Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

The story of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has been told a million different times in the past decade, but it remains a pretty great story. Major-label band records album, correctly believing it to be their best work. Major label refuses to release album, incorrectly believing that there’s no hit to be heard there. Band retains rights to the album, says fuck it, and streams it on their website for free. Another subsidiary of that same major label finally snaps up band and releases album (10 years ago today). Album goes gold and gets all sorts of critical plaudits. The relationship between bands and labels can be a fuzzy, confusing thing; sometimes, after all, artists need to be saved from their own most indulgent ideas. But in the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot story, told most memorably in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, we see that tension between art and money in its purest form: A band doing great work, and a commerce-concerned label that doesn’t recognize that great work when it comes across the desk.

Of course, there’s more to the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot than that. When thinking about it, you also have to consider the battles between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett — the latter, more concerned with the mechanics of the actual songs, bounced from the band upon the album’s completion and continuing to resent the band for it until the day he died, long before his time. That part is sad, partly since Bennett’s ear for hooks was a big part of what made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as great as it was. Maybe the chemistry between the two frontmen wasn’t sustainable, but it did make for some great music, and the band never did anything as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after they ditched Bennett. And that part of the story also makes the whole thing weirder, since the album itself is so compulsively listenable, its experimental elements so overstated. This was a different time, to be sure; the music business was still doing just fine for itself, and it could still afford to shit on its cultishly beloved acts. But any label honcho who can’t figure out a way to sell a song as melodically powerful as “I’m The Man Who Loves You” shouldn’t have a job.

At the time, there was a whole lot of fuss about the album’s experimental bits: Its Jim O’Rourke mixing job, its parts where songs dissolved into pure skronk or noise. But listening to it now, the album practically sounds like classic rock. It’s a pure road-trip album, and the strummy acoustic singalong moments far outnumber the noise breaks. In fact, a big part of the album’s genius is the way those experimental stretches actually enhance the melody; when a song snaps back into focus after it’s faded into chaos, it feels like a glorious burst of sun. Especially when you consider that this album came pretty soon after Kid A, a much starker example of a famous band unmooring itself, it’s pretty weird that anyone ever made a fuss about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s more outre edges. Maybe those choices just stood out more because Wilco came from alt-country, maybe the most conservative branch on the indie rock tree. But today, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t sound any more experimental than, say, Led Zeppelin II.

To me, at the time, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot story all seemed pretty abstract. Even though they were streaming it on their site, I didn’t hear the album until they released it. Like a whole lot of other people, I had a dial-up connection, and that just wasn’t going to cut it unless I wanted to hear the songs in five-second chunks, with 10-second pauses in between. By the time the album finally dropped, I really didn’t think there’d be any way it could hold up to the fuss surrounding it. But it did. It held up because of the songcraft. And way more than the story around the album, that’s why we’re still talking about it today.

Now, in the comments section, your turn: How does Yankee Hotel Foxtrot hold up today? Am I right in saying that it’s far-and-away Wilco’s best album? What’s your favorite song from it? Favorite memory associated with it? And let’s all listen to some songs together below.

Comments (74)
  1. I might be in the minority but I think both sides were correct (Wilco and said major label). It’s their best work but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who listened to it in 2002 who could find any potential “hits”.

    • I always thought “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and “Jesus Etc.” were hit material as is. Actually, other songs too if the distortion were toned down… But then it wouldn’t be the YHF we love.

  2. In my humble opinion, A Ghost is Born is actually their best work – if not the landmark that YHF was.

    • I was all set to agree with you (actually, I was all set to post a comment identical to yours, but you’re first). Both A Ghost is Born and Summerteeth have stronger tracks on them. The first half of Ghost is Born is probably my favorite beginning to an album. It kind of fades, though. Summerteeth has great songs spread throughout, but some of the album tracks suffer from a lack of editing. It is a huge album. Where YHF lacks epic tracks (it has no “Via Chicago” or “Hell is Chrome”, just to mention two), it makes up by being one of Wilco’s only cohesive albums from start to finish.

      Maybe I’m alone in that feeling, but there are few parts of any album that I anticipate so much as the “ambient” features of YHF. By the time the pseudo-feminine voice comes in repeating “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, I’m left thinking “Wilco, you’ve changed, ohhh, you’ve changed”. The documentary certainly helps build up endearment for the album, and maybe that’s not fair to the other albums. A Ghost is Born is still my “go to” Wilco album, but it doesn’t match what YHF is as a document of the band’s transition.

