Wilco’s fourth record was already legendary even before it was officially released in April 2002. Over the course of their prior albums, the Chicago group had gradually drifted from their formative alt-country sound, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot catapulted them into another sonic universe entirely. A product of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s budding friendship with avant-rock figurehead Jim O’Rourke, who mixed the record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot corrupted Wilco’s heartland serenades with industrialised clamour, buzzing distortion and shortwave frequencies. The album’s anti-commercial ethos led to a highly publicised break with the band’s label, Reprise Records, causing its release to be held up for months (during which Wilco took the then-radical move of streaming the album for free on their website). And by the time they landed at their new home, Nonesuch, Wilco were a new band: original drummer Ken Coomer and Tweedy’s longtime creative foil Jay Bennett were out; experimental percussionist Glenn Kotche was in.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was originally set for release on September 11, 2001, but its songs uncannily anticipate the chaos and confusion of the post-9/11 era. On the seven-minute opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the band seem to be dismantling the song brick by brick, until it collapses into a dust cloud of feedback drones and broken piano keys. But for all its difficult reputation, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ultimately amplified rather than obscured Wilco’s most engaging qualities, be it their wobbly-kneed irreverence (“I’m the Man Who Loves You”) or their aching vulnerability (“Reservations”). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may have subjected Wilco to gruelling growing pains, but they came out all the stronger for it—a band that once seemed like a rootsier Replacements were suddenly reborn as the Rust Belt Radiohead.