On Friday, Wilco will release their 11th album, Ode To Joy. The record has already generated rhapsodic, “their best album in years!” type coverage. Though there’s also the sense, as there always is with this band, that Wilco is simply continuing to do their own thing, outside the glare of the mainstream and well beyond the passing trends that rule the center lanes of pop. If Wilco is as great now as they’ve ever been, perhaps it’s because Wilco has never stopped being great. Or, at the very least, never stopped being Wilco.
Sonically, Ode To Joy feels like an extension of recent albums like 2015’s Star Wars and 2016’s Schmilco, which dramatically stripped down the sumptuous, retro-rock arrangements of 2011’s The Whole Love (which itself was presented as a kind of comeback record) in favor of something scrappier, stranger, and more spare. Like its two predecessors, Ode To Joy’s most prominent elements are Jeff Tweedy’s world-weary vocals, which voice philosophical musings on the nature of mortality and the salvation of familial love, and the always brilliant percussion of Glenn Kotche. On Joy, Kotche often downshifts to a deliberate plod, giving the songs a pulse-like rhythm that underscores the introspective melancholy of Tweedy’s songs.
This won’t be the Wilco record you reach for at the next backyard cookout, in other words. Ode To Joy is for private contemplation on headphones only. In that way, it doesn’t feel radically different from the pensive, reflective music Tweedy has put out on his recent solo albums, or from the funny-sad vibe of his best-selling 2018 memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). But when looking at Wilco’s overall body of work, Ode To Joy does point to a larger shift in the band’s trajectory, which includes the country-rock classicism of the late -’90s, the sonic adventurism of the early ’00s, the classic-rock worship of the late ’00s, and now the delicate vulnerability (and eccentricity) of Wilco’s output in the ’10s.
Anyone who cares about indie rock already knows that Wilco is one of the best and most important acts of the last 25 years. But in order to fully appreciate the journey to Ode To Joy, it’s worth looking back on the band’s career and counting down the very best songs they’ve made. Here are my 60 favorites (plus one bonus track), though I could have included dozens more.
60. “Rising Red Lung” (2011)
This dusky, atmospheric deep cut from The Whole Love likens the yearning for human connection, in quintessential Tweedy fashion, to the broken radio waves of old-timey technology: “I found a fix for the fits / Come listen to this / It’s buried under the hiss / It glows / Like a powerful smile.”
59. “Pick Up The Change” (1995)
After Uncle Tupelo’s split, the smart money was on Tweedy being the easygoing pop-rock tunesmith, a laidback Tom Petty figure for the flannel-clad slacker generation. While Tweedy would soon rebel against that image, songs like “Pick Up The Change,” from Wilco’s debut A.M., played into it beautifully.
58. “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” (1996)
The video for this reliable concert staple from Being There represents the pinnacle of Wilco’s mid-’90s “affable rock dudes” guise. They smile for the cameras, and even jump out of an airplane on snowboards. Of course, MTV couldn’t be bothered; the music channel was fixated on boy bands and nu-metal acts, not good-time alt-country groups.
57. “ELT” (1999)
By the time of Summerteeth, Wilco was lacing its catchiest rockers with generous helpings of strychnine. The deceptively sunny “ELT” is a sequel of sorts to the preceding track on Summerteeth, “Via Chicago,” picking up the story with an insincere apology: “Oh, what I have been missing / wishing, wishing that you were dead.”
56. “Before Us” (2019)
This breathtaking standout from Ode To Joy moves at a sluggish pace, evoking a funereal vibe over an unsteady martial rhythm that suits Tweedy’s meditation on “the people who have come before us.” It’s a song about ghosts in which the living are taken to task for their poor stewardship of what was left behind: “Now when something’s dead we try to kill it again,” Tweedy sighs.
55. “Cry All Day” (2016)
While Wilco has made noisier and more overtly experimental albums, Schmilco stands out as one of the band’s most fearlessly quiet LPs. It sounds like it was recorded at 3 a.m. in the kitchen during a personal crisis. On “Cry All Day,” Tweedy weeps softly, though you can hear each tear hit the ground when Glenn Kotche kicks up his polyrhythms.
54. “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard”
Like most dudes who picked up a guitar in order to play folk songs in the late 20th century, Jeff Tweedy is a Bob Dylan disciple. In this song, he offers up a rewrite of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a farewell anthem in which the protagonist attempts to put on a brave face but can’t help getting choked up anyway.