      • I agree that YHF is their most cohesive album and that the moments of audio discord (and the moments afterwards when everything comes back together) are the most stunning of Wilco’s catelogue. For some reason, though, I always go back to AGIB when thinking about Wilco’s BEST songs and most satisfying album. Maybe it’s not as consistently great as YHF, but it’s solid all the way through and features what I would consider to be at least 4 of the band’s top 10 songs (At Least That’s What You Said, Muzzle of Bees, Company in my Back, Handshake Drugs), which I think really elevate it to their best release.
        For a comparison, I always think of it as the Amnesiac to Radiohead’s Kid A – the oft-overlooked little brother to a landmark that was, in many ways more boundary-pushing and enjoyable than its big brother.

    • i’m with you hartford. for my money it never got any better than muzzle of bees, hummingbird, and handshake drugs. and company in my back. and theologians. and i’m a wheel. and the first three tracks. damn… what an album. always been my hands-down favorite.

      personally, i might rank sky blue sky over YHF, too. it’s a different appreciation than i have for the earlier wilco albums, but still. that nels cline. he plays a mean guitar.

      • I’m kind of down on Sky Blue Sky for two reasons. First, every time Wilco releases an album, Tweedy says that it’s his favorite. It is a bullshit question for an interviewer to ask a musician “Which of your albums do you like the best?”, because “the current one” is always going to be the answer. During the pressers for Sky Blue Sky, though, Tweedy kept saying it without being asked. He followed up with his reasoning being “it was our most collaborative album.” Which brings me to the second reason. Wilco have one of the best living guitar players and one of the best living drummers and the product of “the most collaborative” work that they have done as Wilco sounds like Sky Blue Sky? I enjoy the songs on Sky Blue Sky, but any band (musically) could have recorded those tracks. They are a complete devolution from the trajectory of YHF and A Ghost is Born. Where are the Cline solos? (we get two brief ones) Where are the cool-ass drum fills or solos? (?) Good album, but it ranks below Being There and above A.M. for me.

        • hmm, can’t say i agree with that. of course, it’s a significant departure from early 2000′s wilco – and i wouldn’t necessarily call it a devolution – but to me, that’s because the album feels much less like an insular musical vision from jeff tweedy, and more like the first wilco album where everyone got to show off their individual chops. i.e., more collaborative. and while there wasn’t a solo of some sort featured in every song (probably for the best), the guitar work on impossible germany/walken/either way and drumming on, well, the whole album left me plenty satisfied.

      • Sorry if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that all the lead work on Ghost is Tweedy. I remember reading an interview in which he said that the only condition Nels had for joining the band was that Tweedy kept all of the lead parts he recorded on Ghost.

    • I agree Hartford. It’s the one I reach for first. YHF is clearly more “significant” to the band’s history, and the better documented, but AGIB continues to reveal and reward.

    • I thought I was a minority on that…Yankee Hotel is great but A Ghost painted a much more unique picture for me. One of my favorite records of that period.

  3. Their best albujm. Groundbreaking work.

  4. I really, really love YHF, but I think Summerteeth is even better. Summerteeth resonates with me emotionally in a very serious way.

    I can’t believe this came out 10 years ago already. I guess I’ll be spinning this later today.

  5. their best album with their best song (Jesus etc.) and the best album of the 00′s.

  6. re: “and it could still afford to shit on its cultishly beloved acts”

    Seems to me that the music biz still does that, whether it can afford to or not.

  7. Aaron Cunningham  |   Posted on Apr 23rd, 2012 +3

    I’m with HartfordTheWhale, though I’m not sure the question is relevant, as subjective as these things are… In this case “best” is really just a substitute for “the one I like the most” and those two streets do not and should not always intersect. I was recently reacquainted with The Whole Love and I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I enjoyed it than my first impression led me to believe. Is it possible that five months or five years from now, I’ll think that is better than YHF? Perhaps… That said, as noted, YHF holds up quite well on its own merits because it is chock full of powerful songs, thoughtful lyrics, and great hooks. Why anyone needed a “hit” from Wilco will always be the confusing part to me…

    • I think that what Phil alluded to above is kind of spot on. With the exception of Jesus, etc., there are not a lot of songs that jump out at you from YHF. It is a “grower”. The Wilco catalogue before that wasn’t really like that. There were a few songs on each album that were clearly built to be “pop” songs. It’s safe for a record company to invest in an album that has some “growers”, as long as there are three or four “singles” there, but YHF is a whole piece. In major label land, listeners’ attentions spans probably don’t allow them to hear two minutes of intro before getting to the “song” part of the song.

