Let’s talk about Wilco. Over their 20+ years, front man Jeff Tweedy and the boys have evolved from boundary-pushing alt country darlings, to purveyors of so-called “dad rock” (is that supposed to be a bad thing?), to elder indie statesmen who still have a few tricks up their plaid and denim sleeves.
You and I have been on hand for much of that evolution and we’ll be on hand when Wilco roll into Toronto next week to blow the roof off Massey Hall yet again; so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d take a crack at ranking all their studios albums from worst to best. There are a few such lists on the internet, with a good deal of disagreement among them, so it’s high time somebody did the definitive list.
This is not that list.
But until the king of “worst to best” lists, Stereogum, gets one done it will have to do.
In preparation I sat down and listened to every one of Wilco’s albums in chronological order, some of which I haven’t heard in years, and then I listened to them all a few more times for good measure. It was a beautiful journey, during which two thoughts dominated:
- They’ve never really made a bad album (although the chasm between “worst” and best is wide).
- Certain assumptions and beliefs I’ve held for a long time are wrong.
(Quick note – the Mermaid Avenues are not here because they are not purely Wilco albums.)
All right, let’s assassin down the avenue…
10 – Schmilco (2016)
Painting myself as a normal American kid
I always hated it
I really didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to pick on Wilco’s newer albums by putting them at the bottom of the list. I didn’t want to suggest the quality of their albums is in decline and all their best work is behind them.
I really, really didn’t want to do that.
It’s unfortunate too because I was pumped about Schmilco (despite the goofy title), because its sound hearkens back to their days of strange, eerie, psychedelic alt country. The songs are mostly acoustic and some are infused with a hint of sonic weirdness, but this time it feels put upon – like they’re just trying to elevate what they know are dull songs.
Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter with a gift for musical left turns and provocative lyrics that are more for feeling than understanding. There’s some of that on Schmilco but not enough to resonate.I will say I love the bitter nostalgia of “Normal American Kids”.
They’ve never made a bad album, but this one’s just OK. Perhaps the live versions of these tunes we hear next week will inspire me to change my mind.
(Bonus points for the cover, though, which takes the idea of “dad rock” to a whole new level.)
9 – Star Wars (2015)
I change my name every once in a while
A miracle every once in a while
I should mention that Wilco are absolutely epic in concert. Six masterful musicians who have been playing together long enough they can read each other’s minds.
Because of that, they were able to make this album sound more interesting than it is when they played it in its entirety at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival last summer. I respect the choice of playing the whole thing. Many other artists of their vintage devolve into greatest hits nostalgia acts. Not Wilco. They stand by what they’re recording now.
Star Wars is pretty cool, but doesn’t quite knock my socks off. The chugging “King of You” is awesome, though, as is “Random Name Generator”, which is destined to become a perennial concert favourite. Also, gotta dig closer “Magnetized”, with its weird pauses, organ sounds and a classic WTF Tweedy line: “Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone.”
Points for brevity – at 33 minutes it doesn’t last long enough to overstay its welcome.
8 – A.M. (1995)
You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer
Conventional wisdom has it that the band got off to a shaky start with this debut. Conventional wisdom declared this a paint-by-numbers set of country rock tracks that in no way hinted at the experimental genius that was to come.
Conventional wisdom needs to give its head a shake because I’ll bet it hasn’t actually listened to A.M. since it came out.
If conventional wisdom would do what I did – crack a beer on a Friday night, crank A.M. to top volume and air guitar the shit out of “Casino Queen” and “Box Full of Letters”, then bliss out to “It’s Just that Simple” and the Tonight’s the Night tribute “Passenger Side” – then it would understand the truth. A.M. is terrific. It’s heartfelt and infectious. It’s tight and it’s a blast.
I’m pretty sure the problem is that Tweedy and two bandmates were fresh out of the wildly revered alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo and this debut from a “spin-off” band suffered by comparison. If a completely different band had made A.M., alt country fans would have been bouncing off the walls and exclaiming that they’d just found the new Uncle Tupelo.
7– The Whole Love (2011)
This is how I tell it
Oh, but it’s long
One Sunday morning
Oh, one son is gone
I’m going to venture onto a long, treacherous limb and declare this Wilco’s most overrated album. Not bad. Just overrated. Many people, myself included, saw it as a return to form after the so-called “dad rock” albums (more on those soon enough), and we all got very excited because the boys were getting back to being a little loud and experimental.
Also, the thing starts and ends magnificently, opening with the righteous blast of techno rock that is “Art of Almost” (a song that we learned, Pal, also makes for a jaw-dropping opener in concert), and closing with the folky, 12-minute Dylanesque “One Sunday Morning”, a heartbreaking study of a troubled father/son relationship. Two awesome tunes.
Unfortunately, I find now that too many of the songs in between are kinda forgettable. I enjoy them while they’re happening but they don’t stick. Exception – “Born Alone”. That song rocks.
Also, the band sounds amazing, especially guitar god Nels Cline, who can do absolutely anything with six strings (and occasionally 12), whether it’s building swirling atmosphere for the rest of the band to play in, or taking centre stage with a mind-bending solo.
6 – Wilco (The Album) (2009)
One wing will never fly
Neither yours nor mine
I fear we can only wave goodbye
Boy was I wrong about this one. At the time of its release I wrote it off as bland and forgettable, and going into this ranking exercise I was fully expecting to plunk the “camel” album – the second dad rock album, incidentally – in the basement.
Then I listened to it.
And I listened to it again.
And I fell in love with the camel.
“Bull Black Nova” is the cool kid brother of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and that is a fine thing to be. The second half of “One Wing” is transcendent. “I’ll Fight” is a contender for top 10 Wilco tune. And “You and I” is a deceptively sweet little duet with Canadian singer Feist that boldly questions the merits of honesty and transparency in a relationship.
