There’s nothing easy about Wilco. Their songs leave plenty for the listener to unpack and digest, from studiously arranged musical touches to frontman Jeff Tweedy’s sometimes sweet and earnest, other times gonzo lyrics. There’s work that goes into getting your head around Wilco, which probably explains why the Chicago band have become one of the most adored acts of their generation. But dissecting the band’s entire catalog? That’s a whole other endeavor.
Any given Wilco record leaves listeners with plenty to wade through, but ranking and filing all of the band’s records is a pretty herculean task. That’s not just a statement on how much there is to get through, but also on just how consistently solid the band have been for almost 25 years. Where do you rank Summerteeth? Is it somehow better or worse than, say, The Whole Love? Does Schmilco belong on the front or back end of such a list or maybe somewhere in the middle? Is A.M. really that bad? Isn’t A Ghost Is Born just a little overrated? And what the hell are we supposed to do about the band’s newly released Ode to Joy? I mean, we hardly know thee.
(Read: Wilco in 10 Songs)
These lists always invite a lot of oscillation and back and forth, but what makes the task particularly toilsome in Wilco’s case is that, well, all of their records are VERY good. Many hairs were split making this list, and we can’t promise we’ll 100 percent stand behind it tomorrow. But to coincide with Friday’s release of Ode to Joy, we did our damnedest to put one of the best discography’s of the past 25 years in some sort of official order. Shit, who needs a nap?
11. Wilco (The Album) (2009)
Personnel: Jeff Tweedy (guitar/vocals), John Stirratt (bass), Glenn Kotche (drums), Nels Cline (guitar), Pat Sansone (multiple instruments), Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards, synths)
Aww Shucks: “Wilco is gonna love you,” Tweedy sings to open the record. Stop, Jeff, You’re making us blush.
Lyric That Still Feels Strangely Appropriate for Our Current Times: “Every generation thinks it’s the worst, thinks it’s the end of the world.” Amen to that.
Basically: Sky Blue Sky Part II
Sonny Feeling (Again): Calling Wilco (The Album) the band’s worst record makes it sound far more lackluster than it really is. But it is the record in the band’s stacked repertoire that offers the fewest surprises. The warm feeling of calm that enveloped Sky Blue Sky was an interesting change of pace from the experimental storm that was 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. But by doubling down on its predecessor’s flair for serene ’70s pop, Wilco (The Album) often feels a little too sleepy. To date, it’s still the only Wilco record to rest comfortably on its laurels instead of finding fresh sonic territory to mine.
10. A.M. (1995)
Founding Members: Almost 25 years later, Tweedy and Stirratt remain with the band, which went through numerous lineup changes over its first decade.
The Stones Called and Want Their Song Back: There’s no hiding Mick and Keith’s influence on “Casino Queen”, but we’re not complaining.
Best Song About Life with a DUI: The lyrics to “Passenger Side” are about as literal as they get. Also, was there really a time where $5 in gas could actually get you anywhere?
Basically: A solid but predictable start to Tweedy’s hugely influential second act
It’s Just That Simple: Understandably, the story of Wilco begins more or less where Uncle Tupelo ended. A.M. is essentially a jumping-off point for a young band still searching for an identity. But does that necessarily make it bad? Sure, the record’s pronounced alt-country twang sounds like the work of a completely different band, and in many ways it is. But what A.M. lacks in innovation it makes up for in a number of tight, effective pop rock songs. From heart-stomped ballads to shit-kicking country rockers, it’s an assured, if hardly mind-blowing, record that has gotten something of an unfair shake over the years, especially as fans have increasingly come to expect more from the band that’s long been leading the indie rock vanguard.
09. Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Stability: For the first time in the band’s history, Wilco returned with the same cast of players from one record to the next.
Song That Best Capture’s the Record’s Quiet Introspectiveness: “Please Be Patient with Me”
Are We Sure That Paul McCartney Didn’t Write This? The chorus to “Hate It Here” is undeniably Macca-ish.
