Read my reviews of Wilco’s studio albums and a couple of other things:
1995: A.M. (6/10)
Review lost to time.
1996: Being There (9/10)
This is the first Wilco album I ever heard and it made me a fan of the band, so I’m biased. But I’ll try not to be.
AM feels, to me, like Wilco were still trying to be something they weren’t – like some kind of Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt imitation, albeit with a very different songwriting approach.
This album feels much more like something original and unique compared to their debut. They’ve left alt country behind (though there’s still plenty of country) for a more full sound – a weird hybrid of indie rock and rock and roll that is only weird because nobody had done it before. Listening to this record, it feels obvious, like someone else should have done it.
I want to call this the Exile of Indie Rock, but it’s not that good, and maybe not diverse enough. It’s still a really strong set of songs that finds the perfect marriage between indie rock idiosyncrasy and the long tradition of rock and roll.
The only drawback is the repeated song. Otherwise, this is very close to their best record and one of the best records of 1996.
1998: Mermaid Avenue (8/10) with Billy Bragg
Sometime between 2011, when I first heard it, and now (2018), I wrote the following
I heard this a few years ago and it didn’t register. I’m not really sure why. I wasn’t so much of a Wilco fan then, and I wasn’t really aware of Billy Bragg. But still, that doesn’t excuse me. I guess I had a problem with the multiple artist thing. Who knows?
Well, this is quite the collection. Both Bragg and Wilco have managed to make relatively modern sounding music out of Guthrie’s lyrics, while still sounding relatively folksy. A number of these songs have found their way into Wilco’s live show so I am familiar with them, but regardless there are few if any misses. My favourite at the moment is “Walt Whitman’s Niece.”
It’s a project like this that makes one hope for more revivalist music, rather than dreading it.
I might have gone a little overboard on my second rating of 9/10 (since downgraded) but I do think it’s a pretty good example of what you can do with newly discovered old “music” (just lyrics in this case) if you don’t feel completely tied to the past.
1999: Summerteeth (9/10)
I am a massive fan of Being There, but it’s with Summerteeth that Wilco really became perhaps the most vital of the American indie rock bands to emerge in the ’90s. (As the critics cliche goes, they’re “the American Radiohead” or something…) It’s a fundamental departure from their earlier sound, and so much more of a studio creation than anything they had previously attempted. Before this record, Wilco could still be considered (wrongly) Alt Country. Never again. [Editor’s note: Well, until Cruel Country…]
And it played a central role in the period of over a decade where they drastically redefined their sound on nearly every release. (Something that I miss from their last decade, I must say.)
All of that ignores the songs, perhaps Tweedy’s best set (or among the very best) and among the better arguments for why he should be considered one of the major American songwriters of his generation, someone who is able to incorporate rather radical musical and lyrical ideas into songs that are catchy and accessible.
This is the album where Wilco became that band you had to listen to. (Again, as much as I love Being There, I’m not sure I could convince too many people of its importance to the ’90s zeitgeist.) It’s a classic.
2000: Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (7/10) with Billy Bragg
I wrote the following in 2011:
I first heard this and its predecessor some years ago, before I was the Wilco fan I am today (I was just getting into them then) and before I knew who Billy Bragg was. From my rating at the time, I guess I must have thought this was decent, but for some reason I saw no reason to acquire it.
It’s an interesting combination of ideas, some of which work and some of which don’t. Guthrie’s lyrics are, on the whole, pretty great – even when I cannot for a second empathize with their ideals – and many of the interpretations seem appropriate. Some of the Wilco songs are too long, whereas some of the Bragg ones seem too serious for their own good.
I think I originally balked at this because I didn’t like the idea of an album that clearly had to different creative directions going on at one time (despite the presence of Wilco members on most tracks?). But I have overcome that.
Though I have yet to relisten to the original, I think I like this a fair bit and I wouldn’t have minded an ongoing series that attempted to score/set as many of the 1000+ lyrics as possible. I know that isn’t going to happen, but it would have been nice. It’s projects like this that make revivalism and tributes and the like at least a little worthwhile.
The first volume is better, which makes sense. But it’s also less diverse, if memory serves. This is still better than most revivalism.
You can really think of them as one giant album, along with the outtakes record that later came out, and I think that whole thing is worth listening to.
2002: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (9/10)
There’s a school of thought out there that we collectively overrated this record when it came out, because of the story – i.e. because this album, clearly a good album, was rejected by their label. Perhaps us fans (and those critics) who loved it were fooled into acclaiming it a masterpiece by the compelling narrative of a band rescuing its art from the evil corporate impulses of the label.
