Wilco, the Midwestern-based, alt-country turned avant-garde turned dad-rock band out of Chicago via Belleville, IL, has been one of my favorite rock bands of the past 25 years. It all began from of the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, the duo that Wilco lead singer and primary songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, started with Jay Farrar in the late ’80s. Uncle Tupelo flamed out in 1993, after only a handful of years, leaving Tweedy to start up Wilco a year later as his next creative musical outlet. This article isn’t about Uncle Tupelo though. It’s about the extensive musical output that his next band has put out in the past 25 years and how I personally rank their official long-play recordings.
Wilco’s 1994 debut, A.M. was a solid start but it would be their 1996 double album follow up, Being There, that grabbed my attention. Coupled with their Billy Bragg collaboration, Mermaid Avenue, released in 1998, and a couple of live shows I witnessed in Milwaukee (Summer Fest 1998) and Madison, WI around this same time, and I was a convert. My love of Wilco has had its ups (Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and downs (Wilco: The Album) over the years but I always return to their music whenever Jeff and the band create a batch of new songs for us to enjoy.
With the release of their 11th proper studio album, Ode to Joy, this month, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the albums that came prior to assess how I feel about them in context with each other. This list does not include Ode to Joy, too new, and it does not include their two Mermaid Avenue collections with Billy Bragg nor any live albums (Kicking Television), solo albums (Jeff Tweedy’s Warm), non-album albums (The Wilco Book CD), and side projects (Loose Fur, Golden Smog, etc.).
10. Wilco (The Album) (2009) – I just never got into this album. I liked a few tracks such as “Wilco (The Song)”, “Bull Black Nova” and….wait, what other songs were on this album? Oh no, I think that sums this record up pretty simply. Forgettable. But is it awful or unlistenable? Absolutely not. It’s a perfectly fine record but that description alone sort of tells you how I feel about it. Wilco is/was too good for a “perfectly fine” album.
Favorite Tracks: Wilco The Song, Bull Black Nova, I’ll Fight
9. Schmilco (2016) – Sort of like Wilco (The Album), Schmilco had some nice grooves, some memorable tracks, but nothing that I would call revolutionary or completely awe inducing. Pleasant, but “meh” overall. Not an album I’ve revisited a ton since its release in 2016 and that is usually a telling signal for any album. Once the dust settles, do you play the record in the months and years after its new-ness has worn off? For Schmilco, the answer is no.
Favorite Tracks: Someone to Lose, Normal American Kids, If I Ever Was a Child
8. The Whole Love (2011) – This record was supposed to be a return to the experimental and sometimes noisy Wilco from the early 2000s. It sort of was, but there was still plenty of mellow-gold style songs in this track listing to give fans a variety of styles a record they can enjoy. Once again, the problem with The Whole Love is the lack of epic and memorable songs outside of “Art of Almost” and “I Might”. I still consider this one of their more underrated albums and really thought of it as a return to great-ness when it was released.
Favorite Tracks: Art of Almost, I Might, Whole Love
7. A.M. (1995) – Their debut record gets a fair amount of grief for sounding too much like Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo efforts. Or maybe too schmaltzy or too alt-country. “Its Just That Simple” doesn’t help this album’s case, and this album is top heavy with excellent tracks combined with completely forgettable or even cringey efforts. I have a soft spot for A.M. thanks to college-era drunken sing alongs to “Casino Queen”, “I Must Be High” and “Passenger Side”. Nostalgia is a bitch.
Favorite Tracks: Passenger Side, I Must Be High, Box Full of Letters
6. Star Wars (2015) – Raucous and a little weird, this album came out after a 4 year break, the longest in Wilco’s career. The album is relatively short and there aren’t any really weak tracks. Many of the songs stand out though. However, despite its status as a punky version of Wilco that we rarely see, especially during their dad-rock era, the album does feel a bit slight. Star Wars doesn’t get a lot of love from the Wilco community but I always really enjoyed it. Just not enough to rank it higher than #6.
