The Wilco Albums Ranked
Wilco is one of those bands that has been in my awareness since I started exploring music on my own. So imagine my surprise, after a few years into this awareness, to learn that their predecessor group Uncle Tupelo was also some kind of legendary act in its time. The through line of Wilco’s impact on “alternative music” (whatever that means) and frontman Jeff Tweedy’s ubiquitous presence in a scene that mostly operates on its own terms is an impressive one. Rooted in a different approach to country music but flourishing into something much less easily definable, Wilco’s discography is made up of 16 albums across the 27 years since 1995. My evaluation of such a “canon” adds four albums not usually counted as full-fledged releases, but I’ll explain that as I get to each record. Also worth listening to, although not ranked on this list, are the EPs MORE LIKE THE MOON (2003) and THE WILCO BOOK (2004). Without further ado, let me evaluate Wilco.
#16 — SCHMILCO (2016)
Favorite track: “Happiness”
SCHMILCO started a trend that has continued over their past three albums of a really mellow and downbeat Wilco. Now, while that isn’t a bad thing and in fact previous such phases of the band were quite good, the way it’s represented on this album simply doesn’t make much of an impact. This is a good time to say, however, that I don’t think Wilco has made a bad album. SCHMILCO, perhaps appropriately for its name, is just fairly enjoyable, acoustic-y, folksy rock-based music that nevertheless never settles into a compelling emotional groove or electrifies with some energy.
#15 — DOWN WITH WILCO (2003)
Favorite track: “Where Will You Go?”
This is the strangest album to include on this list, I admit. However, this record, attributed primarily to The Minus 5, is a full-fledged release with Wilco as a session band. Besides that, Tweedy contributed songwriting and producing efforts to a number of songs in addition to The Minus 5 leader Scott McCaughey. And Wilco’s name is right there in the title, if not technically in the byline. Still, DOWN WITH WILCO doesn’t necessarily feel like the most Wilco-y album because Tweedy only contributes backing vocals, leaving the fronting to McCaughey. But The Minus 5’s poppy, twangy rock instincts, at least as they are practiced on this album and influenced by the other band’s presence, doesn’t feel totally out of step with Wilco. Thus, DOWN WITH WILCO feels like a notable installment in the group’s discography, if not one that fully delivers on what I want from Wilco because of the aforementioned hair-splitting qualifications for including it on this list.
#14 — ODE TO JOY (2019)
Favorite track: “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”
Following SCHMILCO, ODE TO JOY continues the relaxed Wilco sound of the past several years. Once again, that’s not in itself a bad trait, but unfortunately, the hooks the band has been able to impart in even its most experimental work are pretty much lacking. But the enveloping sound and obvious craft behind this album is impressive, especially the shimmering guitar sound on “Love Is Everywhere (Beware).” Otherwise, ODE TO JOY falls into a bit of a malaise that doesn’t elevate it very far among Wilco’s other records.
#13 — MERMAID AVENUE VOL. III (2012)
Favorite track: “Give Me a Nail”
This is perhaps another strange album to include on this list. The Mermaid Avenue project, a collaboration with Billy Bragg, was initiated by Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora. Working with his heir and director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, Wilco and Bragg recorded new songs that interpreted some of the many lyrics that Guthrie wrote but never recorded or put to music. This happened in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but in 2012, a box set called MERMAID AVENUE: THE COMPLETE SESSIONS was released, compiling the original two albums and a third installment. MERMAID AVENUE VOL. III is not a collection of new tracks from 2012 (or just before); instead, it’s made up of songs that Wilco and Bragg recorded in the original sessions but never included on the first two albums. So fittingly as a bunch of outtakes, MERMAID AVENUE VOL. III isn’t quite as exciting as its predecessors, and indeed, as other Wilco albums. However, it shares the traits of Guthrie’s plain yet emotionally affecting lyricism and the musicians’ creative interpretations of them. “Give Me a Nail,” actually, is one of the best songs in Wilco’s whole catalogue. So of course MERMAID AVENUE VOL. III is not a total let-down, but the chops of the outtakes are somewhat reduced.