Well, I call bunk. If something’s good, it’s good. If it’s great, it’s great. That doesn’t change with time. Saying that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is somehow not so good now that the narrative has worn off reminds me of those Food Network judges who like someone’s food more than another’s because that chef has a “good” story (inevitably they battled personal demons and/or are doing it for their kids).
Now that my rant is over, to the music:
Though Wilco had definitely gone rather overdub crazy on Summerteeth, most of those overdubs (though hardly all) were well within the pop rock tradition – numerous arrangements on that record recall other band’s work. Though it’s absolutely indie pop, it’s classicist indie pop most of the time (with the notable exception of “Via Chicago.”)
But YHF is an entirely different beast. Tweedy produced a strong a set of songs, but the arrangements that everyone put around are elaborate but also unconventional. Using the trick they tried out on “Via Chicago,” they often keep the vocal melody (or another melody) the same while the arrangement varies drastically underneath. And those arrangements are full of unusual percussion, atonal keyboards and strings, and other odd touches. The miracle is that it’s so accessible despite the elaborate, difficult arrangements and production.
I don’t know that I think this is their best album – it’s not something I have settled in my mind – but its older reputation as their best album was the correct one. Revisionist thinking on the subject is silly, and frankly, only indicative of the problems of overly subjective music criticism.
If you listen to one Wilco album, it should be this one.
2004: A Ghost is Born (9/10)
This album takes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to new, dictatorial extremes – Tweedy indulges his fantasies (as lead guitarist, as electronic composer) and you’d think the album would suffer for it. But it doesn’t: Tweedy remains one of the best – if more idiosyncratic – songwriters within the realm of pop rock, and the new indulgences feel like real growth from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, if only because the band feels like it is treading new ground after an album that felt like it tread so much new ground there was nowhere else to go. This is among my favourite of their albums, and it represents the (studio) apex of Tweedy’s career as a guitarist.
2023 update: It’s probably my personal favourite Wilco album at this point, even if I acknowledge it is not their best.
2005: Kicking Television (8/10)
This album captures the band slightly before their live peak. (I tell you this as someone who knows, having seen their live film, listened to a number of performances both earlier and later than this, and having seen them in person.) Their Austin City Limits set a couple of years later kind of puts this to shame, but how could we have known that at the time.
Despite this, they were still pretty awesome live back then, having drastically upgraded by drastically changing their lineup over the last few years and, for this tour and subsequent ones and albums, adding one of the best guitarists in the world, Nels Cline. (Cline is, of course, relatively restricted in this setting, but that’s okay.)
The band’s most jammable material hadn’t been done yet, but they still managed to make most of these tracks sound different enough from the records to actually make it worth listening to. (Though according to more than one hilariously bad review on RYM, this is actually bad thing. “Why doesn’t it sound like the record?!?!”)
This is a very solid introduction to them as a live band, but I would recommend the aforementioned ACL set (the one from 2007) or any sets you can get from 2007 on from the Road Case over this. It’s still good stuff though.
2007: Sky Blue Sky (9/10)
They sound like a real band for the first time since Being There. The music isn’t nearly as adventurous as its been the last few albums, but what they sacrifice in adventurousness they make up for with an organic sound. These songs sound lived in, developed by playing, not by sitting in a booth thinking about what should go where. It’s a change that works, at least as a one-off. I’m not saying they should pursue this route further.
2023 update: I love this record and, like A Ghost is Born the material is often better live.
2009 Wilco albums:
Ashes of American Flags (8/10)
This isn’t really an album-proper, but what is that anyway? The free download that comes with the movie / tour-video is just as good as their earlier live album, Kicking Television. In ways, it’s better. The band sounds even better this time around, if only because there are a few more pieces tailored towards this version of the band (from Sky Blue Sky).
But the main drawback is that the material that isn’t from the past album is often the material from the past live album. There’s too much of an overlap. I don’t know what Wilco’s set is usually like [I found out!] but unless it is the same each night, I wish the filmmakers could have picked a few different songs to keep lessen the overlap.
The one other nitpick is that the mix isn’t the greatest. But given that it was meant to be a movie, it’s really asking a little too much, I figure.
2009: Wilco (the Album) (7/10)
For nearly every album, Wilco, whoever that may be from one release the other, have consistently changed their sound in an admirable way: they managed to sound different but the same. That is some kind of feat that only great bands can pull off.
But here it sounds like they’re in a holding pattern for perhaps the first time since their debut. Not to be reductive, but in some ways this sounds like Sky Blue Sky without the guitar solos. That’s unfair (the songs are good) and inaccurate – there’s definitely far more studio tricks going on here than the last album – but that was my initial reaction. They have set the bar very, very high, and I don’t think this quite measures up. It’s not bad by any means. It’s just not their best by a long shot.
