Welcome to Weird Era, a new series of monthly special editions of my What's Good newsletter. This series reflects on my 20+ years as the founder and editor-in-chief of Pitchfork and the music it covered during those years, in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir of the same name. The Weird Era newsletter series will become a paid subscription in the coming weeks.
The last of the 10.0’s. That’s a status Yankee Hotel Foxtrot held on Pitchfork for eight long years. Up until the album’s April 2002 release on Nonesuch Records, that rating hadn’t been so uncommon. In Pitchfork’s first six years, the score was applied to no less than 11 albums, including OK Computer, The Soft Bulletin, and Kid A. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would mark the end of that stretch, and the start of a new one in which the 10.0 rating would, for many years, be granted only in hindsight, for reissues and revisitations. At the start of the next decade, Kanye West would revive it with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy— but for the '00s, this was it.
I’ll dive deeper into the logic behind that decision in my Weird Era book, as well as my time in the Chicago music scene that produced this and so many other classic albums. But today, I want to touch on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot itself, the context in which I first experienced it, and how it holds up 20 years on.
The Marina Towers stand near the mouth of the Chicago River as it winds westward from Lake Michigan, cuts through downtown, then splits into two channels that largely divide the wealthier neighborhoods of the north side from what Wilco once defined as “the poor places.” The towers have stood since 1963, an architectural marvel in a city known for the imaginative composition of its skyline. From across the river, they can appear as giant corn cobs, two giant stacks of pancakes, or, to many fans of a particular Wilco album, a ghostly stand-in for the fallen Twin Towers of New York.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is Wilco’s masterwork, first streamed live on their website September 18, 2001, but due to label issues, not formally released until April 23, 2002. The record is full of references to a mythical America that’s been defaced and depleted, its flags reduced to ash. The dual pillars on its cover, bathed in stark sepia tone, seem to suggest that what happened on that day could also have happened here.
I lived in Chicago then, too, way up on Clark Street near the Indian-Pakistani district of Devon, but my route to downtown was nearby Lake Shore Drive, and even from the far north side, the Hancock tower looms large around the lake’s curvature. One of the city’s two tallest buildings, it bookends the skyline with the Sears Tower (now the Willis) to the south. The dread that these structures could serve as likely marks of a future attack pervaded the city for months.
Wilco has wisely eluded questions about their intentions behind the Marina Towers’ depiction. The songs, after all, were written and recorded well before 9/11, and eerily echoed those events through sheer chance and coincidence. But the dejection of the album, the misery it conveys, the blinding ache and pain in search of a retaliatory target— and those images, where buildings shake and voices escape— were unshakably top-of-mind for citizens and civilians of a country terribly wounded. These accidental parallels seemed uncanny to common listeners; one can only imagine how they felt to the band.
Had these parallels been the only ones drawn, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would have secured its place as an American classic of the highest order, standing as a permanent reflection of those dark days. Through pure serendipity, it had provided a kind of solace at the time of its official leak— just a week after the attacks— that was desperately needed: a radio cure. But this was an album fraught with frustration, and the other struggles surrounding its release have since become as canonical to rock music lore as the record itself.
Addictions, migraines, and intra-band conflict aside, YHF offers the millennium’s tidiest example of the entertainment industry’s favorite timeworn tale: that of the uncompromising artist battling executive brass in a make-or-break melee to maintain creative integrity. In I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, director Sam Jones' film that documents the album’s difficult birth, rock critics relish the opportunity to throw stones at the beast, AOL Time Warner, whose merger set off the chain reaction that resulted in Wilco being dropped by Reprise Records upon the record’s delivery. The film closes with the slightly smug (but also true!) revelation that, when the band signed to a different Warner subsidiary, Nonesuch Records, the evil corporate fuck machine ultimately paid twice for the same album— and handsomely.
It’s easy to see how this backstory could result in universal acclaim for any halfway decent effort; the story couldn’t have been more effectively drafted in a writers’ room. But then consider that by the time of its release— when the reviews finally began pouring in— almost everyone in critics’ circles had spent eight months processing it. The majority agreed that it still felt as fresh and consuming and complicated as it had that preceding September. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot managed the impossible, becoming one of very few albums to arrive wrapped in classic-status aura on its day of release, with few deniers.
Greg Kot, the great Chicago Tribune rock critic who broke many of the developments behind the album's creation, offered a sentiment in Jones' documentary that probably struck most listeners at the time as fairly undeniable: "20 years from now, they're probably going to get more of their due than they are now... The appreciation for this record is going to increase as time goes on."
It’s funny how things change. In 2022, removed from its original contexts— and for younger listeners, especially— the story plays differently. The label issues no longer feel as novel, as artists often share similar stories on social media; the aleatory parallels to 9/11, for those who didn’t experience those preternatural effects in real time, are perhaps an interesting bit of trivia; and while country music is experiencing a surge in popularity, the "alt-" variety Jeff Tweedy nearly invented doesn't appear to be signing up as many new recruits. That’s a shame, in a way, because YHF has so much in common with younger singer/songwriters like Phoebe Bridgers, and shares every ounce of the hermitted grief that powers the best midwest emo classics.
As a dude of a certain age, its magic still works on me. Returning to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a ritual album experience for the first time in more than a decade, I was floored again by the ingenuity of its arrangements, at how the specter of tragedy still haunts its odd allusions and crumbling segues, and most of all, how intensely moving its music remains. At its core is a series of songs written with none of its attendant circumstances in mind — a succession of bitter ruminations on relationship wreckage with lyrics that can level you, strung together in a statement of a magnitude the band would never again approach.
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