The Top 10 Uncle Tupelo Songs
In memory of March 16 -20, I present my Top 10 Uncle Tupelo songs.
10. “Before I Break” – No Depression
From the debut. On an album of mostly dark small-town songs fusing punk rock along with country comes a song that fuses punk rock with country and is about trying to get through the small town days with the help of liquor. Coming from a small town like Belleville, Ill., a town of German heritage with a brewery (Stag, which closed in 1988) and many industrial businesses, the thought of growing old and spending your last dime on liquor must have seemed like a very real possibility and this song embodies that possibility.
9. “Still Be Around” – Still Feel Gone
In the midst of the punk/country maelstrom that is UT’s second album, Still Feel Gone, comes an acoustic song that could seem out of place; when it’s a song this good, it makes perfect sense. The acoustic guitars and plaintive vocal from Jay Farrar singing “When the Bible is a bottle and this hardwood floor is home,” you can’t help but feel for the bedraggled protagonist of the song and answer that, yes, you’ll still be around to put him back together when he breaks in two.
8. “Wipe the Clock” – March 16-20, 1992
For their its album, UT hired Peter Buck to produce a 90 degree turn from the assault of the first two albums. March is a gorgeous album of original songs that fit perfectly with the 6 traditionals and 1 Louvin Brothers track. “Wipe the Clock” is an original (I would have included “Moonshiner” and possibly “Coalminers” had I included traditionals in my top 10) that closes the album with harmonica, grace and one of the strongest Jay Farrar vocals ever.
7. “Fifteen Keys” – Anodyne
Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo’s fourth album, is my favorite. The blend of pedal steel and banjos open up the songs and give them a more personal sound to make up for the lack of the personal lyrics of the first two albums. I admit to being more of a sound and music listener rather than someone who focuses on the lyrics. Sometimes the simple sound of the lyrics and how they’re sung can make the best instrument. For example, listen to the line “Danger slow sign ahead, exhaust fumes Thin Lizzy instead…” and let the words wash over you.
6. “Grindstone” – March 16-20, 1992
An opening song that marked a new Uncle Tupelo, one that was willing to risk an absolute change in direction and managed to mesh perfectly with the murder ballads and traditional songs yet to come. “Maybe a waste of words and time….” Hardly.
5. “Gun” – Still Feel Gone
Another opening track, this one quite a bit different. “Gun” is arguably Jeff Tweedy’s first great song and it grabs you by the throat from the first second. “Cause my heart, it was a gun, but it’s unloaded now so don’t bother.” I feel his pain.
4. “Whiskey Bottle” – No Depression
Hello Jay Farrar, great American songwriter. From the debut album. On a slab of broken dreams, cynicism and misguided hope comes this beautiful personification of small-town life. “Not forever, but just for now.” Let’s hope not.
3. “Looking for a Way Out” – Still Feel Gone
A melodic slice of guitar-based rock that puts you exactly into the mind of a townie who hopes one day to get out of his town and what he sees as his future life. I dare you to listen to the blistering guitar solo and doubt the Crazy Horse influence (the same goes for my 2nd favorite track).
2. “Chickamauga” – Anodyne
For me, Jay Farrar’s best Uncle Tupelo moment (don’t get me started on “Windfall” from Son Volt’s debut Trace). Having about 15 years to digest the song, the opening line, “Never leave on your own where you’re from and where you’re going,” feels as if Jay had moved on from the small town life and was ready to make music that was ready for more than the local Turner Hall.
1. “No Sense in Lovin’” – Anodyne
I love this song and when I hear the first strains of pedal steel, I am completely smitten. It’s one of the few Jeff Tweedy songs on my list. I love the space he puts between lyrics allowing the pedal steel to wend and wind its way through the words. If you’ve forgotten about this song or wrote it off years ago, I ask that you give it another listen.