Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite Wilco songs, ranked
Few bands have continuously expanded their horizons as determinedly as Wilco. From their barnburning debut, A.M., through the glorious, damaged pop of Summerteeth to the earth-quaking brilliance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco have never stood still. Even in their latter phase as revered elder statesmen of indie rock, they can throw a curveball by going country without sounding like they’re covering old ground.
Ahead of their UK shows, we’ve gone back through one of the most endlessly rewarding back catalogues out there and chosen our 11 favourite Wilco songs.
11. A Shot In The Arm
By their third album, Wilco seemed to be finding themselves and falling apart, all at the same time. Through a fog of personal issues, the band delivered an album that combined dark ruminations and raw confessionals with sparkling Beatles and Beach Boys-esque pop. ‘A Shot In The Arm’ sounds almost unhinged. You can almost picture synthesizers and amps exploding and showering sparks all over Jeff Tweedy as he screams “What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore”.
10. Tired Of Taking It Out On You
(Cruel Country, 2022)
Wilco suggested Cruel Country would mark their return to country music, but ended up landing far from their fired-up alt-country roots. Instead, the record’s a gorgeous homespun affair that feels like sitting right in the middle of their circle. ‘Tired Of Taking It Out On You’ showcases how Tweedy’s rasp can sound wounded and warm all at once, his voice cracking as he confesses, “I’m ashamed of who I am when I’m in pain.” He’s not making excuses, just worn down by his own bad behaviour.
(Being There, 1996)
Wilco’s debut album didn’t stray far from Tweedy’s work with Uncle Tupelo, but their second saw their world widening, partly down to the arrival of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett. Opener ‘Misunderstood’ is half world-worn Americana ballad and half noise rock wig-out, a precursor to the deconstructed indie rock that was to follow. Tweedy’s voice comes echoing out of the noise: “When you’re back in your old neighbourhood / your cigarettes taste so good / but you’re so misunderstood.” It’s a weary account of trying to find small comforts when you don’t belong where you once did.
8. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
(Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2001)
The trials and tribulations of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are well documented (if you haven’t already, please, please watch the documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), but it’s still baffling that anyone could hear this song and not do laps of the room in celebration. It’s the sound of a song breaking apart, being put back together and breaking apart all over again. Synthesisers glitch, Glenn Kotche’s drums start and stop and Tweedy mumbles abstract lines through it all like someone dreaming out loud. Utterly brilliant.
7. California Stars
(Mermaid Avenue, 1998)
This is bordering on breaking our own “no covers” rule, seeing as the original lyrics were discovered in Woody Guthrie’s attic. But the rest is all Wilco and the band embrace and absorb the great folk artist’s words like they’re channelling him directly. The natural reverb of the production makes it sound like the band’s playing the song in a giant barn, homesick lovers swaying all around them.
6. The Late Greats
(A Ghost Is Born, 2004)
It’s not surprising that Tweedy wasn’t the biggest fan of the music industry after being dropped for turning out a bona fide masterpiece. ‘The Late Greats’ is his riposte, lamenting all the bands that are “so good you’ll never know”. The greatest singer in rock‘n’roll is shunned because he just looks “a little too old”. Damn the gatekeepers, damn the algorithms, go out there and find your own definition of greatness.
5. Box Full Of Letters
A.M. is somewhat unfairly overlooked as Wilco before they’d figured out what they wanted Wilco to be. There’s an element of truth there, but it ignores the fact that it’s an album of wall-to-wall firecrackers, none more so than this ode to clearing out your ex’s stuff. “I got a lot of your records in a separate stack / some things that I might like to hear / But I guess I’ll give them back”. Jeff Tweedy’s a bigger man than most.
4. Can’t Stand It
Wilco’s grand ambitions were written all over Being There, but the leap forwards they took on Summerteeth was still startling. Over majestic pop – halfway between The Beatles and Madchester – Tweedy sings: “The way things go, you get so low / struggle to find your skin.” Later, he shrugs: “Well hey ho / Look out below / Your prayers will never be answered again.” While it sounds like Tweedy and Jay Bennett were crawling out of their own skin, they were simultaneously at the absolute height of their melodic prowess.
3. Via Chicago
One of Jeff Tweedy’s most beautiful songs starts with the line “I dreamt about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me”, which says a lot about the mood on Summerteeth. Pain and darkness course through ‘Via Chicago’, with Tweedy sounding so hopelessly lost, and desperate to find his way back home, that you fear for his safety. The fractured production swaddles the song in noise, like absolutely everything is falling apart. In the end, it all just collapses in on itself. Stunning.
2. Impossible Germany
(Sky Blue Sky, 2007)
It’s probably illegal to talk about ‘Impossible Germany’ without mentioning Nels Cline’s guitar solo. It takes a languid song and catapults it into the stratosphere. What’s truly impressive is that Cline manages to do it without ever looking or sounding like he’s showing off. The virtuosic guitarist joined the band in between A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky, and immediately left an impression. Heaven is being front row night after night, listening to this song and watching Nels Cline be Nels Cline.
1. Jesus Etc.
(Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2001)
‘Jesus Etc.’ feels like a conversation whispered under the covers, something private and personal shared in a safe, warm space. Jeff Tweedy’s voice has never sounded better, and Andrew Bird’s violin weaves in and out like it’s stitching the world together.
Tweedy is an elusive songwriter – his lyrics initially seem plainspoken and straightforward, but any kind of examination unfurls a world of abstract imagery. ‘Jesus Etc.’ is such an awe-inspiring example of this, particularly on its marvel of a chorus: “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape singing sad, sad songs / Tuned to chords that strum down your cheek / Bitter melodies are turning your orbit around.” It conjures thoughts of the kind of life event that shakes your world to its foundation, cracking the façade that keeps all the sadness and fear inside.
Just as the song is the serene centre of a tumultuous album, Tweedy himself makes an understated pledge to remain a safe place in a collapsing world: “You can rely on me honey / You can come by any time you want”. ‘Jesus Etc.’ isn’t about saving anyone, it’s a promise to just be there when you’re needed.