Basically: The calm after A Ghost Is Born’s drug-riddled storm.
Shake It Off: “You have to surrender to reality a little bit,” Tweedy said of the making of Sky Blue Sky in an interview. The reality he speaks of is his newfound sobriety, achieved shortly after the completion of A Ghost Is Born. That clarity shines through on Sky Blue Sky, which trades in its predecessor’s eclectic art lean for a simpler, more straightforward approach to songwriting. For a band whose every record up to that point had been fraught with tension of some sort, the emergence of a kinder, softer Wilco caught some a little off guard. But while Sky Blue Sky is missing much of the angst and adventurousness that made some of the band’s records great, it was rewarding to see Tweedy indulge the brighter side of life.
08. The Whole Love (2011)
Wakey Wakey: After a two-record reprieve from pushing musical boundaries, The Whole Love deftly splits the difference between art rock and Wilco’s folkier sonic impulses.
Best Cover That Didn’t Make the Record (But Was Released as a Bonus Track): The band’s faithful take on Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label” is great in and of itself, but it was also the perfect song to help commemorate the launch of its own dBpm imprint.
We Missed You, Nels: Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) really didn’t give the guitar virtuoso enough to do, but the band lets him off his leash midway through the Krautrock-inspired freak-out “Art of Almost”.
Basically: A return-to-form record from a band that never really lost its form to begin with.
Standing O: Few bands have the chops or the audacity to lead off a hotly anticipated record with a seven-plus-minute Krautrock-inspired jam. But Wilco’s retreat back to experimentalism was happily received on The Whole Love. After two successful but comparatively safe records, Tweedy and friends returned in 2011 with a record that expertly moves back and forth between lofty ambition and delicately crafted folk rock. “Dawned on Me”, “I Might”, and “Standing O” offered proof that the band weren’t going soft more than halfway into their second decade, employing the virtuosity of individual members in a way the record’s immediate predecessors oftentimes failed to. Conversely, the record’s quieter moments replace rock hijinks with ambient texture. Few bands today can have it both ways, but Wilco aren’t most bands.
07. Schmilco (2016)
The Title Is a Reference To: Harry Nilsson’s 1971 hit record, Nilsson Schmilsson.
Stoner Shut-In Anthem: “Normal American Kids” is a quiet, understated celebration of teenage misfithood.
Best Album Cover or the Worst? Either way, it beats a picture of a Persian cat.
Basically: The moodily catchy yin to the psycho space rock yang of Star Wars.
Shrug and Destroy: Fans waited more than four years after the release of The Whole Love for Wilco to resurface with the splendidly out-there Star Wars. But the wait for that record’s follow-up, Schmilco, barely qualified as such. The band made up for lost time, not just by delivering their 10th full-length barely a year after its predecessor, but by producing something starkly different. Schmilco is the most acoustic-leaning record the band have made since Being There, but it’s still packed with plenty of quirky pluck and sonic tricks. It’s also one of Wilco’s most personal records on the lyrical front, proving the band don’t have to be loud and confrontational to be interesting.
06. Ode to Joy (2019)
Wait, Is This New?: Yup, not even a week old, in fact.
“Before Us” Sounds Like a Cross Between: Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground
Basically: The kind of Wilco record you know you’ve heard before but still really enjoy.
Better than One and a Half Stars: You could make the argument that Wilco’s 11th studio record is too fresh to adequately be ranked and filed alongside the rest of the band’s material. But a quick first impression suggests that Ode to Joy earns its spot in the meaty middle part of the curve. The record’s another skillfully textured entry into Wilco’s already proud catalog and one that seems to crib from the best of the band’s prior output. It’s got the warmth of Sky Blue Sky, the kind-of-but-not-really traditional folk of Schmilco and The Whole Love, and the avant spirit of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. Time will ultimately be the best measure of where it will stand in the pack, but Ode to Joy sounds like everything fans have come to expect, and want, from these seasoned indie vets.
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.