Sep 13, 2012
Welcome to Ranked, our regular series in which one of our writers takes an artist's catalogue and ranks all their official studio albums from best to worst. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Dan Lucas ranks Wilco.
Since rising from the ashes of alt-country staples Uncle Tupelo, Chicago's Wilco have emerged from their former incarnation's shadow to become one of the most critically-adored bands of the past two decades. In between becoming game changers in the music industry and winning legions of fans over to the Americana genre, they've developed their sound and recorded some of the most gorgeous music never to make the radio.
Here are Wilco's major releases, ranked from most essential to least.
Words by Dan Lucas
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not only Wilco’s best album but one of the landmarks of the past 10 years, for a multitude reasons. It’s the record that saw them dismissed from Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise and was hyped enough online to be picked up by Warner Bros. subsidiary Nonesuch just a few months later. The beautiful melodies and heartbreaking lyrics of the likes of “Jesus Etc.,” “Poor Places,” and “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”—“You were so right when you said I’d been drinking, what was I thinking when we said goodnight?”—are half-obfuscated by Jay Bennett and Jim O’Rourke’s clashing shards of noise and distortion. It sounds like a band being fractured and torn apart by tension, which is exactly what was happening with Bennett and Ken Coomer both ending up fired by singer Jeff Tweedy the end of the recording process. With such a weight of history behind the record, it almost seems like a bonus that there isn’t a weak track on here.
The nigh-on perfect blend of A.M. pop and west coast rock that characterised the band’s third album means that it can count itself very unlucky not to pip YHF to first place in this list. Almost the calm before the storm, this is Wilco at their happiest. A warm breeze cascades through the saddest lyrics, from “The hope I had in a notebook full of white dry pages was all I tried to save” on “Via Chicago” through to “Every evening when he gets home, to make his supper and eat it alone, his black shirt cries while his shoes get cold” on the title track. Add to this the bouncing love-stricken mellotron on “I’m Always in Love” and the blend of ambiguous lyrics with Bennett’s box of tricks at their most organic on highlight “She’s a Jar” and you arguably have one of the best records of the 1990s.
The Whole Love
This one might be a controversially high placing, but the fluctuating membership of the band inherently causes a shift in their dynamic. The current six-man incarnation is the longest-serving, and last year’s The Whole Love is the best showcase of its collective and individual qualities—all of which is an ineloquent way of saying that this is the first real chance we get to hear the full force of lead guitarist Nels Cline. We don’t just get to hear him at his virtuoso best here, as on opener “Art of Almost,” but we get to hear the sheer variety of styles he incorporates into his playing: from adding subtle textures to “Whole Love” to jagged shards on “I Might” via double-necked e-bow shredding (yes!) on “Dawned on Me.” Not that this is an album of mere guitar wankery; the ambition that the band had been accused of having lost on their previous two records is back in abundance, and in 12-minute closer acoustic folk “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” they produced the most beautiful song in their entire canon.
Being There was inarguably Wilco’s breakthrough album: 300,000 sales might not be a groundbreaking amount, but it was more than twice as many sales as their debut A.M. racked up. Lead single “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” (still their biggest chart hit) continued in the alt-country mold of their Uncle Tupelo-inspired debut, but this was more of a natural progression than retreading the same ground that Tweedy & Co. had been in their previous guise. Live favorite “Misunderstood” best showed the transition from comfy Americana to distorted alt-rock, with its dying guitars exhaling their final breaths over the refrain of “I’d like to thank you all for nothing... nothing... nothing... nothing at all.”
A Ghost is Born
The follow-up to 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t so much a left turn as the sound of Wilco putting the steering wheel into full lock. It’s certainly their most ambitious album to date, as evidenced by the Krautrocky “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” although this tips over into self-indulgence on “Less Than You Think,” a song even Jeff Tweedy has claimed he can’t stand. The quiet-loud dynamic would be easy to fudge but hits the listener like a punch to the gut on opener “At Least That’s What You Said,” and few bands can do understated prettiness as well as these guys do on “Muzzle of Bees” or the epic “Handshake Drugs.” The album suffers though from perhaps being a bit too diverse—country rocker “The Late Greats” sticks out like a sore thumb at the end—and Jim O’Rourke’s lo-fi production can also grate; when the band is looking to be this experimental you often get the feeling it’d be nice to fully hear what they’re doing.
Wilco (The Album)
This might be the greatest ever “Best Of” album consisting entirely of original songs. With the band’s fluctuating nature—both in terms of personnel and aesthetic—Wilco have been a lot of things over the years, all of which seem to be neatly packaged into this knowing, self-aware record. The country rock of the band’s first two records is packaged into “Solitaire” and “I’ll Fight,” the eerie experimentalism is there on “Deeper Down” and high water mark “Bull Black Nova” (“There’s blood in the sink, blood on the sofa…what have they found? I wonder if they know” could be straight out of “Via Chicago”’s enraged cousin), and the breezy pop beauty of Summerteeth is reflected on “Deeper Down” and “You and I.” Despite, or perhaps because of this, the album lacks its own defining character in contrast with the rest of Wilco’s oeuvre; the disparate recording process also means that it doesn’t have the same sense of holistic democracy as on its follow up The Whole Love.
Uncle Tupelo, the former band of Wilco members Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Ken Coomer, and Max Johnston, played their last show together in June 1994; in the fall of that same year Wilco put the finishing touches to their debut album A.M. It comes, therefore, as little surprise that this album is very much in the mold of its predecessors. It may be classed as an alt-country record, but in truth there is very little that’s alternative about this straight-up slice of Americana. Whilst there are some great soft rock songs—the likes of “Box Full of Letters,” “Passenger Side,” and “Pick Up the Change” have aged surprisingly well—it’s still the naïve sound of a band finding their feet very much in the shadow of another recently departed. Of course hindsight will show us that they would evolve and move on to become a great band in their own right, but this is a pleasant if inessential birthmark.
Sky Blue Sky
Sky Blue Sky is often lazily described by fans and critics alike as Wilco’s “Dad Rock” album. As Tweedy has pointed out in interviews, this is a glib term, but there is a sense of comfort here and the band settling into their frontman’s neatly carved groove (think of the episode of The Simpsons where Homer returns to find that his personal groove in the couch has been misshapen by someone else’s ass). There are some stunning moments—the sublime virtuosity of “Impossible Germany” or the soft-acoustics-meet-shredded-guitar-and-Hammond-organ etherealness of “You Are My Face,” but these highlights are all-too rare. Instead most of the band, including new members multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and jazz guitar god Nels Cline, are sidelined in favour of Tweedy in his singer/songwriter guise.
Bonus Selection: Kicking Television
(The bonus selection includes albums and side projects that don’t quite neatly fit into the band’s studio discography, but will likely be of interest to fans of the band.) Wilco’s only full live album is a magnificent affair and the first introduction many rock fans will have had to the brilliance of Cline. Yes, it’s a long album, but it runs through the band’s canon from Being There up to A Ghost Is Born. The songs from the latter really come alive on this album thanks to the addition of a sixth band member, and you can’t help but feel that this louder, meatier sound is how songs such as “Handshake Drugs” and “Hummingbird” were always meant to be.
Bonus Selection: Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions
April of this year saw the combined release of all of the tracks from the 1998 Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg. It’s a neat collection of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics found after his death and set to music by Wilco and the barking folk musician/political activist Bragg. It’s the former who seems to handle the task that bit more adeptly, as Tweedy turns songs such as “California Stars” and “One by One” very much into Wilco staples, so completely does he own the lyrics.