Today we celebrate the birthday of Jeff Tweedy, frontman of the band Wilco. To commemorate the occasion, we’ve put together a list of twelve Wilco songs...and if you’re thinking, “Wait, Wilco only has 11 studio albums,” you’re right, which is why we took one track from each and then went in a different direction to make it an even dozen. Don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it...and when you see it, you’ll almost certainly approve of the selection.
“Passenger Side” (from A.M., 1995): Yes, it’s from the band’s debut album, which seems like a lifetime ago, but even as recently as 2018, Tweedy cited it as the song from the LP that still resonates with him most. “I think it still sounds like a complete little story, which is hard to do,” he told Rolling Stone. “If I could do it more often, I would.”
“Forget the Flowers” (from Being There, 1996): In his second memoir, How to Write One Song, Tweedy revealed that this song ended up coming together the way he did because he imagined Johnny Cash singing it. If that’s not a testament to a quality song, we don’t know what is.
“How to Fight Loneliness” (from Summerteeth, 1999): Not exactly one of the most uplifting efforts in Tweedy’s oeuvre, as evidenced in particular by this line: “How to flight loneliness / Smile all the time / Shine your teeth ‘til meaningless / Sharpen them with lies.” Well, let’s just hope that it was at least cathartic for him to write...
“Jesus, Etc.” (from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002): This track holds a special place in the heart of Tweedy and the rest of the Wilco lineup circa 2002, since it was – per Tweedy in an interview with The Nation at the time of the album’s release – one of the last songs recorded for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but also one of the first songs to feature new drummer Glenn Kotchke. “It's one of the first songs of the new lineup and it came about very quickly,” said Tweedy. “And then it got a really inspired performance. I don't want to think that it's just from a sense of newness. It's just that Glenn is really great and I really love playing with him. And when I think about it – I haven't really thought about it – I think that's probably one of the first things that he really just got to approach without knowing what Ken [Coomer, the band’s former drummer] did.”
“Handshake Drugs” (from A Ghost is Born, 2004): This track got a bump in profile back in December when Jason Isbell tweeted at the band, saying, “We need an ‘Elbow Bump Drugs’ now, since we won’t ever shake hands again.” To our knowledge, this has yet to happen, but we sure would love it if it did.
“Just a Kid” (from The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie – Music from the Movie and More..., 2004): Even if it’s only to round this list up to an even dozen tracks, we have to mention this song, since it came about as a result of the film’s producers seeing a SpongeBob air freshener hanging from Tweedy’s rear view mirror in a scene from the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. After contacting Tweedy and asking if the band would consider contributing a track to the soundtrack, Tweedy – whose kids had gotten him into the show – couldn’t say no. “I fell in love with SpongeBob when I heard him describe the darkness at the bottom of the sea as ‘advanced darkness,'” Tweedy told Rolling Stone. “How could I not write a song for this film? It automatically makes me the coolest dad on the block.”
“Impossible Germany” (from Sky Blue Sky, 2007): It would be hard for us to say anything better about this song than Rob Sheffield did for Rolling Stone, so we’re just going to share his words and be done with it.
Have Wilco ever come up with a better song than "Impossible Germany"? For the first three minutes, it’s a mysterious soft-rock ballad with jazzy chords filtered through stoner-country guitar licks, like some lost outtake from Steely Dan’s Katy Lied. Jeff Tweedy mumbles about isolation in his most beaten-up-by-life voice. Then, in the final three minutes, it builds into a twin-guitar epic, with Tweedy in the left speaker reinventing Fleetwood Mac circa Bare Trees, and Nels Cline in the right speaker reinventing Television circa Adventure. There’s no noise, none of the spazzed-out distortion of the last few Wilco records: It’s peaceful on the surface, demented underneath. After a hundred listens or so, you start to notice that even the lyrics, not always a Wilco specialty, are pretty excellent. Even if mellowed-out guitar jammery isn’t your cup of tea, respect is due — this is the kind of song nobody ever gets right.
“You and I” (from Wilco, 2009): Worthy of mention because it’s the first duet to appear on a Wilco album...as opposed to, say, a Wilco and Billy Bragg album. In this case, the duet partner is Feist, and per Tweedy, her mere presence on the record upset some of the band’s diehard fans. That said, he didn’t seem terribly worried about their reaction, which is exactly how he should feel. (After all, it’s his band!)
“One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” (from The Whole Love, 2011): The closing song on The Whole Love, this track is 12 minutes of pure, unbridled Tweedy, and you may not be surprised to discover that it was indeed actually inspired by a conversation he had with Smiley’s boyfriend.
“Random Name Generator” (from Star Wars, 2015): In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Tweedy indicated that this song was arguably the most enjoyable Wilco song to play live. “I don't know if there has ever been a song more fun to play live for the band than that song,” Tweedy said. “There's just something about the relentlessness of it. I feel like my heels grow to platform boots and my pants widen to bell bottoms during the course of that song, like a shapeshifter or something! In my mind's eye I disappear into a certain amount of hero emulation, which is totally fine in my book. Even Elvis was doing that. It's all part of blowing yourself out of your own fucking consciousness and becoming something more than you know.”
“If I Ever Was a Child” (from Schmilco, 2016): The first single from an album described as the middle ground between melodic and melancholy, which is a perfect summation when you consider that the album’s title is a play on a Harry Nilsson album (Nilsson Schmilsson), Tweedy readily told interviewers at the time that he had a good time bemoaning things that bother him, and this track fits in perfectly with that concept.
“Love is Everywhere (Beware)” (from Ode to Joy, 2019): Inspired by Tweedy’s trip to Washington, DC in 2017 for the Women’s March as well as the panic attack he was stricken by while on the National Mall, Tweedy told Uncut, “It's a real challenge to write about this current moment, and I really struggled to find a way to write about it well not writing about it," said Tweedy. "Maybe everybody is struggling with this, but I was thinking a lot about how to maintain hope right now, how to not feel guilty for having joy in my life. How do you deal with having personal feelings when you know something very destructive is going on and there are real people being hurt everyday in awful ways?”