I first heard Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on a fall afternoon in 2011. I was 15, riding in the car with headphones on, hungry for a great album from a band I didn’t know. This one, I suspected, might even be perfect. Pitchfork, my favorite music site at the time, had awarded it an ultra-rare score of 10 on their 10-point scale. It didn’t take long to hear why. I had a lot to learn about the world, but four minutes into “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” when that piano line galloped in, I found it all in the sound. So many unexpected elements in concert, and they kept building. I wanted communion with them. I felt a relationship sprouting. I listened to the whole 52-minute album straight through.
When Wilco’s still-unequaled fourth LP came out in 2002 I was seven, and busy discovering the Internet. I remember untold hours combing Rotten Tomatoes and Imdb for reviews, trivia, facts and insights into movies—the ones I’d seen, the ones I wanted to, the boundary-pushing R-rated ones I wasn’t allowed to. I loved reading about what made great movies work, and why the worst sucked so much. I pored over rankings, grades, scores, any “objective” measure of quality. I knew that star systems, ordinal numbers and letter grades weren’t really objective, but that was fine. They were a powerful hook and a convenience. Surely the best movies were scarce, and how could I find them with so many others crowding the field? The Tomatometer and Imdb Top 250 saved me the trouble.
Later, when my interest swung toward music, Pitchfork performed the same service, and then some. It wasn’t just a database; it was a catalog of prose. Not only did I have a readymade array of all the great albums out there, I also had readymade phrases to justify their greatness. But I spent less time thinking about what greatness really meant, and even less about what “out there” meant. Most of the reviews and essays I read were from the early 2000s, a drastically different moment in music writing than today. Indie and alternative rock bands with ambitious aims drew most of the critical currency; pop music was seen as lesser. Arguably, that moment extended throughout the decade into the turn of the ‘10s. By 2011, it was on its way out, but I was just catching up. On top of Yankee Hotel, I fell in love with a handful of albums apiece from Pavement, Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Radiohead and Kanye West. What do all these artists have in common? They received 10s, or very close to it.
But what’s in a Pitchfork 10, really? The question is fruitful enough to inspire journalistic investigation without revealing an easy answer. Over its two-decade evolution from bedroom blog to indie ensign to popular powerhouse, Pitchfork has granted its perfect score to 11 records upon their release. In terms of sound or vision, there’s no one common thread among them. For a majority, though, a 10 has signaled grandiosity. Kid A, the first new album to receive one this century, is a digital rock deconstruction, glossy with angst, recorded in four studios in three countries over the course of a year and a half. The next, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead’s Source Tags & Codes, is guitar rock with a chew-you-up-and-spit-you-out wall of sound approach, plus strings. Later, Kanye exemplified decadence with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, absconding to Honolulu with famous friends and dropping $3 million to create a prog-rap double album by committee.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is its own kind of grandiose. With its predecessor, Summerteeth, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and his songwriting partner, Jay Bennett, had already started to shed their country rock skin, arting up the arrangements and embracing studio overdubs. But Yankee Hotel is cosmic by comparison: a plunge into loneliness, a shimmering digital playground, and an old-school rock statement. Uncut called it “Americana’s Kid A . . . but in truth, it’s more successful than that.” Pitchfork praised it in grander terms: “Simply a masterpiece; it is equally magnificent in headphones, cars and parties. No one is too good for this album; it is better than all of us.” But the album’s lore is much bigger than its sound: contentious and drawn-out studio sessions, addiction, Bennett’s level of involvement and Tweedy’s decision to kick him out, plus the label Reprise’s unexpected decision to reject the record. There were no hits. It was too challenging.
To be fair, Wilco does garnish these songs with modern noise, sometimes audaciously. In opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Tweedy’s voice doesn’t come in for a full minute. Instead, a digital boot-up sound clears a path for leisurely cymbals. Drummer Glenn Kotche’s playing on the crotales is harmonious and sour like an old music box. It fills small spaces but doesn’t fit into the song’s three-chord backbone at all. “I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue,” Tweedy sings, tired and hoarse. The words trace the edges of emotional experience without mapping to anything stable. “Let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning” suggests a heated argument. “Take off your band-aid ‘cause I don’t believe in touchdowns”? Maybe some kind of emotional hurt. But the song is impressionistic. As Tweedy puts it, “If I could say it some other way…and have it make more sense, it wouldn’t feel the same way.” His goal isn’t to relate events, but rather “to get how I feel across.”
Every track, in one way or another, reminds us how hard that is. In the service of isolation and miscommunication, Yankee Hotel features samples from The Conet Project: shortwave radio recordings used by government agencies to interface with spies. The album’s title comes from one of these snippets, each of those three words standing in for a phonetic letter. In the discordant outro of “Poor Places” a ghostly female voice recites them on a loop, swaddled in feedback. Channeling the spirit of his work with Sonic Youth, mixing engineer Jim O’Rourke loads up an electric guitar with six strings tuned to the same note, then jerry-rigs it with a speaker coil to produce a snarling drone. The resulting cacophony complements Tweedy’s images of powerlessness. “When it’s hot in the poor places tonight/ I’m not going outside,” he sings, trapped in the eye of the storm. The noise cuts out abruptly. Closer “Reservations” is the quiet aftermath, ending with three minutes of barely-there piano drowned out by digital blinks, a transmission lost in space.
