Sunken Treasure

Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the best album this year. Here's why you can't listen to it.

Oct 3, 2001 at 4:00 am
I've had the best album of 2001 in my hands for about a month now, and every day since I got it, it's been in whatever CD player I happen to be near or spinning in my head if I can't find one. Even after all of those listens, I still haven't heard all of it, even though I've listened to every song dozens of times. Something new comes out of hiding each time -- a few words I didn't catch before, a sound that slipped past my ears the last time. It is a brave, beautiful album, a 52-minute demonstration of exactly what music should be and rarely is. And all you can call it is music, because trying to stuff Wilco's square peg, the unreleased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, into the round hole of rock & roll, or anything else, just doesn't work. Purely and simply, it's music -- rock, pop, soul, country, blues, everything. It's the best mix tape ever recorded and forgotten on a dirty floorboard, songs and sounds leaking from one side to the other until something new is created.

In the years to come, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may be remembered as a landmark album, a milestone marking when things changed, much like Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac. More than likely, however, you won't be allowed to find out for yourself until early next year. And it's not just a shame -- it's a damned crime. On its best days, music has nothing to do with business; unfortunately for Wilco, those days are few and far between. In the days when songs are merely soundtracks for videos -- or, worse, incidental music between segments on Total Request Live -- those glory days are merely a distant memory, something for the old folks and record-store clerks to talk about.

A few months from now, whenever Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finally stumbles into record stores, none of this will matter. So it won't be released by Reprise Records, the once-fearless label responsible for nurturing Neil Young and Randy Newman and so many others; the label that released Wilco's previous three records, 1995's A.M., 1996's Being There and 1999's Summerteeth -- so what? The album will be out, and no one will care what took so long or who's releasing it. For now, however, the fact that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains unreleased is a perfect example of everything wrong with the music industry. Too bad it's not the only evidence to choose from.

That said, it is wrong to blame Reprise as a whole for abandoning Wilco. The reason: No one at the label -- except for one person, David Kahne -- knew Wilco was going until the group was already gone. Reprise's longtime president, Howie Klein, resigned on June 29, and in his absence, Kahne -- the executive vice president of A&R (artist and repertoire) at Warner Bros. Inc., Reprise's parent company -- was temporarily in charge of the company. Tom Whalley was eventually chosen to succeed Klein, but, at the time, he was still running Interscope Records, with no idea what the label was giving away.

As it turns out, Whalley could have moved into Klein's old office on June 30 and the damage would already have been done. On June 29, the same day Klein resigned, Kahne informed Wilco he was rejecting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a decision that led to the termination of the group's contract, even though Wilco owed Reprise several more records. According to sources, Kahne listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and believed it would kill Wilco's career. He was only saving the band from itself, he believed, as if frontman Jeff Tweedy ever cared whether he sold 10 million copies or 10.

It's clear from one listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that Tweedy never gave one thought to commercial prospects, not that he ever has before. You could hear him and the band striving for something on Summerteeth -- and, to a lesser extent, Being There -- but it wasn't clear until all 11 tracks of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had finished playing just what that something was. Tweedy, a former record-store clerk, is a fan first and musician second, and with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he's finally been able to combine everything he loves about music into one song, and then he does it over and over. It's old music paired with new technology and new music put in a forgotten context, Woody Guthrie with a laptop or Elvis Costello playing for pennies outside a Mississippi storefront. It's a love letter and a signpost, stuck happily between past, present and future.

Employees at Reprise knew this, and Tom Whalley knows it, too. Whalley has said privately he would never have let Wilco go, but at this point, there's nothing he can do. Employees at the label were and are furious; Wilco was one of the few acts on Reprise with both critical respect and commercial viability. Their records didn't cost much to make, and they always made money for the label. More important, Wilco's presence on Reprise's roster gave the illusion that the label remained the artist-friendly outfit it was when executives such as Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, men who heard the music before they decided whether they heard cash registers as well, signed the checks. Maybe Whalley will bring Reprise back to those days of respectability. God knows it'll be hard with people like Kahne in charge.

Now that Wilco is gone, label employees can't even listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and wonder what might have been: All advance copies of the disc were confiscated, even from the most valued employees. One of them, who declines to be identified, says that had he known all copies of the album were going to be yanked, well, he might have burned a copy or two.

The songs from the album did find their way -- by way of MP3 -- to the Internet, which is where we were able to come by our copy, and it's the only place you can hear Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for now. When it comes down to it, that's all that matters and all that ever mattered -- the 11 tracks on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, those 11 songs covered in dusty brilliance. Despite Kahne's intentions, the songs are not lost: Tweedy and the band made a deal with Reprise to buy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back from the label, and for the past few weeks, Tweedy and his manager, Tony Margherita, have been negotiating with other labels. Someone will most definitely buy it, and the group will be even better off than before. "It feels like Christmas," Tweedy told the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot in August after signing the agreement that allowed Wilco and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to leave Reprise together. "I don't feel victimized. I feel liberated."

At the moment, even those songs probably don't matter to Tweedy or Margherita; they were both in New York on Sept. 11 when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed and everything changed. The ultimate fate of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot hardly seems important, given those circumstances. Tweedy and Margherita will get back to business at some point, just not now. So maybe you'll have to wait until 2002 to hear the best album of this year. Trust me -- it's worth it.