Artist of the Decade

First, let's mention some artists who were in contention:

Josh Ritter was clearly near the top.
Eels were right behind or alongside Ritter.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were't far behind.
M. Ward, Damien Jurado and Okkervil River certainly cracked the top ten.
Josh Rouse and Bonnie "Prince" Billy were in the mix.
Despite only releasing two records, both of which are phenomenal, The Arcade Fire have to be considered.
Spoon made some good records.
Nathan Moore quietly became one of the best songwriters around.
Austin, Texas' The Gourds continued doing what they do and doing it great.

But this one was fairly easy.

Although they arguably released their best and most consistent material in the 1990s, Wilco are the top artist of the 2000s. Through numerous lineup shifts, label changes, rehab stints, hairstyles and even a very untimely death, now 15 years strong, Wilco have solidified themselves as one of the greatest American bands ever, and undoubtedly, the best of the past 15 years or so.

They opened the decade with their second Mermaid Avenue installment, one that didn't live up to the brilliance of its predecessor, but still contained some great Tweedy songs, including "Remember the Mountain Bed," "Airline To Heaven" and "Secret of the Sea." It didn't contain the depth of Volume 1, but Wilco and Bragg still gave us a solid effort.

And then it all changed. Lead members Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett were clearly reaching a creative apex together and that madness and mania resulted in what many consider the best record of the decade, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This record is worlds away from Tweedy's work in Uncle Tupelo and really anything that preceded Bennett's invitation to join the band. It was clear following Wilco's 1995 debut A.M. that Tweedy was looking to expand, and there's little question that a lot of the band's maturation can be attributed to Tweedy simply evolving, but there's also no questioning Bennett's influence. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, at least to my ears, feels like a complete divvying up of roles. Tweedy took the reigns as the songwriter and wrote some of his or anyone's best lines to date. Bennett oversaw the sonic mayhem that ultimately made this record an artistic dream.

And then came the dreaded masterstroke follow-up. And they came through. They didn't try to toss out a YHF sequel, but rather took some of the elements that made Foxtrot so mentally transcendent, but pulled it back a bit. More reserved, yet equally as touching at points, tracks such as "Hell Is Chrome," "Wishful Thinking," "Company In My Back" and "Handshake Drugs" are poignant stories and fill out A Ghost Is Born. Some of the unexpected charm and adventure is clearly lost, but no one expected a repeat performance, especially following Bennett's departure/dismissal. But they came through again.

And then the band returned to its bread and butter on 2007's Sky Blue Sky. Instead of shooting for the stars, it seems as if they just made a record, and a very good one. The endless tinkering that had come to be a cornerstone of the new Wilco was either abandoned or shelved in favor of a fairly straightforward collection of songs. "Maybe just need some time alone," Tweedy questions on the opening track "Either Way." And maybe this was just it. This feels like a record that Tweedy had unconsciously been writing for a while and this was the perfect time to let it out. Although not as "daring," Sky Blue Sky is more consistent top-to-bottom than Ghost. Sit back and listen to this record all the way through and you're likely to fall into its gracefulness for an hour. And forgive me for this, but you'll walk away enriched because, sometimes, "you're trying to paint a picture, but you're not sure which colors belong."

To close out the decade, this year brought us Wilco (The Album). As always, it has its moments, most notably "I'll Fight," but this may be their most fractured effort of the decade. It's hardly lackluster, and sounds like the band was genuinely just trying to have fun, but the results don't live up to the band's greatness. But having assembled such a masterful catalog, how could they? And like many Wilco records, time will reveal this record's true artistic value. It took me about four years to truly appreciate A Ghost Is Born. This one's barely had time to press on through.

Twenty to thirty years from now, Wilco will be considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, band of this period. And Jeff Tweedy will be mentioned right alongside Dylan, Young, Springsteen, Lennon, Drake and Van Zandt as one of the greatest songwriters to ever marry words to music. And in many senses, if we're lucky, it feels like there's still a lot to come.

Wilco in the 2000s
Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2 (2000)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
A Ghost Is Born (2004)
Kicking Television : Live In Chicago (2005)
Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Wilco (The Album) (2009)

Jeff Tweedy, Jay Bennett, John Stirratt, Leroy Bach, Pat Sansone, Glenn Kotche, Mike Jorgensen, Nels Cline

Pre-2000 : Ken Coomer, Max Johston, Bob Egan