Wilco – Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994 – 2014
‘Tis the season to be retrospective. And one of this year’s highlights is Wilco’s 20th anniversary collection of 77 rare tracks. The clue is in the title. Everything has been released before. B-sides, website downloads, one-off contributions to tribute albums, radio sessions, exclusive tour edition tracks, iTunes pre-order bonus songs, and so on. The Wilco completist will have them all already. Which, of course, won’t stop them from buying this collection too. But for mere mortals, this four-disc set makes for a more than welcome, career-spanning overview of one of the great bands of our time. Things start very gently. Disc 1 finds the guitars barely played in anger. If this is your preferred form of Wilco, then you’ll be alt-country, indie-melodic heaven. The contrast with Disc 2 couldn’t be more profound. Much raspier generally, it begins with a live, thrashy, punk-inspired version of ‘Passenger Side’. It’s unlistenable compared with the lovely, almost pastoral demo version that’s included on the first disc, but it captures Wilco in another mood. Pretty much to form, Disc 3 is the experimental one. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is surprisingly under-represented, but there are a couple of great rarities from that era, including ‘Cars Can’t Escape’. Instead, the emphasis is on A Ghost Is Born with the sheer fecundity of the songwriting and the growing confidence of the band coming across strongly. Disc 4 is more eclectic. And if you’re a fan of the band’s last five years, then there’s only a handful of tracks for you to enjoy. What’s remarkable across the collection as a whole is how the development of the band is revealed. What could have been a rag-bag of somewhat random tracks turns out to be a remarkably accurate document of the group’s musical trajectory. It means that if you’re already a Wilco fan, the story will make sense. If you’re not, then while it mightn’t be the very best place to start (there’s an accompanying 38-track, two-disc selection of easy-to-find tracks to go to instead), it won’t give you a misleading impression of what the band has done either. Whatever your starting point, maybe try ‘The Lonely 1 (White Hen Version)’ and just see where it takes you.