Volume 2, Issue 54: The One About Wilco

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Dorothy Frooks died on April 13, 1997, at the age of 101.

April 13, 2019

There is no subject I am extremely well-versed in but less qualified to write about than music. I’m always amazed that Grierson can write so well about it. I listen to music constantly, and I have my favorites and my obsessions, but I am terrible at being analytical about music. Music is about mood to me, about putting myself in a certain headspace, about feeling, and it’s extremely difficult to be analytical about feelings. The music I love, I love for no deeper reason than that it goes in my ears, explodes in my stomach and spreads outward through my chest. I can’t tell you why I love certain music, or whether the music I love is even “good.” I just know that I love it.

This sensation is the centerpiece of pretty much everything I am and represent ... but it does not lend itself well to thoughtful criticism and essays.

So I essentially stay out of the zeitgeist, musically, and listen to the same things I’ve always listened to, over and over. This is part of getting older, maybe the central part of it: My Dad joked that he stopped staying up for New Years when he didn’t know any of the bands playing anymore, but I gotta say, that happened to me 15 years ago. Athens is home to two incredible music venues, The Georgia Theater and the 40 Watt Club, and I will totally go see shows there ... whenever I’ve actually heard of any of the bands playing. (My last two shows at either were seeing The Sundogs play Tom Petty and Dinosaur Jr. So yeah.) Music hasn’t just passed me by. It has lapped me.

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But who has time for new music? I’m still catching up to all the great music I missed 20 years ago. I’m just, finally, getting into, say, Built to Spill, or Pavement, or even Modest Mouse. If I haven’t heard it, it’s new to me.

Which brings us to Wilco. Wilco is a band that I resisted for an unreasonable amount of time. This is mostly because I am a loyalist at heart, and when Uncle Tupelo split up, I sided with Son Volt. (This was not uncommon at the time.) This looked smart at first: “Trace” is a killer album, and “Straightaways” is the perfect “driving down an abandoned Midwestern back road at dusk” record. This stubbornness made me miss out on much of Wilco’s early work, though, and by the time the “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” documentary came out and turned the band into Misunderstood, Mad Geniuses That Music Critics Demand You Enjoy, I was in full-on Resist mode. I saw them open for R.E.M. once and thought they were a jam band; I went to a show with NYC friends at Madison Square Garden once and spent the rest of the night making fun of them for doing a Judas Priest cover.


I was wrong, boy howdy, was I ever wrong. I can say it now: Wilco is incredible, I was stupid and stubborn, and I wasted years of my musical life resisting them for no reason. No band connects more to my aching, aging core as I move deeper into my 40s than Wilco, which, well, probably isn’t the best compliment for them but is nevertheless true. Like any great band, their songs seem timeless and universal, and yet also written specifically for me: They make me feel connected to the world and like I’m the only person who could possibly understand it. This is what great art does, I think: By being intensely personal, it has meaning for everyone. It connects to a part inside all of us that we might not even really understand.

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I now listen to Wilco more than any other band. My favorite activity is to simply walk around a city, New York, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Athens, listening to Wilco. It makes me feel a part of the world around me, like everybody walking around is just like me, and I’m just like them, just silly, flawed, hopeful humans trying to figure it out and find some love and comfort and solace while we can. If you run into me on the street with my headphones, I guarantee you I am listening to Wilco. It calms me, it centers me, it makes me feel like it’s all going to be all right.

Can I explain that? I cannot. I am not explaining it. It just explodes in my stomach, and I know that I love it.

In honor of this newsletter’s new naming convention — we’ll be going with Wilco song titles for the next, jeez, two years I guess — we’re going to rank Wilco albums. At this point I feel obliged to point you to Tim Grierson’s book about Wilco, Sunken Treasure, which I didn’t even read when it came out because I didn’t care about Wilco enough. I’ve now read it twice and find it invaluable in understanding the band. Though I don’t want to understand too much. It’s not to be analyzed. It’s to be experienced.

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Anyway, here’s my ranking of 10 Wilco studio albums. We’re not counting the Billy Bragg records, or Tweedy’s solo stuff. (Though the new Tweedy album has grown on me a lot.) Everyone’s lists are different. They’re all still so great. But I have spent so much time thinking about the order of this list that it’s honestly an embarrassment to myself and anyone who has ever cared about me.

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10. Schmilco (2016).

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Best Songs: “Cry All Day,” “Someone to Lose,” “If I Ever Was a Child”

The three best songs stand up to anything in the later-era catalog, and you can see the connection to the quieter, more personal stuff we’ve heard on the Tweedy records. But there’s a lot of filler here, particularly on the back half of the album. It probably was time for a little bit of a break.

9. Star Wars (2015)

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Best Songs: “Taste the Ceiling,” “Random Name Generator,” “You Satellite”

More consistent than Wilco, but it feels like a bit of a filler album, something you put out quickly before you take a big swing a little later on. I still can’t believe they got away with calling their album this.

8. Wilco (The Album) (2009)

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Best Songs: “One Wing,” “Sonny Feeling,” “You Never Know”

I’m probably underrating this one. Every time I put this one on, I get an extra little hop in my step. And “Black Bull Nova” is sort of dark and scary and great. This album cover makes my head swim a little bit.

7. The Whole Love (2011)

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Best Songs: “Whole Love,” “Dawned On Me,” “I Might”

My least favorite of the “experimental” albums — those tend to be my favorites, though — this one has a couple of clunkers, but the highs are very, very high. This is also my favorite title track.