Favorite Tracks: Random Name Generator, You Satellite, Where Do I Begin
5. Sky Blue Sky (2007) – Wilco’s dad-rock (Sorry, last time I will use this phrase. Promise.) era debut was filled with melancholy and down-beat rock songs with lots of “I’m getting older and scared” lyrics. Relationships. Fatherhood. Growing Old. Sky Blue Sky is beautiful but outside of “Impossible Germany”, the music doesn’t have that experimental spark that older Wilco albums had (RIP Jay Bennett). Even a song as epic as “Impossible Germany” has its detractors who can’t break through the inscrutable lyrics to make a personal connection to the song. Whatever. There’s a reason that song is played at EVERY Wilco concert.
Favorite Tracks: Impossible Germany, Hate It Here, What Light
4. A Ghost Is Born (2004) – Drugs are bad, m’kay. With that said, Wilco had never been trippier or more experimental, sometimes to the detriment of a beautiful melody that was completely deconstructed to the point where all you hear is noise. Brilliant, beautiful noise. No one wants Jeff Tweedy to become addicted to painkillers again so he can create an album that is equal parts noisy, adventurous, head-scratching, brilliant and creative. We’re all happy Jeff has gotten past his addictions and this album is our main remnant of that period of darkness.
Favorite Tracks: At Least That’s What You Said, Spiders (Kidsmoke), Hummingbird
3. Being There (1996) – My introduction to Wilco was through this excellent and varied double album. Jay Bennett’s psychedelic & multi-instrumentalist influence on the band can’t be understated, and it all really started with this album and continued on through the next two records. Being There has so many classic Wilco tracks that it’s not hard to remember why this album is so beloved by fans. It’s not perfect, however. There are only two “perfect” Wilco album (to date) in my opinion.
Favorite Tracks: Misunderstood, Outtasite (Outta Mind), Sunken Treasure
2. Summerteeth (1999) – Honestly, there are times when I go back and forth between this record and the one I ultimately have listed at the top spot as my favorite Wilco album. Summerteeth is the first Wilco album that I officially became obsessed with, playing it over and over and over on an infinite loop when driving around greater Chicago as I worked in that area when it was released in 1999. It’s the same Wilco as we heard on Being There, just a tad darker and more gritty. The lyrical content for most of the album has a darkness and self-abusive tone throughout but it’s all very well disguised through the power-pop sheen that the band slathers over most of the tracks. The songwriting was never more brilliant than it was on Summerteeth with only one exception.
Favorite Tracks: Via Chicago, A Shot In the Arm, Can’t Stand It
1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) – Yeah, not a big surprise. Wilco followed up the perfect Summerteeth with another perfect record. YHF was supposed to come out in 2001 but was released a year later on a different record label and this whole record label drama has been hashed out and documented to death, so I won’t do it here.
I first heard the songs from YHF at a First Avenue, Minneapolis Wilco show during the summer of 2001 and I was mesmerized by the structures, melodies, lyrics, live presentation and basically everything. I knew this album was going to be a special one, possibly a masterpiece and I wasn’t wrong. I heard the final album mix through Wilco’s website when they made the choice to release the entire album for free online, and I realized my gut reaction at that live show was correct. I burned a copy onto a CD and played it incessantly throughout the remainder of 2001. It was my album of the year before it even officially dropped. By the time it was officially released in spring of 2002, I was already considering it one of the best albums of the decade. Once the 2000s ended 8 years later, not much had changed. I had possibly overplayed YHF when it came out, but time has certainly strengthened my resolve as the best Wilco album and one of the best records to come out this century.
Favorite Tracks: Ashes of American Flags, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jesus, Etc.
P.S., if I was to include the two Mermaid Avenue records, the first Mermaid Ave (1998) would be between A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky and Mermaid Avenue II (2000) would be ranked below Wilco, The Album.