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“Dolby’s Top 25 Wilco Songs”

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Wilco is a band that kind of snuck up on me, at first I think operating on a keen level of fragile emotion that failed to make an impression on my unseasoned, Goldfinger-favoring high school self. By the time I was in college, around 2004, they were sort of just unavoidable for the sheer clamor of critical acclaim and occult-rendered awe surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Adding to the juice of this story, of course, was this album’s curious back story of having been shelved by one compartment of Warner only to be embraced and released officially by another. 

Anyway, I could barely comprehend and process YHF before A Ghost is Born was heaped onto us, later that year. A couple things stood out to me right away about this record, one of which was that it stood in stark contrast from YHF. The gallant, embellished production techniques were gone, for instance, replaced by bare, acoustic bedroom earnestness. This goes for most of the album save for “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which was just about the trippiest thing I’d ever heard at this time save for maybe Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place.” 

There’s this Wilco show, actually, on YouTube, of a 2004 performance at Austin City Limits. In fact, this and the “Live from Brooklyn Steel” show from 2019 form a supreme online Wilco concert duo that makes me a little less heartbroken that my favorite band seems constitutionally opposed to releasing live albums. Anyway, at the ACL show, Tweedy gets to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and I think he starts deliberately screwing up the vocal: on the last verse the rhythm of his singing totally falls off. And I’m not sure if I’m just going wacko or what, but I swear to God he was doing this on purpose so that some jealous boyfriend of a girl in the audience fawning at him wouldn’t do physical harm to him, like happened to Frank Zappa at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1971. 

So Wilco’s good. That’s what I’m trying to get at, though I don’t know who needs to hear that. And they are heterogeneous, unpredictable and weird enough to I think justify this list, which is, as always, meant as a way of organizing something that otherwise would be fractal, ephemeral and tied to images of hummingbird, steep canyons and aquarium drinkers.

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25 “I Thought I Held You” (A.M.)

Wilco’s ’95 debut A.M. is a record that typically gets thrown under the bus by critics and really I have no idea why — it’s got a steady, deliberate penchant toward melody and progressions that I think makes it a da**  intriguing listen. I suppose it might just have to do with what might have been a general impetus to prioritize Son Volt, whose Jay Farrar had recently kicked Jeff Tweedy out of Uncle Tupelo, over Tweedy’s punky, upstart act. Interestingly, though, just like Son Volt, Wilco had a gaggle of musicians contributing already on their initial album, as well as, somewhat eerily, working with Son Volt’s producer as well, Brian Paulson.

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24 “Too Far apart” (A.M.)

“Too Far apart” seems to be everything people generally say A.M. is not — it’s rocking, boisterous and fun, an energetic, festival-ready tune that builds to a catchy chorus. It’s the kind of tune that makes you think if Wilco would have fallen off, Tweedy could have launched a career writing songs for Robbie Williams.

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23 “Jesus, Etc.” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

As far as I know the only Wilco track to feature any strings, “Jesus, Etc.” is kind of a favorite among Margarita-chugging city folk, with its jovial tone and its Hallmark-ready line of “You were right about the stars / Each one is a setting sun”. By and large, the imagistic lyrics give it some sway and it makes for a nice mid-album aberration from the general, crushing malaise and drama of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

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22 “Handshake Drugs” (A Ghost is Born; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

For the longest time I think I was a huge Ghost is Born buff and I found this song a little bit bland, partly because it repeats the same simple chord progression for the entire tune. The older I get, though, the steadiness of it hits me: that structural stasis is really a contentedness in its own skin, and how it’s probably hard to write a new chord change when you’re all smacked out, too.

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21 “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” (Ode to Joy)

Sure to lure many with its showy intro of rapid guitar triplets and its cheesy, Lincoln Park-ready title, “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” does indeed mark, not unlike “Jesus, Etc.,” a nice mid-album respite from constant lugubrious negatives-dwelling, and it makes its statement in expedited fashion and then moves on quick enough that it plays more like a dream than a ham-handed attempt at Apollonian virtue.

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20 “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (A Ghost is Born; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

“Spiders (Kidsmoke),” it’s safe to say, is in world completely all its own — a 10-minute electronica number, already a pretty rare occurrence even outside of the Wilco catalogue — that takes on the subject of spiders and empty beaches in Michigan. Did I mention the band were doing drugs around this time? Anyway, up in the introductory blurb I mention the performance of this at ’04’s ACL, which has to be seen to be believed and, which, again, I believe, ushered the band into dangerous, preternatural territory.

