Wilco is one of the few modern bands that has released over five studio albums (over the course of several years) that I can listen to separately, from start to finish, and still enjoy. The group’s studio discography, not to mention its live work and collaborations with Billy Brag and others, is hugely impressive. The band’s album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot turns ten this year, which inspired this list of the group’s best songs from each of their albums.
A.M.— “I Must Be High”
My favorite song from Wilco’s first album is also its first song, perhaps because, as a younger Wilco fan, I never made it too deep into A.M. without switching to something like Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Understandably, A.M. is the band’s most straightforwardly alt-country album, a departure from the Jay Farrar-influenced Uncle Tupelo but still not quite what the Wilco sound would ultimately develop into.
Being There— “Say You Miss Me”
There’s a huge list of songs to choose from on Wilco’s sophomore double album, but the song that sticks out is the first disc’s closing track, “Say You Miss Me.” When the band came out at Lollapalooza a few years ago in their Grand ‘Ol Opry getups, this is the type of song it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect them to play for those festival goers that weren’t fans. It’s a country ballad with Wilco-ish self-awareness. It’s by no means the truly alternative country that can be found on the band’s later albums, but none of the songs on Being There really are.
Summerteeth— “A Shot In The Arm”
The second single from Summerteeth stands out above those around it that also happen to be some of the best in Wilco’s discography— “I’m Always In Love,” “Can’t Stand It,” “She’s A Jar,” “How To Fight Loneliness,” etc. “A Shot In The Arm” sticks out perhaps for its dark, memorable refrain of “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm, something in my veins, bloodier than blood,” but its cinematic piano-line and experimentalism/psychedelia towards the warbled ending of the song paved the path towards Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy’s more focused effort on lyricism stands out across all of Summerteeth, but especially on “A Shot In The Arm.”
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot— “Kamera”
Choosing a favorite song from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is like choosing a favorite Radiohead album (which is probably a better comparison than my original choice of choosing a favorite item from the Wendy’s dollar menu), there’s just so much variation that picking one over the others seems unfair— there’s the much-needed lighthearted goofiness of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the uniqueness of “Jesus, etc.” and the experimentation of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” among several others (8 other songs, to be exact). But the song that stands out in my mind as the album’s best is also perhaps its most uninventive. There’s just something great about the nonstop acoustic drive the song has amidst short instrumental breaks and Tweedy’s laidback assertion that— “no it’s not okay.” The song proved that the band could be dark and literary and powerful without straying too far from its alt-country roots.
A Ghost Is Born— “Spiders”
For the sole reason that my brother used to listen to this song while taking a shower and I later followed suit (at 10 minutes 42 seconds, it was great timing for a nice, hot, wasteful wash), this is my favorite song on A Ghost Is Born. But A Ghost Is Born is also my favorite Wilco album, and “Handshake Drugs,” “Theologians,” and “At Least That’s What You Said” were worthy opponents. The slowly-building groove of “Spiders” make it irresistible, something that might have appeared on an LCD Soundsystem album if James Murphy played guitar more often (LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut album coincidentally was released around the same time). In fact, Tweedy kinda sounds like Murphy with his sporadic vocals and built-up tension, which ultimately explodes in a satisfying way it took LCD until “Dance Yrself Clean” to fully master.
Sky Blue Sky— “Impossible Germany”
There’s something sweet and beautiful about “Impossible Germany,” a song that finds Tweedy and co. kicking around somewhere that could be somehow be considered something like Grateful Dead territory. Led by tracks like “Sky Blue Sky” and “What Light,” Sky Blue Sky is a soft, melodic album, but you just can’t beat that guitar solo on “Impossible Germany.”
Wilco (The Album)— “Deeper Down”
Wilco (The Album) is my least favorite Wilco album for no particular reason other than it would have been a hugely tough task to top its predecessors. The album’s driving force, the Feist-featuring “You And I,” is cheesy alt-country that fails because it strives for sincerity in a way songs like “Heavy Metal Drummer” never did. “Deeper Down,” then, stands out as the album’s highlight. The song is complexly layered, and Tweedy’s storytelling abilities keep things interesting despite the melancholy tone.
The Whole Love— “Art Of Almost”
Wilco proved that, over fifteen years into the music business, they’re still inventive and still relevant. The Whole Love was one of 2011’s best releases, and also one of Wilco’s best albums. That’s an incredibly tough feat for any band that released a couple of critically-acclaimed albums early in their career, let alone a band that released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Perhaps it’s because I was so captivated by the opening track upon hearing The Whole Love for the first time, but it’s “Art Of Almost” that stands out above the others on that album. It toys with tension in the same build-up-then-release way that other favorites “Spiders” and “Impossible Germany” do, and the payoff towards the end is strong. The Whole Love is awesome because Wilco made it on their own terms and for their own label, but it couldn’t have existed without the evolution and growth the band underwent on previous efforts.