It's unclear at what point Wilco was first referred to as "America's answer to Radiohead," but since the term was first coined, it's been repeated thousands of times, including Greg Kot's band biography and Chuck Klosterman's Esquire profile of Jeff Tweedy. Surprisingly, Tweedy himself seems to have the best read on what the nonsensical comparison actually means:
"The label of 'American Radiohead' is critical shorthand for 'I don't know what to tell you its like, but trust me you'll like it'."
Self-awareness is not a trait usually associated with rock stars, but Tweedy is spot on with his analysis. That said, when examining the career paths of each band through their seven studio albums, parallels galore seem to be in play when examining how each has transitioned from one record to the next. Let's break it down!
Both bands debut with offerings that could most easily be classified as inauspicious. A.M. is by the number alt-country, and Pablo Honey sounds like an end-of-semester project from a student enrolled in "Early 90's modern rock 101." Neither album is bad, but based on the future output, both are relatively unremarkable. By the way, looking back, how fucking weird is it that Radiohead named an album after a Jerky Boys skit?
The second albums represent huge leaps forward in terms of potential as well as ambition. The best part of a tepid debut is the lack of any sophomore slump. There's not much in terms of stylistic evolution for either band on album #2, but the songwriting within the respective genres is leaps and bounds ahead of what each seemed capable of on their opening efforts. Bonus points for Wilco here, as most bands in their spot at the time would likely have whittled a double album down to one and saved some songs for the next album.
Album #3 is the game-changer album for each band. The one where you find yourself saying, "Holy shit! This band is swinging for the fences!" Both bands reinvent their sound to break out of the easily categorized mold that defined their earlier work. The band that wrote "Creep" bares little resemblance to the warped genius that produced "Paranoid Android." Likewise, anyone expecting a continued Gram Parsons vibe from Wilco would be in for a rude awakening by the time Tweedy is screaming "Something in my veins! Bloodier than blood!" while Jay Bennett goes crazy with the power of the synthesizer.
Album #4 is the "I thought the last album was good, but now I have no idea what on earth I'm even listening to!" album. Here's a fun trivia fact: In 2007, Radiohead would release an album on the internet! Maybe you heard about it? Or maybe you heard virtually every critic act like it had never been done before, while conveniently forgetting such a stunt was more or less exactly what Wilco did in 2000 after the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot rejection; they put it up on their website for free. If any decade-defining list does not contain both these albums in the top 10, then that particular list will wind up in my top 10 list for "Worst top 10 list ever." Got it?
Ok. So here's the one place where the parallel trajectories slightly part ways. Amnesiac wasn't exactly Kid B, but it continues the same push/pull alternation of warmth/alienation that Kid A established. This made it less surprising, but also a more accessible listen. Tweedy, now working without Bennett, apparently listened to a lot of Neil Young, Television, and the sounds of his own migraines to make A Ghost is Born. The ridiculously indulgent noise stunt of "Less Than You Think" seems like something Yorke and company would approve of.
Each band's 6th album seems to respectively be their weakest since the debuts. That said, this really only proves the strength of each catalog, since both Sky Blue Sky and Hail To the Thief are very good albums. But neither quite measures up with the reputation both bands had established for themselves as masters of classic albums. I have no idea how "The Thanks I Get" was cut from the original SBS album, but it bothers me to this day.
We reach present day with both bands putting out albums much better than their last offerings, and seeming secure in where their careers have taken them. Would In Rainbows or Wilco (the album) qualify as either band's best effort? Probably not, but both work perfectly as cohesively brilliant works, as well as summations of each band's career thus far. If you were introducing either band to someone who had never heard them, these would be the places to start.