6. A.M. (1995)

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Best Songs: “Box Full of Letters,” “Pick Up the Change,” “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed”

This is an album that benefits greatly from me listening to all this stuff decades later rather than when it originally came out. I can ignore the “are they better than Son Volt?” fights and just appreciate the simplicity of these songs. These are just lovely, straightforward rock songs that, stripped of their context, don’t have to be anything other than what they are. The second half drags slightly, but just slightly.

5. Summerteeth (1999)

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Best Songs: “ELT,” “I’m Always in Love,” “Via Chicago”

Definitely the poppiest album, and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. This is also has my sons’ favorite Wilco song: “Nothin’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” or, as they know it, “The Clapping Song.” (It is pretty wonderful, and yes, there is some good clapping.)

4. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)

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Best Songs: “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” “Poor Places,” “Reservations”

I know this is supposed to be No. 1, and you will certainly have no problem from me if that’s where you have it. It’s certainly the grandest artistic statement at the time, ambitious and challenging and eternal. I’m not gonna say a bad word about it here. I’d just argue it cleared the deck for the two even better albums that were coming. No Wilco album ends better.

3. Sky Blue Sky (2007)

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Best Songs: “Impossible Germany,” “Hate It Here,” “What Light”

Yeah, fine, dad rock, yacht rock, whatever you want to call it, this is streamlined, straight-to-the-veins Wilco, no tricks, just 13 songs that are just about as pretty as music gets. This songs are perfect for riding around on a boat or grilling in the back yard, and that’s new and different for a Wilco album. What’s wrong with that, exactly? It also wins considerable points for having “Impossible Germany” on it, which is the best Wilco song.

2. Being There (1996)

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Best Songs: “I Got You (At the End of the Century),” “Hotel Arizona,” “Say You Miss Me”

Is it too long? I’ll say this: There are Wilco albums half as long that have more filler than this. It’s remarkable how well every song holds up today. I mean, this album came out in 1995! That’s the same year as “Jagged Little Pill!” That’s when Van Halen still had Sammy Hagar! Every single one of these songs sounds as fresh today as it did then. When I close my eyes and think of Wilco, I’ll confess, to this day, this is the album I think of.

1. A Ghost Is Born (2004)

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Best Songs: “Handshake Drugs,” “Hell Is Chrome,” “Hummingbird”

This has always felt like the culmination to me, all the great Wilco attributes coming together for an album that, I’d argue, is absolutely perfect start to finish. (Though you don’t have to listen to the noise at the end of “Less Than You Think.”) The songs are flawless, daring but simple, challenging but not self-involved. Every great band has an album that’s so good sometimes I have a hard time casually listening to it, the one that I find myself dropping whatever I’m trying to do while it’s on it the background and just concentrating solely on it. This is the one for Wilco. This album makes me feel like I’m floating above the ground.

Of all the newsletters, this one might have been my whiteist. And that is saying something. But yes. If you’re wondering why the next two years worth of newsletters are Wilco song titles: This is why. (They make great potential book titles too, for what it’s worth.)

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.

1. A Championship Game Only College Basketball Fans Could Love, New York. I really do love writing on-site on deadline. I could never be a beat reporter, but that part of the job, that part I would love.

2. DC Movies, Ranked, Vulture. It is always nice to work on a piece that you are guaranteed to get death threats about. DC comic book fans are cool, chill people.

3. Five Teams Off to Hot Starts, and Whether They Can Keep It Up, MLB.com. I think two of these teams have already collapsed.

4. The Thirty: Most Surprising Week One Performances, MLB.com. Writing about baseball on a Sunday night gives me week a certain welcome symmetry.

5. Debate Club: Superhero Origin Stories, SYFY Wire. Anytime we can give Spider-verse love, it’s a good day.

6. The Best Ten Games of the Year So Far, MLB.com. A new recurring feature.

THE WILL LEITCH SHOW



This week’s guest was Reid Scott, who plays Dan Egan on “Veep.” The staff wrote him insults to deliver to me. I handled them ... not well. Plus, we have a remote bit where I ask people in Times Square to name me some baseball players. Watch on Amazon or on SI TV.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, on “Shazam!” “Pet Semetary,” “High Life” and “Amazing Grace.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I did a mid-week show. Cardinals haven’t lost since!

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, no show this week, new show previewing G-Day this week.

GET THIS LUNATIC OUT OF HERE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL POWER RANKINGS


California Rep. Eric Swalwell joined the race this week, the second firm white guy jawline to join the race in two weeks. I bet I’m gonna have trouble telling him and Tim Ryan apart at the debates.

1. Kamala Harris
2. Elizabeth Warren
3. Beto O’Rourke
4. Cory Booker
5. Pete Buttigieg
6. Kirsten Gillibrand
7. Julian Castro
8. Amy Klobuchar
9. Jay Inslee
10. Bernie Sanders
11. John Hickenlooper
12. John Delaney
13. Tim Ryan
14. Wayne Messam
15. Eric Swalwell
16. Andrew Yang
17. William Weld
18. Marianne Williamson
19. Tulsi Gabbard

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

These have slowed from you in the last couple of weeks. If you’ve been wanting ever to write me one of these, now’s the time. Letters are good, people!

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO


“Windfall,” Son Volt. Definitely a “gotta hear both sides” going on here this week.

Just me and the boys this weekend. We’re gonna go to McDonald’s!



Best,
Will






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