AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #238 : WILCO

A GUEST POSTING by JONNY THE FRIENDLY LAWYER

Our friend Hybrid Soc Prof recently posted two stellar ICAs, one featuring Son Volt (#207) and the other Uncle Tupelo (#211). You will have read from those literate missives that Uncle Tupelo had two principal songwriters, high school friends Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, and that Farrar split and formed Son Volt, while Tweedy took the rest of the band and renamed it Wilco. A quick search shows that not too much has been written about Wilco here on TVV. This surprises me as the band have been making terrific records for the past 25 years!

There are actually a few Wilcos. There’s the alt-country band they started out as. Then came the indie-rock crusader version (which is ironic as Wilco has always been on a major label). Tweedy has had his confessional, introspective moments, too, as well as a guitar hero turn. The band briefly moved in an experimental direction when adventurous guitarist Nels Cline came aboard. Eventually, Wilco settled in and just kept on making good rock songs.

I’m not even going to attempt an erudite study in the style of HSP. Instead, mine’s a chronological survey ICA for the uninitiated. Just picking my favorites, which tend to be the up tempo rockier numbers. Curious to see whether the Wilco fans on this blessed site would have picked 10 different ones altogether.

1. Box Full of Letters. From A.M. (1995).

Wilco were very much still an alt-country act at this point, not too far removed from Uncle Tupelo. The album is full of pedal steel, dobro, fiddle and mandolin.

2. Outtasite (Outta Mind). From Being There (1996).

Wilco’s second LP was a double-album and most every song on it was a killer. A sort of Americana Exile on Main Street, if you will. Critics loved it, it sold well, and Wilco were on the map. By rights I should get to pick another song but, you know, the rules. (It would have been ‘Forget The Flowers.’)

3. Can’t Stand It. From Summerteeth (1999).

My personal favorite Wilco album. On the previous two Tweedy wrote all the songs. This time out he shared the writing credits with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who came on board for Being There. Don’t know if Bennett was the magic ingredient but the LP is superb. This tune as well as ‘I’m Always In Love,’ ‘She’s a Jar’, ‘ELT, ‘A Shot In the Arm’ are all winners. Synthesizers entering the mix now, while the fiddles and dobro are in the rear view mirror.

4. Heavy Metal Drummer. From Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001).

This is probably everyone else’s favorite Wilco record. It’s their highest charting album, for what that’s worth. The band went through a record label nightmare over it and ended up dropped from Reprise. Tensions with Tweedy led to Bennett leaving the band, too. A lot of this stress was caught in a contemporaneous documentary about the band, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.

5. I’m A Wheel. From A Ghost Is Born (2004).

Ghost was quite a departure from the earlier catalog. Tweedy flexed his lead guitar muscles for the first time, trying to emulate his heroes Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine of Television. The album featured longer songs, including a couple clocking in at over 10 minutes. If you’re new to the band this is not the place to start. If you already like them consider this a worthwhile headphones LP.

After Ghost Wilco released Sky Blue Sky (2007), the first album to feature Los Angeles hero Nels Cline. But I don’t really like that album so I’m skipping it. Sorry.

6. Wilco (the Song). From Wilco (The Album) (2009).

Somehow Tweedy and the band got over the weirdness of Ghost and the bummer that was Sky Blue Sky and made a fun record. It was recorded in New Zealand, so maybe that had something to do with it.

7. I Might. From The Whole Love (2011).

Another solid album that, like all its predecessors, made a lot of year-end best lists.

8. Random Name Generator. From Star Wars (2015).

A crowd favorite, lots of good YouTube videos of the band performing this one. I probably should have said earlier that Wilco are a great live act.

9. Someone To Lose. From Schmilco (2016).

The band sounds really comfortable by now, no doubt from having a stable lineup for over 10 years. Some of my favorite lyrics, too: “I keep it rolling/Considering no one/Punching a path/Facing the blast and the moon and the math/But you still never know where your soul is attached.” The LP title is a nod to Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson.

10. Everyone Hides. From Ode to Joy (2019).

Nothing new here, to be honest, but it’s become the classic Wilco sound. Smart lyrics, bouncy melody, interesting guitar work by Cline, pretty but unobtrusive keys, all supporting Tweedy’s good-natured midwestern voice.

