Wilco

TrackAlbum
Box Full Of LettersA.M.
Outtasite (Outta Mind)Being There
California StarsMermaid Avenue
A Shot In The ArmSummerteeth
I'm The Man Who Loves YouYankee Hotel Foxtrot
Jesus, Etc.Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Handshake DrugsA Ghost Is Born
Impossible GermanySky Blue Sky
Wilco (The Song)Wilco (The Album)
Dawned On MeThe Whole Love

Wilco photo

Wilco (l to r): John Stirratt, Nels Cline, Mikael Jorgensen,
Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, Pat Sansone

 

 

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Wilco playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

I’m a sucker for the underdog. Yet it’s hard for me to conjure many examples where, in the wake of a band break-up, anyone other than the frontman makes a successful go of it. You’ve got the Beatles, where George Harrison surprised many by coming out of the Lennon/McCartney shadow with the epic All Things Must Pass (though, given the subsequent decline in quality of his solo work over the years, one might argue this just represented a backlog of material he’d been stockpiling). Maybe you can point to a couple others (i.e. bassist Kim Deal finding post-Pixies commercial success with the Breeders). But I think the most noteworthy exception, at least in modern music, has to be Jeff Tweedy and Wilco.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Tweedy’s contributions to post-punk Americana legends Uncle Tupelo are underrated; each of that band’s first three albums had a couple excellent Tweedy-helmed tunes. But Tupelo was clearly Jay Farrar’s band; Farrar had the more distinctive voice (both vocally and lyrically) that made the band stand out from their alt-country peers. This dynamic changed on their fourth and final album, Anodyne, where Tweedy was nearly a co-equal, responsible for what I’d argue were among the album’s best songs (no doubt causing the warring leader syndrome that doomed the band). Still, one would be forgiven for assuming that Farrar’s post-Tupelo band, Son Volt, would be the one to watch.

And nothing against Farrar – plenty of Son Volt’s large discography is perfectly solid, if not occasionally great – but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, it was Tweedy’s Wilco which has vastly surpassed Tupelo’s Americana roots, resulting in some of the most engaging and imaginative indie rock albums of the past thirty years.

The band’s 1995 debut, A.M., was perfectly respectable country-tinged rock, picking up where Tweedy-helmed Anodyne tracks like New Madrid and The Long Cut had left off. In addition to stone-cold power-pop classic Box Full Of Letters, an uncharacteristically catchy radio-friendly pop track, the album offered light-hearted twang like I Must Be High and Passenger Side. It’s the album one would have expected Tweedy to record, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but hardly a predictor of what was to come.

Tweedy really came out of his shell on the 1996 follow-up Being There. Now, it’s a pretty ballsy move for a relatively untested artist to release a double album so early in their tenure. But Wilco rose to the challenge, with a sprawling, varied package that ranged from Americana to pop to straight-out rockers, establishing their bona fides as a modern day version of The Band, while occasionally taking the space to stretch out, as in the moving and intense epic Misunderstood, the first hint of Tweedy’s more sonically adventurous side. The album also confirmed Tweedy’s facility with the earworm hook, most notably on the perky Outtasite (Outta Mind). Now, as with most great double albums, from The White Album to The Wall, you can find places where the band could’ve pared back and come up with an absolutely perfect single album, but it’s worth the listening investment as is.

Between those two releases, Tweedy also showed up as part of the Golden Smog indie rock supergroup (alongside members of Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, and others). I’d posit that Smog merits its own separate Toppermost entry, but for present purposes, I’ll just say that Tweedy’s contributions to 1995’s Down By The Old Mainstream, Pecan Pie and Radio King, are essential entries in the Tweedy/Wilco oeuvre. (Tweedy’s contributions to Smog’s 1998 follow-up Weird Tales are likewise pretty great.)

After Being There, Tweedy made another brief detour. Woody Guthrie’s daughter recruited Wilco (as well as Billy Bragg) to write and record music for some of Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics. The resulting album, 1998’s Mermaid Avenue (joined two years later by a second volume), included a number of tracks that, despite lacking Tweedy’s lyrics, hold up as essential components of the band’s body of work. California Stars in particular is quite lovely, a majestic American anthem in the folk-rock tradition. (Another standout is the upbeat Hoodoo Voodoo, a rousing romp that borrows a riff from the Steve Miller Band’s Space Cowboy.)

