In today’s music world there is so much music out there that every album needs to have some kind of hook to catch the imagination and appreciation of saturated music fans. Perhaps the hook is a very photogenic lead singer or a strong radio single or a vast internet/blog buzz campaign. Whatever it is, albums released into today’s market need to distinguish themselves from the rest of the herd. For me, I really enjoy being caught up in a unique story behind the band’s writing and recording process. I love hearing about what spurred the songwriter to pen the songs and what pushed the band to expand their sound and techniques. The first band that really exemplified this for me was Wilco.
The story of Wilco is long and has been related by many other, more talented writers; so I’ll present a condensed version here. Wilco rose out of the ashes of alt-country band Uncle Tupelo (which broke up after co-singers Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy stopped getting along). They released their first album in 1995, the alt-country gem A.M. That was followed in 1996 with the double album Being There. In 1999, Wilco pushed further away from country when they released the rock tinged album Summerteeth. Following that release, Wilco retreated to their Chicago studio to work on their next album. Things didn’t go well from there.
The recording process is documented extremely well in the film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”. Tweedy, unhappy with the recorded drums, dismissed drummer Ken Coomer and replaced him with Glenn Kotche. Tweedy wanted the album to push the sonic boundaries of the band and had no patience for deviation from his plan. He was also having a nervous breakdown around this time, which complicated the recording process even further. Soon, the band fired band-member/producer Jay Bennett after a series of differences of opinion surrounding the makeup of the album.
When Wilco finally emerged, they had many emotional scars and a completed album entitled Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They gave the album to their label (Reprise), but the label didn’t like their new style and refused to release the album citing a lack of commercially viable songs. The album eventually found its way onto the file-sharing networks and the internet started buzzing about this unreleased masterpiece of an album. Wilco eventually streamed YHF on their website and generated lots of praise from music lovers all over the world. Soon, other labels came knocking and YHF was finally released on Nonesuch Records (which is actually owned by the same parent company as Reprise). It became one of the best records of 2002 (even being bestowed with a perfect 10/10 from Pitchfork).
I love the story behind the album almost as much as I love the album itself. I think that listening to YHF knowing the pain and suffering that went into making it adds a lot. Certain songs take on so much more meaning when you know that the musicians had to fight to get those songs released. This album is a testament to the artistic vision of Jeff Tweedy (and the rest of the band). They were not willing to let their label dictate their musical styles for them, they wanted to be artists. For a lot of bands, that means no one hears their music. For Wilco, it meant that they became icons of independent music and the new era of digital distribution. For me, it made me eager to seek out more stories behind albums and dig deeper into what made bands tick. It created a desire to research my music in a way that I never had before and many of the remaining albums in this series are included because of the compelling stories I’ve read about how the artists created their art.