There’s plenty here to make an early ’00s rock critic salivate, and most of it sounds great. But I find it more impressive that Yankee Hotel is a conventional rock album at heart—a big reason why Reprise’s decision to pass on it seems so outrageous today. In reference to the rejection, Tweedy told Rolling Stone, “I felt incredulous. I sincerely believed this was the most contemporary and accessible record we had ever made.”
Nowhere is that more evident than the middle of the album, its best stretch. “Jesus, Etc.” mixes pleading emotion (“Don’t cry/ You can rely on me, honey/ You can come by anytime you want”) with gentle surrealism (“Tall buildings shake/ Voices escape, singing sad, sad songs/ Tuned to chords/ Strung down your cheeks, bitter melodies/ Turning your orbit around”) to make an unforgettable pop song, one of Wilco’s best. “Ashes of American Flags” brings us back down to the dirt: a beautiful country rock slowburner. When Tweedy sings “I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck,” it doesn’t sound like a musing; it sounds like resigned certainty. But the song packs a greater punch for not flinching. The next two tracks, “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” also strip the signifiers and go for big feelings, providing the energy the album needs at this point. “Heavy Metal Drummer” taps into nostalgia (“I miss the innocence I’ve known/ Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned”) while “I’m the Man Who Loves You” summons wild yearning with a couple of scorching guitar solos that would have fit in on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.
Taken together, these four songs would make an EP better than the entire record. While Wilco excels at painting in a single color, they remind us how many more the band has at its disposal. They had no shortage of ideas, as Tweedy makes clear in Sam Jones’ making-of documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: “We generally go for a pretty straight definitive version of what the song sounds like it should be, then deconstruct it a little bit—see if there’s some more exciting way to approach it. There’s no reason not to destroy it.” But Tweedy’s notion of destruction is really revision. Tinkering in the name of arriving at what’s “best.”
Thanks to this deconstructive approach, these songs aren’t static entities. In fact, we know that most of them have been reinvented at least four times over. Released in 2022, the eight-CD super deluxe Yankee Hotel reissue includes four alternate versions of the album, each with its own title, sourced from all the demos and retakes. Generally, the official versions land more softly. They twinkle where the alternate versions embrace friction. Some of the songs shine for the lusher treatment. The official version of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is unmatched by any of the demos; the song needs those crotales and that piano to flower into full expression. And the Unified Theory of Everything version of “Jesus, Etc.” sounds woefully incomplete without the official version’s string arrangement.
But somewhere along the path of destruction, just as many of these songs were juiced of important immediacy. On the American Aquarium version, “War On War” is a banjo raveup, better for its uptempo raggedness; on the official album, it’s a strummer layered in drowsy cosmic studio dust. The Here Comes Everybody version of “Pot Kettle Black” is similarly woozy and off-kilter compared to the official. And every alternate “Kamera” sounds grungier, bringing more bloodlust with fewer elements. Are any of these alternate albums better overall than the final cut? Probably not. But their existence calls to mind a world in which the band put a little more stock in their intuition.
In that world, Yankee Hotel might sound more like the latest album to earn a Pitchfork 10, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Apple and her band made her fifth record in unhurried, intimate sessions over five years leading up to an acclaimed 2020 release. They rehearsed and recorded almost entirely in her house in Venice Beach and kept it simple, bottling feelings and rhythmic wanderings into long takes on GarageBand (which Apple barely knew how to use). Never mind the dog barking in the background. Use the table for a drum. Her bassist, Sebastian Steinberg, recalls “stomping on the walls, on the floor—playing her house.” And indeed, in the interviews she gave in the wake of the release, Apple talks about her house as a living hybrid of instrument, studio and musician: “It’s been the womb of where I’ve developed into an adult . . . The house is the microphone, the house is the ambiance, the house is a member of the band.”
On top of giving new meaning to the term “home recording,” Fetch the Bolt Cutters marks a Pitchfork paradigm shift. Not only is it the first real-time 10 for a female songwriter; it’s a call for female empowerment and an account of personal truth. It’s sophisticated without aiming for rarefied ambition or exquisite despair. And it’s a document of close friends drawing from shared exuberance.
Still, I’ll always come back to Yankee Hotel for its considered rock revivalism. The more I listened to the record in college and beyond, the more its best songs slotted into permanent grooves in my brain, and the less important the question of its perfection seemed. I discovered how much the album stood on the shoulders of giants—particularly Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Eventually I fell deep in love with Blonde On Blonde, Revolver, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. The list goes on. Whenever I revisited Yankee Hotel, I picked up on new traces of older sounds. In my backwards chronology, ‘60s and ‘70s icons became the live wire beacons of rock potential, while Wilco receded into an imagined past. I came to realize the most important question hasn’t changed since Dylan asked it in 1965: How does it feel?
When I started writing this essay I was getting ready to move to a new apartment, sorting through old T-shirts to donate. From the bottom of the dresser I pulled one out I’d almost forgotten: a navy blue Wilco tour tee from when I saw them live in 2012—a big outdoor show on a warm summer night. Most people sat on blankets on the grassy park slope, talking and taking it all in. But early on I remember standing near the stage, anxiously waiting to hear something from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, thinking the other seven albums they’d put out by then were irrelevant (with its 9.4, only Summerteeth had come within striking distance of perfection).
I looked at the shirt for a long time. It was thin, too small, curled at the sleeves from a decade’s wear and tear. Full of stories, but it wouldn’t hold up. I decided to keep it.
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