53. “Theologians” (2004)
Organized religion is a semi-regular target of skepticism in Wilco songs, though Tweedy still believes God — as he sings in “Theologians” — “is with us everyday.” The point is to let go of codified beliefs and let your spirit drift … wherever it is that spirits drift. A ghost is born, indeed.
52. “Bull Black Nova” (2009)
Wilco (The Album) is the low point in the band’s discography, a mostly callow and inconsequential set that feels like an island of meh detached from the stunners that surround it. The only track that endures is the surly “Bull Black Nova,” the middle part of Wilco’s grand Krautrock trilogy with “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Art Of Almost.”
51. “Art Of Almost” (2011)
Speaking of sinister mechanical grooves that slowly ooze toward mind-melting psychedelic highs, this epic kicked off one of the most varied and satisfying late-period Wilco albums. Anyone who wrote them off as pleasant middle-aged dad-rockers had to reconsider after hearing this.
50.”I Must Be High” (1995)
Even if this weren’t such a likable ditty, it would warrant inclusion for its vaunted place in Wilco history: Not just the first song on the first album, but also the very first track they ever recorded. And it sounds like it in the best possible way.
49. “Hell Is Chrome” (2004)
Tweedy never wrote songs as unsparing about the perils of addiction than he did on A Ghost Is Born. “Hell Is Chrome” is one of darkest – and most seductive — of these tunes. The opening line is one of his best: “When the devil came / He was not red / He was chrome and he said / Come with me.”
48. “Please Be Patient With Me” (2007)
A general rule of thumb with Wilco is that the quieter the song, the heavier the emotional devastation. This gentle strummer from Sky Blue Sky is a naked plea for a loved one to understand one’s foibles, neuroses, and screw-ups. It’s about as basic, and honest, as one can be about the understanding from others we all require to get through the day.
47. “Casino Queen” (1995)
This song represents the flipside of that truism — it’s one of the loudest, and dumbest, songs in the Wilco catalogue. It’s basically a rip-off of “Takin’ Care Of Business,” which is to say: It’s brilliant. Special shout-out to Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets, who brings maximum choogle to this choogliest of Wilco tracks.
46. “Monday” (1996)
Whereas “Casino Queen” is “dumb-dumb,” this song is “meta-dumb,” like “Lodi” set in Middle America. Musically, Wilco whips up more delightful boogie-rock nonsense. Meanwhile, the lyrics outline a narrative about a no-name barely getting by in dead-end bars. It sounds like a party-hearty celebration, though Tweedy hints at a deeper darkness that he was trying to escape himself at the time.
45. “The Lonely 1” (1996)
Jeff Tweedy has written more than his share of songs that critique rock mythology, and how it romanticizes all of the wrong things about musicians. What’s striking about “The Lonely 1,” however, is how tenderly he evokes the yearning that fuels rock-star worship. “When you perform / It’s so intense / When the critics pan / I write in your defense.” While Tweedy himself has inspired a fawning (sometimes overweening) cult, he could still put himself in the place of the kid who finds transcendence in musical heroes.
44. “Airline To Heaven” (2000)
This rousing highlight from the second Mermaid Avenue album never became a standard like “California Stars,” though it has a similar robust effervescence, marrying an uplifting Woody Guthrie lyric with one of Tweedy’s purest folk-rock melodies. Perhaps it took working in the context of a Guthrie homage for Tweedy to feel emboldened to write with this sort of unadorned directness.
43. “How To Fight Loneliness” (1999)
This song should be sued for false advertising. It fights loneliness like a Big Mac fights calories. Then again, misery loves company, which is why we listen to Wilco in the first place.
42. “If I Ever Was A Child” (2016)
As Jeff Tweedy has grown older, he’s gotten more insightful about the root causes of his (and our) trauma. On the hushed “If I Ever Was A Child,” he reflects on his youth over a classic ’70s AM pop melody that recalls Bread or America. “I saw / Behind my brain / A haunted stain / It never fades.”
41. “Red Eyed And Blue”/”I Got You” (1996)
You can’t separate these songs. They exist side-by-side on Being There, and they’re often performed together live. They just belong together as a double-sided musical statement, like “We Will Rock You”/”We Are The Champions” for midwestern sad sacks.
40. “The Late Greats” (2004)
This knowing update of “Monday” similarly functions both as a critique of rock ‘n’ roll loserdom, and a tribute to all of the geniuses who never gained wider recognition. When Tweedy sings that “the best songs will never get sung,” he doesn’t tip his hand fully toward irony or earnestness. Rock ‘n’ roll has never required anyone to make that choice.
