Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-12-27 23:57:53. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

** This is the fourth in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **

By Chris Moore:

RATING: 5/5 stars

There are those albums that are easily inserted into categories, labeled by genre.  Then, there are those albums which do not, those veritable square pegs hovering above round holes.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot belongs to the latter.

Being that this is one of the most written-about albums of the decade, there have been just as many genre classifications as there have been reviewers.  Regardless of the fact that much of Wilco was formed from ex-Uncle Tupelo members, it is certainly not alt-country, although the trademark rough edges are present in all the right places.  It is not the country-tinged folk rock of Wilco’s debut release, A.M., although Tweedy’s leads sometimes attain that same wonderful raw quality that was so prominent on their first album.  It is not the acoustic rock of Being There, though the acoustic guitars are still quite prominent in the mixes.

Indeed, Summerteeth, their third album, can now be viewed as the proving grounds and a stepping stone to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — in a sense, as the Today! to their Pet Sounds, the Highway 61 Revisited to their Blonde on Blonde.

It is the clarity of overall vision and focus, as well as the variety of sounds and styles on this record that makes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot one of the best rock albums of the decade.  In many ways, Wilco’s previous recordings were all leading up to this masterpiece, an album that yielded a slew of alternate takes, arrangements, outtakes, and additional mixes.  They poured all they knew about songwriting, performing, and recording into this album, and that is what is most apparent in the tight, finely crafted tunes, every bit as much as it is evident across the sprawling, chaotic landscapes of songs like the opening track.

It has become somewhat difficult to separate the music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from the controversy that surrounded it at the time of its release.  Certainly, when they set out to record their fourth studio album, they couldn’t have predicted the poor reception of the record label that would lead to them being dropped from their contract.  They couldn’t have envisioned breaking ground on the now-standard practice of streaming their album in full before its official release.  They couldn’t have known that the story around the album would sell so many copies and overnight transform their band’s image from a fairly obscure alt-country band to the folk/alternative rock trendsetters that they are known as today.  And yet, all the same, these things came to pass, filmed every step of the way by Sam Jones for the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.

Moreso than ever, this is an album that now needs to be taken, at least initially, on its own merits.  Nine years after it was recorded and eight years after the controversy and hype have subsided, we are left with the task of locating Yankee Hotel Foxtrot among the greatest albums of the decade, and perhaps of all-time.

Thankfully, it has stood the test of time.

Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002)

The Weekend Review's pick for the #2 album of the decade, 2000-2009, is Wilco's 2002 release, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

Listening to this album is an entertaining, sobering, and all-around interesting experience from the fade in on track one to the fade out on track eleven.  “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is, of course, the flagship song of the record, establishing both the tone and the mood for the other ten tracks to come.  On the one hand, it is a song with such a simple chord progression and melody that it could be — and has been — easily translated to a solo acoustic performance.  Still, something is lost without, on the other hand, the reluctant bass lines, synthesized sounds, and haphazard yet steady drums.  The sum total of the instruments and vocals introduces a narrator who sounds decidedly detached, inviting us into a realm where we imagine and remember our saddest moments, the conflicts that have defined our romantic lives.

After the final burst of distortion, the second song, “Kamera,” wastes no time in laying out a much more polished folk-rock sound, describing uncertainty as to “which lies I have been hiding, and which echoes belong.”  Tweedy continues, “I’ve counted out days to see how far I’ve driven in the dark with echoes in my heart.”  It is a pretty song; it is a catchy song.  My only reservation here is lyrically — for instance, why spell the title with a “K” rather than a “C”?  As Robert Christgau seemed to point out in his own review of the album, any major concerns about the album’s quality will most likely be focused around the lyrical quality.  While I think he is, as per usual, deaf to the quality of this excellent album, I will admit that I vacillate as to the meaningfulness of some of the lyrics.

Overall, the album speaks to me, and yet, some of the songs may be found shaky on an individual inspection.

But this should be for you to decide as you listen.

