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Ranked: The 15 Best Wilco Songs to Date

Apr 11, 2022
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Wilco is an institution. “The American Radiohead.” Bigger than Jesus, etc. They would reasonably be one of the first bands inducted into the indie rock hall of fame, were it to exist. And the iconic artwork of their masterful 2001 release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—featuring the imposing twin towers of Chicago’s Marina City—is recognized by even the vaguest of acquaintances.

Led by the husky-voiced Jeff Tweedy, and with bassist John Stirratt in the sidecar from day one, the band has released 11 studio albums, including the scruffy alt-country of their post-Uncle Tupelo debut, three collaborations with Billy Bragg, and the shiny drug pop of Summerteeth. Since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, though, Tweedy and friends have settled into a comfortable groove, tinkering in the Wilco Loft—their accoutrement-filled Chicago HQ—and continuing to release solid though less ambitious work. Their influence on the modern potpourri of indie/alternative/folk pop is pervasive. (Courtney Barnett’s laidback witticisms and Parquet Courts’ anti-Americana are at least partially indebted.)

Wilco recently announced an exclusive series of shows to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In honor of the album’s birthday, Under the Radar looks back at the band’s catalogue to rank the best of the best. See you on the other side, via Chicago. By Hayden Merrick

15

“Monday”

Being There (1996)

Where better to begin than at the start of the week? In 1996, Wilco put out their first and only double album, Being There, a move that Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber called “nothing more than a marketing scheme.” Despite its extent, the album was the bridge between the trucker stop pop of Uncle Tupelo (which spilled over to Wilco’s debut A.M.) and Summerteeth. “Monday” itself is a runaway cart of country bumpkin fun, triumphant horns coalescing with a joyously kitschy sing-along chorus that Springsteen would approve of: “Monday, I’m all high/Get me out of FLA.” Wilco has no business sounding this happy.

14

“You and I”

Wilco (2009)

15 years into its career, Wilco gave us Wilco (The Album). It’s what the band is meant to sound like, according to Tweedy—a modest, pure collection of songs at peace with themselves. The guitars aren’t vying for the spotlight; the lyrics aren’t as tortured as previous releases. “You and I” is the beating heart of Wilco, a generous love song with just the right dose of iconoclasm. “You and I, I think we can take it/All the good with the bad/Make something that no one else has,” Tweedy hums in harmony with Leslie Feist. They nail the balance of despondency and rosiness (and major 7th chords), a formula that Jimmy Eat World enjoys, too. Their cover of the song is included as a bonus track on Invented.

13

“Hell Is Chrome”

A Ghost is Born (2004)

One of A Ghost Is Born’s many gems is “Hell Is Chrome,” which takes an unhurried, cable car-like ascension to a psych-rock plateau. Its mellow piano clusters and sparse heartbeat rhythm provide the perfect accompaniment for meditative idling, while the lyrics see Tweedy surrender to a benevolent chrome devil—i.e. find comfort in unlikely places—as he enters a world in which the “air was crisp like sunny late winter days.” It’s the favorite Wilco track of Under the Radar’s father, Mark Redfern, and if that doesn’t earn it a heap of clout, I don’t know what will.

12

“Whole Love”

The Whole Love (2011)

I wouldn’t sleep tonight if I didn’t include my personal favorite Wilco song, the title track from the band’s finest album since A Ghost Is Born. Like Joanne Greenbaum’s abstract painting on the cover, The Whole Love has an artsy/experimental bent. But it remains close friends with folk pop. “Whole Love” itself is all crispy guitar jangles, head-bob-plod rhythms, and lyrics that I may one day include in my wedding vow: “I’ll still love you to death/And I won’t ever forget how… And I hope I know when to show you my/Whole love.” It’s a deeper cut but deserves to rub shoulders with the likes of “California Stars” and “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

11

“Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”

Ode to Joy (2019)

This song’s appearance in the Apple+ TV series Ted Lasso—whose titular protagonist is a cheery, mustachioed football coach with the motto “Believe”—says a lot about its temperament and Tweedy’s headspace in 2019. (The album’s called Ode to Joy!) The lead single from the group’s latest studio album is easy and gentle, with a riff that flutters like gulls departing the surface of a pond, and lyrics that propose finding the good amid turbulent (read: politically shambolic) times.

10

“Impossible Germany”

Sky Blue Sky (2007)

Sky Blue Sky marked the start of a new era for Wilco. With the onboarding of guitar maven Nels Cline and master-of-all-trades Pat Sansone, the line-up stabilized and remains the same today. With its extended guitar solos, MOR arrangements, and jettison of eccentric instrumentation, Sky was criticized as “dad rock.” (It’s the one Judd Apatow likes.) Still, it must be lauded for its cohesion, maturity, and a spattering of excellent songs such as “Impossible Germany,” the album’s center-piece and a live mainstay ever since. Nels Cline’s proficiency shines here, as Television-indebted guitar solos playfight with one another. It feels a little like Tweedy is whispering, “Quiet, everyone, Nels is playing,” but it doesn’t make the song any less wonderous.

9

“Normal American Kids”

Schmilco (2016)

Is there a more relatable sentiment than “I hate everything I don’t understand?” A reposed river of acoustic strums and a quietly murmuring electric guitar score this anthem for deep-thinking misanthropic suburban juvies. Through a sepia viewfinder, Tweedy looks back on his childhood—“Bongs and jams and carpeted vans.” Rockstalgia never sounded so good.

