Discographically Speaking: Wilco

Wilco seems to be on the road pretty constantly but the tour that finds Jeff Tweedy and Co. stopping by the 9:30 Club for a pair of sold-out shows tonight and tomorrow is different. Wilco just finished a five-night stand in its hometown of Chicago (read some excellent details courtesy Todd Martens of the L.A. Times here) that saw the band dip into its back catalogue to perform every song featured on its six studio albums. That theme of mining the past continues for the rest of the dates, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to debut a new Post Rock feature in which we take a look at a band's discography and rank the albums, best to worst.

Feel free to offer your own thoughts on the rankings or either of the 9:30 Club shows in the comments.

1. "Summerteeth" (1999) The album that bears the least resemblance to any other in the catalogue is the best. Their third effort was the first that first helped the band shed the alt-country tag, with Tweedy showing his diversity of songwriting styles and Jay Bennett doing his best Brian Wilson impression with his obsessive attention to detail (remember those scenes in "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"?) resulting in an immaculately produced album. Many of Tweedy's best pop songs can be found here ("Can't Stand It," "I'm Always In Love," "Candy Floss") but some foreboding folk tunes ("She's a Jar," "How to Fight Loneliness," "Via Chicago") add a dark touch. Even the sinister songs have a warmth and brightness to them, though. This was the album where the band's creativity and confidence met at the perfect intersection, resulting in a true classic.

2. "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002) Its legend doesn't quite match its legacy, but Wilco's breakthrough album remains a mesmerizing listen. You might remember that during recording the band butted heads with then label Reprise, ended up becoming free agents, released the album on the Internet for free (this was back in 2001, mind you) and became indie cause celebres. The album signaled a new direction for the band, with pop obsessive Bennett giving way to noted Chicago producer Jim O'Rourke, who gave the album a claustrophobic, slippery feel. The drums, guitars and vocals are all very processed; it's a long way from the rugged, rustic feel of the band's first few efforts. A couple of epics ("I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Ashes of American Flags") are the clear standouts, but "Jesus, Etc.," "Kamera" and "War on War" are also worthy of the Wilco canon, showcasing a nuance in songcraft that wasn't previously there.

3. "Being There" (1996) Like all double albums it could certainly use some trimming, but this is Wilco delivering some of its most pleasing, straightforward rock-and-roll. The back-to-back of "Monday" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" is nothing but fun, which you can't really say about much of the band's later work. Twangy moments like "Forget the Flowers" and "What's the World Got In Store" don't have much depth but are enjoyable and breezy. "Being There" doesn't have the range of styles and emotions found on later albums but shows that Wilco did the roots rock thing as well as anyone.

4. "A Ghost Is Born" (2004) This was the first Wilco album that didn't feel like a new direction for the band; it was more a sequel to "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." It's the first album without any input from original guitarist Bennett and you can certainly hear Tweedy pushing the band further away from alt-countryville on the kraut-rock influenced "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and spacey "Hell Is Chrome." The catchiest songs ("Company In My Back" and "Theologians") are actually kind of annoying with their insistent "McCartney Bounce." The band deserves credit for mixing it up, though, and the stoned shuffle of "Handshake Drugs" makes for one of Wilco's finest moments.

5. "Sky Blue Sky" (2007) Yawn. It's one thing to retreat from the experimental tendencies that were starting to alienate some longtime fans. But I found myself longing for the hit-or-miss nature of "A Ghost Is Born" after spending some time with the agreeable-but-pretty-boring material on "Sky Blue Sky." Yacht rock, dad rock, Volkswagen rock - call it what you will, although "rock" might not be the most accurate descriptor. Guitarist Nels Cline provides many of the highlights - his nimble playing on "Impossible Germany" is particularly entrancing. But his virtuosic talents almost serve as a crutch, with the songs sort of floating along until it's time for Cline to rip off another impressive solo. It's ideal background music, but not much more.

6. "A.M." (1995) When Wilco announced its intention to play every song from its back catalog during the five-night stand in Chicago it was most surprising because that meant revisiting "A.M." in its entirety. It's not a bad album, it just has more than its share of by-the-numbers roots rock, the kind that most bands who play at Iota on Friday night could pull off reasonably well. It starts off very strong with "I Must Be High," "Casino Queen" and "Box Full of Letters," but never reaches that level again.

