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.