“Radio Cure” is next, bringing the pace down to a crawl, expounding on the effects of distance on love.  It is followed by “War on War,” a protest song of sorts that seems to attack simple-mindedness with simplicity.  If nothing else, Tweedy cries the universal truth that, “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive…”  One can suppose that this is not necessarily meant as a commentary on physical violence, but moreso in the context of the romantic relationship in shambles that is described throughout the album.

In “Jesus Etc.” and “Ashes of American Flags,” the lyrics rely on allusions to Christianity and the American dream, respectively.  In the former, the singer attempts to reassure a Christ-like lover who is set on leaving, “last cigarettes” being all she can get before she sets about “turning your orbit around.”  The mournful quality of the latter is unsurpassed, particularly as Tweedy repeats the chorus: “All my lies are only wishes; I know I would die if I could come back new.”  Again, there is the Christian — or perhaps Buddhist — metaphor of a death leading to a rebirth.  We can assume that this relationship being referred to is dying or already dead, and the question, of course, remains: what will be reborn in its place?  The song ends with the singer “saluting” the ashes of American flags, “and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags.”

Anyone who has gone through a breakup after a meaningful relationship has undoubtedly undergone this phase of the healing process.

The seventh and eighth tracks sidestep a bit, the first — “Heavy Metal Drummer” — taking a nostalgic and upbeat flashback to memories of past summers filled with rock concerts and parties and the second — “I’m the Man Who Loves You” — coming across as a manic return to the present, the singer declaring, “If I could, you know I would just hold your hand and you’d understand: I’m the man who loves you!”

Subsequently, we learn that the singer’s declaration of love has not had the desired effect.  Indeed, “Pot Kettle Black” is an important transition point on the record as Tweedy sings of coming to terms with the realities of the relationship that exists between these two people.  Its abstract lyrics are no attempt to dodge specificity; rather, this is a great case study for how the mind perceives the breakdown of something so dear.

The final two tracks provide another excellent couplet in this eleven line album.  “Poor Places” establishes itself as an anthem for isolation, with the singer ultimately decreeing, “It’s hot in the poor places tonight; I’m not going outside.”  This is not an entirely unexpected turn of events.  After all, the album has covered a lot of melancholy ground, including what can arguably be construed as failed attempts at jump-starting a broken relationship.

When the final track arrives, it is somewhat of an enigma.  “Reservations” is one of the simplest, saddest, and most sincere love songs in the Wilco catalog.  The refrain, “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you,” can be interpreted in several different ways — as a final attempt at reconciliation, as a statement after having reunited with the person (although there is less evidence for this), or perhaps most directly as parting words.  Judging from the ominous silence that follows, complete with sounds that can only be compared to a violent wind, the final interpretation seems the most likely.

From beginning to end, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of those rare albums that connects on both mental and emotional levels, calling on the listener to think in order to deconstruct meaning from the songs and utilizing all the right sounds to convey all the right feelings.  This was the album that singlehandedly led me into a breakup, nursed me through the depression that followed, and brought me back to the love of my life. (“What was I thinking when I let go of you?…”)

As the disclaimers read in those lovely commercials about diet pills, my results may not be typical, but my life is better for having experienced this album.  I hope — and have faith — that this album will have even half the effect on you that it did on me.

(#1-10) – The 50 Best Rock Albums of the Decade, 2000-2009

Originally posted 2010-01-03 12:30:04. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for…  The unveiling of the Weekend Review’s picks for the top ten rock albums of the 2000’s.  For anyone who loves music — who loves albums — as much as I do, the artists and album titles that follow are among the best offerings in the past ten years.  Even in a decade that saw a marked decline in physical album sales and an increasing number of rock fans suggesting that good music hasn’t been made for ten, twenty, or more years, these albums are proof positive of the opposite.

Good and, occasionally, great music continues to be made each year.

