Preferential Treatment: Wilco

In Preferential Treatment, I take a band’s full-length albums and list them from least favorite to most favorite, with a bit of justifying commentary. I welcome your comments, whether they be disagreements or complete non-sequiters. (!) denotes an album that I consider a classic.

SUMMARY:

YHF > BT  > Stth > SBS > tWL > MA(W) > AM > AGiB > Wta

THE STORY SO FAR:

You don’t need me to tell you about Wilco, but here’s the breakdown: trailblazing folk-punk band (Uncle Tupelo) breaks up, budding songwriter (Jeff Tweedy) starts own band, creates incredible double LP (Being There), veers towards the avant-garde, creates masterpiece (YHF), band nearly falls apart, forms new outfit that may be the greatest live band of the new millenium (Wilco 2.0, my term), and keeps making great, if not classic, albums.

THE TREATMENT:


Wilco (The Album): I’ve commented elsewhere that the band’s eponymous seventh album seems like it’s played too fast, and I think that has something to do with making it Wilco’s most forgettable long player. It’s not that the songs are bad by any means, it’s just that that perfect sense of gravitas that provides an extra dimension for almost every other Wilco record is absent, and the songs here just seem to breeze by with nary a flutter. It’s a fairly intangible complaint, but I’ve seen Wilco live three times in the last several years, and they haven’t played one of the tunes here. If that doesn’t speak to how they feel about this set, then I don’t know what would. ("Wilco (the song)", "Deeper Down")

A Ghost Is Born: After 3 great albums and the dismissal of co-songwriter Jay Bennett (who did his fair share to make BT, Summerteeth, and YHF what they were), the odds for a four-peat weren’t in Tweedy’s favor. Ghost is a typical Wilco album: on one hand experimental, exploratory, and open-ended, on the other hand brimming with melody and a poet’s wit. In my opinion, the production seems a little sterile, and nothing confirms this better than the excellent live album Kicking Television that was released a year or two later, when Tweedy had filled out Wilco 2.0’s lineup. Songs that sounded a bit flat here sound alive and filled-out in a live setting. Not a bad record, but it is the sound of a band in flux, without a strong sense of where it is going. ("Muzzle of Bees", "Wishful Thinking")

AM: There was a time that AM seemed utterly forgettable, especially next to YHF or Summerteeth. It was never a bad record, it was just straight-forward and easily labeled as "mediocre". Being There always seemed like the band’s first major statement anyway. But time has been and continues to be kind to AM. It’s got that mid-90’s alt sound going, a bit of a generic mesh in terms of production, but the songs are remarkably strong power-pop affairs at root. As Wilco 2.0 has welcomed more and more of these tunes back into their setlists as regulars, things have come full circle, and AM cuts seem every bit at home alongside classics like "Via Chicago" and "Jesus etc." Absolutely worth revisiting if it’s been a while. ("I Must Be High", "I Thought I Held You")

Mermaid Avenue I/II/III: The Mermaid Avenue albums weren’t entirely Wilco affairs, but there’s enough that’s strictly Wilco between the three albums that you can consider their efforts as a standalone affair. Bragg generally gets top billing with these because of the more explicitly blue collar nature of his previous work, but Tweedy and the boyz deserve plenty of credit for setting Guthrie’s lyrics and musical vision in a more contemporary setting. And who can deny the greatness of Tweedy led numbers like "California Stars", "One By One", "Secret of the Sea", and even the silly "Hoodoo Voodoo"? There’s plenty to love among Wilco’s tracks, which are generally pensive, dreamy Americana at its finest. ("Hesitating Beauty", "When the Roses Bloom Again")

The Whole Love: This one is another grower. Although supported by fantastic bookends, don’t discount the slowly unfolding goodness of tracks 2 thru 11. "I Might" has a nice post-punk edge to it, and "Dawned On Me" and "Born Alone" are both understated but celebratory cuts that highlight the best about Wilco 2.0. The closer, "Sunday Morning", is a sublimely understated shuffler, and perhaps one of the greatest alt-country/folk-rock compositions of all time. ("Art of Almost", "Sunday Morning")

Sky Blue Sky: The first album featuring Wilco in its current and longest-lasting manifestation, it’s a grower. Tweedy’s songs are a bit more simple this time around, but this might be the first album where he sounds truly comfortable in his own skin, and thanks especially to the crack ensemble of Wilco 2.0 the results reveal themselves more wonderfully with repeated listens. It’s a pretty great nuanced guitar album, with standout "Impossible Germany" paying homage to both Television and Steely Dan (which – yes – might just be the most Dad-rock combination of all time). ("You Are My Face", "Leave My Like You Found Me")

Summerteeth (!): A radioactive power-pop detour before the descent into experimentalism, Summerteeth is Wilco at its catchiest. "Shot In The Arm" has, I think, been played in just about every Wilco concert since the record was released, but it’s the languid, lyrically dense "Via Chicago" that seems to define the wonder of this record. It can be overwrought at times, but how can you argue when repeated listens reward you with the glories of cuts like "When You Wake Up Feeling Old"? Sweet and savory, great for late night driving. ("Summerteeth", "I’m Always In Love")

Being There (!): Being There is the album that opened doors for Wilco, and the record where Tweedy overtook Farrar in the great post-Tupelo race for artistic cred. It’s a truly beautiful experience, an epic of devotion to middle America suburbia and 70’s rock mythos, a dreamed-out and completely personal concept album. At times starry-eyed and sentimental, at others an abandoned hard rocker, it’s a lovable mess, everything a double-album should be. Experimental alt-country before YHF was even a glimmer in someone’s eye. ("Far Far Away", "Sunken Treasure")

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (!): Welcome to earth. This is the Wilco record that changed alt-country forever. It was the record that turned me on to Wilco, and it was the record that made them the "American Radiohead" (even if that term doesn’t really fit all that well). Sure, there’s an epic back story associated with this album, from the label troubles to the exit of Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett, and a host of outtakes available for free, but the real triumph is the songwriting, pure and simple. The bells and whistles are a big help, but this one plays like a greatest hits record unto itself. Classified somewhere between Kid A and Rumours. ("War On War", "Poor Places")

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