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10 Best Albums Resulting From the Uncle Tupelo Break-Up

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
[Rykodisc, 2006]

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
[Sire, 1995]
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
[Elektra, 1998]
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
[Rykodisc, 1998]

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
[Nonesuch, 2002]

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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Down With Wilco is one of the worst things i've ever heard in my entire life. yes, that bad. otherwise, nice list!

/site_media/uploads/images/users/acb/01bigblacktomb.jpg acb

I know Autumn Defense should be on the list, but somebody needs to talk about the Jay Bennett album.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/mburr/Photo 44.jpg mburr

It is nice to see Jay Bennett on the list ....TMD is quite good in it's vision......

basil

Agreed, I'd put Autumn Defense Circles on here as well as A Ghost is Born.

comehomenow

if this site has an editor can ya have them forward along to the author the definition of "penultimate"

- ee cummings

Ms. I Dentifyed

Thanks, Ms. I Dentifyed. Missed that one, but it should be fixed.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/brandon/216_browser_clut.gif brandon

I stand corrected. "Penultimate" was the correct word. What Mike is saying here is that Summerteeth was Wilco's final alt-country album before the more straight-forward rock of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, thus making Being There Tweedy's second-to-last alt-country statement.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/brandon/216_browser_clut.gif brandon

"Blood of the Ram" is EASILY the worst Gourds record, and they have a slew of phenomenal records. And Bennett's "The Magnificent Defeat"? Are you serious? Listen to "The Palace at 4am" for great post-Wilco Bennett material.

kanyoufly

Straightaways should be on there...and ahead of Wide Swing Tremolo.

hank

Laughable list. But, this is the internet.

Boner In Sweatpants

kanyoufly is a turd (Thought you unsubbed Chris? Pathetic.) and this list stinks. Trace at #5 really? Weird Tales #3? Really?

Farrar's first solo record should be on this list. The Minus 5 is garbage. The Gourds record is garbage. The Loose Fur record is garbage. The Bennett record is garbage.

How exactly did this list get made?

Postcardfromhellisdumberthanabagofhammers

And what about the Courtesy Move 7"? That s**t is better than Highway 61...

kanyoufly

What version of Summerteeth are you listening to? There's nothing alt-country about it.

DeanKeaton

10. Golden Smog

Hap Hazzard

Trace should be #1. Straightaways should be in the top 5. Also need more Jay Farrar solo material.

sandusky

where does it say the album needs to be alt-country?
summerteeth should rate high on this list.

westonomlette

It is a stretch to say that a Jay Bennett album resulted from the UT dissolution. The proposition that his albums resulted from the break up of Uncle Tupelo is tenuous at best. Also were albums by The Autumn Defense, The Bottle Rockets and Gob Iron left off because they were deemed unworthy or because you didn't know that John Stirratt and Brian Henneman - though Brian unofficially - were in UT and that Jay Farrar and Anders Parker recorded as Gob Iron a couple of years ago and are doing so again?
Otherwise a decent list.

dcarter

'Trace' is the reason why these other albums were made. And, it is hands down the best material post-UT. Golden Smog at #3 is just plain ignorant. 'Down With Wilco' is terrible. The real list is this...
1. Trace
2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. Sebastopol
4. Summer Teeth
5. Mermaid Avenue
6. Wide Swing Tremolo
7. Straighaways
8. Being There
9. Palace at 4AM
10. Terroir Blues

George Takei loves policemen

Palace at 4AM! I was just about to say that. Way to represent, G.T.!

/site_media/uploads/images/users/jimallen/HowardTheDuck.gif jimallen

Although this makes for interesting reading and everything, can you really say that Jay Bennett's album deserves to be here and Terroir Blues and Sebastopol don't? C'mon, you've got to be kidding. Sebastopol is easily top 3 as far as I'm concerned.

quadb

Hardy har har, that list sucks.

Dave

Glad to see Weird Tales on there. It's grossly underrated.

Jake

The Search is, by far, the best album to come out of any Uncle Tupelo off shoot. Songs like Metha, are mastemphetamine, Highways and Cigarettes, etc are masterful and poetic country songs. While songs like the Search and Automatic are the harder edge. Uncle Tupelo was about straddling the line between two different genres. The Search does that. Also, the lyrics are incredible.

I will agree that Yankee Hotel Fox Trot is Wilco's best album. I still like both Wilco and Uncle Tupelo--one can like country and rock and roll you know. But there's something about the haunting sounds of Farrar that appeals to me more...

Mike

Man, thum of you guyth mutht not know much about muthic. One thing I do know about music is that it's SUBJECTIVE and PERSONAL to the listener. Arguing here anonymously is just...ridiculous. Alot of these are really good albums. The Gourds' Blood of the Ram, however, is an excellent album. Although I agree with kanyoufly that it's probably not their best. Heavy Ornamentals or Ghosts of Halleleujah are very serious contenders. But God forbid Uncle Tupelo blow-hards should pull their heads out of their asses and actually expand their extremely narrow musical horizons. Word!

Gladys

Not a bad list at first glance, although I think Trace should be a clear #1. I fell a lot more on the Farrar side of the split with those great Son Volt albums of the 90s. I have come back a little more to the Tweedy side, although still firmly in the Son Volt camp, because of the good Wilco stuff but also because of the horrible Farrar solo albums and recent Son Volt crap. Hopefully as they get older they can learn to get along with others better and recover some of the fire from the mid to late 90s, which were the golden days in my opinion. I know there will be UT die hards which look back before that and Wilco die hards who look forward - but those are my two cents after listing to a lot of albums - but still a lot to listen to and learn.

cory

This was a great idea and review by Mike. I was surprised to read a lot of the feedback- it sounded more like a Right-Left discourse following a shooting in Tucson or abortion debate. Remember this is art folks! Always subjective and evolving...I'd argue my own top 10 tomorrow. Anyway, this is always a fun exercise and I was just stoked that Max Johnston was mentioned! Often forgotten or not recognized as he always plays second fiddle to someone (no pun intended) the guy is in my opinion the maker of music that does more to move my spirit than almost anyone else. Ever. Kev Russell is probable my favorite musician along with the likes of the Farrar, Tweedy, Whiskeytown, Lucinda, Gillian crew, but this guy, Max Johnston, is far and away the most underrated musician I have ever heard, along with Randy Bickford (The Strugglers).

amac

I really love "Trace", and Farrar definitely has the ability to write a song that sounds timeless. The problem is, I very rarely listen to the entire album front to back without skipping a track or two. Farrar has to be one of the most frustrating artists that way. He depends on his incredible voice too much sometimes and as a result some of his vocal melodies just come across as warbling and tuneless.
Tweedy is just the opposite. He has the ability to keep you interested with his vast pop and country influences, pull you in and keep you there. That "where have I heard that before" feeling pops up a lot when listening to them. Wilco is best experienced by the album, and I rarely skip through any songs when listening to them.
Ask 10 Wilco fans what the best Wilco song is you'll probably get 10 different answers. Ask a Son Volt fan what the best Son Volt song is and you'll always get one of the same five or six Farrar classics.
Farrar's great songs probably outweigh Tweedy's, but I have yet to hear a Farrar or Son Volt album that I wanted to listen to all the way through over and over.

dagnabbit

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