      I think that the documentary does a great job of demonstrating what an addict asshole Jeff Tweedy was at this moment in time. He was completely unrelenting in terms of album compromises. In hindsight, and thinking of Wilco as an “indie” band, the audience for that film is on Tweedy’s side. It’s great for posterity that he decided to take a stand for the album. Jay Bennett was a victim; YHF ultimately succeeded. For me, the whole film (and perhaps the “story” of YHF) came down to one conflict between Tweedy and Bennett. The band was about to go on tour, and they were considering setlists. Bennett, attempting to be rather practical, says that they should do some “easy rockers”. Tweedy says that he doesn’t want to play “easy rockers” anymore. Hence YHF. Now we have Sky Blue Sky, the Wilco album, and most of The Whole Love. I think Bill Hicks said it best when he said that drugs have done some good things for us. . .

  8. Best part of the album, that little acoustic interlude on “Poor Places”

  9. In my opinion, it’s one of the best albums of all time.

  10. So.

  11. I produced I am Trying to Break Your Heart. We started that process just trying to capture the making up the album. Director Sam Jones was prescient in his feeling that the sessions that became YHF would be important ones. In retrospect, the whole story looks linear and the events in the film stack up neatly. In reality, we had no idea what was going to happen next. There were month-long periods of uncertainty and head-scratching as we waited for the next shoe to drop. Ultimately, it made for a fascinating story, and, ultimately, a chronicle of art vs commerce.

    I feel lucky to have been a part of it, and I’m gratified that both the album and the film remain culturally relevant.

    Peter Abraham

  12. Summerteeth is the album that hooked me on Wilco, long after I should have been paying attention. It opened my trust to the band and introduced me to the layered, experimental Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that eventually became my favorite album.

    • same here, summerteeth all the way. i remember a guy at my local record store took an interest in what i was listening to and said, hey, seriously, if you have ten bucks try this out and he handed me summerteeth and said i would love it, then i could try YHF, i was like what is THAT? he said, no you aren’t ready for it. he said wait for it. he was right. summerteeth was exactly perfect for that. YHF i eventually became ready for, thank god.

  13. YHF is a grower. Maybe because it “clicked” after a few listens I was primed for Ghost is Born, but those two albums compliment each other exactly as Ok Computer and Kid A do.

    Amazing that any band can make such a classic album. Let alone two.

    I wonder if the album would have went gold without all the controversy and the film? Either way, this album of “growers” will never be unseated in my mind as a great album worth revisiting.

    The noise bits do seem tame today though. Especially with Ty Segall around. Nothing tame about that dude.

  14. Incredible accomplishment…love everything about this record. True masterpiece!!!!

  15. I am no Wilco fan.

    I’m editor in chief for a mexican indie label’s blog, and reading this kind of articles makes me feel happy about what I get to do for a job day by day. I love writing posts like this, trying to transfer the same feelings and knowledge I get when listening to music day by day.

    I have to admit now I feel like giving Wilco a listen. A proper one.

  16. I’m not sure there’s a better (or sadder) song than I’m Trying to Break Your Heart in the past decade.

  17. This and Pet Sounds defined my senior year of high school. These albums completely own me.

  18. This album is amazing, I was literally just listening to it at work the other day. My favorite song is I’m The Man Who Loves You. It puts a smile on my face everytime I hear it.

    • Although far from the best, Heavy Metal Drummer makes me ridiculously happy every time I hear it. Radio Cure is my favorite, every time I hear the line “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable” breaks me heart.

      • Huge Wilco fan here, and I just have to say that if you love Radio Cure, you have got to see/hear the video that someone has uploaded to youtube from Wilco’s second Solid Sound festival in 2011. It was pouring rain and the sound cut out just before “distance has no way. . . ” and the whole audience, without missing a beat, sang in full-throated unison. It was one of those concert moments that give you the shivers every time you listen to it again. I was there, and I just remember grinning and squeezing my friend’s hand. Jeff loved it too. The power came back on and the band finished up the song with everyone singing along, and he said “One thing you can say about this audience–they have our back!”

  19. Incredible album, incredible documentary. Both got me into Wilco. My favorite track off it is Ashes of American Flags. What a song.

    I loved how the doc exposed new fans to some of Wilco’s back catalogue in addition to different arrangements of stuff off YHF. F’n awesome introduction to what I think is their best album. A Ghost Is Born and Summerteeth (maybe even A.M.) might have more consistently solid tracks, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot just feels like their best album, as a start-to-finish, work-of-art “album.”