Wilco are, in a word, solid. As mentioned, I prefer their livelier numbers but the band’s catalog has something for everyone: 4/4 rock, alt-country, ballads, experiments, love songs, party songs, anthems—with every sort of instrumentation along the way. Tweedy is seriously underrated as a lyricist and singer. I especially like that the band are all outstanding musicians but there’s never any showing off. Simply one of America’s best bands since before the millennium. If you get a chance to see them live don’t miss it.

Bonus Track: California Stars. From Mermaid Avenue (1998).

The story goes that folk legend Woody Guthrie’s daughter contacted our man Billy Bragg with a trove of her dad’s lyrics. Billy connected with Wilco about recording songs featuring the words set to new music, resulting in a number of records over the years. This track was co-written by Tweedy and Bennett.

JTFL

11 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #238 : WILCO

  1. Such kind words! Very nice collection from a band quite hard to sift through and select from… they’re great live. Diane’s brother played California Stars at our wedding, special tune. (Now you’ve got me wondering if an ICA of Woody Guthrie Set to Others’ Music might make be doable…)

  2. Love Wilco and some great choices here. As you say, a fabulous live band – the one time I saw them is probably in my top 10 gigs ever.

    Never really understood the lack of interest in ‘Sky Blue Sky’ – I think it’s a great album (I’d have picked ‘Hate It Here’ as the track to include).

    Personally I’ve struggled with ‘Ode To Joy’ – just found it a bit uninspiring.

    Jeff Tweedy’s solo albums and ‘Tweedy’ are well worth picking up too!

  3. Impossible Germany from Sky Blue Sky is a glaring omission for me. Sorry. As for Ode To Joy, I’ve tried, but it’s all a bit meh.

    The band’s body of work is now so large, that when I saw them two nights in a row only 7 songs from a set of 20 were repeated on the second night. Brilliant live band.

  4. Yes yes yes
    I’m more familiar with the early alt country stuff (which will not come as a surprise to you Jonny) so looking forward to filling in the blanks

  5. A fabulously enjoyable listen JTFL. Purely by virtue of my age and the listening time at my disposal, I’m much more familiar with the first half of Wilco’s career than the more recent years, though I still pick up each new release and would say that the quality of their output hasn’t really dipped at all, but virtually anything from Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would fit neatly here.
    Also, a nod to Jeff’s terrific work as a writer and producer for others, particularly Mavis Staples. This gets me every single time https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KW0kE6mucFY

  6. I’d also been puzzled by the lack of Wilco on this site – so this is welcome. Thanks Jonny

    Of course I disagee with virtually every song chosen (which is a good thing) … For me it would be more like: Passenger Side (great storytelling in a song), Dont Forget the Flowers (Alt country heaven), Ashes of American Flags, Theologians, Impossible Germany (It’s like Wilco’s attempt at Marquee Moon), Hate it Here (that’s two from the much-maligned Sky Blue Sky), You and I, Solitaire, Dawned on Me, One Sunday Morning.

    They do lots of collaborations: e.g. with Billy Bragg for ‘When the Roses Bloom Again’; The Minus Five with Peter Buck from REM and others; Seven Worlds Collide (with Neil Finn, Johnny Marr).

    And dont forget the covers: my favourite is a fantastic version of ‘I shall be released’ that echoes Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers rather than Dylan.

    And yes – agree with Stanley/Richard, when I saw them it was one of my top ten gigs too. They have great live albums (Kicking Television, Ashes of American Flags on DVD and also have an archive of tons of concert performances (Roadcase).

    The thing about Wilco is that their output is so vast and wide-ranging that you’re unlikely to love everything. But that’s ok. They called their Best of ‘What’s Your Twenty’: everyone’s ‘Twenty’ will be different.

  7. Really enjoyed these picks, Jonny. I was living in Chicago the entire first decade of this century, and I can tell you Wilco owned that town. They were, by far, the band I saw the most during that period. Summerteeth is my favorite album as well, and the reason is simple… Jay Bennett. I never thought Wilco was as interesting after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the absence of Bennett is the reason. Bennett’s downfall as an artist post Wilco came down to not having strong enough vocals to be an effective front man. Having said that, I turn to his 2002 album with Edward Burch called The Palace At 4AM (Part 1) almost as often as the ones he did with Wilco.

  8. Great post JTFL! I will readily admit to not being a big Wilco fan, even if I did find a lot to like about Uncle Tupelo. The Wilco album I do have lots of time for is A Ghost Is Born. The musical journey on that album gives me whiplash and I love it! Yes to the Television influence! There’s some Kinks and even early 70s Stones in there too to add color and depth…

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