Essential Albums: A.M. by Wilco

It’s been a while since I’ve done an essential album post. Today, I’ll be focusing on an album that I feel doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.

Wilco’s A.M. was originally released in March of 1995 as the highly anticipated first project by Jeff Tweedy after the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo. Inevitably, it would be compared to Jay Farrar’s first release with his first post-Tupelo project, Son Volt’s Trace. Of course, Trace (released in Sept. 1995) is one of my favorites albums of all-time and is widely regarded as Farrar’s greatest achievement and one of the seminal releases of the alt-country genre. It’s no surprise then that A.M. is often undervalued when compared to its 1995 counterpart.

The extra dilemma for A.M. is that it also seems to get lost in comparison to Wilco’s later output as well. The band earned “critical darling” status in 2002 with the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The praise for that album was earned as much for the rights battle surrounding the album’s release as it was for the album itself. Wilco’s label, Warner/Reprise, wanted the band to change the album to make it sound more commercial. Tweedy refused, bought the rights to the album, and released it on the indie-label, Nonesuch. In doing so, he was able to release the album he wanted with a sound that mixed deft pop sensibilities with wild sonic experimentation. There is also a large contingent of Wilco fans that prefer 1996’s double album Being There to A.M. due to its country flavored experiments and departures.

So… If A.M. isn’t a genre defining blueprint for the alt-country sound like Trace… and it isn’t a bold artistic statement that stretches the band’s sound into strange new places… Then what is it and why is it essential listening?

To me, A.M. is a sterling example of a straight forward country-rock album that doesn’t skimp on either the country or the rock. When Uncle Tupelo split, many of the group’s side players and road musicians stayed with Tweedy. Drummer Ken Coomer, multi-instrumentalist John Stirratt, and producer Brian Paulson are all holdovers from Tupelo’s final album Anodyne. Tweedy also enlisted steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines and Bottlerockets frontman Brian Henneman to join the party for the album. The result is a studio crew with the chops to blast out the muscular Stone-style riffs of rock flavored tracks like “Casino Queen,” the right amount of twang to pull off country numbers like “That’s Not the Issue,” and the plaintive restraint to bring the proper emotion to weepers like “I Thought I Held You.”

A.M. is nothing fancy, but what it does… it does very well. Again, it may not make the artistic statements or garner the indie cred of the band’s later work. It does, however, provide a very accessible jumping on point to Wilco, and one that can be approached by fans on either side of the rock/country spectrum.

Here are three songs that show off the stylistic range that the album achieves all while not straying too far from the roots of country-rock.

Wilco: I Must Be High (Buy Album)
Wilco: Pick Up the Change (Buy Album)
Wilco: Passenger Side (Buy Album)

5 Responses to “Essential Albums: A.M. by Wilco”

  1. Still my favorite Wilco album, after all of their other excellence.

  2. Nicely put.It’s tough to accord accolades on a group such as Wilco – them being simultaniously beloved and reviled – unless your are already part of the choir. (I’m part of the choir, singing along all out-of-tune!)I got deep into this one about the first week it was released, so it’ll always hold strong for me.I think, to appreciate it for it’s full strengths, it s neccessary for the listener to be able to divorce themselves from Uncle Tupelo baggage, and the stinkiness that band’s destruction engendered. If the listener can do that, then A.M. shines like the gem it is.

  3. Speaking of the Uncle Tupelo baggage…I’m always amazed when I meet a Tupelo fan who feels like they had to take sides in the split. I used to work with a woman who loved Wilco, but would change the station every time I would play a Son Volt song. She would call and tell me she was doing it.It wasn’t even that she didn’t like Son Volt’s music. She simply could not bring herself to support both bands and felt that you had to be a Tweedy person or a Farrar person. I think she was a little offended that I liked both.

  4. Compared to YHF, any other Wilco is second rate. JK.

  5. Summerteeth is their masterpiece. YHF is amazing, but not quite as good.I’ve always liked A.M., I mean, it’s not their best, but it’s got a lot of great songs, and well worth owning for fans of the band and/or genre.

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