If you’re 25 or under, you might best know Wilco as your dad’s favorite band. And guess what? Sometimes father truly knows best. Since 1995, Wilco has served as the main outlet for the rock-solid songwriting of Jeff Tweedy, and despite undergoing multiple line-up changes and hardships both personal and professional, they’ve amassed an impressive catalog of music (12 studio albums, two of which are doubles). Their proliferation isn’t surprising with Tweedy at the helm— according to the man himself he writes at least a song a day. What is surprising is that the quantity hasn’t diminished the quality much, if at all. In fact, if you ask your dad, he’ll probably tell you that Wilco doesn’t have a bad album. But since no one likes listening to daddy, we went ahead and listed all their records from worst to best— because somebody finally had to sit you down to have the big talk about the Hummingbirds and Muzzle of Bees. Here is the definitive ranking of every Wilco album.
12. The Whole Love (2011)
Wilco may not have a bad record, but every band has their least good one. For Tweedy and Co., it’s “The Whole Love.” The band is in an experimental mode here, with mixed results. On TWL, a layer of industrial, electronic atmosphere is painted on to their usual assortment of country, rock, and folk tunes. It’s sonically interesting, but the melodies are hard to find and the band is playing like they’re a little bored. There are plenty of gems here, but with 11 other albums to go back to, we won’t blame you if you only half-like “The Whole Love.”
Play it again: “Open Mind”
Skip it: “Capitol City”
11. Wilco (the Album) (2009)
Not content to simply have an eponymous album, Wilco dropped “Eponymous Album… THE ALBUM!!” Wilco (The Album) is the band at their least daring, and you know what? It’s pretty good! Critics gave them some shit for nestling so comfortably into straight ahead country/rock, and for opening “Wilco (The Album)” with “Wilco (The Song),” but most of the tunes on this one are a toe-tapping nice time played by guys who really know what they’re doing. I’m sorry, is Jeff Tweedy not allowed to have a little fun once in a while? The man wrote “Jesus, Etc.” Give him a fucking break!
Play it again: “Wilco (The Song)” Fuck the haters, it’s groovy.
Skip it: “You Never Know” This plea to the next generation against despair falls flat in a world where things have only gotten worse.
10. Star Wars (2015)
Wilco goes garage rock on the lawsuit-courting “Star Wars,” released as a free download on their website in 2015. Like almost all their albums, “Star Wars” was recorded in the band’s Chicago loft, and the sprawling sessions produced another record that they released the following year— the tighter, folkier “Schmilco.” This highly active era was a real treat for fans. “Star Wars’ is drenched in fuzzy guitars, joyfully messy jamming, and loose, off-the-cuff-sounding lyrics (“I never knelt at the news/My parrot perished in the pews/I climb back into the yolk/It always ends in a tie” …Uuuuuh, okay, Jeff!). It’s the kind of record you don’t have to think too much about, which always makes it a charming surprise to go back to. And since Wilco forced their way into the LucasFilm canon, we’re expecting a Disney+ series starring them any day now.
Play it again: “Random Name Generator”
Skip it: “Pickled Ginger”
9. Cruel Country (2022)
Wilco’s most recent effort is a double album of exactly what it sounds like: country western music with an edge of critique for the western country that spawned it. “Cruel Country” leans into its influences with equal relish and discomfort, and the result is 21 songs of gorgeous longing that you could play at your local redneck bar without getting beat up. It’s an exploration of the American musical tradition Tweedy loves while examining its unsavory connections to right wing nationalism, in the vein of protest artists like John Prine and Neil Young, all delivered beautifully over alternating bass lines, sliding guitars, and honky tonk pianos. You and your Republican uncle might find common ground on this one if he doesn’t read the lyrics too closely.
Play it again: “Ambulance”
Skip it: None. Let it play through at a slow, rural pace.
8. Schmilco (2016)
“Star Wars “gets a sequel, and similarly to “The Empire Strikes Back,” this one is even better than the first. Like its predecessor, the title of this record indicates the band isn’t taking things too seriously, (“Schmilco” is a play on the fantastic album “Schmilsson” by Harry Nilsson— a man who famously loved to get silly and sing about coconuts from the perspective of multiple characters, some with borderline offensive accents) but the chaos is more controlled here. Most of “Schmilco’s” 12 tracks are acoustic guitar-driven meditations on being young, growing old, and wondering what the hell it all means. It’s not depressing, it’s not uplifting, it just is.
Play it again: “Normal American Kids”
Skip it: None. Savor your childhood, you’ll be 50 before you know it.
7. Ode To Joy (2019)
Wilco’s strongest record in a decade hits with a murmur. Opting for open-tuned, cheap-o guitars and, according to Tweedy, “drums so depressed they can hardly walk,” “Ode To Joy” takes the minimal approach to achieve the most intimate record of the band’s career. They also continue their streak of borrowing titles, this time repurposing the name of Beethoven’s “9th Symphony” as an ironic underline of the record’s melancholic slow burn. “Ode To Joy” plays like a collection of the most well-produced demo tracks you’ve ever heard, and rewards thorough re-listens.