#12 — CRUEL COUNTRY (2022)
Favorite track: “I Am My Mother”
CRUEL COUNTRY is Wilco’s latest record at the time of this writing and the impetus for this piece. The double album continues the acoustic, downplayed sound that’s been mentioned a couple of times already. And as the title may imply, Wilco leans a bit more into their alt-country roots. However, I think what that actually results in is a folksier sound; Tweedy has never sounded more like Bob Dylan, especially on opener “I Am My Mother.” That’s not a negative thing, but across the double album’s epic length, the almost whimsical bit of twang wears a little thin. CRUEL COUNTRY is actually an ambitious project for Wilco that on the whole succeeds, for all its apparent simplicity, but it fails to carry the hooks, man, the hooks that I love!
#11 — A.M. (1995)
Favorite track: “Casino Queen”
Right out the gate of Wilco’s inception, it looked like Jay Farrar, Tweedy’s bandmate from Uncle Tupelo, may have come out of the creative divorce with the bigger career success. Farrar’s then-new band Son Volt’s debut, TRACE (1995), was a bigger commercial and critical hit than Wilco’s first, A.M. But I think time has been kinder to Wilco, although of course it was not really a competition. But the comparisons abounded, and it’s actually quite impressive that Wilco has been able to build up an iconic status all its own out of the ashes of Uncle Tupelo’s lifetime. In any event, A.M. is much closer to that previous band’s alt-country sound. But Wilco’s debut is scrappier and more electric than some of what was to come, infused with a rocking energy that is especially fun on my favorite track, “Casino Queen.” As evidenced by its placement, A.M. is not the most incredible of debuts, but I think it established right away that Wilco was not going to be destined for living in Uncle Tupelo’s shadow.
#10 — MERMAID AVENUE VOL. II (2000)
Favorite track: “Secret of the Sea”
As has now been shown, the Mermaid Avenue albums (named, by the way, after Guthrie’s song of the same name and the street of his one-time residence in New York) didn’t really improve across the three installments. However, that’s not to say that they’re not interesting and enjoyable records. MERMAID AVENUE VOL. II follows up on the concept and quality of the first album with relative success. Once again, Guthrie’s lyrics are deceptively rich, especially the way they are given life by Wilco and Bragg. “Secret of the Sea” is among the poppiest and most modern songs on the album, making it a highlight, but MERMAID AVENUE VOL. II is also great when it’s giving straight-ahead folksy interpretations of one of the greatest musicians to ever do it.
#9 — MERMAID AVENUE (1998)
Favorite track: “California Stars”
But it was Wilco and Bragg’s first pass at Guthrie’s work that was the best. MERMAID AVENUE immediately gave credence to a concept that could have been mishandled. And while the group and their collaborator don’t necessarily always make music that sounds like Guthrie, to ape him would also be a bit of a disservice. Instead, they do what they do best, which does incidentally owe some of its DNA to the folk music that Guthrie pioneered. “California Stars” is a plaintive little tune, suffused with a warm sound that matches the wistfulness of the lyrics. And this is just the best highlight from MERMAID AVENUE, a touching and effective tribute from Wilco and Bragg, who obviously had some great appreciation for Woody Guthrie before they were brought to this opportunity by the great man’s daughter.
#8 — THE WHOLE LOVE (2011)
Favorite track: “I Might”
THE WHOLE LOVE is a bit of a conundrum for me. While obviously not a huge favorite for me, I also struggle to articulate what exactly brings it ahead of, for example, the first two Mermaid Avenue records. There are bits of THE WHOLE LOVE that get a little too experimental or loose for me, but when Wilco turns on the energy and catchy choruses, as on “I Might,” the album really fires into appeal. But this mixed approach also means that THE WHOLE LOVE doesn’t cohere into the greatest of Wilco albums; nevertheless, it mostly rocks with a twinge of the surreal.
#7 — STAR WARS (2015)
Favorite track: “The Joke Explained”
The strangest title and cover art pairing in Wilco’s discography contains a unique release in said canon. Coming after the biggest gap in album projects from the band (just a few months over three years since MERMAID AVENUE VOL. III), STAR WARS was released for free by the band. And what a gift that was, as the album contains a rocking, fuzzy guitar sound that mark it as Wilco’s most guitar-y record. What I mean is that STAR WARS, perhaps fittingly, at times goes into a psychedelic or spacy…space, although the album really does have nothing to do with the movie franchise. It makes for a strange and electrifying prelude to the era of Wilco we’re in currently that is certainly more acoustic and downtempo. It’s not like STAR WARS is some heavy metal album, but its edge, still accompanied by a twangy whimsy, is really appreciated.