39. “Happiness” (2016)
Wilco’s recent albums are marked increasingly by a sense of omnipresent loss, though there’s also a feeling of peace that rests with this beautiful, demo-like song that explicitly references death. “I know the dead still listen / She sings a part of every refrain,” Tweedy sings, apparently referencing his late mother, sounding like early ’70s John Lennon after a round of primal scream therapy.
38. “Hate It Here” (2007)
Sky Blue Sky divided Wilco fans upon release, with some stalwarts complaining that the band had veered toward “safe” dad rock. Which is shame, because the humanity inherent in “Hate It Here” — in which a guy is trying to get on his wife’s good side by doing the dishes and taking out the garbage — was a new breakthrough for a band about to launch the next phase of its career.
37. “Heavy Metal Drummer” (2002)
This nostalgic remembrance of playing “Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned” is also noteworthy for being the subject of the most infamous scene from I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. What Wilco fan can hear “Heavy Metal Drummer” and not think about Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett having a vomit-inducing argument in the studio about it?
36. “Dreamer In My Dreams” (1996)
As sloppy and uninhabited as “Heavy Metal Drummer” is composed and meticulously constructed, “Dreamer In My Dreams” presents Wilco at its most gloriously shambolic. This strain of Faces/Replacements-style exhibitionism would largely disappear after the first two albums, which makes “Dreamer In My Dreams” a vital signpost for Wilco’s “young and wild” era.
35. “Summer Teeth” (1999)
While Wilco was its most orchestrated on Summerteeth, the breezy title track feels like it was knocked out at dusk after a long day’s work. The lyrics are as hallucinatory as anything on the rest of the album, though Tweedy also brings some welcome lightness to the proceedings. “It’s just a dream he keeps having / And it doesn’t seem to mean anything,” he shrugs, against a bed of sweet “ooh-ahh” backing vocals.
34. “A Magazine Called Sunset” (2002)
The period that berthed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot represents one of Jeff Tweedy’s richest songwriting bursts. The number of great songs that didn’t make YHF rivals any artist’s “official” output from this time, including this wistful rocker that recalls George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass prime.
33. “Box Full Of Letters” (1995)
Tweedy was a raw, unformed talent at the start of Wilco’s career. While he hadn’t yet found his own voice, he still had an intuitive grasp of classic-rock songcraft. “Box Full Of Letters” is a straight-up Paul Westerberg homage, with a heavy nod to Big Star. Sure, it’s not original, exactly. But it’s a song that Westerberg himself would’ve killed to write at the time.
32. “Remember The Mountain Bed” (2000)
The impossible loveliness of “‘Remember The Mountain Bed” shows once again how Wilco produced some of its greatest love songs in collaboration with the late, great Woody Guthrie. The words might be Guthrie’s, but the melody and Tweedy’s heartfelt delivery are unabashedly romantic.
31. “Forget The Flowers” (1996)
By the time Wilco put out Being There, the jig was up on alt-country. This band wasn’t any more country than the Grateful Dead or The Rolling Stones were in the early ’70s, back when they started their dalliances with pedal-steel guitars. “Forget The Flowers” is Wilco’s version of a vintage country rocker that could’ve appeared on American Beauty or Sticky Fingers.
30. “You Satellite” (2015)
Star Wars is Wilco’s nuttiest, most immediate record, the one that feels most indebted to Tweedy’s experimental side project, Loose Fur. The album’s best track, the surly “You Satellite,” could pass for late-period Sonic Youth, slowly simmering to a boil over waves of fuzz and distortion.
29. “At Least That’s What You Said” (2004)
For all of the songs about the hard-won rewards of domestic life in Wilco’s catalogue, the ones that portend discord and even violence tend to make the most overwhelming impressions. This pitch-black guitar workout — punctuated with punishing, Psycho-style jabs — is psychodrama of the first order, in which the dread of the verses explodes in the form of Tweedy’s explosive, squawking soloing.
28. “Ashes Of American Flags” (2002)
For most of their career, Wilco has existed outside of the zeitgeist, purposely following their own path. But with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they briefly intersected with the mainstream, thanks to songs like “Ashes Of American Flags” that serendipitously commented on our bruised national psyche in the wake of Sept. 11. Even now, “I would like to salute / The ashes of American flags” sounds like a pained signifier of the time.
27. “Hotel Arizona” (1996)
Another song from the Being There that comments on rock stardom, “Hotel Arizona” finds the poor shlubs from “Monday” operating on a higher strata of entertainment. “Rental cars with tinted windows / Leave another number for me.” Think of it as a low-rent version of “Hotel California” — at this metaphorical wonderland, you can also check out any time you like, though you can’t be assured that the record company will keep footing the bill.
