A game I like to play on my cycle commute from work is figuring out the best band of each ten year era. For instance, The Beatles and Bob Dylan are contenders for 1960-1970, while 1985-1995 has a few contestants, including Pixies, Sonic Youth, and Public Enemy.
I’ve been covering Chicago’s Wilco recently on my blog, and their best decade was 1995-2005, during which they released their first five studio albums, as well as two collaborations with Billy Bragg. Over this ten year period they evolved from the straightforward alt-country of 1995’s A.M. to 2004’s experimental A Ghost Is Born.
But plenty of other acts had great album catalogues during the same era; PJ Harvey, Bjork, Sloan, Ween, and Air are all strong candidates, and I’m sure I’m forgetting others. But I’ve decided to pit Wilco against acclaimed Oxford band Radiohead, who established their career with second album The Bends in 1995. It seems tidiest to compare the band’s first six albums – so Radiohead’s catalogue from 1993’s Pablo Honey to 2003’s Hail To The Thief. and Wilco’s from 1995’s A.M. to 2007’s Sky Blue Sky.
Round 1: A.M. (1995) vs Pablo Honey (1993)
This is the battle of the two underwhelming debut albums – both were derivative: Wilco stuck to lightweight alt-country, while Pablo Honey is generic 1990’s alternative. It’s very close, and they’re easily my least two favourite albums on the list – but I give it to Wilco, as I’d rather listen to generic alt-country than generic alternative. Wilco 1, Radiohead 0.
Round 2: Being There (1996) vs The Bends (1995)
Both bands grew markedly after their debut; Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy gained an excellent collaborator in Jay Bennett, while Radiohead matured and became far more interesting. Both of these are favourites, but Wilco’s Being There takes this for me – if nothing else, there’s more of it to love. Wilco 2, Radiohead 0.
Round 3: Summerteeth (1999) vs OK Computer (1997)
I find both of these albums a little overrated – I find the poppy sound of Summerteeth a poor fit for Wilco, while OK Computer simply can’t live up to the greatest album ever hype, and has a little bit of filler. But OK Computer clearly wins this for me. Wilco 2, Radiohead 1.
Round 4: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) vs Kid A (2000)
Again, two of the groups’ best albums are drawn against each other – both show their respective bands delving further into electronic soundscapes, with Radiohead in particular going away from conventional songwriting with an emphasis on rhythm and sound-sculpting. Two terrific albums, but I’ll give this to Kid A. Wilco 2, Radiohead 2.
Round 5: A Ghost Is Born (2004) vs Amnesiac (2001)
Both bands followed up with their acclaimed album with albums that were similarly experimental, but less highly regarded. A Ghost Is Born is a little messy, but has some of my all time favourite Wilco songs, while Amnesiac feels like leftovers from Kid A. Wilco 3, Radiohead 2.
Round 6: Sky Blue Sky (2007) vs Hail to the Thief (2003)
I’ve come around to Sky Blue Sky a little – there’s a lot of craft beneath the smooth veneer, and there are great songs like ‘Impossible Germany’. But Hail to the Thief sounds like the work of a band still in its prime, and is the easy winner here. Wilco 3, Radiohead 3.
That leaves us locked in at 3-3. You could argue that Wilco has a couple of great albums in the Mermaid Avenue series that could be used as a tie-breaker, but at the same time, Radiohead have a ton of great non-album material from the same era. I think the fairest thing to do is to discount the debut battle – I regard A.M. and Pablo Honey as warm-ups, and not essential to either band’s catalogue.
That gives Radiohead the victory, 3-2, and I think it’s deserved. If asked to pick a personal favourite, I’d take the more sincere Wilco any time – but the excellent and consistent Radiohead deserve the official title.
Who do you think wins? Can another act take down Radiohead as champions of the 1995-2005 era?