When Uncle Tupelo split up after 1993’s Anodyne, guitarist and primary song-writer Jay Farrar seemed the best bet for a successful career with his new act Son Volt. But Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco with the remnants of Uncle Tupelo – bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston. After the unremarkable debut A.M., they gained guitarist and studio wizard Jay Bennett, who was the perfect foil for Tweedy, and who helped shape their second album Being There into a masterpiece. From there they went from strength to strength, even after the acrimonious departure of Bennett after the sessions for 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
The band have continued as a going concern, even with Tweedy and Stirratt as the only original members. Even though I’m less excited about their recent studio output, they’ve remained a popular live attraction, with stellar musicians like guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche.
Tweedy’s plaintive voice and plaintive songs pull at the heart strings, while Wilco explore influences from country and rock, augmenting their rootsy sound with guitar wizardry and electronic experimentation. Here are five and a half of my favourite Wilco studio albums:
I’m adding a bonus entry to this list, since my #3 entry is only 50% a Wilco record. I regard Summerteeth as is one of Wilco’s lesser albums from the Jay Bennett era – I don’t think the pristine studio pop style suits Jeff Tweedy’s voice as much as their more rootsy records. Even so, there’s plenty of strong material, particularly the opening one-two punch of the uptempo ‘I Can’t Stand It’ and the gorgeous ‘She’s A Jar’.
The Whole Love
The years from 1996’s Being There to 2004’s A Ghost is Born were the band’s peak as recording artists, even though they’ve remained an excellent live act. But of their post Ghost is Born albums, The Whole Love is my pick as their best, book-ended by two ambitious tracks – the closing ‘One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)’ is twelve minutes of gentle acoustic exploration. In between there are plenty of gorgeous songs, and space for plenty of frenzied Nels Cline solos.
A Ghost Is Born
The followup to the acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born is in need of an editor, particularly the fifteen minute ‘Less Than You Think’, most of which is dedicated to a musical recreation of the severe migraines that Jeff Tweedy was suffering from at the time. But while it feels sprawling and indulgent in places, there are plenty of terrific tracks, like the ten minute guitar jamming of ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’, off-kilter but melodic material like ‘Company In My Back’ and ‘Hell Is Chrome’, and effortless pop like ‘The Late Greats’.
Mermaid Avenue (with Billy Bragg)
Folk legend Woody Guthrie wrote a wealth of unrecorded material during the last twenty years of his life, and his daughter Nora arranged for Billy Bragg to set Guthrie’s lyrics to music. Bragg recruited Wilco as his backing band, and lead vocals are shared between Bragg and Jeff Tweedy. The results are often magical, with the record capturing diverse moods from the whimsy of ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’ to the sombre ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’. Natalie Merchant guests on the beautiful ‘Birds and Ships’, and provides backing vocals on the lovely ‘Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key’.
My absolute favourite Wilco song comes from the less enthralling, but still worthwhile, Mermaid Avenue II, released in 2000 – ‘Remember the Mountain Bed’.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco’s most acclaimed album had the most troubled genesis – musical lynch-pin Jay Bennett was forced out of the band after the album’s completion, clashing with Tweedy and producer Jim O’Rourke. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was also bogged down in record company politics, with the band’s label Reprise declining to release it, before it was eventually released by Reprise subsidiary Nonesuch, effectively meaning that the same label paid for it twice. In the wake of Radiohead’s Kid A, the band’s sonic experimentation is at its peak here, with Tweedy’s emotive songs buried under layers of electronic twiddling. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is often gorgeous, and fun rockers like ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ and ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’ help to keep a contemplative record moving.
The addition of Jay Bennett immediately took Wilco into the big leagues; Being There is a sprawling double album that is steeped in rock heritage. The extraordinary tracks that open each disc reference the redemptive yet hollow power of music: “Music is my savior/I was maimed by rock and roll” Tweedy sings in ‘Sunken Treasure’. Elsewhere, there’s everything from the introversion of ‘Say You Miss Me’, the clavinet laden ‘Kingpin’, and the power pop of ‘I Got You (at the End of the Century)’. Later Wilco albums were more adventurous, but Being There was their career peak.
Do you have a favourite Wilco record? Or song?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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