This is the final in a five part series dedicated to the top five rock artists of the decade, 2000-2009. The criteria used to determine this list were: (1) Quality of Music, (2) Quantity of Released Material, (3) Diversity of Media, and (4) Roles of Artists/Band Members. There was stiff competition, but here goes…
By Chris Moore:
And coming in at number one on our Top Rock Artists of the Decade list are none other than Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glen Kotche, Nels Cline, Mikael Jorgensen, and Pat Sansone…
…better known as Wilco!
Before I get to writin’ below, I would be remiss if I didn’t note just how close a battle it was between this band and my pick for number two, the Barenaked Ladies. Now, I know what you might be thinking. The Barenaked Ladies and Wilco referenced so closely? Well, the truth is that they have both distinguished themselves as prolific writers, performers, and album-makers in a decade when more and more people are allowing those oh-so-frustrating, defeatist sentiments:
They just don’t make music like they used to…
There really isn’t any band making great music/albums anymore…
Well, it’s simply not true!
Wilco had to take the top spot on this list for a number of reasons, not the least of which being what a memorable decade this was for the band. It was, after all, the ten year span that kicked off with them being kicked from their label after the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions, the release of which would go on to skyrocket them as close to the mainstream as they’ll probably ever come.
You know what they say: out of the alt country genre dead-end and into the fire. (Isn’t that what they say?)
Several key personnel changes at the turn of the millennium notwithstanding, Wilco’s lineup stabilized by A Ghost is Born, and they have since created some of the most interesting and engaging rock music available — certainly of this decade, and very likely of all time.
While internet-fueled music piracy was threatening the entire system by which the industry functions, Wilco was busy pioneering new ways to reach fans. They were among the first to stream an album online for free. They signed on for the return of vinyl. They supported numerous causes, brought lost music by historic singer/songwriters (namely Woody Guthrie) back to life, put on marathon-length live shows of the finest quality, and engaged in myriad side projects.
Wilco has not rested these past ten years, and anyone who has been listening knows it is not an exaggeration to say that this decade has seen the band hit its stride and perhaps its peak.
You Have To Lose…
It may have been 2001, but the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot calls to mind the pages of rock music history that involved such trendsetters and iconoclasts as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and the Beatles. Taking the music itself — the genre, the style, the arrangements — out of the equation for the moment, the difference of opinion between the executives at Reprise Records and the members of Wilco was an old story: band makes music it feels is honest and A&R men see only dollar signs.
As a result of Reprise’s treatment of the band, Wilco ended up gaining the sympathy and interests of many fans, critics, and music magazines. After the label rejected the album, they didn’t waste any time going to plan B, posting the album in its entirety on their website for free streaming. It would be until 2002 before Nonesuch (ironically a sister company of Reprise) signed Wilco and finally released the album properly.
Fittingly, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the first great Wilco album. Its simple songs and ambitious arrangements redefined their sound, and there couldn’t have been a better album for this publicity boost to happen to.
Experimenting, Jamming, and Blending
On the heels of Foxtrot, Wilco took an even more experimental turn with A Ghost is Born. Some tracks were tremendous achievements — “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Hell is Chrome,” for instance — and others were overly self-indulgent, namely “Less Than You Think” and its eleven minutes of feedback loops.
Tweedy himself admitted that it simply isn’t a track that even he would listen to every time around.
For their next project, Sky Blue Sky, the band altered the formula, leaning more towards a live band feel. The result? Some of their most fun rock songs, such as “Hate It Here” and “Walken.” Thankfully, this did not lead to a breakdown in their cohesion or a “jam band” mentality. As one might expect from Wilco’s previous releases, even the guitar solos in such tracks as “Impossible Germany” are impressively choreographed.
This is where Nels Cline’s outstanding talent really began to shine through on record.
Following two years of touring in support of Sky Blue Sky, and as if three strong albums in the decade weren’t enough, Tweedy and company released Wilco (the album) in 2009. As the title might imply, this record finds Wilco really settling in, blending the various sounds and styles they perfected throughout the decade into one superb effort. While it certainly isn’t their strongest individual project, Wilco (the album) is one of the most dynamic in their catalog, featuring the experimental “Deeper Down” and the oh-so blunt “Wilco (the song).” The former would have blended smoothly into A Ghost is Born, and the latter reads like a direct, personal letter from Jeff Tweedy and Wilco to their fans.
On and On and On…
As I suggested in my “Number Two” article on the Barenaked Ladies, this number of quality studio albums would be, in and of itself, criteria for a band to be considered one of the best of the decade. Like BnL, Wilco has been prolific beyond these standard releases. This includes Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000), the second installment in their collaboration with Billy Bragg putting Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. 2005 saw the release of Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, Wilco’s first live record, a double CD with 23 tracks. Four years later, they released their first live DVD, Ashes of American Flags, which featured a song selection that was more than 50% different from Kicking Television.
Outside of official full-band projects, the members of Wilco are constantly involved in other projects, including but not limited to Tweedy in Golden Smog, Stirratt and Sansone in The Autumn Defense, and Nels Cline in The Nels Cline Singers. In 2003, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck invited members of Wilco to contribute to his own side project, the Minus Five, and the result was Down with Wilco. In 2009, several members traveled to New Zealand to play on the latest Seven Worlds Collide charity project.
And the list goes on and on and on.
Since 2003’s More Like the Moon, Wilco has made a habit of releasing EPs to accompany their official album releases, offering them as free downloads to those who have purchased the CD (or downloaded the album legally). 2004 saw the release of The Wilco Book, which was packaged with a CD loaded with demos and outtakes. Adding to the interactive quality of their music, the band now gives out free full-color programs at their live shows, booklets which include a score card listing all of their songs for their fans to check off as they are played.
To think that I promised myself I would avoid listing too many details…
I think the aforementioned details paint an indisputable portrait of a band always pushing themselves to the next level, each of the six members constantly involved with music both in the band and in their side projects, and a group of singer/songwriter/performers dedicated to making their music and their process transparent for their fans. On record as they are live — and at the risk of overstatement — Wilco is a dynamic group whose music has seen me through some of the darkest chapters of my life (and safely out into the light again!) and a band that continues to inspire me as a songwriter and as a listener.
Wilco is my choice for the number one rock band of the decade!