I hope you enjoy the rest of the countdown!
5. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
It was a pretty radical reinvention
If this was the first Wilco album you had heard, you would find it pretty hard to believe that they started out as an alt-country band.
Wilco formed in 1994 from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. They had subtle progression over the course of their first 3 albums: AM (1995) was as alt-country as you could get, Being there (1996) was an ambitious and genre-hopping double album, and Summerteeth (1999) added a lot of studio polish and overdubs to their sound (there were also a few collaborations with Billy Bragg on the excellent Mermaid avenue albums).
From the moment the surreal opener I am trying to break your heart hits your speakers or earphones, you know that your ears are in for a treat. Where previous albums were at their core collections of well-written and performed "pop songs", Yankee hotel foxtrot is a multi-faceted and complex masterpiece. Each listen reveals new sounds deep in the mix, yet it is still melodic enough and remains a pleasure to go back to again and again.
It was the band's best to date
Where each of their previous albums had their share of filler material, the quality level rarely dips here. There are catchy and accessible numbers (War on war, Heavy metal drummer, Pot kettle black), mellow laments (Radio cure, Reservations) and even some songs which hint at their country past (Ashes of American flags and the superb Jesus, etc).
There are also elements deep in the mix which constantly surprise the listener, from the titular CB radio transmission at the end of Poor places, the quirky instrumentation in I am trying to break your heart and the way some of the songs end abruptly in a sea of static. On the first few listens I actually thought something was wrong with my CD when this happened; I soon realised that it was intentional.
It's the intersection of accessibility and innovation which made this album so impressive when it came out, and it still remains a compelling listen today.
Later albums couldn't match this one
I've talked briefly about their earlier albums, but this album still stands head-and-shoulders above anything they have since released. A ghost is born (2004) came pretty close but sometimes got caught up in its own pretension, and some songs were clearly big mistakes. Sky blue sky (2007) was too MOR for my liking. I have only heard their latest Wilco (The album) (2009) a few times and I'm not convinced it is going to give this album a run for its money.
I will be pleasantly surprised if Wilco ever manage to top this career peak.
It had an awesome back story
To cut a long story short: their previous record label (Reprise) refused to release this album when they heard it in 2001, considering it too left-field and not commercial enough. Wilco subsequently left the label, acquiring the rights to the record. After a particularly dark period (captured in the awesome documentary I am trying to break your heart) they sold the distribution rights to Nonesuch records.
So why is this so interesting? The whole story is particularly amusing because both the Reprise and Nonesuch record labels are operated through the same parent label of Warner Brothers. Indirectly, Warner Brothers paid for the same album twice.
This album was co-produced to perfection by the legendary musician/producer Jim O'Rourke, who was once a member of Sonic Youth and has also released a few critically-acclaimed solo albums. I have written before about the nasty industry trend of dynamic range compression, and Jim O'Rourke is one of the few producers out there who is "keeping it real" in his production work.
And you can hear it in the mix of this album; O'Rourke treats the music with utmost respect, allowing the instruments to breathe, maintaining the dynamics of the sound and ensuring that every recorded note remains a pleasure to listen to. O'Rourke set an incredibly high production benchmark for the decade here, which makes the downward spiral of production quality over the remainder of the decade even more difficult to handle.
Just listen to the opening song a few times, and be prepared to notice things on the third listen that you weren't even aware of the first time around. It subtle touches like this that elevate this album from merely great to one of the best of the decade.