Published Jan 01, 20061. Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
Documentary director Sam Jones closes his Wilco film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart with a coda that betrays the album's true success. After losing key band members and their record label while making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it was finally released in April, and Jones concludes by noting that it was an instant critic's favourite. Well, duh. Of course rock critics many of whom fell into a passionate love affair with Wilco after 1996's Being There will automatically love a brave, anti-commercial album by their favourite band with a David and Goliath story behind it.
But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot also became the best- and fastest-selling album of Wilco's career, even debuting on Billboard at #13. So while Exclaim! critics thought it was the best album of 2002 (many even voted for it in 2001, when it was available only as a download on Wilco's website), what truly matters is that old fans and new fans voted for the album with their dollars and their hearts.
The music is the real story, which is what Wilco's Jeff Tweedy was hoping for back in April. "I know the story told about this record, and I understand how compelling that story is," he said at the time. "But I also know that it won't be that interesting in a couple of months. It will be a footnote. Maybe the record won't be as interesting to people after they hear it. But maybe it will transcend all that."
It did. Eight months later, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is still a beautifully broken deconstruction of spacious folk pop into a flurry of glorious noise and abstraction that Wilco or any other band has rarely balanced so successfully. But even though the backstage mythology lives on, especially with the release of Jones's film last month, no one would still be talking about the drama if the album wasn't a work of brilliance.
Reflecting on his dramatic year, one groggy November morning from his Chicago home, Tweedy muses, "I'm sure there will always be people who will say that we'll never be able to separate the story from the music. As far as we were concerned, that was over with a long time ago.
"For us, playing live, it never felt like we were playing stuff that people would rather hear us talk about," he laughs. "It did feel like election day when it finally came out. It felt like people were voting for it, and for a lot of different reasons. For some people, they voted for it because they already got it for free [on the internet] and they wanted to thank the band for allowing it to be out there without worrying about that. I don't know that there are enough people who care about record industry struggles to put an album at #13 on Billboard.
"But I don't know if validated or vindicated are words I would use to describe anything," he continues. "It's really dangerous for any of us in the band to talk about it, because it appears to be self-congratulatory in a lot of instances. We're most happy and excited that at the end of the year we feel better than we did at the beginning of the year about playing music together and about the idea of our band. If any of the theories or philosophies about how we make music together were put to the test, they all survived."
Wilco trainspotters have had even more to talk about. An album the band recorded with Scott McCaughey's Minus 5 was delayed in more record company madness, and comes out in February on YepRoc. A "hypnotic folk" project called Loose Fur Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glen Kotche and YHF mixer Jim O'Rourke will finally be released in January on Drag City, as will the loaded DVD of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. And after extensive bootlegging of YHF's early demos, Wilco is considering making some of that material available for free download through their web site, giving the album's obsessive fans a further glimpse into its creative twists and turns.
Despite impressions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot being a departure, it fits perfectly into the evolution of the band. Being There dealt with dreams of escape in a backdrop of rock'n'roll speed and country downers. On 1999's Summerteeth, those dreams morphed into psychedelic nightmares. This time out, the dreamstate manifested itself sonically, creating a new musical language for the band including new drummer Kotche, bassist John Stirratt, keyboardist Leroy Bach, and the now ex-communicated multi-tasker Jay Bennett to explore.