8

“The Late Greats”

A Ghost is Born (2004)

“The Late Greats” thumps and struts its way over the closing credits of A Ghost Is Born, leaving listeners with a contented smile after an album filled with much darker, lengthy entries. Jubilant and stirring, it packs its two-and-a-half minutes with rubbery bass, Costello-friendly riffs, and a middle-eight break with guitar feedback that crescendos into an elating piano solo. If this was the last song I ever heard, I’d be okay with that.

7

“A Shot in the Arm”

Summerteeth (1999)

Summerteeth’s bubbling synthesizers and glossy production were a pointed contrast from the woody acoustica of Wilco’s preceding albums. But it’s the album that added a huge slice to their fan base and engendered a butt-load of acclaim. “A Shot in the Arm,” usually their live opener, is the synthesis of the 1999 record. The lyrics are somber and explicitly confront Tweedy’s drug use at the time, contrasting the gleeful piano clunks and fizzy synths that swirl in a cloud of sugary malaise. It’s all held together by Stirratt’s driving bass line—I’d trust him with my life—and a motorik beat, offering an agreeable entrance point for jeffy-come-latelies.

6

“Via Chicago”

Summerteeth (1999)

“Via Chicago” has always been one of Wilco’s most revered songs. I didn’t get it at first. I thought it must resonate more with fans who hail from their windy hometown, like The Weakerthans’ “One Great City” or “Mass Pike” by The Get Up Kids. But then it clicked, the way Tweedy’s voice cracks when he sings, “Searching for a home/Via Chicago/I’m coming home.” For him, it’s Chicago; but it could be anywhere. Then the other components started to make more sense: The distraught guitar line that sounds on the verge of collapsing, Bennet’s beguiling piano clunks, the distant plucking of a banjo. It’s the most affecting song on Summerteeth and one of the best they have ever managed.

5

“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)

The overture of Wilco’s formative art pop masterwork, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is a seven-minute omnium-gatherum of cooing analog synths, obstreperous percussion, and an imperceptible hum of background noise, all obscuring the tender three-chord pop song that idles beneath. The song is reluctant to take shape, but as Tweedy’s acoustic strums drift into focus, he delivers one of the most intriguing opening gambits to a record, gracing indie kids’ Insta bios forevermore: “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue.” The search for meaning here is futile—this is one of those songs whose lyrics were chosen for the way they sound and the mental images they generate.

4

“Heavy Metal Drummer”

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)

The most upbeat track on Yankee is a summery power pop thumper. “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands/I used to go see on the landing in the summer,” sings Tweedy, rippling synths and a bouncing bassline trundling along with him. Listened to in sequence, “Heavy Metal” follows the disassembled quiet of “Ashes of American Flags.” The transition from mourning the flag’s ashes to heavy metal vitality was a source of conflict between Tweedy and Bennett, as shown in Sam Jones’ documentary about the making of the album. It may have cost us Bennett, but this song is a sufficient consolation.

3

“If I Ever Was a Child”

Schmilco (2016)

2016’s Schmilco was an easy-going, unpretentious set of stripped-back rootsy pop songs. And its crowning achievement—the song that writer and DJ Jason P. Woodbury felt was most apt to leave listeners with on the Wilco episode of the Bandsplain podcast—was “If I Ever Was a Child.” It’s Wilco at their most languorous and warm: An embrace of plodding acoustic guitars and shuffling drums. The lyrics are an inspection of Tweedy’s past, a running theme of recent-era Wilco, especially on this album, which—no coincidence—was written around the time of his memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) (he loves parentheses). Top tip: The Spotify Singles version is even better than the original.

2

“California Stars”

Mermaid Avenue (1998)

The late folk great Woody Guthrie left his daughter over 1000 sets of unpublished lyrics, and at her behest, the job of turning them into full-blown songs fell to Wilco and Billy Bragg. The heart of the resulting Mermaid Avenue is the languid twinkler “California Stars.” It’s a song so good it irked Bob Dylan, who said in his biography, “These performers probably weren’t even born when I made that trip to Brooklyn.” Thank God that his trip to retrieve the boxes of Guthrie’s lyrics was unsuccessful, for “California Stars” is a song that holds a special place in the hearts of many Wilco fans. It is their “Thirteen,” their “Gold Soundz”—plaintive but hopeful; unfussy and uplifting; truly perfect.

1

“I’m the Man Who Loves You”

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)

Foreshadowed in the closing bars of “I Am Trying”—in which the title is muttered through a fog of noise—“I’m the Man Who Loves You” is the hottest contender for universal fan-favorite, a flawless encapsulation of what Wilco is, and one of the few tracks that lives rent-free in every live setlist. From the piano quibbles and acoustic sprigs bursts a chaotic electric guitar solo that sprawls across most of the piece. The whole thing is gloriously messy yet gracious, with horn arrangements and twit-twooing backing vocals. And with a simplistically beautiful lyrical statement—“If I could you know I would/Just hold your hand and you’d understand/I’m the man who loves you”—it ticks all the boxes.

Honorable mentions

Across 11 studio albums, there were upwards of 35 songs considered for this list, and almost every song in their catalog is worthy of mention. Here are a few honorable mentions, which I hope will placate any disgruntled readers: The mid-paced shuffler “Jesus, Etc.” (it’s great but the whole list can’t be YHF tracks), the fuzzy space rocker “Random Name Generator,” more ’90s bubblegum pop with “ELT” and “I’m Always in Love,” the Eagles-esque zephyr “You Are My Face,” the acoustic punk barrage “I’m a Wheel,” and the greatest anti-war anthem since Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “War on War.”

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