The other thing is that I detect obvious influences in this: George Harrison in one song, and early Radiohead in another. And Television, of course. In the same song as the Radiohead. That’s sort of annoying. I can’t say I noticed on other albums – they were better disguised.
2011: The Whole Love (7/10)
For some reason, I didn’t write a review of this album when it came out. Listening back to it a few times in the last few years I’ve come to like it about as much as any record they released post Sky Blue Sky despite the next review. So I might need to adjust this rating up or the other ones down.
2015: Star Wars (8/10)
For just over a decade (between the mid ’90s and the mid ’00s) Wilco was one of the most interesting “indie” rock bands in the world – they changed their sound (nearly) every album, from roots rock to pop to post rock to classic rock revival. And then they got comfortable. For the last decade or so, they’ve been making very pleasant pop rock with only the odd hints of their more interesting past. (This is different live, where they have remained edgy.) I have felt like the last few albums were the first time the band settled for something.
But with “EKG,” the startling, brief, raw opener to this surprise album, you are immediately alerted that maybe Tweedy et al. have become restless with this new comfort zone. This is the rawest, least polished, most shambolic, most “indie” thing they’ve recorded in well over a decade. (Frankly, it might be the rawest thing they’ve ever recorded.) The meticulous arrangements are gone (as are keyboards, for the most part).
But the tossed off feel is more of an arrangement / production characteristic, I think. Though hardly the best set of Tweedy songs ever, they’re still strong. And the brevity of the album, and the clear lack of polish (and rehearsals!) is actually endearing, given how surprising this whole thing is. (I certainly wasn’t expecting this. I’d rather have 30 minutes of new music than no new music.)
Honestly – I am being completely genuine here – my favourite thing they’ve released since Sky Blue Sky.
2016: Schmilco (6/10)
Star Wars made me so happy that I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that this record does not make me that happy. Whereas Star Wars felt tossed off in a good way, this record feels like the toss offs of the toss offs; I can’t help but have the word “slight” pop into my mind every time I listen to it.
For a band as adventurous and as large as Wilco, not only is this record not particularly adventurous – there is one song, I think, that lives up to their usual standard of incorporating weird ideas into straight-ahead songs – but it sounds small, more often than not. Remember, there are 6 people in this band. Why does it sound like a trio a lot of the time?
At the moment, this is my least favourite record since their debut. Maybe that will change with more listens. We shall see.
2019: Ode to Joy (6/10)
Weirdly, I bought this and then completely forgot about it. It was only when I was listening to Cruel Country that I realized I had skipped an album. And then I discovered I had indeed purchased a digital copy and just flat out forgot to listen to it.
This one was recorded rather weirdly, it seems: Tweedy wrote some songs (as he does) and then he and Kotche recorded them. And then the rest of the band added stuff. (So Cruel Country is a rather big departure from this method, it turns out.) As you might expect, drums and percussion are rather prominent as a result, among the most prominent on any Wilco record.
But the weird recording method and the prominence of the drums does not actually make the album sound that much different from (my memory of) Schmilco. Someone else described all these recent records as “hushed” and I’m inclined to agree. As he ages, Tweedy has embraced a particular style of singing that he didn’t use all that much when he was younger. Maybe that’s necessary, but it does mean that there is a sameness to his vocals across a lot of these albums and, given the prominence of those vocals in the mix, it tends to make every song sound too similar, even when they aren’t that similar.
There are plenty of interesting things going on in the mix, but those things are usually mixed quite far back. And, as they’ve aged, Wilco have gotten more subtle, for the most part. That’s probably a virtue but it’s not something that appeals to me. Star Wars is far and away my favourite Wilco album of the teens (and even further) because it’s the only one that wears its weirdness on its sleeve. That’s not usually their thing any more.
Some of these songs are mong Tweedy’s better songs, but not enough of them, I think. Certainly not enough to overcome the overall subdued tone of the record.
I remain optimistic that, if I ever get around to listening to it again, I will come to like this more. But I feel like I say that about every recent Wilco record and none of them ever pull me back like the olden days records.
2022: Cruel Country (6?/10)
Despite supposedly being a very big fan of this band, I completely ignored Ode to Joy. I think it’s because I mostly haven’t enjoyed their post Sky Blue Sky output.
When I first heard this record, I sighed. I thought “Not again” and sort of dismissed it. Given where I put this rating after three listens I’m not sure how low I was going to make my rating after the first listen, but I guess lower than this. Anyway…
I slowly realized that this is actually a bit of a left turn (at least from pre-Ode to Joy Wilco) and more than I was giving them credit for initially. So that’s something.
