Wilco is an American contemporary rock band, predominantly known for its country music roots.
Primary songwriter/singer Jeff Tweedy was a member of the seminal 1980s and 1990s group Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy shared songwriting and singing duties with bandmate Jay Farrar, who split from Uncle Tupelo and formed Son Volt. Tweedy formed Wilco from the remaining Uncle Tupelo members (bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer and string player Max Johnston).
Wilco has steadily gained popularity since its first release A.M. in 1995, the only one of the band's albums that resembles the former Uncle Tupelo sound. Produced by Brian Paulson and lead guitar work done by Bottle Rockets' frontman Brian Henneman, A.M. reached #27 on the Billboard heatseeker chart; it would later place 34th on the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1995.
Multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett later joined the band, expanding their already rich sound, adding more electronic/keyboard music, as well as the strength of a second guitar. They released the double album Being There, which won glowing reviews (it placed 14th on the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1996) and a devoted group of fans, but average sales, reaching #73 on the Billboard album charts. The track "Outtasite (Out Of Mind)" reached the mainstream and modern rock top 40 in 1997.
During the spring of 1995, Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora had contacted English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg about writing music for a selection of completed Guthrie lyrics. Her father had left behind over a thousand sets of complete lyrics written between 1939 and 1967; none of these lyrics had any music other than a vague stylistic notation. Bragg would later approach Wilco, asking them to participate in the project as well. Wilco agreed, and in addition to recording with Bragg in England, they were given their own share of songs to finish.
Rather than recreating tunes in Guthrie's style, Bragg and Wilco created new, contemporary music for the lyrics. What seemed like a risky enterprise surprised everyone; released in 1998 as Mermaid Avenue, the results were met with universal acclaim. The album won a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and went on to place fourth on the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1998 (right behind Bob Dylan's Live 1966).
In 1999, the band released Summerteeth, showing a band evolving from country to electric rockers. Songs like "Can't Stand It" and "I'm Always In Love" demonstrated a buzzing shift in their sound. Reprise had higher expectations, but the album peaked at a disappointing #78 on the Billboard album charts. Regardless, it was still critically acclaimed and managed to place 8th on the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1999. Summerteeth also represented a new focus on creating 'studio sounds' that were added to the live tracking for effect. With later albums, Tweedy and Co.'s fascination with these studio sounds would continue to grow.
They returned to their country roots once more with the warmly-received Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, a sequel of sorts to the original project. Many of the tracks were leftover from the first Mermaid Avenue sessions, but Wilco also finished a few more songs, including "Someday Some Morning Sometime," which foreshadowed their next release. (Mermaid Avenue Vol. II would go on to place 32nd on Pazz & Jop's Critics Poll for 2000.)
The band's next album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is considered by many in the music industry to be one of 2002's best albums, as well as a standout in terms of innovation. What started as an album continuing down the musical and sonic path set by Summerteeth morphed into a monster that would attract plenty of adulation and trouble.
Glenn Kotche replaced Coomer on drums (Coomer would later play with the band Swag), and brought a more musical and improvisational style of playing to the songs. Multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach also joined so the band could better duplicate their complex arrangements live and in the studio.
The production seemed to go well, though serious rifts formed between Bennett and his bandmates. The situation came to a boil when Jim O'Rourke of Sonic Youth was asked to remix the album over Bennett's objections. Contrary to popular belief, O'Rourke actually stripped away some of the avant-garde noises recorded by Wilco rather than bring them up in the mix.
Bennett was not pleased with O'Rourke's involvement, and he was fired from the band shortly after completion of the album. (Bennett later began a project with longtime collaborator Edward Burch and released The Palace at 4 A.M. on the same day Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was ultimately released.)
The situation grew worse when Reprise Records, the band's label and a Warner subsidiary, rejected the album, sparking a long search to find a new home for the band. In the meantime, Wilco streamed the album from their website after purchasing the master tapes for $50,000. Ironically, the band ended up at Nonesuch Records, another Time Warner subsidiary, and the album was released in the spring of 2002.
When it was released, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot reached #12 on the Billboard album charts, Wilco's highest chart position to that date, as well as charting in Australia. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would later go on to sell over 500,000 copies, and to date remains Wilco's best selling album.
Some fans were alienated by the noise driven elements of many YHF tracks, but the band did attract new fans who appreciated their new direction. Despite Reprise's earlier doubts of commercial viability, songs like "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "Jesus, etc." became staples of alternative and progressive rock radio. More impressively, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot topped 2002's Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, winning 2328 points over 201 votes. (Second place was taken by Beck's Sea Change, which won 1506 points over 139 votes.)
Filmmaker Sam Jones, who photographed the cover art for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, caught much of the YHF-era proceedings on film and from that material released the black-and-white documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. One already classic scene involves an acidic argument between Tweedy and Bennett over the beginning of a song, "Heavy Metal Drummer", ending in Tweedy's running to the toilet to vomit (ostensibly due to the chronic migraines he has had since youth). One DVD has the movie with extra footage and commentary, and the other has clips of live performances.
In 2004, Bach left the band, leaving Wilco a sextet, now featuring acclaimed jazz guitarist, Nels Cline, as well as member of Stirratt's side project The Autumn Defense, Pat Sansone.
Wilco's most recent album, A Ghost is Born was released on June 22, 2004, a date that was pushed back after Tweedy entered a rehabilitation facility for his addiction to his migraine painkillers, an event that also caused them to pull out of their headline slot at that year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. Hailed by critics, A Ghost is Born was Wilco's first album to make the top ten of the US album charts in 2004, opening at #8, and also reached the top 50 of the Australian charts. A Ghost is Born won Wilco its first ever Grammy Awards in 2005 for Recording Package and Alternative Music Album. It also placed 13th on 2004's Pazz & Jop Critics Poll.
Musically, YHF and Ghost's combination of power pop and obliquely lyricked art rock most resembled Big Star's Sister Lover - an album which ironically also suffered the fate of being rejected by the band's own record company.
During its Summer 2005 tour, Wilco announced that it will return to the studio in August 2005 to work on its follow up to A Ghost is Born, which is rumored to be more electronic and inspired by dance music. 2005 will also see the release of both a live DVD and album, recorded May 4-7, 2005 at the Vic Theater in Chicago, Illinois.