Music

The 10 Best Wilco Songs of All Time

With the upcoming September 27th release of Wilco's The Whole Love, the band’s eighth studio record, it's worth going back and revisiting the group’s impressive discography.


Wilco

The Whole Love

Label: dBpm
US Release Date: 2011-09-27
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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.

 
10. "Far, Far Away"
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.

 
9. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)"
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.

 
8. "Poor Places"
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.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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