But it was on Wilco’s next ‘proper’ band release that they truly established themselves as more than roots rockers simply expanding the Americana tapestry set out by Uncle Tupelo. 1999’s Summerteeth remains my personal favorite among the band’s discography, an album far more indebted to Paul McCartney and Big Star than to Gram Parsons. It’s full of gorgeous, baroque pop tracks, both upbeat rockers and incisive ballads, all winningly catchy. While bouncy pop tunes like Can’t Stand It and I’m Always in Love grab your attention right off the bat, I’m particularly taken by the melodic mid-tempo tunes like When You Wake Up Feeling Old and the title track. So many standouts, but for my money, A Shot In The Arm is just about the finest song Tweedy’s ever written, a slab of keyboard-driven existential dread that digs its hooks deep and doesn’t let go.

It’s hard to imagine the band topping Summerteeth, but they at the very least equaled it with the intense and unpredictable Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Their label’s determination to shelve the album, finding it too experimental and uncommercial, makes for the fascinating subject of the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart; suffice it to say, it’s impossible to listen to this without wondering what the label was thinking, as it just reeks of brilliance. A few tracks continue in a similar pop vein, like the rousing I’m The Man Who Loves You and the bubbly, nostalgic Heavy Metal Drummer; and the lovely ballad Jesus, Etc. seems to pick up where bits of Summerteeth left off, the song you might throw onto a mixtape to introduce a skeptical friend to the band. But there are also more challenging tracks, like the sonically adventurous (yet still catchy) I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which you can see bewildering a record company exec expecting a return to Box Full Of Letters or Outtasite.

Though Wilco ultimately found a label to release Yankee, the saga was not without casualties, as multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett ended up getting booted from the band. As Bennett had served as a creative foil to Tweedy, undoubtedly helping to drive the creative push of the past couple albums, it seemed inevitable that the follow-up would suffer by his absence. Yet Wilco miraculously managed a hat trick, as 2004’s A Ghost Is Born was nearly as captivating as its two predecessors (if perhaps marginally less stunning and immediate). It may lack the obvious alt-rock hit of prior albums, but there are still plenty of catchy stand-outs: Company In My Back is a dark yet bubbly mid-tempo tune that sounds like it would have worked fine on Yankee; album closer The Late Greats is a straight rock track that calls back to the band’s roots; and Theologians is an infectious charmer that gets you humming along. You’ve also got the extended groove of Spiders (Kidsmoke), the first of several Wilco tracks that would find the band vamping over a pulsating drone (songs that would translate particularly well to the live setting). My personal favorite here is Handshake Drugs, which starts out as another one of Tweedy’s percolating pop tracks before devolving into some crunchy feedback noise.

After a three-year break (during which the band released the old classic rock contract-fulfilling standby, a double-live album, drawn primarily from the three most recent releases), they returned with 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. And while it’s a pretty good, maybe great album, it doesn’t quite stand up to the three preceding studio records. The sound is a bit stripped down, many of the songs a little more no-frills. It still has a good share of winners – Either Way is quite nice; You Are My Face sports a sweet, folky vibe reminiscent of Mermaid Avenue (before launching into a noisy, almost grating rock bit); Hate It Here is a bluesy number with shades of Crazy Horse. The one song that really sounds of a piece with the prior album is Impossible Germany, a chiming, mid-tempo ballad with an extended closing jam that serves as a showpiece for new lead guitarist Nels Cline, whose guitar duels with Tweedy on the tune would become a highlight of the band’s live shows.

(Oddly, one of the catchiest tracks recorded at that time was left off the album, available as a bonus track on some versions. The Thanks I Get – later included on a 4CD box set of outtakes, B-sides and live tracks – is a throwback to the old A.M./Being There-era Wilco, but benefits from being more instantly infectious than much of what ended up on Sky Blue.)

Alas, the band’s work in the years that followed has seen some diminishing returns. Now, don’t get me wrong – even their weakest albums have some memorable music; and I can’t completely discount the possibility that, having such tremendous love for the band’s prior albums, I just find myself less inclined to fully absorb the newer releases when Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel are sitting beside them on the shelf. But I do think the band has lost some of its creative steam, with Tweedy struggling to attach his musical and lyrical ideas to memorable hooks.

2009’s Wilco (The Album) has its moments. Lead-off track Wilco (The Song) is catchy enough, certainly relative to the rest of the album, though it may be just a little too cute. One Wing is solid, with a nice guitar line and more blazing work from Cline. And Bull Black Nova is another drony rocker along the lines of Kidsmoke (but, like that one, perhaps better live than on record). It’s actually grown on me over time (or perhaps my disappointment with some of their more recent work elevates it a bit in hindsight).

