This is, for better of worse, the most distinctly modern (aughtsian?) thing about Wilco and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: that like so many of the other important records from the past ten years, it’s an album that’s received almost as much attention for its backstory as it has for the songs it contains. It’s something of a shame, of course: music is interesting, while, despite the media’s constant attempts to convince you otherwise, the music industry generally is not.
But to be fair, things have changed more this decade than they had in any decade since the birth of rock and roll, and the very act of being a music fan in 2009 bears almost no resemblance to the same act as it was performed in 1999. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a real turning point in a number of ways. Aside from it driving home the idea that the major labels were growing more and more out of touch than ever, the album also marked what was a massive shift in how we heard new music. This was the heyday of Napster, remember, and signs that illegal downloading was going to be a big problem, or at least a big game-changer, were everywhere. Right around the time Reprise rejected YHF, tracks from the album started popping up online, and before long, all the real die-hard music nerds had heard it in its entirety. In the time before they signed with Nonesuch, Wilco caught wind of the leak and decided to post a high-quality stream of the record on their website, allegedly as a way of discouraging fans from listening to low-quality MP3s. There’s probably some truth to this, but it would be naive to think they, or at least their management, weren’t using the stream as a way to drum up some additional publicity at a time when they were looking to sign a potentially lucrative record deal.
The band’s motives aside, Yankee Hotel Foxtrotwas the first record I remember knowing, from start to finish, long before it was officially released. It signaled, if not marked, the end of the release date as a meaningful thing, as something to look forward to. It also helped provide a new school of thought about how to combat file-sharing, separating people like Wilco, who seemed to think everything would work out in the end if the music itself was actually good, and people like Metallica, whose greedy, knee-jerk reaction to Napster is now the stuff of legend. It’s a complicated subject, of course, especially for young bands, but I knew Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a full six months before it was released, and I currently own store-bought copies of it on CD and vinyl. There’s a very good chance I’m going to buy my first-born child a onesie with the words “Wilco Loves Your Baby” on it. This is not meaningless. It can’t be.
“Um, Great, but is the record any good?”
Yes, the record is very good.