I do wonder if the band carries Tweedy a bit on this one. This is the second album with the perfect ensemble line-up that still exists to this day, and by this point they were magically in sync. That’s why this album sounds so good even though Tweedy’s songwriting and weary but expressive voice are not at their best. Consider “Country Disappeared”. It seems like a pretty flaccid tune to me, but by the end I’m transfixed. Just listen to that interplay of guitar and keyboard.
I could be wrong, but I think it’s the playing, not the writing, that elevates the camel to greatness.
5 – Sky Blue Sky (2007)
But I’ve turned to rust as we’ve discussed
Though I must have let you down
too many times
In the dirt and the dust
This is the precise moment that Wilco were branded “dad rock” and it’s all thanks to the wise-ass kids down at Pitchfork, who called Sky Blue Sky “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise– the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.”
Someone needs to knock some sense into those punks and make them listen to it again.
Is it less experimental and more “comfortable” than its predecessors? Definitely. But that doesn’t make it lazy or dull. It’s a beauty. Tweedy finds poetry in everyday life in these “sweatpant” tunes, whether it be gentle pleadings (“Please be Patient With Me”), or puttering about a house that no longer feels like a home (“Hate It Here”), or the glorious jam that is “Impossible Germany”. The playing is perfect and the songs, while mellow, still go in unexpected directions.
Also, the album closes with the thrilling one-two punch of the sage and inspiring “What Light” followed by the haunting and unsettling “On And On And On”.
4 – A Ghost is Born (2004)
Saxophones started blowin’ me down
I was buried in sound
The taxicabs were driving me around
It might not be the obvious choice, but I nominate A Ghost is Born for the award of Weirdest Wilco Album because, seriously, where did this come from? The previous four albums were an amazing but logical evolution down the band’s uniquely carved road of atmospheric alt country, and then along came this abrupt left turn into pop rock city.
Explosive guitar jams and sweet pretty ballads (sometimes in the same song); bobbity piano pop, groovy jams, and even 12 minutes of electronic hiss – this album has it all and it’s a ton of fun. You never know what’s coming next.
My personal favourite is the smooth and seductive “Hell is Chrome”…or maybe “The Late Greats”…no wait, “Handshake Drugs”…or “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”…or….never mind, just go listen to the whole thing (except the 12 minutes of hiss – we didn’t really need that).
3 – Being There (1996)
When you’re back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood
What a surprise this turned out to be – another album that landed higher on this list than I thought it was going to. I used to think Being There was half brilliant and half filler but I’ll be damned if I can find the filler now. As much as I think A.M. is underrated, there is no question this follow-up sophomore album, with its experimentation and expanded range of sound, is a huge leap forward.
It’s a double album and each “disc” is a lean and perfect set of gems worthy of standing on its own. And the openers! Oh the openers! Disc one kicks off with the epic six and a half minute mind-bender “Misunderstood”, which aggressively declares in its rattling thumping intro that Wilco had no intention of settling into any kind of formula. The song is a beautiful noisy unleashing of emotions from nostalgia to rage. Disc two opens with the comparatively spare but almost as stunning “Sunken Treasure”, which might have been my favourite Wilco song if I hadn’t heard “Misunderstood” first.
2 – Summerteeth (1999)
She’s a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser
How can misery and madness sound so sweet?
The band took the trippy sound they found on Being There and added sunny pop flourishes so that when they didn’t sound like the grooviest alt country band on the planet they sounded like the Beach Boys, but cooler.
And Tweedy’s lyrics went extra dark. Whether he’s dreaming about killing you again last night, or being begged not to hit her, or reading messages in an ashtray, he captivates with his weird, morbid thoughts and sounding like the weight of the whole world is upon him. Even the sweet lovely lullaby to his kid, “Oh Darling”, sounds haunted.
Every song is a beauty, with “Via Chicago”, “She’s a Jar” and concert favourite “Shot in the Arm” the obvious stand-outs.
For most other bands, this would be the pinnacle of achievement but for Wilco this was just another warm-up leading to their grandest statement…
1 – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
tuned to chords
Strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around
Was there ever any doubt? All hail Wilco’s masterpiece. It doesn’t contain the band’s greatest songs (see #2 and #3). It doesn’t even feature their finest musicianship (see the “dad rock” of #5 and #6). But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is studio alchemy; the most cohesive and immersive journey in Wilco’s catalogue – their most album-y of albums – and the perfect evolution of the moody experimentation they started on Being There and Summerteeth. If Radiohead made a country album this is what it would sound like, but now they can’t do it because Wilco beat them to it.
I don’t know what was in Jeff Tweedy’s enigmatic mind when he made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but here’s what it’s about as far as I’m concerned: It’s about memories that make you smile and cry at the same time. It’s about alienation and communication breakdown. It’s about being in a crowd but feeling alone, about staring into a loved one’s eyes and wondering if you really truly know them. It’s about struggling for understanding.
It pulls you into a world entirely its own and doesn’t let go until its final notes – a world that is both comforting and unsettling, familiar yet foreign. There’s nothing else like it.
I could go on and on but I already have, not just here but elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll shush up now.
One last point – it needs to be noted that the top three albums just happened to be the only three Wilco albums made with multi-instrumentalist and wannabe co-leader Jay Bennett on the roster. The story – as shown in the excellent documentary “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” – is that Bennett was canned during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for being a dick, and he may very well have been one – but the music suggests he was a terribly gifted dick. They were never as good as they were with him.
So there you go, Pal – my ranking of Wilco’s albums. How’d I do? Bang on, way off, or somewhere in between? Don’t let this post go unanswered. I expect a merciless analysis of my mistakes. Take off the band aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns.