The 1970s may have been the era of the supergroup, but the most super of them all arrived nearly two decades later. Formed by George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty in the late ’80s, the Traveling Wilburys bought together some of the best singers and songwriters of the 20th century. But while they may have been the ultimate supergroup, they were also the antithesis of every supergroup that had come before. There was no self-importance, no egos, and no attempt to be anything other than a bunch of song and dance men trying to introduce a little sunshine into the world – something that, as our pick of the 10 best Traveling Wilburys songs of all time shows, they more than achieved.
Kicking off our roundup of the 10 best Traveling Wilburys songs of all time is Congratulations, a slow-burning, emotionally charged number that chronicles the breakdown of a relationship. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the song, like the rest of the band’s output, is studded with enough humor and freewheeling whimsy to give it a sense of charming buoyancy.
9. Heading for the Light
Heading for the Light was written primarily by George Harrison, who also takes the lion’s share of the vocals alongside Jeff Lynne. The lyrics, which describe the singer’s journey from a point of doubt and confusion to a place of surety, have been described by author Ian Inglis and various other biographers as Harrison’s “most joyous account to date of the spiritual journey that had saved him from despair.” An upbeat rocker with an exhilarating melody and a wonderfully ebullient vocal performance from the two leads, it’s one of the most joyously life-affirming records in the band’s catalog. Released as a single in October 1988, it reached number 7 on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart.
8. Nobody’s Child
After George Harrison’s wife, Olivia, asked for the band’s help in raising awareness for the plight of thousands of Romanian orphans left abandoned in state-run orphanages following the fall of communism, Bob Dylan suggested they record Nobody’s Child, an old pop standard from the 1940s. Harrison subsequently reworked the lyrics to include a new verse about the abandoned children, and the lead vocals were shared out between Dylan, Harrison, Petty and Lynne. It was released as a charity single in June 1990, with all proceeds from the sale going towards the Romanian Angel Appeal Foundation.
There’s some jaw-dropping guitar playing from George Harrison on Rattled, but the stars of the show on this rockabilly showstopper are Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, whose exquisite vocals add enough body and character to the song for it to get up and walk. A lusty romp rich in humor and good-time vibes, it’s an unmissable highlight from the band’s equally unmissable debut album.
6. She’s My Baby
She’s My Baby, the opening track to The Traveling Wilbury’s final album (and the first following the death of Roy Orbison), Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, was written by all four remaining members of the band, with each also taking a share of the vocals. Released in November 1990 as the first single from the album, it became one of the band’s biggest hits, spending three weeks at number 2 on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks.
5. Last Night
As Classic Rock Review explains, most of the writing of Last Night was taken care of by Tom Petty, with the rest of the group jumping in from time to time with their own contributions. The approach demonstrates one of the key strengths of the band’s attitude to songcraft, with Petty’s straightforward, three-chord folk pattern contrasting beautifully with Orbison’s elaborate, Latin-inspired bridges. A whimsical tale of romance laced with a vague menace and a big helping of humor, it’s a delight, particularly in respect of how genuinely joyful the band seems to be in each other’s company.
4. Dirty World
The second Dylan-led track from the band’s debut is Dirty World, a loose, buoyant rocker about lasting love. Sung with a lusty relish by Dylan, it’s a gleeful, toe-tapping delight, with a propulsive melody and enough energetic blasts of horn to keep you bopping the whole way through. The final round featuring all four members of the band adds to the freewheeling appeal.
3. Tweeter and the Monkey Man
According to Wikipedia, Tweeter and the Monkey Man is thought to have been written as a playful homage to Bruce Springsteen, someone who at the time was constantly being referred to as the next in a very long line of Bob Dylans. Considering the number of Springsteen song titles scattered throughout the lyrics, not to mention the seedy, Springsteen-esque story filled with desperate characters and dark goings-on, it could well be. Either way, it’s a delicious slice of rock, with a dark, folky melody and elaborate arrangments that perfectly echo the cinematic quality of the lyrics. Since its release, it’s been covered by numerous artists, including Canadian rock band Headstone, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and P. Paul Fenech of The Meteors.
2. End of the Line
End of the Line, the closing track from The Traveling Wilburys’ multi-platinum selling 1989 debut, finds the band on familiar territory, singing about spiritual strength and survival with the same sense of warm camaraderie that undercuts the entire album. Each of the band’s members takes a turn at the mic, creating what All Music describes as a fun, almost hootenanny style. Released in January 1989 as the band’s second single, the song peaked at No. 63 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and at No. 2 on the Album Rock Tracks chart.
1. Handle with Care
George Harrison and Jeff Lynne had originally intended Handle with Care to serve as a bonus track to one of Harrison’s European singles, but Harrison’s record label recognized its strength and suggested they find a bigger outlet for it… a request that subsequently led to them forming the Wilburys. Fittingly, the band issued the song as their debut single, with Harrison taking care of the verses, and Orbison and Dylan managing the bridges. With its joyous camaraderie and theme of survival, it was a superb introduction to the group, and remains their most enduringly popular record to this day.