    To go along with the producer’s comments above (THANK YOU FOR COORDINATING THE FILM!), and Hartford The Whaler’s theme of stumbling into a zeitgeist, it was so eerie how much the album (and the cover) seemed to reference 9/11 when in reality it had all been written beforehand.

    Here’s to ten more years of one of America’s greatest bands!

  20. First of all I should say that I think the Wilco is catalog is about as strong & varied a catalog as there is in modern music. As a recovering Beatlemanic, it’s not just that they sometimes sound like different eras of Beatles, but much more so they feel like The Beatles in their eclecticism & adventurousness- but added to that is that, like The Beatles, while they have many influences, their music seems all their own, seamlessly so…and although their catalog is wildly varied, it also sounds & feels like Wilco- again very like The Beatles feel.
    Since I can give no stronger praise to a band, let me add that they are also, if not the greatest (and they probably are), then they are as great a live band as there is, or has ever been in Rock ‘n’ Roll history.
    I can’t choose a fave album outright, anymore than I could a fave Beatles album- and for both it’s usually whichever one I’m listening to at the time…but if pressed, at this point, I would pick “The Whole Love” as my fave & “Wilco (The Album)” as probably my #2, & I might take “Sky Blue Sky” as my bronze medal winner. That’s all from the current lineup & their three most recent albums.
    It is truly splitting hairs to choose any of those over “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, or “A Ghost Is Born”, or “Summerteeth”, or “Being There”, or “A.M.”…or to choose any of those over the others. I will say that I agree that “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is as great an album as they ever made, but I certainly don’t think that they’ve never made any other albums as good, in fact I think all of them, in their own way, are that successful artistically.
    Happy Birthday & Happy Anniversary “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” & Wilco!!

  21. Such a great album for so many moods and moments, and one that I’ll keep in regular rotation til the day I die. As a whole it really manages that sweet spot between effortlessly-sounding pop songs and dark heart-wrenchers, and all the noisy experimentation and transitions work well to seal it all together without sounding excessive [unlike, say, on "Spiders (Kidsmoke)"].

    I have a ton of great memories to this album, and most of them center on the feeling I still get listening to the springy-sprongy-sounding thing that kicks in at about the one minute mark in “Pot Kettle Black.”

  22. I think you’d have a tough time making the case for any Wilco album being “far-and-away” their best. That said, it’s hard to argue that YHF is their most “important” both because of the mythic story that surrounds it and because of how quickly it stopped sounding “weird” and just sounded “amazingly incredibly unprecedentedly awesome”.

    …but the first disc of “Being There” is still their best work (and may be the best first side of an album, like, ever)…

  23. Hate it Here is unbelievably good. I know it’s only tangentially related cos it’s not yhf, but still I absfuckingolutely love that song.

  24. The music on the album is great but the band didn’t reach its peak until Nels Cline joined the group. Now when they do YHF songs live, they sound better than they did on the album in my opinion.

    • yeah, i remember being pretty blown away when i first heard kicking television, and the addition of nels cline into all of the earlier material. and even more blown away whenever i saw them after that.

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  26. Despite absolutely life-changing albums in the last decade by the White Stripes, the Strokes, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire, not to mention LCD Soundsystem, the Black Keys, Phoenix, Beck, and on and on… my favorite, without question, is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

    You hit the nail on the head Tom, it’s the combination of the experimental and interesting bits with amazing, catchy melodies that gets me. There are so many favorite individual moments: “Cheer up honey, I hope you can” in “Radio Cure,” the repeating of “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you” in “Reservations,” all of “Jesus, Etc.”

    But honestly, I think my favorite part is in “Poor Places” when the muffled drums come in against those piano chords and he sings “My fangs have been pulled and I really want to see you tonight.” Man that’s so great! I just have an incredible love for this album.

  27. When I saw ‘I am trying to break your heart’ in the theater, I already owned all of Wilco’s albums, and felt that YHF was the natural progression of a great band into making it’s masterpiece. Like I’m sure the vast majority of the audience, I was on Jeff Tweedy’s side when he argued with Jay Bennett, not knowing until it played on-screen that Bennett would be fired.

    Jay Bennett comes across in the film, as I recall, as a sort of irritating personality. Were I to have to deal with him, I thought, I’d want to get rid of him, too.