"I've always been curious, musically," says Tweedy of the evolution. "And lyrically, I'm rooted in a relationship with music that is maybe the prime source of spirituality in my life. This record is the least interior of all the records I've made. Rock'n'roll was the main subject of Being There, but in a very introspective way. Summerteeth was someone complaining about their personal problems in Niagara Falls or something, in this sonic environment that's so ornate and glorious but sort of synthetic at the same time. This record is more relaxed, has more space and more patience and more concurrent commentary from the music about what the words are. Overall, for whatever reason, I like this record the best." Michael Barclay
2. Spoon Kill the Moonlight (Merge)
If Spoon's last record, Girls Can Tell, was a new bag of pot, Kill the Moonlight is sticky, gooey hash oil distilled to its essence, a purer dose of their melodic hooks and Britt Daniel's world-weary vocals. Throughout this record, Spoon is on the search for meaning, for companionship, hell even for something to do. Where Girls was a full rock record, this sounds at times like half the band has been silenced. Percussion duties are often handled solely by unorthodox sources (hand claps, tambourine, breath sounds, phasing keyboards), bringing their beautifully simple songs into high relief. James Keast
3. Queens Of The Stone Age Songs For The Deaf (Interscope)
With a slew of unforgettable riffs, a welcome sense of irreverence, and the overdue return of Dave Grohl's drumming, Josh Homme and co. crafted a record that made you proud to like hard rock again. "No One Knows" sounded like nothing else on mainstream airwaves, and that was a big enough accomplishment. But it's just the tip of iceberg of equally hair-raising tracks like "The Sky Is Fallin'" and the Mark Lanegan-sung "Song For The Dead." Nothing else came close to illustrating how uninspired American rock has become in the last decade. Songs For The Deaf makes you glad to be alive, a sensation that can't be found on the radio these days. Jason Schneider
4. Interpol Turn On The Bright Lights (Matador)
Interpol's full-length debut is a dark and sombre dance album, full of vigorous 4/4 beats, fervid guitars, and acrobatic bass lines so driving they could plough down a Douglas Fir. Brave booty-shakers would resemble the Peanuts kids all arty and self-absorbed. It's just that kind of music. On the other hand, Turn on the Bright Lights exudes an urban chill. Paul's deadpan vocals drown in reverb and mood swings while Daniel's down-picked guitars succumb to minor chord misery. Sonically, it embodies that set of skinny New Yorkers with asymmetrical haircuts who chain-smoke and drink cocktails in vacant aloofdom while early 80s new wave blasts through the tinny speakers. Danceable yet way-too-cool-for-school? It's these two opposing forces that give Turn On the Bright Lights its best trait a refreshing acrid poignancy. Without the rhythm section's lust for life, Paul's doldrums might've turned this project into an unpleasant affair. Carla Gillis
5. Hot Hot Heat Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop)
Victoria youngsters Hot Hot Heat create rock music you can shake your booty to. The keyboard element of HHH helps a bit, but the dance-ability is mostly due to the choppy guitars and rad drum beats. Guitar player Dante is constantly dry-humping the listener with his short notes. The tight pants and hair aside, the music on this album is sexy, if you can hear it under the constant singing. Steve Bays never even takes a breath; his unique style of yelping and moaning all over every song makes it the special Hot Hot Heat sound a rock-dance assault. Mar Sellars
6. Múm Finally We Are No One (Fatcat)
More glitch-y than glacial, the tender touch of Múm is Iceland's most intriguing and endearing export this year. The slight, angelic vocals of twin sisters Gyoa and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir (pictured on Belle & Sebastian's Fold Your Hands Child cover) touch down on nearly half the album, uttering intimations about closed eyes and swimming pools the Reykjavik/Berlin-based quartet has, in fact, been known to perform under water. Meanwhile, Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar Póreyjarson Smárason sculpt the electronic, lightly orchestral foundation, drawing from the more organic work of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada for fragile but enveloping soundscapes. With a beautifully fused sonic range, from the lightness of a music box melody to the gravity of a funereal organ to the carefree patter of bouncing ball beats, Múm diligently attend to every last detail and somehow make it sound easy. Lorraine Carpenter
7. Sleater-Kinney One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)
Like Jeff Tweedy, Sleater-Kinney often sings about rock'n'roll as a source of spirituality and exhilaration, but their sixth album lives it instead of analysing it. Musically, One Beat is consistently classic rock where CCR, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth and Kathleen Hanna rule the jukebox while S-K reinvents the future. Emotionally, it's the essential sound of joy and life in the face of death, denial and terribly troubled times, set to catchy pop hooks, monster guitar riffs, and electrifying performances by all three women, especially drummer Janet Weiss. Theirs is the power and glory. Michael Barclay