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19 “Via Chicago” (Summerteeth; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

For this track, I have to say, as is with the case of maybe a small handful of others, I’m completely glued to the version on Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, partly as a general endorsement of the Wilco live album through the fact that they just understood how to let the track breathe and come alive on the live stage. In the case of this cut, it’s the stripped-down sound and those balls crashing or whatever at the start of the third verse that surely put it over the top.

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18 “Wishful Thinking” (A Ghost is Born: Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

A Ghost is Born can certainly be a disorienting, jolting ride, and so in a way “Wishful Thinking” is the safe landing you never thought would come — a respite into gentle, expedited acoustic rock with the optimistic mantra of “What would we be without wishful thinking?” that of course seems to obviate an underbelly of danger and uncertainty that we won’t get into right now.

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17 “Radio Cure” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

“Radio Cure” is by and large a pretty nice and catchy tune: a gentle sort of sidling through casual melody and catchy hook that also possesses a deep, dark undercurrent of ominousness that almost made me glad when the banal, disposable optimism of “War on War” came around, to prevent things from getting too real.

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16 “Dash 7” (A.M.)

Some Wilco titles have funny stories behind them, like the album Summerteeth, which stems from the joke that was being told around St. Louis in the ’90s: “I’ve got summer teeth… some are teeth and some aren’t” [1]. I have a feeling this song is the same way but what’s more interesting is that otherworldly combination of gentle acoustic and reverberating, pining lap steel, grafting a unique soundscape way beyond the typical parameters of a band making their first album.

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15 “Hummingbird” (A Ghost is Born; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

“Hummingbird” marks a key point in the band’s lifespan when Jeff Tweedy still had that spare, Woody Guthrie-like sense of folk songwriting, but the instrumentation had blossomed out into piano harmonies and big, grandiose, arena-rock-ready instrumentation. I’m a little curious about the background story but as always, it doesn’t matter, as the real substance is in the music itself and the vivid lyrics that call to mind wide-open deserts and even wider states of mind.

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14 “Shot in the Arm” (Summerteeth; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

I’m going to “star” “Shot in the Arm,” so to speak, as my second song on this list where I pretty much live and die by the live version, again, for the evasion of Summerteeth’s stifling, sterile production, and the knack the song has of coming alive and turning into a really vital entity. This is a strange comparison but it’s sort of got a similar feel to me to Ween’s “Roses are Free” and that sense of wide-open possibilities which are really probably borne out of drug-addled desperation, but whatever.

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13 “Company in My Back” (A Ghost is Born: Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

“Company in My Back” is just an unexplainable phenomenon that beautifully ties together the classic album A Ghost is Born with some head-scratching lyrical nonsense and a gentle, easy chord progression and instrumentation. It’s one of the most pliable songs the band ever wrote, to date, in this way, with a strident ability to make a memorable statement with precious little time or volume. 

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12 “Misunderstood” (Being There; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

Rounding out the trifecta here of tracks of which the live version in paramount, “Misunderstood” waltzes in all sympathetic and “dad-rock”-y, sure, to an extent, and also a bizarre 30-bar rant in the live version of “NOTHIN’! NOTHIN’! NOTHIN’!” that plays like half practical joke on the audience and half a reminder of how hard it is to really express what the subject is going through. I also like how Tweedy lowers the “I know you’ve got a God-shaped hole” verse one octave on Kicking Television, rendering it a little closer to his proper range as a vocalist.

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11 “You Never Know” [Wilco (the album)]

I remember this album from ’07 being pretty solid but that this was the track that really stood out, a supremely catchy, half-apocalyptic paean to ambivalence and to getting up and living your life, despite how much logic might sometimes dictate otherwise. 

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10 “Before Us” (Ode to Joy)

Anybody who reads my site knows that I love their 2019 album Ode to Joy, which was produced in their own studio, The Loft in Chicago, and released on their own label, dBpm. The whole enterprise just smacks of making an album the way they wanted to make it, on nobody’s terms but theirs, and indeed, these songs sidle along at a pace that just has to be deaf to convention and to all things commercial, making, in stride, a perfect soundtrack for the COVID shutdown, as I think I mentioned before.