These are Tweedy’s most political songs. I don’t know if that’s a good thing entirely, but it’s notable. And makes for a change. Change is usually a good thing, especially for this band. They were once a band that changed with every record. That hasn’t been exactly true for the last decade, so it’s something (else).
The music isn’t pure country. There’s plenty of folk too. And some of the songs feel like they are neither folk nor country songs, but they are played as if they are. That is, of course, where we are in the world of genres right now – there are no pure genres any more and we shouldn’t expect it. But, if the point of this is to reclaim country for the libs (I’m partially joking) it’s a little weird that it isn’t pure country, isn’t it? (Maybe I’m misunderstanding the purpose.)
My biggest issue with this album, I think, is how undynamic it is. (I cannot come up with a better word right now.) There are at least two things I know about this, the longest running version of Wilco: there are six members, and they are a really good band. Neither of these things is particularly evident on most of this record. There are songs where I absolutely cannot hear all six members most of the time and sometimes I worry it’s a majority. Subtlety is all well and good, especially in Country, but at times it’s utterly ridiculous here. What’s the point of having a sextet when it sounds like it’s a trio or a quartet much of the time?
I do wonder if this will grow on me, in part because it’s so distinct in terms of Tweedy’s songwriting. But, right now, I’m sure hoping I’m getting the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 20th anniversary show this summer when they come to Toronto, rather than the Cruel Country show.
2023: Cousin (7/10)
I have struggled a lot with post-Sky Blue Sky Wilco. Struggled is perhaps too strong a word but I’ve definitely felt a little underwhelmed. You could argue that every Wilco album between their debut and their 2009 self-titled was a big departure from the previous record. (Excepting Mermaid Avenue of course.) But it’s felt to me like every record from then on hasn’t been a departure, that they’ve settled into a sound. Last year’s Cruel Country was a departure from this in that they (sort of) returned to their roots, but it didn’t feel as much of a departure.
But, in preparing to review this new record, I went back and listened to the entire catalogue for the first time since last summer, and I found a couple of those records I thought I didn’t love growing on me. I guess it’s familiarity – as I really didn’t listen to any of them much after I reviewed them – but some of them struck me as being better than I remembered. (Particularly The Whole Love which I didn’t review at the time for some reason.) I suspect some of this is just age, I’m softening as a critic. But I also wonder if I’ve been a little hard on them as they’ve settled into a particular sound in the the last decade and a half.
Cousin announces itself as a return to Wilco’s, um, “classic” sound with “Infinite Surprise,” which feels like a massive departure (for them) from Cruel Country. But that’s a little bit of a trick, as Wilco’s sound at this point is all on a spectrum and there are tracks here that could be on that record, perhaps with some tweaking. (The recording process was, I understand, very different for this one.)
Tweedy is still mostly singing in this hushed style that he’s had for at least a decade. I wonder if that’s all he can do now, but I’ve seen him sing live as recently as last summer and he seemed to be able to pull off the old songs. He’s less hushed here than he has been lately, but it’s still something that I can’t say I love.
I genuinely like Tweedy as a songwriter and I find I usually like his songs even when I wish the arrangements were more interesting or, at least, more of a departure from what they’ve been doing for the last 14 years. I like his songs so much I have trouble being truly critical. I also tie up my ideas of his songs with how the band is performing them so much that I’m not sure I can tell you which is my favourite set of his songs. I can tell you which albums I like the most but is it just because of the songs? Not really. This certainly not his best set, but I’ve felt that way about a bunch of these recent records. And, honestly, Cruel Country, might stand out songwriting-wise even if it’s among my least favourite of their records.
The arrangements are much stranger and less traditional than the previous record, though that’s a relative thing. They rarely approach the weirdness of their musical peak and when they do, it’s mostly in the back of the mix. The fact that they are doing that stuff again is nice, at least for me, but it is par for the recent course, given that they do not want this weirdness to hit you in the face, most of the time. Are these the most adventurous arrangements since Star Wars? Some of them sure are. But those of us who compare these records to their late ’90s and early aughts records might still find them too subtle. And there are songs that do sound like they could be on Cruel Country with some changes.
I have a hard time being too critical of this band. They are among my favourites. But I still feel like they haven’t made anything truly great in a long time. (16 years.) That’s fine, as that’s what happens with most bands. But, aside from a few album release announcements, I haven’t been surprised by them in a while (8 years ago). And I sort of miss that. (I still enjoy this, though.)