Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: An Album That Almost Wasn’t

My nephew, Will (28), calls “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” the greatest album ever made. I would not agree with the term “Greatest”, but it is the best album of the last ten years. It is an album rich in sonic soundscapes amidst great disaffected lyrics. The album was officially released in April of 2002 after being recorded in late 2000 and early 2001. The time in between saw a band torn apart, dropped from its label, reborn, and digitized like no other band before.

Wilco, a band that makes it living on stage, started after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo – an alternative country band from Belleville, Illinois. The band’s first release, “A.M.“, on Reprise received air play, video play, and the band played over 200 shows to support the record in 1994 and 1995. The single, Box Full of Letters, and the record did not make the band happy. In fact, they were convinced they could do better. After some personnel changes, the band came back with a fierce surreal and rocking record called “Being There“. It contains the live staple – Misunderstood which has come to define a turning point in the band’s sound.

The double album was critically applauded and sold well for Wilco (I consider it a classic). The band began to work on two new projects simultaneously. Their own “Summerteeth” and Woody Guthrie’s “Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II“. Mermaid Avenue was supposed to be a collaboration with Billy Bragg on writing music set to Woody Guthrie lyrics. It turned into a tussle between Bragg and Wilco and there really wasn’t any collaboration on the music. However, Wilco did produce the classic song California Stars.

Spending most of 1997 through 2000 on these three records. After the release of the second Mermaid record, Wilco took a break for most of 2000. Jeff Tweedy worked with drummer Glenn Kotche and Jim O’Rourke on a side project called Loose Fur and recorded six songs. When it came time for Wilco to regroup,they had the songs but not the feel Tweedy was looking for. So, Tweedy fired drummer Ken Coomer. He brought in Glenn Kotche and the music started to change. Filmmaker Sam Jones came aboard at this point and began to document the proceedings of what would become “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot“, but then it was known as “Here Comes Everybody.”

Throughout 2001, the band went through a series of implosions. Conflict arose between Tweedy and band member/engineer Jay Bennett constantly over sound issues. Where Tweedy focused on the big picture of the album, Bennett focused on the smallest sonic detail. While brilliant, Bennett comes across in the documentary as obsessive-compulsive or anal about what Tweedy wants that it drives a wedge between the two. Bennett would be dismissed from the band after the record was finished.

When the record was turned in, the label was not happy. Reprise records along with its parent company, Warner, had undergone a major restructuring and were looking to make money and not to nurture bands. After refusing to make changes Wilco was dropped from the label. They took Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with them for $50,000.
On being dropped, Tweedy said of the label:

They weren’t going to put out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the way we’d created it. They wanted changes; we weren’t willing to do that, so they rushed a contract through their legal department to let us go. It was the fastest I’d ever seen a record company work. Once they let us go, we were free to do with the album what we chose.

Over the summer of 2001, Tweedy and the band’s management searched for a new label. In the meantime, word of mouth about the album began to grow. In response, Wilco streamed the album on their website for free! For Tweedy, Wilco was a live act. They did not need to make records. It was a luxury as they made their living on the road. Tweedy said of the online release:

We’d been noticing how much more important the internet had become — once information is out there in the world now, anyone can get it. Since that was beginning to happen with the record anyway, we figured, OK, let’s just stream it for free ourselves.

Record companies came calling. Ironically, Wilco signed with Warner subsidiary, Nonesuch Records. In April of 2002, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to critical acclaim and sold over 500,000 records, their best sales effort ever.

Some would say streaming their music was a risk. Tweedy disagrees. He states:

Internet is radio for a lot of people. It’s a place to get music and hear music, and no amount of clamping down will change that. And anybody who’d expend energy preventing people from hearing music seems not to understand the basic principle of making music in the first place. It’s so antithetical to being a musician.

With its cacophony of sounds and surreal lyric, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is the best album of the 2000s. It is a record that is a collection of songs that is meant to be heard as a whole rather than as individual songs. The resulting decade saw many bands stream music on their own websites and subsidiary social networking sites. It is now seen, thanks to Wilco, as a way to break your music.

For more reading in detail, buy or read Chicago Tribune music writer Greg Kot’s Learning How to Die

Sam Jones’ “I am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco”

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