Today I am introducing a new kind of post: “You’ve Never Heard Of?” This is dedicated to all the bands/artists that are well respected among artists and the music industry but may not be as well known among the general public. While “You Should Know” focuses on new and upcoming bands, “You’ve Never Heard Of?” will focus on credible and established bands that deserve some more acknowledgment.
To begin this new series, let’s talk about a little band from Chicago called Wilco…
Among music critics and among all your annoying hipster friends, Wilco’s name always gets mentioned for various reasons. Their weird mix of Americana and experimental makes Wilco a hard band to pin down. Are they the American Radiohead? Is Jeff Tweedy trying to sound like Paul Westerberg backed up by Television covering Gram Parsons? Hell, Wilco could pass for Krautrock on some songs. What I’m trying to get at is that Wilco has never belonged to one genre, alienating fans but also attracting those who admire Wilco for trying to write pop songs in the weirdest way possible. Through countless lineup changes and internal struggles, Wilco has made some of the best, though sometimes arduous, popular music for over a decade, and I’m about to give Wilco-newbies a little history lesson.
Let us start from the beginning.
Wilco began as alt-country band destined to further the legacy of Jeff Tweedy’s former band Uncle Tupelo, one of the seminal alt-country bands that helped popularized the genre. At first that was exactly what Wilco was – a mix of Gram Parsons songwriting and punk attitude that sounded exactly like Uncle Tupelo.
A.M. was Wilco’s first release in 1995, and it underwhelmed Uncle Tupelo fans with music that was uncomfortably familiar. The album has some great tunes (“Dash 7” especially), but fans of Uncle Tupelo enjoyed Trace more, the debut album from the other half of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar.
Trace was the better album, but A.M. still enjoyed modest success, enough to keep Wilco going to make another alt-country record. Except Wilco didn’t make another alt-country record…
A year after A.M., Being There was released, and fans were in for a curveball. Two disc full of songs that literally went all over the place in style and volume, I can’t even call this an alt-country record – it could only be described as a Wilco record. The twang was still there, but now it shared the space with heavy distortion, psychedelics, and complex pop songs. For being a double-album, the music never seemed dragged on and each song feels right on the record.
The album was a hit and made Wilco a band to watch out for. Jeff Tweedy knew he was onto something, so for the next record he would go further down the rabbit hole. But before he did that, he took a little detour to Mermaid Avenue.
Mermaid Avenue was a special project started by Woody Guthrie’s daughter after Being There. Young Guthrie had a box full of her father’s lyrics that she wanted to be recorded for a new generation to hear the famed folk singer in a whole new way. The result was a collaboration between Wilco and British folk singer Billy Bragg, and what a collaboration it was. Every song on the record is great, and it is a great introduction to Woody Guthrie.
This album was exceptional, but their next one would be even better.
Summerteeth was even weirder than Being There, but the songs are so catchy! I would call this Tweedy’s Brian Wilson album, a mix of layered arrangements with deep and sometimes cynical lyrics. A lot of this change had to do with the the larger involvement of fellow band member Jay Bennett, who pushed Tweedy to further his songwriting into uncharted territories. The album’s beauty is striking, but hidden under those beautiful melodies are some eerie, sometimes disturbing images (“I dreamed about killing you again last night / and it felt alright to me” from “Via Chicago”). This is not an easy record to get into, especially for those unfamiliar with Wilco, but like all great records it grows on you. Personally this is a top three Wilco album for me. The whole album feels tight but the individual tracks stand out on their own.
The album was successful and now Wilco started to have more of a following. However, what they would make next would be a game changer.
Wilco is still making great music, but it’s safe to say that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is THE Wilco album. Just when things couldn’t get better, they did. Jeff Tweedy and the gang created their own world, a world in which American aquarium drinkers (with minds filled with silvery stars) try to break our hearts while saluting ashes of American flags, all on top of falling in love with heavy metal drummers and telling Jesus not to cry. Sounds strange doesn’t it? It should, because this is by no means a conventional album. This is not a pop record, and this sure as hell ain’t an alt-country record. YHF is a scattered record that was made during a very scary period of American history, and all we were looking for was a little beauty, and music fans found it in this album.
So how did Wilco follow up a near-perfect record? They made a perfect record.
While not as accessible as YHF, which itself is already a hard album to get into, many Wilco fans have dubbed A Ghost Is Born the band’s best album, which is hard to argue against. The songs are longer and take more time, but the payoffs are worth it. From the insane guitar work in “At Least That’s What You Said” to the acoustic buzzing of “Muzzle Of Bees”, the highlights of the album showcase Wilco at a creative peak. For some people there is an uncomfortable amount of “noise” and a lack of “music”, and I would have to agree. When I say this is perfect, I mean that every song fits wonderfully into each other and creates a true listening experience.
After A Ghost Is Born Tweedy went to rehab and became sober. The question of an artist’s creativity after becoming sober is a bullshit question, but there is no doubt that Wilco’s music chilled out after Tweedy got clean.
Nothing seems to divide Wilco fans more than Sky Blue Sky – either you hate it or you love it. I love this album because it was the first Wilco album I ever heard, and it got me into the band. It is one of their most accessible albums, even if it’s their least exciting. The best thing about Sky Blue Sky is guitarist Niles Cline, whose solo on album highlight “Impossible Germany” is one of my favorite guitar solos.
Even from the album title, you can tell Wilco The Album is a very tongue and cheek album. Much of the album sounds generic, and its best moments don’t stack up to their past albums. This was Tweedy’s first album completely sober, so some undeserved backlash came upon the band. Still, there are hidden gems on here, “Country Disappeared” and “Wilco (The Song)” are both excellent.
Last year’s The Whole Love was a huge relief for Wilco fans at this point in their career. The band sounded like they were actually trying again, and the songs sounded weird and poppy again! Both the album opener and closer are experimental and over seven minutes long, but everything in between will remind fans of the poppy days of Being There. A very appealing album from Wilco hitting their stride.
So there you go – you’ve now heard of Wilco.
So as you can tell from the band’s history, Wilco is one of the few popular bands that truly has evolved. This is one of America’s most beloved bands, and you need at least one Wilco album in your collection.
Here’s a Spotify playlist of Wilco songs I recommend to anyone who isn’t familiar with the band. It’s a mix of songs that I consider essential for any listener to know and also more appealing songs for those who aren’t used to what Wilco has to offer. Enjoy!
Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber