Wilco’s rise to becoming one of America’s greatest rock bands of the 21st century has been anything but straightforward. Multiple line-up changes – some acrimonious and bitter – rejection by major labels and addiction have all featured. In fact, frontman Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the only members who’ve been present throughout Wilco’s 27 year history. And amidst the turmoil, the band’s identity and output has varied to such an extent that it remains hard to precisely pin them down.
Formed in Chicago in 1994 following the dissolution of alt. country trailblazers Uncle Tupelo, Wilco have at various points been heralded as the saviours of country rock, art-pop connoisseurs, and America’s answer to Radiohead. And that’s just the band’s studio output. Along the way there have been side-projects, collaborations, live albums and solo projects. After much soul searching and deliberation, here are my top ten albums from Wilco plus related artists. As with all exercises of this nature, ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer…
Number 10: Wilco ‘A.M.’ (1995)
After parting ways with Uncle Tupelo partner Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy’s first step was a tentative one. Released in March 1995, ‘A.M.’ received a lukewarm reaction from critics and fans alike. Meanwhile, ‘Trace’, the debut album from Farrar’s newly formed Son Volt was met with critical acclaim and produced a top ten single in ‘Drown’. Perhaps understandably after spending much of the preceding decade in Farrar’s shadow, Tweedy sounds as though he’s finding his feet a little on ‘A.M.‘. Nonetheless, there is plenty to enjoy here with ‘Box Full of Letters’ and ‘Passenger Side’ in particular providing catchy country twang, while guest band member Brian Hennemann, of the Bottle Rockets, cuts loose on ‘Casino Queen’ to raucous effect.
Number 9: Golden Smog ‘Weird Tales’ (1998)
Featuring members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Run West Run, the Replacements along with Tweedy, Golden Smog initially surfaced as an anonymous side project for its members to put out bar room covers under a low profile. But with a line up as talented as theirs, it’s perhaps inevitable that they’d eventually find alt. country supergroup status, whether that was desired or not. Two albums of original material in 1995 and 1998 followed a 1992 covers EP, before the band reformed in the mid 2000s with a revised line up. ‘Weird Tales’ is the pick of the bunch, featuring two tracks from Tweedy that arguably stand among his finest compositions. ‘Please Tell My Brother’ is a beautiful homage to family, while ‘Lost Love’ epitomises all that’s good about Tweedy’s melodic approach to song-craft. The latter would later re-surface on Tweedy’s 2017 solo album, ‘Together at Last’.
Number 8: Tweedy ‘Sukierae’ (2014)
During a four year hiatus between the release of Wilco’s eighth and ninth studio albums, Tweedy took time out to release ‘Sukierae‘ with son, Spencer (18 at the time), on drums. The album takes its name from the family nickname for Tweedy’s wife, Susan, and most of the songs address, with typical subtlety, her battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. As such, at times it feels like an invitation into the family living room during a time of deep trauma. Particular standout tracks over the course of this twenty song album include the stripped down ‘Flowering’, ‘Summer Noon’ and ‘Fake Fur Coat’.
Number 7: Billy Bragg and Wilco ‘Mermaid Avenue’ (1998)
In the mid-1990s, at the behest of Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, Billy Bragg and Wilco were invited, along with Natalie Merchant, to take scribbles of Guthrie’s lyrics left behind after his premature death in 1967 and put them to music. The result was ‘Mermaid Avenue‘, the first volume arriving in 1998, which offers a wonderful re-imagination of songs only Guthrie himself could have known. While Bragg digs deep into the well of Guthrie’s political writings, Wilco focus instead on his more romantic work, showcasing a side of the great man that may have hitherto been less well appreciated. While the recording process itself led to a major, and seemingly irreconcilable, falling out between Wilco and Bragg, the project produced several standout cuts. Particular highlights include ‘At My Window Sad and Lonely’, ‘One by One’, ‘Hesitating Beauty’ and the timeless ‘California Stars’, all of which are sung by Tweedy.