#6 — BEING THERE (1996)
Favorite track: “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”
BEING THERE, Wilco’s sophomore release, brought some distinguished critical praise to the fledgling band, to say nothing of its improved commercial prospects. But that’s perhaps because the album drifted a bit away from the overt alt-country of A.M. and went inward a bit, presenting some of the introspective folk that would be suffused into many Wilco albums going forward. But BEING THERE still rocks, as exemplified by “I Got You (At the End of the Century).” The band is simultaneously tighter and looser on BEING THERE, an album that carries some strong hooks while experimenting out into spacey-er sounds.
#5 — A GHOST IS BORN (2004)
Favorite track: “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”
Speaking of space: A GHOST IS BORN was probably Wilco’s most experimental record to date, working with electronic sounds, droning effects, and elongated instrumental noodlings. Usually, such things don’t really appeal to me. But somehow, the band was able to pull out of this album an appropriately ethereal atmosphere, one that progresses with a grounded beat on a song like “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” but also wheels out into psychedelia with its winding guitar sounds. A GHOST IS BORN doesn’t have hit singles with the catchiest of choruses, a trait that usually appeals to me, but it does have an impressively crafted and ultimately impactful turn into a looseness that suffuses into my mind.
#4 — SKY BLUE SKY (2007)
Favorite track: “Shake It Off”
SKY BLUE SKY, like many Wilco albums, is another release of some contradictions. While it at times veers into the most downtempo and wistful of anything the band has done, the record also carries an urgency of rock music. That’s not necessarily immediately heard on “Shake It Off,” at first a warbling little ditty, but rest assured that it transforms into a head-bopping tune and that the rest of the album does in fact do the same. SKY BLUE SKY veers with an experimental yet satisfying verve that was seldom heard at the time, let alone in Wilco’s own impressive discography.
#3 — WILCO (THE ALBUM) 
Favorite track: “Sonny Feeling”
I believe WILCO (THE ALBUM) was my first new Wilco record, so forgive me if I delve a bit into nostalgia in its high ranking on this list. However, even listening to it with as much detachment as possible 13 years later, I can safely say that the band’s self-titled is a great bit of pop-folk-alt rock or whatever you call what Wilco does. “Sonny Feeling” has such a great belting chorus and it’s just the best highlight of many on WILCO. I think the album does indeed have a kind of sunny and warm tone that is really fun and impressive in its proficiency. There are maybe “deeper” releases from the band, but WILCO is pure rock-y candy, as far as they have probably ever taken such an instinct. But of course, because it’s Wilco, their “THE ALBUM” never descends into grating cheese.
#2 — YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT (2001)
Favorite track: “Heavy Metal Drummer”
I have a feeling YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT is the favorite for favorite Wilco album. It’s certainly an impressive record, an evolution and spin on the sound that the band had developed in the back half of the ’90s. YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT works with so many influences and songwriting cues that it’s impressive that the thing coheres into something recognizable and wholly enjoyable. The record has been termed “art rock,” a term that is useful in that it implies that YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT is an experiment outside the expected conventions of the rock genre. But it also belies the fact that the album is not some inaccessible bit of noodling or avant-garde sensibilities. Instead, Wilco brought to YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT a roots-y Americana approach and fused it with a really smooth production style, gleaming electronic support, and strong pop hooks. These characteristics are not necessarily unique to this album in Wilco’s pretty vast discography, but they are done really, really well on YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT, a special album indeed.
#1 — SUMMERTEETH (1999)
Favorite track: “Can’t Stand It”
As with much of Wilco’s work, it’s kind of hard to articulate exactly why I love SUMMERTEETH so much. I think that’s because the band’s music defies easy description and categorization. Since their earliest and most obviously alt-country days, Wilco still brought streaks of something else that both looked back to prior forms and forward to a novel approach to the roots of American music. And with SUMMERTEETH, the band did that with some of their most overtly poppy twists. “Can’t Stand It” just might be my favorite Wilco song, which wheels into a sunny sound before devolving into jangling with a great Tweedy scream. Wilco would be more introspective, and even more experimental, but it’s with SUMMERTEETH that the band reach its pinnacle of its artsy-folksy-poppy instincts.