Wilco, perhaps more than any alternative rock band of the past couple years, has taken its listeners on a wild, unexpected journey through a confluence of diverse musical styles. From its earliest days as an offshoot of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, to its dabbling with influences from noise rock, Krautrock, orchestra pop, and experimental jazz, to the folksy, simple songs from more recent albums earning the group the derogatory label “daddy rock”, Jeff Tweedy and company are always full of surprises. The band’s lineup has changed frequently and reveals a group constantly pushing itself into uncharted musical territory.
The journey began with A.M., the band’s 1995 debut record, which retained much of the group’’s alt-country roots. With Being There (1996), Wilco’s experimental side was already showing on such tracks as “Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure”, though classic rock and roots music were still obvious influences. On Summerteeth (1999) the group expanded its sound exponentially. It was clear that the band members, especially guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett, had fallen under the spell of Brian Wilson-style orchestral pop. String sections, unconventional percussion, and complex keyboard songs peppered this collection of pop songs.
With 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco went from being a solid, much admired alternative band to a musical and artistic institution. Critics recognized Yankee as not just an innovative musical effort, but one that was inflected with cultural significance. Jeff Tweedy’s unique songwriting voice came to the fore, with some venerating him on the level of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. While Yankee had its unconventional moments, A Ghost Is Born (2004) represents the band’s most all-out experimental effort. Tracks like “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” approach atonality, but the 15-minute “Less Than You Think”—consisting of a short acoustic melody followed by several minutes of high-pitched, non-melodic sonic patterns—tried the patience of even Wilco’s most progressive fans.
On Sky Blue Sky (2007), though, Wilco went in the complete opposite direction. Gone were the non-tonal experiments, complex rhythms, and layers of challenging guitar parts. Instead, the band released an album of simple, piano-driven ballads and gentle, straight-ahead rock tunes. The group’s seventh studio album, Wilco (The Album) (2009), represented a blended approach, with influences from each era of the band’s development thrown into the melting pot.
With the upcoming September 27th release of the The Whole Love, the band’s eighth studio record, it’s worth going back and revisiting the group’s impressive discography. As I compiled this list of the top ten Wilco songs, it became obvious to me that, unlike many artists, there are very few clear “singles” or “hits” to highlight. Because Wilco has never really been a “radio band”, I simply tried to pick the ten songs that I feel the deepest connection with. Since Wilco is such a musically varied ensemble, everyone’s experience of the group is likely to be different. While these ten songs represent a good starting point for the uninitiated, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend listening to the band’s entire catalog as often as possible.
from Being There
Wilco is a quintessential Chicago band. In “Far, Far Away”, one gets the feeling of riding the L train on a foggy autumn night. The gently lilting groove, folksy harmonica, and soulful pedal steel all add up to one of the band’s most effective tunes about love, longing, and the emotional and physical distances that can plague even our most meaningful relationships. As it evokes feelings of alienation, “Far, Far Away” anticipates the themes and melancholy moods of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At the same time, though, it reflects the band’s alt-country roots. The honesty of the lyrics and the emotional expression of Tweedy’s voice leads to one of the simplest, yet warmly effective, tracks in the band’s varied catalog.
from A Ghost Is Born
It’s hard to believe that “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was recorded by the same band that gave us “Far, Far Away”. The directly emotional lyrics (“I need to see you tonight”) are replaced by surrealistic, symbol-laden lines (“This recent rash of kidsmoke / All these telescopic poems / It’s good to be alone”). The country-inflected rhythms and sparse instrumentation are replaced with walls of free jazz-influenced guitar noise and Krautrock-inspired grooves. One of the most divisive tracks on A Ghost is Born, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” represents what many find so simultaneously fascinating and frustrating about the group. If you’re willing to take the journey, though, Tweedy and company prove on this ten-minute track that their often derogatory label of “daddy rock” is far too limiting.
from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
“Poor Places” is notorious for its inclusion of samples from The Conet Project, recordings of number stations that were odd shortwave radio signals of undetectable origins. The use of the phrase “Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot” from the number stations on the album’s penultimate song emphasizes the feeling of emotional alienation expressed on the entire record. “Poor Places” explores the ways in which, even in a world as “connected” as our own via technology and mass transportation, we can feel remarkably disconnected from one another. The speaker suggests that he only finds himself caring about what is happening immediately around him (“It makes no difference to me / How they cried all over overseas / If it’s hot in the poor places tonight / I’m not going outside”). The presence of a line as concrete as “I really want to see you tonight” amongst a sea of semi-abstract lyrics suggests the optimistic belief that love can overcome the danger of growing apart in our complex world.
// Notes from the Road
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