26. “I’m Always In Love” (1999)
What if you took “What Goes On” by The Velvet Underground, made it sound like “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure, and then upped the romantic anxiety 200 percent? You would end up with the 26th best Wilco song of all time.
25. “Sunken Treasure” (1996)
The leap from the good-time barbecue rock of A.M. songs like “Box Full Of Letters” and “I Must Be High” to Being There‘s “Sunken Treasure” is considerable, even though only a year separates their respective releases. For the first time, Wilco was improvising in the studio, veering between Tweedy’s plaintive folk delivery and atonal blasts of sonic catharsis. It was the beginning of Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo spin-off band becoming the Wilco we all know and love.
24. “Poor Places” (2002)
Wilco’s aim to take folk songs into outer space on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot achieved its fullest realization on “Poor Places,” in which the melody is deconstructed and put back together over and over in wholly unexpected ways. Pianos materialize and melt away, string sections magically appear and then dissipate, and then waves of noise and radio waves consume it all.
23. “Rhythm (Cars Can’t Escape)” (2002)
This beloved YHF outtake has taken various forms, but the one that hits the hardest is the piano-and-voice demo. For all of the bells and whistles of Wilco’s production at this time, this simple and stunning take shows that these songs were always strong enough to stand tall even in their most austere incarnations.
22. “A Shot In The Arm” (1999)
This disturbing, carnivalesque curveball from Summerteeth seems like an unlikely choice for a fan favorite. The circular piano riff hints at an underlying mania that the surreal lyrics make plain with increasingly shocking imagery. As the song reaches its climax, Tweedy becomes totally unglued. And yet it’s also weirdly anthemic. “Something in my veins / bloodier than blood” has since become a gory rallying cry at many a Wilco concert.
21. “Reservations” (2002)
Like “Please Be Patient With Me,” this is Tweedy at his most vulnerable. “I’ve got reservations / about so many things / but not about you” is an anxious person’s epitaph, and one of Tweedy’s most quotable lyrics.
20. “Side With The Seeds” (2007)
The current lineup of Wilco has been locked in for about 15 years, and you can hear that sense of familiarity in this song. Fans will always argue over which era they most prefer, but there’s no questioning that this Wilco has the most instrumental dexterity, with the ability to turn from dreamy soft rock to furious guitar freakouts on a dime.
19. “California Stars” (1998)
One of the all-time great summer festival jams. If you don’t have a cold one snugged inside of a koozie in your hand by the second verse, you aren’t living life properly.
18. “We’re Just Friends” (1999)
The album version is excellent, but this performance from Glastonbury in 1999 perfectly captures what people love about late-’90s Wilco. Tweedy stands grimacing at center stage in a jean jacket. He lights a cigarette. The audience seems unsure of what’s happening. And then the band plays a heartbreaking ballad that constantly teeters on the brink of collapse, like Big Star’s Third cruelly transported to the light of day. But somehow it all holds together. Iconic.
17. “Via Chicago” (1999)
There are classic opening lines to Wilco songs, and then there’s “I dreamed about killing you again last night / and it felt alright to me.” I’ve always interpreted this song as being about how winters in the midwest drive everybody insane by February. It could also be about John Dillinger. Jeff Tweedy would surely dispel both interpretations.
16. “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” (1995)
The weakness of A.M. is that it sounds like a leftover Uncle Tupelo record, not the first Wilco album. Then again, Uncle Tupelo was a great band, and “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” would’ve been the third or fourth best track on Anodyne.
15. “Far Far Away” (1996)
Take a bow, Jay Bennett. The late, great guitarist and songwriter had little experience playing keyboards before he joined Wilco, but his intuitive and soulful playing subsequently added crucial color to some of Wilco’s greatest albums. Bennett’s gentle keyboard licks on this, one of Tweedy’s most beautiful love songs, sweetly evoke the late-night reverie of walking home from a perfect date.
14. “Jesus Etc.” (2002)
Another YHF track that became impossible to separate from its post-9/11 moment. The lyrics about those tall buildings shaking were weirdly prescient, but it’s the spiritual questing that makes “Jesus Etc.” a moment of zen at any Wilco concert. I bet this is one of the songs that made Mavis Staples want to work with Tweedy.
13. “One By One” (1998)
This era of Wilco never sounded so sublime. It so warm and welcoming you want to buy a house inside of it and live there forever. Lyrically, it resembles the sorts of songs that Tweedy would be writing 20 years later — about mortality, and family, and being glad you’re still here.