    But, many years later, when the news of Jay Bennett’s death broke, the blogosphere seemed to come overwhelmingly to his defense. I reconsidered my opinion of Mr. Bennett, especially in light of the fact that, after buying only one more CD after YHF, I found myself no longer interested in Wilco’s music.

    But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a record I hold dear. And, I believe Jay Bennett gets as much credit for its genius as anybody else involved. Which is why it is heartbreaking that he died having filed suit against Tweedy and Wilco in an attempt to claim royalties from that record so that he could pay for treatment of the condition that ended up killing him.

    I don’t mean any disrespect to Jeff Tweedy. I think he’s a great musician, and one of the great songwriters of our time. I guess I just wonder how he looks on that film and his relationship with Bennett.

    • Bennett didn’t sue for royalties from the record — he sued claiming unpaid royalties from the film, which Wilco did not produce. If he wanted a valid case, he should have been suing the filmmakers.

      That being said, Jay Bennett’s contributions to Wilco were a vital part of the band’s sound and development. He was a great tinkerer, able to take Tweedy’s songs and vision and embellish them into something even more beautiful. The run from Being There to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – with a couple of Mermaid Avenue releases thrown in for good measure – is as good a run of records as any band could ever produce.

      And like many great partnerships, theirs was also barbed, even bitter or hostile at times, and ultimately, for Jeff Tweedy to get healthy and turn his life around, he needed to be free of the things that had a negative influence on him — including his partner.

  28. In other news, Thom Yorke is the world’s best dancer.


    • the rubber one from your name right? the one you borrowed from your mom? I mean, you were two when this album was released, what are you on about?

    • That would have been such a great departure from your usual schlock if you hadn’t added that “LOL”, rubjohn. But then, you wouldn’t be rubjohn without the schlock, huh?

  30. One of my all-time favourites.
    I believe Jim O’Rourke’s sonic contribution to shaping this album is criminally underrated. Would certainly have been a pale shadow without his input. I’m all for incorporating him as a permanent member of the band. Present day studio version of Wilco is almost too “nice” (Bar ‘Art of Almost’) and almost do not Rock enough for me. But live, they still knock my cotton socks off.

  31. I absolutely love it. When I heard the intro to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” for the first time live… nothing like it. I find a lot of Wilco’s other output pretty staid, with pockets of awesomeness. Summerteeth is great, but it’s a different beast, as is A Ghost is Born… YHF is one of my top albums ever.

    • Agreed, they opened with IATTBYH before the album came out and it blew me away. I had a feeling the rest of the album was going to be just as good. And it was.

  32. I remember trying to stream it on a dial-up as well and being frustrated. I happened to be in Chicago when it came out and thought it was a good solid album. I think it’s held up well too.

  33. YHF is still my favorite album of all time from Wilco. I definitely go through phases when I love the sound of Summerteeth and Being There, and even A.M. A Ghost is Born is a close runner-up, with “Handshake Drugs” making a strong case for their best song ever. But on a whole for never disappointing from start to finish, YHF takes first. I’ll never forget sitting in a classroom in high school and my way-cooler-than-I-recognized-at-the-time journalism teacher played me “Jesus, etc.” I must have listened to that song a hundred times on repeat. Completely agree with the importance of Jim O’Rourke’s influence, too. YHF would have just been Summerteeth: The Sequel without his artistry.

  34. Whilst I think that Wilco gets better all the time as a live band, YHF was, and still is, their crowning achievement and is certainly my Wilco “desert island disc”.

  35. I like Sky Blue Sky more personally, but can’t deny this is a fantastic album still 10 years later.
    Jesus Etc is my favorite song, by far. Still play it often.

  36. Dan Nancarrow  |   Posted on Apr 29th, 2012 0

    AGIB and YHF are both great.

  37. Ashes of american flags, everyday of the week. It is best live though (Kicking Television)

  38. Does YHF hold up? Yes! It does. I am still in love with the album. I think “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Ashes of American Flags” are genius. And, I can’t imagine a Wilco live show without Jesus, Etc. in the set list. That song just makes me happy. Honestly, I like every song on the album. That said, it is not their best album in my opinion. I think SKY BLUE SKY is by far their best. In fact, as much as I love all Wilco albums, I have to say that I am of the belief that all three records done with Nels Cline are the best ones. I think THE WHOLE LOVE is a masterpiece too. Maybe I want to move away from the idea of “their best” and just go on record as saying my favorites are: SKY BLUE SKY, WILCO (THE ALBUM), and THE WHOLE LOVE. Then again, this band is so good that the idea of their best is splitting hairs.

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