Artwork by JC Wu
Updated: May 13, 2016
Indie music, really popular music in general, owes a debut to Wilco. Easily one of the most influential bands of the last 20 years, Wilco has somehow remained vital in all that time. Despite revolving around various incarnations, the band has successfully and consistently shifted their sound, proving through their relentless creativity what true artists they are. From the early days as the standard bearer of the No Depressions alternative country movement (one that leader Jeff Tweedy helped begin) to the beginning of the experimental Yankee Hotel Foxtrot phase and the softer side of the late period, Wilco has always offered something wholly unique. With exceptional musicianship and the peerless songwriting and poetry of Jeff Tweedy, Wilco has made several enduring masterpieces. It was next to impossible to narrow our favorites down to 20, but here’s out best try.
10. “Box Full of Letters”
One of the gems from their earliest record, this track shows Wilco as the true alt-country torch-bearers they were. Coming out from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, this song is not only a potent meditation on the break up of a relationship, but has all the hallmarks of the garage country Tweedy helped create firing away. From the twangy electric guitar to the simple yet evocative lyrics, it’s easily one of the best from the A.M.
9. “Art of Almost”
There’s not much on here from the later Steely Dan-esq version of Wilco, but this song shows exactly why skipping any Wilco album is never an option. At seven minutes long, this track never goes exactly where expected, winding and twisting the whole way. A perfect representation of the incredible musicianship that came to define the band in the later period, especially the complicated rythms from Glenn Kotche and the absolutely searing guitar from Nels Cline. “Art of Almost” is as close to art-song as popular music gets.
8. “Muzzle of Bees”
A Ghost is Born was the first we heard of the lighter band that Wilco would become a bit later. With this song, the band layers on intricate sounds under the cryptic poetry of Tweedy for a lovely and meditative song that builds to a perfectly muted crescendo.
7. “Kicking Television”
Wilco’s live show has been one of the things that has made the band so vital and so legendary. While this b-side exists on deluxe and Japanese versions of A Ghost is Born, the live version from the title of the same name captures all the energy that’s come to define their sh0w. It’s a rock song through and through, and even on a recording, the electricity of the show still comes across with ease.
6. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”
One of the first forays into the truly strange and experimental came with this nearly eleven minute song that devolves into incredible noise and static. It’s a chugging track that makes the addition of Nels Cline to the band seem like one of the most important things they ever did.
5. “Jesus, Ect.”
With dulcet strings and a slowly chugging baseline, this song seems to sway like the buildings Tweedy sings of in the chorus. “Jesus, Etc” is one of the most simply beautiful songs the band ever recorded — it’s a stand out track on an album that’s full of wonders.
Another track from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the final song from the album contains the wobbling, unsteady noise and melancholic composition that defines the record. It’s another track partially defined by it’s length and experimental qualities, but the true heart is the moving lyrics from Tweedy. It’s a love song that has the ability to make anyone cry (especially me) in almost any circumstance.
3. “Sunken Treasure”
The double album Being There previews the growth into the incredible band that Wilco was to become. The first track from the second disc is a testament to one of the true powers of the band, Tweedy’s songwriting and lyricism. It’s a modern folk song that’s an extraordinary showcase of his talent.
2. “Remember the Mountain Bed”
The lyrics, which are the true brilliance of the song, come from an unfinished Woody Guthrie song, but it’s Wilco’s composition and simply constructed melody and instrumentation that bring out the true joy and sadness of the song. The beauty is breathtaking and enough to leave anyone (again, especially me) a weepy mess by the end.
1. “Ashes of American Flags”
It took a lot to avoid this top ten becoming a catalog of our favorites from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the bands most well known record and undisputed masterpiece. “Ashes of American Flags” serves as a thesis statement for the whole record, with the swirling noise nearly drowning out the perfectly morose vocals and lyrics from Tweedy. The noise that ends the song is one of the most lasting and memorable parts of one of the greatest albums released in the aughts.