8. Clinic Walking With Thee (Domino)
Curiously, Liverpool's Clinic got its fair share of critical scorn with Walking With Thee, the quartet's restrained follow-up to its manic predecessor, Internal Wrangler. Where its debut exploded amidst a torrent of bile-caked synth lines and blood-soaked axe riffs, Walking With Thee explored a quieter, but no less tortured inner landscape. "I believe in harmony," crooned the oxygen-starved Ade Blackburn on the album's lead track, setting the tone for a tuneful rawk record where melancholy vied with fatalism for emotional primacy. In producing a more polished sonic effort than its recorded-in-a-garage debut, Clinic adopted a wall of sound approach to track-making, which called for a meticulous headphone investigation of the finished product. Better than the Strokes, the Hives, and the Vines put together. Martin Turenne
9. Beck Sea Change (Geffen)
It's not pop. It's definitely not punk, nor rock. But the tears will roll. With Sea Change proves Beck to be a multifaceted artist, effectively evoking a mood, a scenario, an idea. This return to roots both his own and rock'n'roll's is an album of simple ballads with weeping guitars and throat-tightening lyrics. Like the best weepy-eyed folkie dealing with the trials and tribulations of human emotion, Beck created a whole slew of bittersweet melodies that effectively tune into any vestiges of heartache, and wrenches out sympathy pains if that ache's not there already. No easy task. Sincerity, especially in Beck's often-ironic ouevre, is still rare. By simply pouring out his soul in a straight-forward, non-contrived, never sappy manner, Beck created one of the most progressive albums of the year. Emily Orr
10. Elvis Costello When I Was Cruel (Island)
Face it: Elvis Costello is too well-defined an artist to ever release another definitive album of new material. When I Was Cruel comes close, delivering the energetic piss and vinegar in the style of an earlier era. The disc features some novel shades of EC that are both fresh and instantly memorable. The album is the first Costello title to feature former Cracker bass master Davey Faragher, whose complex patterns essentially chart the rhythm and melody of more than a couple tracks here. (If the intent was to show up disgruntled former Attractions four-stringer Bruce Thomas, it worked.) Lyrically, it's one of his most consistent efforts. As a bonus, he avoids using that pseudo-operatic, high-register falsetto that has marred a few too many of his latter catalogue titles. Chuck Molgat
11. Sonic Youth Murray Street (Geffen)
Sonic Youth's last few major label outings have seemed alternately too arty or not enough, never hanging together as an album. Murray Street does. From the chiming guitar notes on opener "The Empty Page," the New York quintet (we can't forget the addition of Jim O'Rourke) has simplified the basic song structures, hearkening back to their late 80s heyday, while managing to bring enough fresh chaos and experimentation into the mix. There are lots of melodic passages, but there are also Japanoise-influenced guitar freak-outs too. It's a fine line that leans toward the conventional, but blends their two worlds succinctly. Sean Palmerston
12. Songs:Ohia Didn't It Rain (Secretly Canadian)
A sparse and gorgeous record, on which Jason Molina proves himself not only a wonderful writer, but composer and conductor. Recorded live-off-the-floor, the album retains the intense chemistry between all the musicians. It seems strange that so traditional an arrangement of instruments and voices could produce such arresting beauty. Molina's lazy delivery contains more sincerity in one drawled syllable than the entire output of most slow-fi artists. With Jennie Bedford's striking vocals accompanying him, Molina unwinds a narrative of longing, resignation and, often, hope. An album that could lure even the most beaten-down soul back to love. Helen Spitzer
13. Constantines Modern Sinner Nervous Man (Suicide Squeeze)
A three-song tease following their already classic full-length, Modern Sinner Nervous Man finds the Constantines embracing their passion for driving stomp beats and their more rockabilly leanings. The blistering explosions still sit at the forefront but Nervous Man serves as a sign of things to come, promising that the Cons aren't content to do the same thing twice. While experimentation can often mean disaster for a band so highly regarded, the Cons put all doubts to rest by playing each note with the unstoppable vigour they're known for. With its bright pink cover layout and just under 12 minutes of the best rock'n'roll you can get these days, Modern Sinner Nervous Man foreshadows the long, exhilarating career to come. Neil Haverty
14. Sahara Hotnights Jennie Bomb (JetSet)
The hot rock sound of the year was not the Hives but their Swedish sisters-in-sound, the Sahara Hotnights. Recalling the Britpop dominance of Elastica and Lush blended with a garage band, Jennie Bomb is a most beautiful slice of this year's now sound. Unafraid of a produced, pop-oriented sound, here are harmonies, hooks and tons of energy from four rad-looking girls. As trend-jumping train spotters look for the next big thing, the Sahara Hotnights will keep on rocking. Mar Sellars
15. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead Source Tags & Codes (Interscope)
After garnering considerable attention for two excellent records and raucous live performances, Source Tags & Codes outshines critical expectations, presenting a band at the apex of musical talent. The disc covers a profusion of topographies, always balancing astounding progressions with an underlying comprehension of imperative tunefulness. Trail Of Dead's four musicians coalesce elaborate instrumentation and vocals to produce compositions that range from serene to vociferous. They reverberate continuously with heart-swelling, inventive melodies, they drive with a vital rhythm and they agitate like a harmonious cyclone. Extraordinary for its sweeping breadth, Source Tags & Codes is an entirely mesmerising piece of music. Rob Nay
16. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives Behind The Music (Telegram/Warner)
With a history that dates back to 1986 with one-time Sub Pop band Union Carbide Productions, these Gothenburg guys aren't exactly rock rookies. Behind The Music is the fourth album for TSOOL, and the perfect mix of grandiose anthems and down-tempo songs makes this their best yet. There are no weak spots and it's hard to ignore their hooks and raw energy. Although they have always sung in English, with this album their unique mix of psychedelic pop and a distinctively British rock style has finally hit a nerve outside Scandinavia. Singer Ebbot Lundberg's powerhouse voice and songwriting prowess give the band a solid foundation, and the dense layers of guitars, percussion, and other assorted instruments make their overall sound bold and unforgettable. Rob Bolton
17. Liars They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top (Blast First/Mute)
The American revival of late '70s British post-punk in 2002 could so easily have been a contradiction of everything its original touchstones (Gang of Four, Wire, the Pop Group) were about a wholesale dismissal of rock nostalgia in favour of a limitless, unknowable future. But thanks to the intelligence and vision of Erase Errata, the Rapture, and Brooklyn's Liars, a music that was abandoned before its potential was fully realised is at long last regaining the course it should have followed 20 years ago. Confrontational, hysterical, and often totally inscrutable, They Threw Us is an all-too-rare debut: it reminds you of dozens of great records, but ultimately doesn't sound like anything else. There may be hope for hype after all. Michael White
18. Nina Nastasia The Blackened Air (Touch & Go)
Nina Nastasia's sadly overlooked sophomore release is a collection of tragically beautiful songs that beget a slow haunting atmosphere, full of stories of fear, loss, and past happiness. Poetically cryptic, Nastasia's vocals are often soft and delicate, sometimes capturing us with little more than a whisper. But unlike a simple singer-songwriter album, it's the overall soundscape of The Blackened Air that sends chills down your spine. The music is often hypnotic, soaring with orchestral arrangements of accordion, strings, wind instruments and even a saw. At other times, the music is sparse and Nastasia embraces us with a hauntingly skeletal arrangement of finger picking guitar. Throughout, many moments capture a dark folksy, country element, in stark contrast to her New York City home. Her name may not be as familiar as Cat Power or Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, but one day soon it will be. Sarah Murdoch
19. Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Touch & Go)
It starts with a "Bang" and ends with a "cmon kids!" rallying cry. In between, the all-too-short five-song teaser effortlessly blesses us with sounds from raunch to pop, from thrash to swagger, all with a single guitar, a drum kit, and one wailing banshee of an iconic singer. Karen O can reject with a toss of her sweaty fringe and a beer-breathed "as a fuck son, you suck!" and does nothing but entice you all the more. She takes down the snobbery and elitism of the NYC art scene and she can self-mythologise like nobody's business. The stripped down, primitive elements that make up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs belie their intelligence, their guts, and their talented ability to make all the New York new-new wave hipsters forget their inhibitions and just shake their butts. Oh, and their hot-pink-humping-lagomorphs logo has single-handedly made bunnies cool again. Emily Orr
20. Julie Doiron Heart and Crime (Endearing)
Heart and Crime, a companion piece to her French-language Desormais, is as sad as it is clear-eyed. Wistful, yet unsentimental, she sings these vignettes about heartbreak with a calm sense of resignation there's pain and hurt in the air, but she knows it'll pass, just as she knows it'll come again. Doiron's voice never strains for effect or becomes too precious. Her vocals meander around the simple plucking of her guitar, creating the feeling of an internal monologue of trying to figure things out. The spare, stripped-down quality to the arrangements makes any embellishments all the more striking like the distant whisper of Gord Downie's accompaniment on "Too Much" or the soft harmonica note that seems to take over where Doiron's voice leaves off on "All Their Broken Hearts." Heart and Crime is so simple and direct it feels timeless. James Luscombe