The album of the year that wasn't 

Critical hubris, necessary for anyone foolish enough to believe their opinion matters, only carries writers so far. More than most would admit, external forces color the "expert" assessments of critics. Hype and peer pressure, those guiding principles of adolescent misery, exert an astonishing influence over the "what" and "how" of professional opinion.

In rock, circa 2001, both reached epidemic proportions. Consider the Strokes. A fine approximation of CBGB's circa 1977 to be sure, but hardly "the forefathers of a bold new era in rock," as one overly excitable wag put it. Apparently we're so anxious for the "next big thing" that we hang outrageous expectations on promising bands still finding their way. Even more insidious is "Radiohead syndrome," wherein sycophantic praise gets doled out to dull, pretentious art-rock bands because everyone else is doing it. The result: 2001 was more about raised expectations and inflated posturing than actual substance.

And yet, no amount of critical hysteria managed to "save" this year's finest release from corporate myopia. Scheduled to appear in July, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was unceremoniously pulled -- deemed "not commercial enough" by Reprise Records tastemakers. Not commercial enough, as compared to what? No one expected the gifted but low-key Wilco to give Britney or Tool a run for the brass ring. But in a world where the throbbing headache of Kid A can scale the Billboard charts, certainly Wilco's sophisticated, homespun pop could at least turn a modest profit. No doubt the vagaries of the pop-culture marketplace are beyond me, but the music media's overwhelming complacency regarding Wilco's plight sure was unsettling.

Thankfully, Wilco soldiered on, purchasing the masters to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and walking. While looking for a new label, the band resolutely went ahead with tour plans, while streaming the new album through their website. Some higher-fi copies also managed to trickle out, and having procured one (no, I won't tell you where), it's clear what the best album of 2001 should have been.

Helmed by post-rock guru Jim O'Rourke and grounded by inspired songwriting, Foxtrot expands exponentially on the ambitions set forth on 1999's wonderful Summerteeth. From the haunting, presciently titled "Ashes of American Flags" to the freaked-guitar rock of "I'm the Man Who Loves You," Wilco is in peak form throughout. Expertly navigating between seemingly disparate tendencies -- avant-garde space rock and good old-fashioned pop song craft -- the album radiates palpable tension. Both beautiful and oddly terrifying, Foxtrot breathes real life, far removed from Radiohead's indulgences or the Strokes' retroisms.

Perhaps to their commercial detriment, Wilco have shed hype's plastic skin and escaped "teacher's pet" ghettoization by venturing too far onto their own righteously crooked path. But they produced one damn fine album. And at the end of the day, or year, that's all that really matters.

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