As you read the final segment of this top fifty list, consider which albums you’ve heard and consider picking up those that you haven’t.  I encourage you to share your own thoughts below, if you feel so inclined.  I spent countless hours thinking, discussing, compiling, arranging, and rearranging this list, so I’ll be the first to tell you it is the imperfect work of an imperfect human being, albeit one who has approached this task with the seriousness of a full-time job.  I hope it gives you some food for thought, and that you enjoy it!

1) Red Letter Days (2002) – The Wallflowers: Their finest work and the overall best rock album of the decade for so many reasons.  Click HERE for my full review.

2) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) – Wilco: The album that singlehandedly catapulted Wilco out of the “alt-country” caverns and into the full light of day as one of the decade’s foremost alternative rock bands.  Click HERE for my full review.

3) Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001) – Ben Folds: This is Ben Folds at his finest, pounding the piano relentlessly and lyrically tracing the outline of what it means to face loneliness in a modern world.  Click HERE for my full review.

4) Figure 8 (2000) – Elliott Smith: His fifth and final studio album before his death three years later, Figure 8 is Elliott Smith’s masterpiece.  Each of his albums — Either/Or and XO most dramatically — just kept getting better, and this is no exception.  Click HERE for my full review.

5) Maroon (2000) – Barenaked Ladies: From front to back, this is the quintessential Barenaked Ladies album, demonstrating their knack for humor, keen eye for expressing serious issues and emotions poetically, and, as per usual, their considerable instrumental talents.  Click HERE for my full review.

6) In Between Dreams (2005) – Jack Johnson: In many ways, Jack Johnson has been the spokesperson for albums this decade as, more and more, consumers seem less and less interested in them as an art form.  Johnson not only made a name for himself entirely within this decade, but did so by releasing hit records without any significant hit singles.  And there is no better example of Johnson’s prowess than In Between Dreams. From beginning to end, the acoustic guitars are crisp and clear in the mix, and Johnson cleverly balances the cheesy and the serious — even politically charged — aspects of his lyrics better than he has before or since.  It’s a wonderful album, and it’s always my first choice for a hot summer day — perfect for any top-down drive, car wash, or beach trip!

7) Brainwashed (2002) – George Harrison: Posthumously released, George Harrison’s Brainwashed is an album created out of the most pure sense of an urgent mission at hand with which a human can be faced — imminent mortality.  Having been diagnosed with cancer, Harrison did what he knew best — returned to the studio to record the album of a lifetime.  And this is not said lightly, considering the catalog that he produced over a lifetime.  Far from rusty for his fifteen years outside the studio, Harrison is at his lyrical, vocal, and instrumental best on this record.  Completed with care by producer and friend Jeff Lynne with Harrison’s son Dhani, Brainwashed is perhaps THE post-Beatles studio album.  It deals with all the classic topics — religion, politics, mortality, and love to name a few — with such ease and expertise that it almost makes up for the absence of new George Harrison records after Cloud Nine.  It’s just that good.

8 ) Extraordinary Machine (2005) – Fiona Apple: As unstable as she might be in her personal life, Fiona Apple’s modus operandi concerning studio albums has consistently been defined by a measured approach at self-improvement.  With each album, she has only gotten better, and Extraordinary Machine is her masterwork.  Oozing with a sharp cynicism and a guarded smirk always lurking just beneath the surface, Apple’s album cleverly orchestrates a number of instruments around her piano which, characteristically, leads each song.  Combining this with her inimitable vocals setting the mood for each track, this is one of the best albums of the decade.  Rock music fans everywhere, just pray that she can put together another one (or two?) next decade!

9) Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (2008) – Counting Crows: Not since Recovering the Satellites have Adam Duritz and his band produced such a brilliant, enjoyable album — the best album of 2008 and one of the best of the decade.  Click HERE for my full review.

