from Sky Blue Sky, 2007
Wilco’s sixth album marks a retreat from the studio experimentation of their previous records. Famously, a Pitchfork record review coined the term “dad-rock”in describing the record (although I maintain that Sting’s collaboration with Dire Straits on ‘Money for Nothing’ is peak dad-rock). ‘Impossible Germany’ is a beautiful song, but it’s most notable for the lovely guitar interplay of Tweedy and Nels Cline in the second half.
#6 – Spiders (Kidsmoke)
from A Ghost is Born, 2004
‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ is a ten minute epic that combines a couple of disparate genres. The motorik beat is straight from krautrock – Tweedy is a fan of German bands like Can and Neu! – while the guitars could have come from a Television or Slint record. Tweedy wrote A Ghost Is Born while he was struggling with addiction, and used creature metaphors to communicate how he was feeling.
#5 – Misunderstood
from Being There (1996)
Wilco signalled that they’d moved beyond alt-country from the opening notes of Being There. The feedback-drenched introduction lightens into one of Tweedy’s most evocative lines; “When you’re back in your old neighborhood/The cigarettes taste so good.” ‘Misunderstood’ mixes beauty and dissonance over its six minutes, culminating in Tweedy shouting “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all”.
#4 – Company In My Back
from A Ghost is Born (2004)
A Ghost Is Born featured some avant-garde material – notably the dozen minutes of guitar feedback on ‘Less Than You Think’, representing Tweedy’s migraines. Much of the record, however, has accessible songs dressed up in accomplished arrangements. There are so many creative instrument parts on ‘Company In My Back’ – John Stirratt’s bass-line, the warm piano, and the staccato guitar that leads into the choruses are all memorable. Tweedy’s at it again with the creature metaphors: “I attack with love, pure bug beauty.”
#3 – Poor Places
from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is full of emotive material, but the heart of the record is ‘Poor Places’, the penultimate track. Tweedy, strumming an acoustic guitar, is striving for intimacy in the chaos unfolding around him. The song is overwhelmed by a barrage of short-wave radio samples that spell out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
#2 – Sunken Treasure
from Being There (1996)
Just like ‘Misunderstood’ on the first disc, disc two of Being There opens with a lengthy epic. Again, there’s an evocative opening line – “There’s rows and rows of houses/With windows painted blue” – and ‘Sunken Treasure’ captures a beleaguered resignation that recalls Neil Young’s On The Beach. Tweedy later told the Chicago Tribune that ‘Sunken Treasure’ was largely improvised in the studio as the band developed bonus material, not realising that Being There would become a double album.
#1 – Remember The Mountain Bed
from Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000)
English political singer-songwriter Billy Bragg collaborated on two records with Wilco, where they put Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. In particular, the first record is essential for Wilco fans, with lovely country-tinged songs like ‘California Stars’ and ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’. My favourite Wilco song, though, is from the somewhat overlooked second volume. Guthrie’s lyrics on ‘Remember The Mountain Bed’ is beautifully profound – an older man nostalgically remembering the first flush of love, and how it’s served as a motivation throughout his life. Tweedy’s warm vocal is accompanied by Bennett’s piano and organ, and the pretty melody sounds like a well-worn folk song.