The history of rock music is littered with the bones of favorite bands. Sometimes, existing together proves too much. Though musicians often talk about a break-up in terms of having the freedom to explore new creative territory, their output somehow never reaches the same heights their band did. The collective Beatles will always be better than their respective solo projects. The Breeders and Frank Black have put out some decent albums, but nothing that approaches their work in the Pixies. No matter how many times the story is played out, bands keep splintering into shadows of their former selves.
For a rule to be valid, however, there must be an exception. The emergence of Michael Jackson from the Jackson 5, Tupac Shakur from Digital Underground and Justin Timberlake from N’Sync worked out well for the emergent parties, but the rest of their groups were left to history. One of the few instances where the split-up of a band actually led to the creation of better music from both parties was alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo.
Though Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar produced some genuine classics with Uncle Tupelo -- Anodyne and No Depression -- the two couldn’t reconcile their divergent visions for the band. In a turn around from the usual however, the end of Uncle Tupelo gave rise to a plethora of music, some of which surpasses the creative output of the original band.
Herewith, a list of the greatest albums to come out of one of the most acrimonious break-ups in indie rock.
10. The Magnificent Defeat: Jay Bennett
After he and Farrar broke up their partnership, Jeff Tweedy found new collaborative friction with Bennett. The duo went on an incredible three-album hot streak that ended in Bennet’s firing during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fallout. Bennett then had a three-album hangover that found him experimenting with a variety of sounds in order to find his voice as a solo artist. He returned to form with The Magnificent Defeat, a raucous album that is a loose, ragged collection that embraces the harder edge that Wilco left behind.
9. Blood of the Ram: The Gourds
[Eleven Thirty, 2004]
Here’s a question that’s rarely been asked about the break-up of Uncle Tupelo: What happened to the fiddle player? Max Johnston landed on his feet after the break-up, playing with Wilco through Being There, touring with his sister, Michelle Shocked, and joining Freakwater for a short stint. Johnston hooked up with the Gourds in 1999. Five years later, he was a full-fledged member when they released this fun, grungy set of tunes for the “unwashed and well-read.”
8. Loose Fur: Loose Fur
[Drag City, 2003]
Loose Fur, comprising Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, and guitarist Jim O’Rourke, is not the most accessible offshoot from the Uncle Tupelo family. The band served as an early outlet for Tweedy’s experimental tendencies, often drawing the ire from fans of the country oriented Wilco as a contributor to the Tweedy turning away from the sound of A.M. and Being There in favor of the more complex Summerteeth. Loose Fur, the trio’s debut album, is significant as a document of this point in Tweedy’s evolution as an artist. His collaboration with O’Rourke greatly influenced Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The seeds of that album can be found on this collection, making it an indispensable part of Wilco’s history.
7. Down With Wilco: The Minus 5
[Yep Roc, 2003]
Down With Wilco is the other side of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot coin. While Loose Fur inspired much of the sound on the album, Wilco’s collaboration with Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey served as a welcome distraction from the group’s bitter divorce from their record label. The album is a loose and loud collection, topped off by the prescient “Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit).”
6. Trace: Son Volt
[Warner Bros., 1995]
Though Tweedy eventually found his footing, the initial round of albums went to Son Volt founder Farrar. Trace updated Uncle Tupelo’s traditional sound by experimenting with college rock guitar lines. Though “Drown” remains that most easily recognizable song from the album, the quieter numbers such as “Tear Stained Eye” and “Ten Second News” give a better approximation of where Farrar would travel musically over the next decade and beyond.
5. Being There: Wilco
For a certain segment of the Wilco fan base, this album would be sitting at the top position. Being There stands as Jeff Tweedy’s penultimate statement in the field of alt-country. The expansive double album meanders through American roots music, touching on bluegrass, country, and early rock 'n' roll before settling in and signing off with the epic “Dreamer in My Dreams.”
4. Mermaid Avenue: Billy Bragg and Wilco
Mermaid Avenue is the one album a Wilco purist might not have, dismissing it as a cover album of Woody Guthrie tunes. They would be missing, however, some of the most inventive instrumentation the band has ever committed to tape and the full-circle realization of the reverential depiction of roots music that Tweedy began in Uncle Tupelo.
3. Weird Tales: Golden Smog
Golden Smog is the Super Friends of the alt-country universe, comprising members, in the band’s various incarnations, of Wilco, the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, and Big Star. Though 1995’s Down By the Old Mainstream features “Pecan Pie,” possibly the best song ever written about longing and pastry, Weird Tales has “Please Tell My Brother,” one of the simplest, saddest, and most perfect songs Tweedy has ever written. Weird Tales is strong throughout, but this simple three minutes makes it essential.
2. Wide Swing Tremolo: Son Volt
[Warner Bros., 1998]
While Jeff Tweedy has racked up Grammy nominations, Jay Farrar has worked quietly under the radar, producing a catalog of music that stayed closer to the alt-country roots of Uncle Tupelo. Though Wide Swing Tremolo was initially viewed as a disappointment after the mainstream crossover of Trace, this album offers incredibly catchy singles like “Medicine Hat,” meditative instrumentals, and “Hanging Blue Side,” which sounds like the last song ever recorded by Uncle Tupelo.
1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Wilco
Though it led to Wilco being dropped from their record label, drove away band members Jay Bennett and Ken Coomer, and alienated the few remaining fans from the alt-country days, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears. The album was critically lauded upon its release, and the non-commercial collection went on to sell nearly 600,000 copies. Though the numbers had to offer a degree of vindication to Tweedy, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stands as his profound artistic statement, a collection of tunes that is immediately accessible but almost bottomless both lyrically and musically. Wilco has continued to produce quality albums, eventually earning a Grammy for 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will always be the most exciting and triumphant moment in Tweedy’s career.
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