10) The Last DJ (2002) – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: It’s never been as much fun to openly despise the state of the modern music industry, particularly the system by which most corporate-run radio stations choose and broadcast music.  The undertone throughout The Last DJ is sarcastic, most brilliantly on “Joe” and the title track.  In between trips to his soapbox, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers also find time to create some of the most beautiful (“Dreamville,” “Can’t Stop the Sun”) and most rocking (“When a Kid Goes Bad,” “Have Love Will Travel”) music of their career.  The only Heartbreakers album of the decade, The Last DJ can only serve to stir up more desire for at least one more go-round in the next.

(#21-30) – The 50 Best Rock Albums of the Decade, 2000-2009

Originally posted 2009-12-31 23:34:09. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

After releasing the bottom twenty of my top fifty rock albums of the decade list yesterday, I return to drop in ten more.  Unlike yesterday, I’ve included brief annotations about each album — my reasoning for picking the album, critical stances, related stories, etc.  Of course, nothing I could say in two or three sentences could ever be enough to fully describe these records.  I ask you to accept my words as the following: a teaser trailer of sorts if you have yet to hear the album in question, or a reminder of why the albums you’ve already heard were so excellent.

As this segment of the list begins to suggest, there are some years in rock music that were simply better than others.  For instance, seven of these ten tracks come from the past three years.  When I was ranking these works, I purposely chose not to include the years, so as not to color my thoughts.  But, as you’ll see later and as you may have guessed, some years are better than others.

Hurry back on Saturday for the next ten albums in The 50 Best Rock Albums of the Decade, 2000-2009, List.  I spent a great deal of time the past couple months listening to the albums of this decade, returning to and/or buying (used at Newbury Comics, of course) albums that were recommended to me by my friends, and writing, re-writing, and constantly shuffling this list until it exists as you see it today.  As I mentioned before, I encourage you to leave your comments, criticisms, and of course, your own lists!

21) That Lucky Old Sun (2008) – Brian Wilson: Brian Wilson’s first entirely original album of the decade, That Lucky Old Sun proves in many ways that he still has what it takes to write and arrange not only great songs, but also great albums.  Vocally, this album is head, shoulders, and waist above anything being produced by contemporary bands.  In many ways, rock music has progressed and been experimented with, but Wilson is still the greatest orchestrator of vocal parts, using voices more as instruments than simply a way to convey words and meaning.  Even the spoken word tracks which, on the outside, sound problematic are excellent and truly integral to the feeling and flow of the album.  As Ringo Starr has done, Brian Wilson has surrounded himself with some of the best rock musicians and writers available and it is all to the benefit of the music.  That Lucky Old Sun — not to be confused with Kenny Chesney’s Lucky Old Sun released later that year — is one of the standout albums of the decade, and proof positive that, even after two great albums that relied on compositions and tracks “from the vault,”  Brian Wilson is not finished producing original studio albums.  If we’re lucky, we’ll hear another album soon.

22) Forget And Not Slow Down (2009) – Relient K: Relient who?  That was the reaction of just about every music reviewer getting paid to listen to rock albums today.  (Interesting that Relient K was suddenly noticed and reviewed when they scored a major label contract, then summarily dismissed as soon as they released an album on a smaller label…)  Forget and Not Slow Down is the record on which this band has finally matured without losing any of the youthful energy of their previous releases.  And this is a concept album if I’ve ever heard one, documenting the numerous phases one goes through after a rough breakup.  Vocally, instrumentally, and lyrically, this album is fun and well-put-together.  My pick for the best rock album of 2009, I hope you’ll find it out there somewhere and take a listen.

23) 21st Century Breakdown (2009) – Green Day: As I wrote in my review of this album (click HERE to read), no one could be more surprised by the quality of this album than myself.  I am not, and have never been, a big Green Day fan.  I wanted to like American Idiot for its amazing packaging and overarching concept, but I have yet to crack that particular code.  But 21st Century Breakdown, this is an album I can support.  From front to back, the pacing is excellent, the focus is clear, and the band has clearly found their stride a full decade after their initial top-of-the-charts success.  This is an album that I continually return to and, despite its boneheaded single “Know Your Enemy,” I hope you’ll give it a chance, too, if you haven’t already.