Number 6: Wilco ‘The Whole Love’ (2011)
After largely playing it safe on 2007’s ‘Sky Blue Sky’ and 2009’s ‘Wilco (The Album)’, ‘The Whole Love’ represented something of a return to form. Recapturing some of the unpredictability and experimentation which had epitomised the best of their output at the turn of the century, ‘The Whole Love’ starts with the ambitious ‘Art of Almost’; a statement of intent if ever there was one. ‘I Might’, ‘Dawned on Me’ and ‘Standing O’ offer sharp, often humorous observations indicating a band that’s sure of itself and not afraid to push the envelope. The sublime ‘One Sunday Morning’ brings down the curtain, clocking in at just over 12 minutes yet seemingly over in a flash, such is its mesmerising beauty.
Number 5: Wilco ‘A Ghost is Born’ (2004)
After the departure of multi-instrumentalist and arranger Jay Bennett (more of him later) in 2001 and prior to the arrival of guitar supremo Nels Cline in 2004, Wilco recorded and released ‘A Ghost is Born‘. It might, therefore, be tempting to think of it as something of a transitional record. And though it’s true that songs such as ‘I’m a Wheel’ and ‘Hummingbird’ nod towards Wilco’s past, while others like ‘Less Than You Think’ and ‘Hell is Chrome’ offer a glimpse of the future, the album forges its own compelling identity. Tweedy takes the role of both singer and lead guitarist with blistering effect on the opening ‘At Least That’s What you Said’ and ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’, while ‘The Late Greats’ would become a staple of live sets for years to come. Shortly after its release, Tweedy would check himself into rehab for opioid addiction.
Number 4: Wilco ‘Summerteeth’ (1999)
‘Summerteeth’ represents a watershed moment in Wilco’s career, when the band shed themselves of the alt. country tag that had followed them since A.M and embraced a broader sound, to marvellous effect. While Tweedy delivers the songs, Jay Bennett is the beating heart of ‘Summerteeth‘, stamping his unique vision on the album as both as a skilled instrumentalist and de facto producer. ‘Can’t Stand It’, ‘A Shot in the Arm’ and ‘I’m Always in Love’ offer Beach Boys via Big Star inspired pop masterpieces, while for all of the exuberance on offer, there is a darker side too, best epitomised by ‘She’s A Jar’.
Number 3: Uncle Tupelo ‘No Depression’ (1990)
Jeff Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn were 22, and Jay Farrar was 23, when Uncle Tupelo recorded ‘No Depression‘ in 1990, an album that would go on to inspire a magazine dedicated to alt. country and arguably come closer than any other record to defining the genre. What are, at heart, country songs are played at a frantic, punk-esque tempo summoning a raucous and irrepressible energy. Though Uncle Tupelo may now be more well known for spawning Wilco and Son Volt, ‘No Depression’ remains a kind of cult classic whose legacy would prove greater than the record itself.
Number 2: Wilco ‘Being There’ (1996)
Coming only a year after their debut ‘A.M.’, it would be easy to understate the transformation that Wilco had undergone by the time ‘Being There’ landed in 1996. While ‘A.M.’ put Wilco firmly in the alt. country territory, ‘Being There’ transformed them into a rock band of considerable force and stature. An ambitious double album, it avoids the familiar fate of such long form records of including more songs than would have been worthy of inclusion on a standard release. All of these songs are there on merit and the album hangs together with a coherence that is seldom found even on shorter records. Standout tracks demonstrating Wilco’s new found range include ‘Misunderstood’, ‘Far, Far Away’, ‘I Got You (At the End of the Century)‘ and ‘Sunken Treasure’.
Number 1: Wilco ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002)
Wilco’s undoubted masterpiece, the complex and sophisticated ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ tested the band to its limits over its drawn out recording period to eventual release. Having delivered the album in 2001, it was rejected by Reprise on the grounds that it lacked a single and Wilco were asked to leave the label. Around the same time, tensions between Tweedy and Jay Bennett finally reached breaking point and Bennett was dismissed, though his considerable contribution is apparent on the record. With a completed record to their name, but no obvious distribution options available, the band decided to stream it before it was finally released under Nonesuch Records in 2002, going on to become the band’s best selling album and rated by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Great Albums of all time.