By David Malitz |  February 26, 2008; 12:36 PM ET Discographically Speaking
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Comments

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Some thoughts. Some of which i've already said to your face...

1. The best song on Summerteeth, and possibly their whole catalog, is the title track.

2. The catchiest song on AGIB is "Hummingbird".

3. I agree with your ranking for the most part, with one difference. I'd put "A.M." at #4 and bump the two most recent albums to be at the bottom of the list.

It's kinda weird that a few years ago, Wilco and the gang won the grammy for Best Alternative Album with A Ghost is Born. It was almost like the grammy people were saying "Hey guys. Sorry about ignoring your last two album, which were undeniable, stone classics. As a consolation, we're gonna give this award for an album that probably doesn't deserve it."

Posted by: Ben W. | February 26, 2008 12:48 PM

I pretty much agree with your list except the bottom two. I'd rank "A.M." over "Sky Blue Sky," which is simply a dud.

Posted by: Matt | February 26, 2008 1:07 PM

OK. I think I agree with your rankings with one caveat - if YHF was released by today's version of wilco, it might be #1. Listen to the songs again on the live album, and they're just BETTER. Heavy Metal Drummer and I'm the Man that Loves You just rock out harder, as does Kamera, and the whole thing is just tighter and ... realer. I really disliked YHF for a long time because they took so much OUT of the songs, but now they are making the most of them.

Posted by: BV | February 26, 2008 1:17 PM

I'd have to rank "A.M." above "Sky Blue Sky," too, and the yawn factor is the primary reason.

Posted by: polly | February 26, 2008 1:53 PM

"Being There" has WAAAAAY too much filler. I'd bump it below the new one.

Posted by: Jet Age Eric | February 26, 2008 1:59 PM

this is how i see it:

1) anodyne
.
2) being there
3) a.m.
4) summerteeth
.
5) sky blue sky
6) yankee hotel
.
.
.
7) ghost is born

i gotta admit that i'm partial to the straight-forward older stuff (especially shit-kicking tunes like "casino queen", "outtasite", "i got you", "a shot in the arm", etc.), but i totally understand those who dig the more experimental side of the band ... it's a lot like the old radiohead v. new radiohead debate

Posted by: HoyaParanoia | February 26, 2008 2:03 PM

Any thoughts on the Mermaid Avenue discs, or do they just get asterisks?

Posted by: 23060 | February 26, 2008 2:03 PM

Really like this Rock Blog feature....hope to see more band/artists soon...

Posted by: 1buj | February 26, 2008 2:07 PM

I couldn't really put those "Mermaid Avenue" discs in there, but the first volume might be as high as #3, that's just a fun listen, "California Stars" and "Hesitating Beauty" are always nice to hear. The second volume isn't nearly as good, it would be down there with "SBS."

Posted by: David | February 26, 2008 2:14 PM

Hey HoyaParanoia,
Anodyne isn't a Wilco album.

Posted by: Ben W. | February 26, 2008 2:55 PM

Great list.
Every Wilco CD has that epic killer song that just makes the album.

1. Being There - Kingpin
2. AGIB - Spiders
3. Sky Blue Sky - Walken
4. YHF - I am Trying..
5. Summerteeth - Shot in the Arm
6. AM - Box Full of Letters

Should be a great show tonight and tomorrow!

Posted by: Dave F | February 26, 2008 3:06 PM

yeah, i was just trying to have a little fun with the exercise, lo siento mucho

Posted by: HoyaParanoia | February 26, 2008 3:09 PM

AM
BT
ST
YHF
AGIB
SBS

Posted by: Viachicago | February 26, 2008 4:29 PM

Brillant once again, viachicago. you win!

Posted by: gonzo | February 26, 2008 4:45 PM

My list would go like this:

YHF
Being There
A Ghost is Born
Summerteeth
AM
Sky Blue Sky

Posted by: Dan | February 26, 2008 4:57 PM

Tweedy went all downhill after Uncle Tupelo.