24) Ringo Rama (2003) – Ringo Starr: Okay, okay.  So you might be thinking that Ringo Starr does not belong in the top twenty-five of any album list.  But have you listened to any Ringo album since the seventies?  If you haven’t, then you’re missing out on the pinnacle of Starr’s solo career.  He has surrounded himself with some of the best young instrumentalists and songwriters available and has consequently made some of the most outstanding rock music of his career, as well as the decade.  In fact, Choose Love missed the cut on this list by one and he would have received honorable mention if not for the fact that he’s solidly represented here.  Ringo Rama has a light, feel-good air — recall Ringo’s marketing strategy of using the following slogan: “Ringo Rama, peace, and love.”  I find it almost impossible to list even my favorites here — I’d end up naming every other track — so you’ll just have to take my word on this one and take a listen if you’re out of the loop.

25) The Last Great 20th Century Love Affair (2006) – The Now People: Upon its release, this album was entirely ignored by much of the media.  How Rolling Stone could have passed it over, I’m not sure.  Actually I am, as they hardly fancy themselves album people anymore, preferring instead to hype legends and new bands — the more crowd-pleasing, obscure, or odd the better.  You won’t find those sorts of adjectives being used in conjunction with the Now People.  Their sound harkens back to a simpler time, but don’t let that fool you: there is an instrumental and vocal prowess that drives this album’s sound and the overall concept is well thought out and interesting to follow.  If you can find it, this one is an interesting addition to any collection.

26) Are Me / Are Men (2006) – Barenaked Ladies: This album — or set of albums — would have made it much higher on my list if they had made some choices early on.  With two albums (or really three, if you consider today’s CD market) worth of material, BnL could have released one of the absolute best albums of the decade.  Instead, they decided to release Are Me, followed shortly by Are Men.  This would be all well and good if not for the fact that the most outstanding tracks are evenly divided up between the two.  Looking back, how is one to measure this release?  As two separate albums?  As two halves of a larger double album?  If they are two separate albums, they are strong. As a double album, it’s a bit much, and the sequencing is odd in places.  Let’s be honest — an album with “Sound of Your Voice,” “Wind it Up,” “Bank Job,” and “Easy” from Are Me and “Serendipity,” “Running Out of Ink,” “Fun and Games,” and “Maybe Not” from Are Men could have stolen the top spot for the decade, or at least would have made the top five.  As a BnL fan, I’m happy to have access to all this outstanding music — the last they made as a five-piece band — but as an album, I have to shake my head.

27) Sky Blue Sky (2007) – Wilco: Not many albums evoke so clear an emotion as this one, as well as that of a season.  Perhaps due to the bonus DVD that is included with the deluxe packaging, I can’t help but relate this record to winter.  I even included it this year amongst my Christmas albums, particularly the Moody Blues’ more directly winter-themed album December.  Coming on the heels of A Ghost is Born, Wilco have nicely balanced the length of the instrumental jams here, arranging some impressive tandem guitar solos and an overall sound that will make you shake your head in disbelief at their ability to mix it up, album after album.

28) Backspacer (2009) – Pearl Jam: Simply not the best material Pearl Jam has released, often criticized as too tight and “poppy,” and much briefer than their previous work.  Okay.  That being said, Backspacer is easily the best album Pearl Jam has released in some time, certainly within this decade.  From the rock ‘n roll assault of the first four tracks to the slower, more contemplative songs like “Just Breathe” and “The End,” this album has a lot to offer.  Even though some of the songs are admittedly weaker than we’re used to, especially in the middle to second half, there are also some outstanding, adrenaline-fueled rock songs that are unparalleled in their catalog.  (Think: “Got Some,” “Johnny Guitar,” “The Fixer,” and “Supersonic.”)  It is their most positively reviewed album of the decade — I’m throwing my hat in now — and you should pick it up!

