When Uncle Tupelo disbanded in 1994, everyone thought Jay Farrar would be the breakout star. For a while, it seemed he would be. His new group Son Volt’s first album made a far splashier entrance than Wilco’s, the group formed by Jeff Tweedy and the rest of his former bandmates. But splashy entrances don’t make for longevity. Whereas Wilco has steadily got more and more interesting with each passing year, Son Volt has gone the opposite way. They might still be a great band, but genre-defining? No. Wilco, on the other hand, most definitely are. Over the past quarter of a century, they’ve created albums that veer from psychedelic pop to classic rock, country to 80’s style power pop. With each new album comes a new layer of complexity, a new layer of challenge, and a new layer of awesomeness. But which of those albums rank as the best? Find out as we reveal the 10 best Wilco albums, ranked.
10. Star Wars
At just 33 minutes long, “Star Wars” isn’t as adventurous or as complex as many of Wilco’s other projects. But that doesn’t make it any less worthy. The band sounds relaxed and confident, delivering straightforward, no-nonsense rock that as ultimateclassicrock.com notes, sounds almost like a revelation after the excesses and genre-splicing that came before. It may be slight, but it’s still got substance.
As newsweek.com writes, Jeff Tweedy is one of the forefathers of the alt-country movement. If ever you were in any doubt about that, just listen to Wilco’s first album. It’s a long way from being the band’s finest accomplishment, but its combination of soulful ballads and uptempo funks, all overhung with Tweedy’s distinctive vocals, give a fine indication of the young band’s potential.
8. Wilco (The Album)
Compared to most of the band’s post-’90s albums, “Wilco (The Album)” is a clean-cut, simple piece of alt-rock. There’s a couple of darker moments ( “Bull Black Nova” – a thrilling murder confession with all the bleakness you’d expect) but by and large, this is about as fun and upbeat as Wilco has ever got. There’s even a couple of actual danceable tracks in the mix. The party camel on the front cover says it all – it may be Wilko’s version of a party, but it’s a party nonetheless.
7. The Whole Love
“Workmanlike” isn’t an accusation you can often levy at Wilco, but 2011’s “The Whole Love” is about as close as they’ve ever come to it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There might not be any big surprises but what there are instead are the sounds of a band that’s found a groove and that’s happy (at least for a while) to stay in it.
6. Sky Blue Sky
By 2007, Wilco weren’t fresh-faced and young anymore. Neither was their music. But whereas certain other bands get steadily less interesting once the ambition and drive of youth passes, Wilco never have. Their music has changed, for sure, but not in a limiting way. This wasn’t a band that hit 35 and decided it was time to start paying Eagles covers. “Sky Blue Sky” gives us the band on familiar ground…. at least on first listen. But while the big experiments and genre-bending aren’t there, there’re still a few surprises lurking beneath the surface for those who care to listen hard enough.
5. Mermaid Avenue
In 1998, Wilco took a little break away from their everyday work to record an album of songs with British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg based on previously unrecorded material left behind by Woody Gutherie. The first set of recordings from that session appeared on the 1998 album “Mermaid Avenue.” A second set appeared in 2000, and in 2012, a further box set was released. Despite the success of the later releases, it’s arguably the first album that’s the greater: filled with pathos and augmented by some incredible vocals from Tweedy and Bragg, it’s a stunning album that pays a folksy tribute to the band’s root.
4. A Ghost Is Born
Wilco aren’t known for being the most accessible band around. The proof? “A Ghost is Born,” an album that newsweek.com rightly describes as ‘difficult.’ With its underlying sense of anxiety and menace, it doesn’t make for easy listening. Nods to Tweedy’s descent into addiction and depression are present throughout, most notably on tracks like “Handshake Drugs.” But it’s far from depressing, with enough slivers of perfect pop to keep things from descending into utter darkness. It may be challenging, but even so, it remains of the band’s most rewarding albums to date.
As Return of Rock writes, 1999’s “Summerteeth” is the moment Jeff Tweedy stopped skirting around self-indulgence and actively started to indulge it. But while some of the songs meander on way after their natural conclusion, this is still a fine album filled with some very fine tracks… even if they do veer more towards the dark and depressing than the cherry and cheerful. “How to Fight Loneliness” and “Via Chicago” grab your heartstrings and don’t let go until the last pitiful second. Even the songs that seem upbeat on the surface quickly lose their gloss when you start delving into the words. But if you can get past the depressing lyrics, you’ll find an album that’s filled with musical exploration, outstanding songwriting, and not a little majesty.
2. Being There
While second album syndrome might be a problem for many bands, Wilco showed no signs of succumbing on their 1996 sophomore album “Being There.” Adventurous, pioneering and packed with jams that explore alt-country from an all-new perspective, “Being There” represents the moment the band stopped living on potential and started giving us the goods.
1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Eight years after their debut, Wilco released their fourth studio album. It was initially rejected by their record label in 2001, but later found a new home and a new identity in 2002. The events of 9/11 may not have influenced Tweedy’s songwriting or song choice, but they did influence our listening experience, with the result that the album meant and did not more than Tweedy could have ever imagined. It’s concise, it’s eerie, and it’s unquestionably the band’s masterpiece.