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12 by Wilco

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course). This week features...

When I first took a crack at creating a 12 by Wilco (see the end of this post), I said they were overdue for a "best of." Well, they rectified that in 2014 with What's Your 20? (1994-2014). And it's pretty darn comprehensive and well-curated. 

So instead of replicating that work, I've chosen 12 songs that are not on that complication but that still provide a good picture of who Wilco are as a band.


1. "Pick Up the Change" (from A.M., 1995) 
This one is pretty, but inscrutable. I like the use of "pick up the change" as referencing the changes we go through in life, and that the narrator is asking for his honey to stick with him through that.

2. "That's Not the Issue" (from A.M., 1995) 
The banjo-driven first half is as purely country as Wilco gets, but in the middle some downbeat shifts throw things off-kilter until they become the defining part of the song's final 30 seconds. It's a glimpse of things to come for the band.

3. "Say You Miss Me" (from Being There, 1995) 
A fantastic ballad that belongs in the pivotal scene of a great movie.

4. "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.

5. "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. 

6. "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (Again)" (found on Summerteeth, 1999) 
I love how there are two verses to start the song. The first time you hear it you don't realize what's happening, but on future listens it makes you anticipate the catchy chorus that much more.

7. "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). 

8. "Poor Places" (found on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2001)
After a very slow build, but the song expands out into a gorgeous melody, and then it deconstructs and devolves into noise. It's like a Gen X version of "A Day in the Life."

9. "Reservations" (found on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2001)
A song with a broken beauty to it. There are certain lines from songs that recur in my head frequently, probably because I feel them deeply. One of them is "I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you."

10. "I'm a Wheel" (found on A Ghost Is Born, 2004)
Wilco do garage rock.

11. "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.

12. "Sky Blue Sky" (found on Sky Blue Sky, 2007)
This shuffling little ditty with a laconic guitar solo captures the feeling of spring, despite the deep ambiguity of the song's narrator ("I survived, it's good enough for now.")


*

The above was revised in 2021. As follows is the text of the original 2008 entry:

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.

Comments

CTV said…
A good list. I'd have found place for Jesus etc, the live version of Misunderstood and, especially, Impossible Germany. That guitar duel between Tweedy and Nels Cline is quite wonderful.

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