12.”She’s A Jar” (1999)
Summerteeth is Wilco’s Hitchcock album, mixing beauty with horror to create a constant sense of disorienting unease. “She’s A Jar” is the apotheosis of these conflicting sensations — the lyrics make little literal sense, and yet the imagery in concert with the Beatlesque shimmer of the music clearly convey a slowly disintegrating emotional landscape, brought on by drugs, mental illness, a bad relationship or some combination of all three. And the last line is still a shocker.
11.”Either Way” (2007)
Music is a poor substitute for therapy, but a song like “Either Way” can function as a short-term salve for an impending breakdown. Essentially a serenity prayer, “Either Way” is about accepting whatever life throws at you, so long as you have a guitar riff that sounds like Nico’s Chelsea’s Girl gently guiding you forward.
10. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (Kicking Television version, 2005)
On A Ghost Is Born, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is a suffocating nervous breakdown set to a relentless motorik beat. Live, it blossoms into Wilco’s “Marquee Moon,” a show-stopping epic that allows the band to spread out to the near-breaking point. They never rock harder than they do here.
9. “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Girlfriend)” (2011)
The anti-“Spiders.” They sprawl again, but it’s more thoughtful and meditative. Jeff Tweedy played this in the studio and guided the band along as they improvised an arrangement, and that’s the take they used on the record. Only a band this comfortable in its own skin would allow ambient space to take up as much sonic real estate as the music, capturing a moment in time that seems to stretch on forever.
8. “War On War” (2002)
A timeless song, though hearing “You’ve got to learn how to die / if you wanna be alive” in the early ’00s — a time of false wars and contested elections that, yes, was just as intense as our present-day calamities — gave “War On War” added significance. While Tweedy has always dodged overt sloganeering, this is practically a Springsteen-sized statement about how it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
7. “Misunderstood” (1996)
The part that always kills me in this song is the line where Tweedy sings, “I know you’re just a mama’s boy,” which apparently was something Jay Farrar said to him near the end of Uncle Tupelo. It speaks to how “Misunderstood” all these years still sounds like an open emotional wound that earns every single nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all.
6. “Impossible Germany” (2007)
Melina Duterte of the great indie band Jay Som recently called the guitar solo in “Impossible Germany” one of the greatest of all time. She’s not wrong, though the wonder of “Impossible Germany” is how Nels Cline is able to play a different greatest solo of all time solo each time Wilco performs it.
5. “Passenger Side” (1995)
The finest musical snapshot of dirtbag upper midwestern alcoholism outside of “Here Comes A Regular.” There’s an alternate timeline where Tweedy kept writing small-town slice of life songs like this, in which he becomes the next John Prine. Then again, he probably knew well enough to quit while he was ahead.
4. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (2002)
One of the best Side 1, Track 1’s ever. The difference between “Passenger Side,” which is literal, and this song, which is impressionistic, is that you feel like you’re inside the head of a drunk manic-depressive, rather than observing one. One song tells, and the other shows. It’s an aural excursion into a diseased consciousness.
3. “Muzzle Of Bees” (2004)
The entire song is incredible, as you would expect from a tune that was featured so prominently in the season two premiere of Friday Night Lights. (Go back and watch it — that show knew how to use vision-quest-y indie rock tracks.) But the final 55 seconds, in particular, are the finest music that Wilco has ever made. That buzzing feedback cutting through the deceptively jaunting folk-rock instrumental track is the very definition of what this band is all about.
2. “Venus Stop The Train” (2002, never officially released)
The real heads understand. Putting a relatively obscure track in the No. 2 slot isn’t just about cred. (Though, seriously: How much cred do I have right now?) “Venus Stop The Train” is simply the most stunning ballad in the Wilco catalogue, rendered all the more affecting by Jay Bennett’s haunted piano and Tweedy’s incredible vocal. While “Venus Stop The Train” later appeared on Bennett’s album with Edward Burch, 2002’s The Palace at 4 A.M., that version can’t touch the power of this demo. It’s a song about the ache of a lost love, and the song itself is a lost love for Wilco fans.
1. “Handshake Drugs” (2004)
No other track quite captures Wilco’s duality as well. It’s a day-in-the-life character study of a drug addict that plays out like the end of Goodfellas, delivered in the guise of a beer-friendly, sing-along strummer. A should-be FM radio classic that winds up in screamingly noisy post-rock territory. Dad rock with a serrated edge, with lyrics that stop you in your tracks the 20th time you hear them. The perfect Wilco song.