Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).
Wilco is definitely due for a best of package. As you'll soon see, I am a man partial to their early work; I wish I could have included most of A.M. and I happen to believe they peaked creatively on Summerteeth. But I definitely don't deny the merit, relevance, and innovation of their post-2000 work.
1. I Must Be High (from A.M., 1995)
Country-pop goodness with some great lyrics: "You never said you wanted this / You're pissed that you missed / The very last kiss / From my lips."
2. Casino Queen (from A.M., 1995)
Rocky, raucous, loose and fun.
3. Box Full of Letters (from A.M., 1995)
More memorable lyrics, from that time before Jeff Tweedy got all abstract: "Just can't find the time to write my mind the way I want it to read."
4. Outta Mind (Outta Sight) (found on Being There, 1996)
Being There is a two disc set and each disc contained a version of this song. The other is called Outta Sight (Outta Mind) and has a more straightforward commercial sound (in fact, I believe it was a single). Both have their merits, but I give a slight edge to this slower Pet Sounds version. It presages their Summerteeth sound.
5. Forget the Flowers (found on Being There, 1996)
Wilco show off their country roots on an old-timey banjo-driven tune about a broken relationship. Maybe it's just the use of the word "flowers" but this one always reminds me of the Statler Brothers.
6. California Stars (found on Mermaid Avenue, 1998)
For this project, Wilco joined with Billy Bragg to put music and melody to Woody Guthrie poems. California Stars has a shambling, unrehearsed feel, and Tweedy's vocal sounds like it's coming from the distant past.
7. ELT (found on Summerteeth, 1999)
For me, their most thrilling moment on record. From the multi-tracked lead vocal, the background echo on the word "wishing" to the descending/ascending piano to the spooky steel guitar, it's perfect.
8. A Shot in the Arm (found on Summerteeth, 1999)
Played with the crack professionalism of an old Motown track, as Tweedy's lyrics start to become more impressionistic, though it's hard to miss the drug imagery.
9. I'm Always in Love (found on Summerteeth, 1999)
My own personal theme song for more years than I'd like to admit.
10. Secrets of the Sea (found on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2, 2000)
Another song built from Woody Guthrie's words. I love the use of stringed instruments (too many to list) and the non-traditional structure (there are basically no verses).
11. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (found on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2001)
Druggy, sprawling, overlong but hypnotic all the same. Plus, it's got one of the best song titles ever.
12. Either Way (found on Sky Blue Sky, 2007)
A supremely pleasant return to their lucid, pop-oriented early days. I love how the minor piano chords sneak in there to add a little darkness; the song is about balance, after all.