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9 “Pot Kettle Black” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

Immediately in terms of this song my mind races to the classic lines “Tied in a knot / But I’m not gonna get caught / Calling the pot kettle black [2] / Every song is a comeback / Every moment’s a little bit later”. In general, it’s got that narcotic but brisk acoustic guitar interface of “Kamera,” with a little more drama and high-stakes lyrical indignation, to spice the pot.

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8 “Poor Places” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

One cool thing to me about “Poor Places,” which, though it’s not the final track, in a way plays as the glorious finale/stage bow of the band’s magnum opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is that, musically, it’s full, glorious, bulbous and memorable, but lyrically, it’s just about sitting at home in your air conditioning on a humid night, with a side note I guess being the people who can’t afford A.C.: “When it’s hot in the poor places tonight / I’m not going outside”. I mean, I guess it’s bemoaning, on a level of metacognition, Tweedy’s apparent inability to sympathize with those in dire situations, but mostly it’s just a great song. At least he’s not bringing in symbolism, I guess.

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7 “Muzzle of Bees” (A Ghost is Born; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

“Muzzle of Bees” to me is a truly singular number with that sort of guitar work that can fit through the slightest cracks in life, like an insect itself, and hence play anywhere and soundtrack any occasion, and indeed this goes for the studio version, given commendable flow and ease by producer Jim O’Rourke, as it were, or the live version on the excellent, show-stopping Kicking Television.

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6 “One and a Half Stars” (Ode to Joy)

“One and a Half Stars” was a staple of the band’s fall 2019 show at Brooklyn Steel as well as being a discussion point in a recent post of mind, which, not coincidentally, I did on another relentlessly cloudy fall day about a month or so ago. It’s made for the new age, sodden with all these problems and complications, that still has an affinity for the old, a dejected, sensitive dude sitting down and writing a song with an acoustic guitar that’s too real not to play in our heated living rooms for ages and ages to come. 

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5 “Ashes of American Flags” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

“Ashes of American Flags” to me makes commendable use of the production mechanisms generally pervasive on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and particularly the intriguing contrast between Jeff Tweedy’s warm, rustic acoustic guitar and Jay Bennett bombastic, arena-filling yowl from his electric (Bennett would closely be replaced by Nels Cline, who would thereupon provide a similarly exciting sonic foil). 

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4 “Citizens” (Ode to Joy)

I was a little bummed that they didn’t play this tune at Brooklyn Steel — indeed it’s pretty simple but that’s part of why I like it and it’s just got the perfect chord progression and sound, built on a walking, mischievous bassline and gentle, clear acoustic guitars that plot out a classic mosaic of tension and melody. To be honest, I don’t think I know ANY of the words of this song and it’s still my favorite song on the album. Remind me not to puff myself up as a lyrics aficionado any time soon.

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3 “California Stars” (with Billy Bragg/Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2)

“California Stars” is hardly a song that needs an introduction — it’s a song every true fan of Wilco knows pretty much by heart (although if you’re like me for a while you didn’t know what the Heck album to find it on), an omnipresent staple of their live show, usually around the chorus when the proceedings are most conducive to hearty, throat-clearing singalongs. Like “Hummingbird,” it’s got a keen sense of geography of the American West, like a living organism that will always truly lodge there, despite the band’s home base being Chicago and the surrounding flatlands. 

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2 “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

“I am Trying to Break Your Heart” is almost like an entity I’m still to an extent trying to unpack — it’s one of those songs that just goes on and on, like a Bob Dylan tune, and even seems to possess some of Dylan’s drug-informed lyrical high jinks circa Highway 61 Revisited, where the only standard is nonsense and the quest to convey the element of disorientation that typically seems to accompany any meaningful romantic quest.

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1 “Heavy Metal Drummer” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Kicking Television: Live in Chicago)

I got in the mood for doing this list on a cool, fall day, just like with the last Wilco post I did, and this is ironic because my favorite allotted song on it is the QUINTESSENTIAL summer anthem, at least within the zeitgeist of the aging, balding fan of music who can somehow, within certain circumstances, still summon up some youthful joy and love for the major chord progression dispatched under sunny window reflections or optimistic neon lights. 

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[1] Thank you to Learning How to Die by Greg Kot for this one.

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[2] Of course this is a slight permutation on the old adage of “the pot calling the kettle black,” modified somewhat cleverly for purposes of syllabic flow, I guess.

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