2011’s The Whole Love sees the band bouncing back. It’s not dramatically different stylistically from its predecessor, but the high points stand out a little more. It opens with yet another drone piece, but Art Of Almost makes better use of its sonic experimentation, a keyboard groove reminiscent of some of Pete Townshend’s loops (i.e. Eminence Front) battling with Cline’s guitars. (And, not to be redundant, but it’s a total barnburner on stage.) Dawned On Me is the closest thing to a radio-friendly pop tune from this run of albums, one that merits repeat listens. And a few other tracks are winning enough, like the catchy title track and the extended, almost Dylanesque extended narrative piece, One Sunday Morning, that closes the album.

As for what came later: 2015’s Star Wars has just never won me over. It’s noisy and experimental and just flat-out weird, which would be fine if the strangeness were in service of great songs; but aside from the decent The Joke Explained, I find it largely too stand-offish to warrant frequent visits. 2016’s Schmilco does a complete 180, a largely stripped-down, acoustic, folky collection – and, like the experimentation of Star Wars, the rustic simplicity would be fine if in service of better material. Cry All Day is really good; Someone To Lose is nice as well. The rest is rather bland – though, unlike its immediate predecessor, it’s at least a pleasant listening experience, something you can throw on in the background and find perfectly enjoyable.

Which brings us to their most recent release, 2019’s Ode To Joy. This one splits the difference, retaining the casual, minimalist nature of Schmilco but reviving some of the band’s more interesting studio flourishes. As with Wilco’s past few albums, it lacks any killer radio-ready tracks, but it has some lovely moments. Love Is Everywhere (Beware) is surprisingly uplifting, with its ingratiating guitar jangles, as is the fizzy Hold Me Anyway; while melancholy tracks like Before Us, if lacking the immediacy of prime Wilco, quietly dig in, the sort of songs that may take a few spins before revealing themselves. It’s a pretty enjoyable piece of work viewed as a whole, though it’s not something I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t already picked up the band’s albums up through Sky Blue Sky.

A couple quick notes in closing: First, for purposes of selecting 10 tracks, I tried to hit as many albums as I could. If I’d simply picked my 10 favorite Wilco tunes, you would have seen a lot more from Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and where’s the fun in that? (Though I still ended up with two from Yankee, omitting anything from the last few records.) Relatedly, I stuck with songs from proper Wilco albums. If you wanted to expand this to include a bit more history, I’d recommend adding in Tupelo-era highlights like Screen Door, Gun, Black Eye, New Madrid, and The Long Cut; Golden Smog highlights Radio King and Lost Love; The Ruling Class and Laminated Cat from Tweedy side project Loose Fur; and The Family Gardner from The Minus 5’s Down With Wilco, which saw long-running indie band The Minus 5 teaming with Tweedy and others for a nice set of jangly indie rock tunes.

Second, as should be clear from the text, I’m a huge fan of Wilco as a live act. They still tour, and while current setlists obviously draw more heavily from recent albums, they still offer a reliably compelling show. Short of catching a concert, they’ve opened up their live archives; you can buy dozens of Wilco shows at the Wilco Store. As the archives currently only go back to 2012, the shows are typically lighter on material from their stellar first decade, but the band is invariably in peak form, and the sound is great.

 

 

 

Wilco official website

Wilco Base – interactive setlist database

Via Chicago – Wilco fansite

The Wilco Lyrics Archive

Jeff Tweedy discography

Nels Cline website

The Autumn Defense website

Glenn Kotche website

Mikael Jorgensen website

Jay Bennett (1963–2009)

“Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back”
– a memoir of recording and discording with Wilco, etc. – by Jeff Tweedy (Faber & Faber, 2018)

Uncle Tupelo Toppermost #497

Wilco biography (Apple Music)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

TopperPost #859

4 Comments

  1. Tony Mulraney
    Apr 24, 2020

    Hi Marc, the love of any band is a personal feeling at any given moment. This read has made me want to listen to a couple of songs that have passed me by 👏🏾

  2. Michael Tarrant
    Apr 25, 2020

    Excellent read, will play some of those tracks today. Also endorse Marc’s comments on the worth of “Golden Smog” who are well worth investigating.

  3. Jason Sammis
    Apr 25, 2020

    This is a great read about one of the best bands to ever exist, and my favourite band. Marc, please give Star Wars another listen (to me it’s Jeff’s Lou Reed/Velvets tribute in my opinion), and Schmilco which has so many hidden gems. As you know, you can always find me on Twitter @jasonsammis to discuss. Great job Marc and Toppermost. Cheers

  4. Calvin Rydbom
    Apr 27, 2020

    I’ll revisit the catalog after this, as frankly when they made the move from a band that clearly came out of Uncle Tupelo to experimental noodling they lost me and I never went back. Perhaps I should.

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