With a new album readied for release by Chicago’s alt-rockers Wilco, Getintothis’ Paul Clark picks ten songs that capture the essence of the band’s wide-ranging back catalogue.
A new album from Wilco had been rumoured, but it was still something of surprise when it was announced last week that the band would release Schmilco, their 10th studio album in September. It has been described by the band’s front man, Jeff Tweedy, as ‘Joyously negative’.
The one constant about Wilco’s output over the years is the willingness to embrace change and to push the sound. It is difficult to pigeonhole the band and alt-country seems to be the go-to classification. They have veered off in many directions ever since, they formed to render that definition redundant, displaying a multitude of styles and influences in the process. Despite these changes and shifts in direction they have managed to keep their loyal following as the band evolved from a folk-cantered sound to the more prog-influenced numbers.
Wilco formed out of the ashes of revered Uncle Tupelo when Jeff Tweedy stepped up from the shadows to be the front man. They released their debut album in 1995, A.M. It was an album that was overlooked at the time, but contains two bona fide Wilco classics in Casino Queen and Passenger Side.
Being There was Wilco’s second release a year later. Jay Bennett one of the mainstays of the early band joined. Being There is a double album and was released to the usual debates about whether it should have been trimmed to release a single album instead. Monday and Outa Sight (Outa Mind) from the album were unlucky not to make the cut for the top ten below.
The band’s breakthrough album Sumerteeth saw Wilco leap from being a cult to a band with an international following. It contained ‘hits’ such as I Can’t Stand It and Shot In the Arm. Despite the album’s success, the band faced the first of their disputes with their record label about the commerciality of their songs.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released in 2001 and it’s the album that acts as something of a bridge between the old and new sound. It was an album deemed not commercial enough for Warner Brothers, who dropped the band soon after its release. It says a lot about the music industry when you note that this is the band’s most successful album in terms of sales. It says even more when they signed to Nonesuch Records, for their next release, a division of Warner Brothers.
The 2001 album A Ghost is Born was the start of what could be deemed to be ‘New Wilco’, where they noticeably moved away from their alt-country roots, to embrace a sound that looked to bands such as The Fall and Television for inspiration.
Wilco (the album) came out in 2009 and was the last album to be released on the Nonesuch label. Its release was overshadowed by the death of former member Jay Bennett.
The band’s last two albums The Whole Love (2011) and Star Wars (2015) were released on the band’s dBpm record label. In the period between those releases the band issues a couple of compilations.
There are many riches to be had from the pen of Jeff Tweedy and not just material released under the Wilco name.
Check out his production work with Mavis Staples and his also his work with previous band Uncle Tupelo. His eponymous solo album Tweedy is worth checking out too, although calling it a calling it a solo album may be something of a misnomer as it also stars his son Spencer Tweedy on drums.
The band is currently touring the US and will arrive in the UK for two dates in Manchester, now sold out, and one in London.
In readiness for those dates here’s a run through ten of the best of the band’s back catalogue.
10. One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) from The Whole Love (2011)
At just over twelve minutes long, at no point does One Sunday Morning outstay its welcome. In fact, it’s something of a disappointment when it does finally end. It’s a frail and emotional number and probably the most autobiographical track on The Whole Love. It acts almost like a dialogue between a father and son.
Musically it feels like it could fall apart at any moment. It doesn’t. The lightly strummed guitar and delicate piano motif offers this song an almost meditative quality.
9. Black Bull Nova from Wilco (the album) (2009)
Back Bull Nova is taken from the first album on the band’s own label and its release was overshadowed by the death of former band member Jay Bennett.
This is one of those expansive songs that has become a trademark of the band. The piano riff pushes the song along before Nels Cline’s dexterous guitar work takes it to the coda. The guitars and Tweedy’s vocals are seemingly spiralling out of control before it all comes crashing down to sudden halt, with Tweedy screaming down the phone at someone to ‘pick up’.
8. Spiders (Kidsmoke) from A Ghost is Born (2004)
Taken from the Jim O’Rourke produced album A Ghost is Born. Again it’s another epic Wilco song. Thank god for Spotify playlists, as this top ten certainly wouldn’t fit on an old C60 tape.
It’s almost a minute and a half before the lyrics kick in. Spiders opens with a delicate piano and bass style that pushes the song onwards. Spiders is bubbling away nicely before it explodes around the four-minute mark. This is Wilco at their progressive and experimental best.
7. Can’t Stand It from Summerteeth (1999)
This is where my Wilco journey began. Which is apt given the ‘it feels like a beginning’ lyric in the chorus. It’s a sparsely adorned song that builds to a chorus that Jeff Tweedy can write in his sleep.
It has a jaunty piano riff that keeps things ticking over nicely, before it ramps up to the chorus. The brisk arrangement of the tune is at odds with the reflective and pessimistic lyrics.
6. Via Chicago from Summerteeth (1999)
It’s a beautifully understated number, which opens with Tweedy wistfully strumming an acoustic guitar. ‘The dreamt about killing you again last night and it felt all right to me’, sets the song on a different course altogether.
The discordant guitar riff acts a nice counterbalance to Tweedy’s contributions.
When the band finally joins in, it feels like the song is on the verge of falling apart in the background, before Tweedy delivers the end in the same unfussy way that he opened the song.
5. A Shot in the Arm from Summerteeth (1999)
There are two takes of A Shot in the Arm on the album. The alternate take is the more polished shorter radio friendly version. The one chosen for the top ten is the longer less polished version. It’s a hint of what’s to come on future albums from the band.
The lyrics point to a love gone wrong or a dependency not altogether healthy. It’s a sparse arrangement with the bass and piano riff carrying the song from start to finish.
4. Casino Queen from A.M. (1995)
From the earlier days of Wilco, it’s a straight down the middle rock n roll number.
The fiddle in the background roots this in alt-country, but the riff is pure rock n roll It’s one that the band still play live today and it acts as a warm up before they play the more expansive numbers in their set.
3. Art of Almost from The Whole Love (2011)
It sets the scene nicely for what to expect on the band’s 2011 album. There’s a throbbing electronic pulse that underscores this slow building number. It’s another expansive five-minute plus track. It’s worth sticking around until the end for the trademark Nels Cline guitar atmospherics that bring the song to a close.
2. California Stars from Billy Bragg and Wilco Mermaid Avenue (1998)
This is not strictly a Wilco album, it’s a song taken from the Mermaid Avenue compilation, recorded with Billy Bragg. The concept was that they both put music to a number of lyrics by the American folk legend Woody Guthrie.
It opens with a plaintive strum. There are a number of instrumental interludes that set an evocative tone for the song.
There are not many lyrics to this one but it’s a quite evocative take on the notes bequeathed by the great Woody Guthrie.
1. Impossible Germany from Sky Blue Sky (2007)
It’s difficult to pin down a favourite song from the band but the one that does constantly spring to mind above the others is the beautiful and stunning Impossible Germany. You could easily lose yourself in the spiralling dreamy guitars on this one. It’s taken from Sky Blue Sky and the first studio album that featured guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.
It’s an album that pushed the band’s experimentations that much further. With Television styled guitar breaks and other experimentations throughout. It was a song that dispelled the notion that you filed the band under the reductive ‘alt-country’ label.
Ask me to compile this list again in a few months time and this list will probably look a lot different and include other songs, but one thing is certain this song will still top the list.