In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking some of our favorite songs from 1996.
Wilco’s debut LP A.M. is a nice little record with a handful of wonderful songs, but it’s unassuming to a fault. When A.M. came out back in 1995, it had the no-big-deal feel of a side project—the kind of thing that bandleader Jeff Tweedy might’ve knocked out in a weekend while he was still a member of the influential alt-country act Uncle Tupelo. While Tweedy’s Tupelo ex-partner Jay Farrar delivered a strong statement of purpose with his post-breakup band Son Volt’s first album, Trace, Wilco seemed slated to be a fans-only footnote to the mid-’90s neo-Americana wave. On the verge of lapsing into cultural irrelevance, Tweedy dug deep, taking some of his most personal lyrics and setting them to music that didn’t just superficially sound like his roots-rock and power-pop heroes, but which also had their vitality. The second Wilco album, Being There, couldn’t be easily shrugged off.
Packed with explosive songs and stretched to double-length, Being There drew comparisons to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Damn The Torpedoes, and Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps. Tweedy even nodded to Young’s penchant for including two versions of the same song on some of his albums by putting the raucous single “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” on Being There’s disc one and then a lighter, more psychedelic take, called “Outta Mind (Outta Sight),” on disc two. In both versions, the song is bright and bouncy, and easy to sing along with. But by recording it twice—with two distinctively different yet equally impressive interpretations—Wilco was showing off a bit, declaring that the band intended to matter.
What’s particularly bold about that move is that the “Outtasite” version alone is a monster (with a thrilling music video to boot). Marrying a little bit of Uncle Tupelo and A.M.’s old twang to the kind of hooky ’90s roar that was already making Foo Fighters and Weezer rich, Wilco proved the commercial viability of its sound. In the years that followed, Tweedy would tend to cultivate cult stardom over massive chart success, but “Outtasite”—like the album that spawned it—was a timely and welcome reminder that the acts who inspired Wilco had hit singles too. There’s nothing wrong with actively trying to become one of the greats.