Posted by: Matt | February 26, 2008 5:03 PM

I can't help but wonder if the disdain for Sky Blue Sky is a result of the band's decision to stream the album from its website pre-release.

The stream never sounded all that great, and if that was the only version of the album I'd heard, I wouldn't like it much either.

The record sounds much better on a real stereo (most do, I guess), and I like it a lot more after hearing the songs live.

Posted by: Jared | February 26, 2008 5:07 PM

I believe Viachicago has it correct.

Posted by: ChooChooCharlie | February 26, 2008 5:12 PM

Ahem.

AM
BT
ST
YHF
AGIB
SBS

...and SBS is not "background music," you need better headphones or something. It's brilliant.

Posted by: Llynn | February 26, 2008 5:44 PM

being there is still my favorite and I like a lot of the songs on AM. I have grown to love YHF, which I didn't like initially.

Posted by: sean mcveigh | February 26, 2008 5:48 PM

Matt wrote: "Tweedy went all downhill after Uncle Tupelo."


Uncle Tupelo went downhill after Tweedy. So there.

Posted by: Markosis | February 26, 2008 8:19 PM

Hey David, A.M was the first record without Jay Bennett.

1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2. A Ghost Is Born
2. Sky Blue Sky
4. Being There
5. Summerteeth
6. A.M.

Posted by: kickingtelevision | February 26, 2008 8:59 PM

Wilco's discography is diverse, and we shouldn't ignore the Mermaid Ave albums either. The author's rankings are fine, I don't think the minutae matters that much. I actually suggest people new to Wilco start with the live disc Kicking Television.

Or better yet, go see the band play live.

Posted by: Noam | February 27, 2008 12:06 AM

David-

Your analysis of 5 of the 6 six Wilco albums was pretty good, representing the basic views of music reviewers for popular newspapers.

Yet, your comments about SBS, and your linked review, have serious flaws. First of all, you probably only listened to SBS once, or a couple times. The first time that I listened to SBS, I was somewhat disappointed. Yet, after multiple listens I saw the brilliance of the record. Maybe you could argue that a record ought to hit you over the head the first time you listen to it, but I don't think that's true. SBS is Tweedy's Blood on the Tracks. It represents a giant step forward in an artist's maturity level, both personally and musically.

Here are some problems with your analysis:

"On every album to date there were at least a few songs on which Tweedy and his cohorts simply rocked."

How about "Walken?" Listen to it a few more times. Listen to it live. Tell me that song doesn't simply rock.

""What Light" does the best job of synthesizing Wilco's new aesthetic with Tweedy's classic, Americana songwriting style."

"What Light" is the worst song on the record. It is borderline disingenuous lyrically, and doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before.

SBS has some great lyrical insights that you do not acknowledge. How about, "Nothing more important than to know someone's listening." If that doesn't remind an individual of a close relationship, than he/she should probably get out of it now. The line, "Ceiling fan is on/Chopping up my dreams," is a good a lyrical turn as any of Tweedy's in the past. Also, you could try, "I will try to understand/Everything has its plan/Either way." So many people (Tweedy included) struggle because of their inability to come to terms with the fact that they cannot change their own reality. Tweedy's insight here is a brilliant one, especially for his fans, who have felt his past angst with lines like, "Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm."

Finally, SBS is as instrumentally rich as any past Wilco album. Some of this is attributable to Cline, as you assert, Yet, some is also attributable to the members of Wilco feeling comfortable with each other. Maybe the album does sound like yacht rock when your listening to it at low-medium volume driving fifteen miles an hour in your Jetta, but if you turned up the volume a bit, and gave the record a few listens, you may realize that it belongs in the same breath as YHF and Summerteeth, not due to its experimentation, but its musical beauty.

Posted by: James D | February 27, 2008 1:57 AM

If the live album (Kicking TV) was included, I'd put that #1.

What a show last night, I'm still fired up from it.

Posted by: mr mustard | February 27, 2008 8:21 AM

SBS cannot be used in the same sentence as Blood on the Tracks. No way. Period.

1. YHT
2. ST
3. BT
4. AM
5. AGIB
6. SBS

Really there isn't an album in the bunch I wouldn't put on the changer though.

