05. Star Wars (2015)
Random Name Generator: Star Wars might seem like a curious choice for an album title on its face, but it’s actually very appropriate for the band’s most trippy sonic exercise to date.
Song That Most Shows the Record’s Hand: Whether or not “EKG” actually constitutes a song is a matter of debate. But the choice to open Star Wars with a 1:15 shot of pure Beefheart-like weirdness immediately made it clear the record was going to indulge heavily in the band’s artier instincts.
Here’s a Cool, Nonsensical Lyric: “I crawl back into the yolk.”
Basically: Wilco at its shaggiest, trippiest, and most left of center
Far Out: Wait a minute, is Wilco having … fun? For a band with a reputation for being so meticulous on record, the looseness of Star Wars is pretty damn refreshing. There’s still a lot of musical chance-taking at play here, but the overall feeling is that of a seasoned band letting some slack off the line and just going where the songs take them. Bowie, Marc Bolan, and other glam heroes are a particular point of inspiration here, making for one of the most distinctive records in the band’s already varied arsenal. But again, what’s the deal with the cat cover?
04. Summerteeth (1999)
Not Your Mom and Dad’s Wilco: Being There was an impressive step forward from A.M., but it didn’t do much to break the band out of its alt-country corner. That was a job left up to Summerteeth, which largely left twangy guitars in the dust.
Exploring New Influences: “I think the simplest answer is I was digging Beach Boys music and getting deeper into listening to orchestrated pop music at the time,” Tweedy said looking back on the making of Summerteeth.
Jay Bennett, Everybody!: Creative differences between Tweedy and Bennett would come to a head during the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but Summerteeth represents a period where two immense talents happily coexisted. Bennett himself played guitar, keyboards, mellotron, and synthesizers on the record.
Basically: The bridge between Wilco’s earnest origins and its adventurous future.
A Shot in the Arm: Summerteeth represents the sharpest change in Wilco’s sound from one record to the next. For the first time, the band was reaching beyond their punk country roots into more pop-conscious territory. The results spoke of a band that wasn’t just long on inspiration, but that also had the skills to match their evolving vision. Tweedy and Bennett together helped pen some of the band’s very best songs, including “She’s a Jar” and the broodingly romantic “Via Chicago”. It’s not perfect, but as the first Wilco record to show the band’s potential for greatness, it earns its high ranking.
03. Being There (1996)
Sounds Like: Hank Williams meets The Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main Street. Sign us up.
Most Upbeat Song About the Worst Day of the Week: “Monday”
Doubling Down: Being There remains Wilco’s only double album to date, but Tweedy convinced the band’s label, Reprise, to sell it at the cost of a single album by agreeing to give up a share of his royalties. The move is said to have cost him more than $500,000.
Basically: The moment when Tweedy stepped out of Uncle Tupelo’s shadow and grew into his role as a bandleader and songwriter.
Outta Site (Outta Mind): Wilco have successfully covered so much musical territory in the years since Being There that it’s easy to overlook this sophomore outing. Yes, it lacks the literate lyrics and sonic sophistication of the band’s later records, but Being There still marks the point where Wilco began to find itself. Tweedy stepped into the limelight and made the band’s first proper musical statement not by leaving country behind, but by embracing and even furthering it. Soul, psychedelia, and barroom rock and roll all get thrown into mix alongside a number of well-crafted, sad-sack country ballads. There’s a hunger and swagger at play here that’s plenty rewarding, and the liberties taken on Being There arguably helped pave the way for much of what came after it.
02. A Ghost Is Born (2004)
A Band Is (Re)born: It took Tweedy a lot of trial and error to find a consistent crew of players to round out Wilco. But the addition of Cline (who joined after the record’s recording), Sansone, and Jorgensen turned the band into a finely tuned and virtually unrivaled indie rock machine.
Punching the Clock: At more than 67 minutes in length, A Ghost Is Born is the second longest of Wilco’s 11 studio efforts behind Being There. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, at 10:46, and the 15-minute “Less Than You Think” bring the average song length to over five minutes.
Most Cryptic Example of Art Imitating Life: “Handshake Drugs” carries extra weight in light of Tweedy’s rehab stint leading up to the record’s release.
Basically: Wilco’s darkest hour and also one of their finest.
Hell Is Chrome: Even by the band’s own challenging artistic bar, A Ghost Is Born is a bear of a record. Its mood swings high and low, hot and cold. But while its overall temperament is uneven, it’s also a remarkable listen. On album opener “At Least That’s What You Said”, Tweedy unleashes his guitar, sending the music into an experimental tailspin the likes of which had never before been heard on a Wilco record. But those noisy freak-outs are balanced out by plenty of fragile, beautiful moments (“Wishful Thinking” remains one of the band’s most arresting songs). Tweedy has never been more vulnerable, his voice oftentimes failing to register much higher than a whisper. Set against a tumultuous backdrop of depression, anxiety and drug addiction, A Ghost Is Born is a cathartic masterpiece that only narrowly misses the top spot on the band’s discography.
01. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Fun Fact: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the first record the band recorded at its Chicago-based studio space/hangout, The Loft.
A New Era Begins/Another One Ends: The record would be the last Wilco record on which Bennett would perform. He would later die in 2009 from an accidental prescription drug overdose.
Least Great Song on a Record of Great Songs: “Poor Places”
Basically: The birth of Wilco as we know them today and the point where Tweedy asserted himself as one of his generation’s premiere songwriters.
Speaking of Tomorrow. How Will It Ever Come?: Wilco really didn’t know what the future held for themselves circa 2001-2002. But for all the uncertainty that surrounded its creation and release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains Wilco’s finest musical achievement. Even as Tweedy and his cohorts continue to release records that eat up critical accolades and take their rightful places on year-end “Best of” lists, none quite live up to the dazzling creativity offered up on the band’s fourth full-length.
Wilco’s journey toward becoming the most daring and forward-thinking American band of the 2000s begins here. With his songs about American aquarium drinkers, heavy metal drummers, and Jesus etc., the record finds Tweedy in fine form, his songwriting boosted by the addition of longtime drummer Glenn Kotche and Jim O’Rourke behind the boards. Add in the David vs. Goliath backstory of how the band bought back the record from the label that rejected it, and you have all the makings of a certified indie rock classic, one that broke musical molds and created a new one for scores of younger bands to follow.