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.