Posted by: La Cabra | February 27, 2008 8:26 AM

Being There
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
AM
SkyBlue Sky
Summerteeth
A Ghost is Born
Live

For me there is a huge gap betweem YHF & AM and a huge gap between SBS & Summerteeth, which I have to admit I have never felt a huge amount of love for.

Posted by: Mark | February 27, 2008 8:47 AM

You called it correct, Malitz! "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" share the top spot for me, but I'd rate the balance of the catalogue the way you did. If we were to count the Tweedy-Bennett halves (as opposed to the Billy Bragg halves) of both "Mermaid Ave." volumes as a single album, I'd slot that one in above "Being There." Jay Bennett has now been out of the band longer than he was in it, but I still miss him.

There are some passionate defenders of "Sky Blue Sky" here. For me, every Wilco album has been a grower; there hasn't been one that I've embraced immediately. But after eight months, "Sky Blue Sky" just hasn't grown on me very much. I was surprised how enthusiastically the crowd welcomed "Impossible Germany," "Hate It Here," and some of the other SBS songs last night. (I'll have a review in the paper/site tomorrow, y'alls.)

Posted by: Chris Klimek | February 27, 2008 9:08 AM

via kosmo on the 930 forum:

http://hi-fipop.com/wilcobingo.jpg

Posted by: HoyaParanoia | February 27, 2008 11:00 AM

ditto to the old radiohead new radiohead comment

and, my two favorites are still on yankee hotel - jesus etc & heavy metal drummer

Posted by: ami | February 27, 2008 3:26 PM

Admit it, this is all a set up for you to tackle the Pavement discography, although I think your take on Smashing Pumpkins would be more interesting.

In terms of my enjoyment of albums, AM is my favorite by a country mile (pun intended). "Should've Been in Love," "Passenger Side," "Blue Eyed Soul" and "Too Far Apart" are all fantastic songs. As far as albums that are actually their "best" Summerteeth/YHT are about even, and the last two feel empty and weak.

Posted by: MN | February 28, 2008 8:42 AM

Wilco's catalouge is for the most part fantastic. If you haven't heard Jeff Tweedy live and solo go to rbally.net and download the letters to Santa benefit, it's got everything on there and great between song banter.
Anyways,
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a fantastic album deserving of many listens over and over. Poor Places, around 1:50 when the toms and the snare with the snare off bit comes on with the keys and then the solo acoustic guitar and double voices that come in are truly a beautiful moment in their history.
Summerteeth also is up there. It's just so lush, so good. Every song is great, and i think Pieholden Suite goes overlooked by many. SBS isn't the same but still great, Tweedy's laid back new line-up serves the purpose and is also quite good. A.M and A Ghost is Born have their moments but are rather hit or miss.

Being there includes too much filler but has it's moments.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Summerteeth
Sky Blue Sky

Being There
A.M
A Ghost is Born

Posted by: Fabakis | February 29, 2008 2:44 AM

AM by far #1, Summerteeth and Being There 2 and 3. YHF and AGIB make my ears bleed, when I wake up during the listen that is. Critically-acclaimed but unlistenable.

Posted by: slick willie | February 29, 2008 8:56 AM

1. YHF ... besides being groundbreaking territory for the band that alternatively challenges and rewards the listener, it is truly an album.

2. Summerteeth ... he's pretty close on this. There greatest representation of the roots rock roots.

3. Being There ... he's right about it being the summer fun album. A lot of good songs, but two albums is a bit much.

4. Sky Blue Sky ... did he really call it yacht rock? That's over-the-top analysis worthy of sports radio. Or maybe I've mellowed to the point that I have greater appreciation for subtlety. James D descibred it well: rich instrumentals that I like more and more with each listen. Malitz is right about Cline, who is brilliant, but never disrupts the overall feel of the music.

5. A.M. ... I actually think this is an underappreciated album. Box Full of Letter and Casino Queens are great tunes, but it's obvious Tweedy is still trying to figure himself out post-Tupelo.

6. A Ghost is Born ... once again some fantastic tunes, but in all it felt like a weaker, less concentrated version of YHF.

Posted by: WilcoSycophant | March 3, 2008 10:31 AM

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