Play it again: “One and a Half Stars”
Skip it: None. Lean into your inner Sad Dad.
6. Being There (1996)
In 1996, Jeff Tweedy quit smoking weed and then made a perfect double album. The last time I quit the devil’s lettuce, I realized “Adventure Time” is not as funny as I thought it was when I was high. It’s up for debate which of these accomplishments is greater, but what is not debatable is how well “Being There” has stood the test of time. The album is full of fun genre exercises, from shoe-gazey alternative to Pet Soundsian baroque pop, all tinged with the psychedelic weirdness that would define their next few releases. And I can hear you screaming “ThEN wHy iS It rANkEd #6?!?!?!” into the phone you’re skimming this on. Relax. It’s because 5-1 are that. fucking. good.
Play it again: “Red-Eyed and Blue”
Skip it: None. Jeff Tweedy forewent his royalties on this album to convince his label to make it a double disc. The least you can do is listen to the whole damn thing.
5. Sky Blue Sky (2007)
The sobriety album. This one divided fans and critics alike, but for my money, it’s the most underrated record of the bunch. It’s the first album the band made after Tweedy received treatment for opioid addiction, and some listeners bristled at the departure from the esoteric songwriting and deconstructed arrangements of its predecessors. Others of us, however, felt that slightly longer guitar solos and more abstract lyrics were not worth a man dying over. Wilco would get weird again later, but “Sky Blue Sky” is vulnerable and direct, giving itself over to the gratitude (and occasional boredom) that comes with seeing the world through clear eyes for the first time in a long time.
Play it again: “Hate It Here” Possibly the best song about doing laundry ever written.
Skip it: None. Sorry— you’re sober now, and you’re gonna have to meet life on life’s terms.
4. Summerteeth (1999)
It’s the last Wilco album of the 90s, and the first to sound expensive. “Summerteeth” is heavily overdubbed compared to mostly-recorded-live early stuff, and the record goes all over the place searching for the radio hit it ultimately failed to produce. The album may have never reached its intended destination at the top of the alternative rock charts, but the meandering journey is truly amazing. Gosh, guys— I guess it really is about the friends we made along the way!
Play it again: “A Shot In the Arm”
Skip it: You are allowed to skip the 23 seconds of silence that precedes the hidden tracks.
3. A.M. (1995)
“A.M.” is Wilco’s debut after forming from the ashes of Tweedy’s former band Uncle Tupelo. Like many impressive introductions, this is the opening statement of a group sitting on a treasure trove of good tunes, and you can hear the excitement. Aptly titled, “A.M.” is their most radio-friendly record, and consists of big, power-pop arrangements with catchy hooks, plus a lot of steel guitar. The production is less polished than everything after, and the lower-fi sound gives you the feeling of sitting in on band practice with the countless cigarette breaks and tuning of guitars edited out. Recently, “A.M.” has been the subject of controversy by being placed higher on this list than “Summerteeth” and “Being There,” enraging Gen-X audiophiles everywhere. Don’t get your flannels in a bunch about it, Brad— it’s only the definitive and unequivocal ranking.
Play it again: “I Must Be High”
Skip it: None.
2. A Ghost Is Born (2004)
Wilco at their weirdest. It’s got two songs that clock in over the ten-minute mark (“Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Less Than You Think”). It’s got long stretches of quietude that erupt into trashy, panic-stricken guitar solos from Tweedy (“At Least That’s What You Said,” “Handshake Drugs”). It’s got punky, uptempo bar-rock (“I’m a Wheel”) and pure-pretty indulgence (“Hummingbird”). If you don’t like it, you don’t like Wilco, in which case, I don’t know why you’re still reading this.
Play it again: “Hell Is Chrome”
Skip it: None
1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
If you scrolled all the way to the end just to make sure we got this one right, congrats on the validation. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was infamous before it was famous— the band was given total creative control from Reprise Records, only to be dropped by the label when the suits didn’t like the results. The label’s lack of vision (or, apparently, working ears) resulted in a lengthy fight from which the band emerged owning the masters to YHF, eventually finding a home at Nonesuch Records— a label that, in the greatest irony since the “Gift of the Magi” (I think? I haven’t actually read it), is owned by Reprise. None of these contract disputes are as interesting as the music itself though. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is the band’s “Kid A,” their “Dark Side of the Moon,” their “Punk Goes Pop Vol. 5”— an opus that will be adored, pored over, and held up as a masterpiece for decades to come. Not many albums are cool enough to get the band that made it fired, but this one is, and you’ll feel cool for getting it.
Play it again: The whole thing from start to finish, then start it over.
Skip it: None. Who are you— Reprise Records?!