29) Magic (2007) – Bruce Springsteen: Bruce Springsteen has been hailed as one of the top artists of the decade, and as far as overall output and success goes, the claim can’t be denied.  Consider how he opened the decade, chronicling the trauma of 9/11 with The Rising, an album that was not nearly as contrived as I worried it might be.  It was actually quite good, although bland upon too many listens, and just barely got cut from this list.  Then, he went acoustic for the strong but quite overrated Devils & Dust (see my review HERE) and went back to basics for The Seeger Sessions.  By the time Magic came around, Springsteen must have gotten the itch for some classic rock ‘n roll, pulling his band back together and drawing heavily from the style of sixties rock.  Song to song, an excellent, enjoyable record.  Working on a Dream, another near-miss for this list, is an excellent record, but lacks the staying power (even less than twelve months after its release) of Magic.

30) Viva La Vida (2008) – Coldplay: You won’t find another Coldplay album on this list, primarily for one reason: they are simply overrated up to (and perhaps including) this album.  Viva La Vida was a smash hit in all respects — huge title track single, successful follow-ups, outstanding album sales (particularly in mp3 download format)…  The list goes on.  But what I love most about this album is how each of the songs are distinct and different, and yet each track flows into the next.  In many ways, it is quite reminiscent of the format of the early Moody Blues albums, which makes it even more amazing that it was so universally well-loved.  (Hint, hint… Dust off a Moody Blues album this year!)

The TOP TWENTY ALBUMS of 2011 (The Year-End Awards)

Originally posted 2012-02-05 02:00:04. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

It is the best and truest mark of artistry in the music industry, and sales are no indication of significance.  Sequencing and thematic continuity, sonic experimentation within a basic set of familiar parameters, a healthy range of types and topics: these are the standards by which to judge an album.

The album.

It ascended into an art form in the mid-sixties under the careful work of artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys.  It was taken to new heights with the experimentation of later bands, from the concept albums of the Moody Blues to the spin-off success of artists like Bruce Springsteen.  The album – and rock in general – saw a rebirth in the nineties, with the work of those like Weezer, the Wallflowers, the Barenaked Ladies, and a slew of others who led a surge of excellent rock music.

These days, the album has faced a crossroads.  Specifically, with the advent and surge of digital sales, the physical formats of music are on the chopping block.  Still, with the rise of vinyl sales even as CD sales continue to decline, there is hope yet.  And, contrary to an army of naysayers, there are still excellent albums being made.  This year, as with the past several years that I have been tuned into a vast array of albums, I would say there are about five albums that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and compete for top spots when I eventually get around to my Best Albums of All Time list.  Which, at this point, might have to wait until I hit retirement.

But, for the moment, you have my Best Albums of 2011 list, and if you’re interested in reading more about any of these albums, you can access my Weekend Review report (including star rating, production info, and a full review) by simply searching the album title and band name in the search bar above.  And, of course, if you see reason for disagreement or any gaps in my list, it’s up to you to leave comments below.

1)  The Whole Love (Wilco)

2)  The King is Dead (The Decemberists)

3)  Last Night on Earth (Noah & the Whale)

4)  Wasting Light (Foo Fighters)

5)  Bad As Me (Tom Waits)

6)  Unfortunate Casino (Gerry Beckley)

7)  The King of Limbs (Radiohead)

8)  Yuck (Yuck)

9)  Lasers (Lupe Fiasco)

10) W H O K I L L (The Tune-Yards)

11) The Graduation Ceremony (Joseph Arthur)

12) Vol. 2: High and Inside (The Baseball Project)

13) Collapse Into Now (R.E.M.)

14) Move Like This (The Cars)

15) The Valley (Eisley)

16) Cloud Maintenance (Kevin Hearn)

17) I’m With You (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

18) Alpocalypse (Weird Al Yankovic)

19) No Color (The Dodos)

20) Nighty Night (8in8)

 

Honorable Mention:

The Way It Was (Parachute)

The Dreamer, The Believer (Common)