Songs In The Key Of… Wilco

Wilco. Photo: Austin Nelson
Wilco. Photo: Austin Nelson

Wilco: torchbearers for alt-country for the last 25 years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Austin Nelson

With a comprehensive new book about Jeff Tweedy’s band on the horizon, its author walks us through 12 essential tracks

Formed out of the ashes of alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, Wilco have been torchbearers for the genre, and beyond, for the last 25 years. Led by frontman Jeff Tweedy, over 11 studio albums and various collaborations, the Chicago-based group continue to blend classic songwriting with considerable musicianship – perhaps best evidenced on their seminal 2001 record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Such is the importance of Wilco that they have inspired a hefty new tome, out this month. Written by journalist and Wilco fanatic Daniel Cook Johnson, Wilcopedia is both a reference manual and a critical overview of the band’s catalogue, providing song-by-song analysis of their work.

So it’s over to Daniel to present us with his essential selection of Wilco tunes…

To listen to all 12 tracks in one go, check out the Spotify playlist.

Kicking off their second album, Being There, many consider this to be the first real Wilco song as their 1995 debut, A.M. was largely seen as a continuation of the Uncle Tupelo sound. Misunderstood begins with a cacophonic burst of instruments clashing before settling into a folky dirge that contains a lyric lifted from the 1977 song Amphetamine by the late Pere Ubu guitarist Peter Laughner. Jay Bennett’s delicate piano guides the song into another bit of instrumental chaos, after which Tweedy’s singing becomes screaming during the track’s chaotic climax. After this major game-changer, Wilco would never be the same again.

Despite being recorded months before 9/11, many fans and critics heard allusions to the tragic events of that day in 2001 in several songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, particularly in this album highlight. This is due to such lyrics as, “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs,” and, “Skyscrapers scraping together,” which enhance the song’s drama, albeit unintentionally. Also adding to the track’s ultra-melodic arrangement is the presence of violinist Jessy Greene, who has guested with Wilco a number of times to perform the song live, including an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2003.

Opening with one of Tweedy’s best lyrics, “The ashtray says you were up all night,” A Shot in the Arm contains dark imagery, a cascading arrangement that recalls ELO, and an emotively stinging chorus. All of these effective elements make it one of Wilco’s most popular songs live, which they employ to close many of their concerts.

This show-stopping epic gives lead guitarist Nels Cline a mighty showcase for his impeccable guitar work. While Cline is undeniably the star of the song, Tweedy and Sansone also get a chance to shine as they face off on twin guitar lines. Since its debut on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, Impossible Germany has been performed at nearly every Wilco concert, racking up close to 700 airings.

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Wilco’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, found the band making a huge leap forward in their musical evolution. This is apparent in the record’s first track, which quickly became a signature song for the Chicago-based group. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production winds around Tweedy’s surreal lyrics in a mesmerizing fashion. Also notable is that the song’s name was used as the title of Sam Jones’ 2002 documentary about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

With its piano-driven 70s-style groove, this is the poppiest track on Wilco’s least poppy album. It’s also the most profound as it muses on religion with lines like, “Illiterati lumen fedei god is with us everyday.” The album on which Theologians resides, A Ghost is Born, comes from a line in the next to last verse of the song.

After the mellow Sky Blue Sky, Wilco dives back into experimental mode with this busy bit of electronica that features Devo-esque drums, freak-out jamming, and a distorted Tweedy vocal that glides through the noise. In live performance, the song is often paired with I Am Trying To Break Your Heart as both songs feature the band at their most abstract.

The first and only single off of Wilco’s Star Wars, which was released as a surprise in the summer of 2015, this is a fast-paced piece of power pop that stands out among the album’s weird roster of moody tunes. While most of the songs from the record have been performed sporadically, Random Name Generator has appeared at nearly every show by the band, making it the album’s most performed song.

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Wilco’s first album, A.M. has largely been dismissed by both fans and the band themselves, but it contains a few delightful country-pop songs like this, their first single. Tweedy called it, “A straight pop relationship song,” when denying that the song refers to his former partner in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar, and has kept it alive in many a live version up to their most recent concerts.

The most well know song off of the first Mermaid Avenue collection, Wilco adds a lilting, and infectious melody to words written by Woody Guthrie over five decades ago. Then lead guitarist Jay Bennett came up with the guitar riff that drives the song, as Tweedy’s carefully spaced vocal helps to make California Stars one of the band’s most popular sing-a-longs.

A sprawling, twisty 10-minute muted jam, many critics have pointed out that this track resembles the song Hallogall by the krautrock group Neu! That may be, but Wilco has more than made it their own in many an invigorating live performance. In 2010, the band introduced an acoustic version which has been rotating with the electric rendition in the years since.

This big dumb rock song is one of Wilco’s most fun rave-ups. Its energetic vibe made the track a perfect choice for a video that features the group sky-diving while miming the tune. A slower, pared-down tempo version of the song entitled Outta Mind (Outta Sight) also appears on Being There, the band’s second record that marked a new direction for the then-budding band.

Wilcopedia: A Comprehensive Guide To The Music Of America’s Best Band by Daniel Cook Johnson is published 17 September by Jawbone Press. Find out more at

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