A Rapid, Rigorous Radiohead Retrospective

Radiohead, it seems, is an all-or-nothing band. People either love them or hate them. I fall firmly in the former category. This band has intrigued me since the mid-90s, and continues to do so.

Yet if pressed, I can’t point to any one thing that draws me to the band. The best answer I can give is that I appreciate their never-ending sense of evolution, and their refusal to stay in place, musically. That’s not to say I love everything they’ve ever done, because I don’t. But I applaud the willingness to keep pushing.

Like everyone else discovering “Alternative” rock, I heard Radiohead for the first time in 1993, when they released the single “Creep.” They scored a moderate hit with that song, and I can imagine their label coming to them and saying, “You need to keep making THAT song!” If the band had, I probably wouldn’t be as big a fan. “Creep” was the first step in a much longer process that only got more sophisticated as time went on. Thank goodness!

Radiohead is one of those bands whose whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. While I appreciate the individual efforts of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Phil Selway — and I have heard solo material from many of them — they sound best when working together and playing off of each other. They’re just one of those bands that belong together.

Since I own 10 Radiohead releases, this seems like as good a time as any to rank them. Please note that I am ranking them by FAVORITE, which does not necessarily mean BEST. That’s an argument best suited to individual tastes. Well, so is “favorite,” for that matter. Let’s just say this list is an attempt to get tongues wagging, as it were.

So here we go: My Radiohead Top 10, in ascending order.

10. I Might Be Wrong (Live Recordings), 2001. The Misrepresentation. I’ve been to two Radiohead shows, and I’ve seen more than a couple on YouTube. To my mind, this album simply does not represent a real Radiohead show. The sound is so-so, and the sense of flow I’ve gotten from the gigs is not present here. I keep hoping that one of these days, Radiohead will record and release a definitive live CD/DVD. I’m sorry, but this isn’t it. If one Radiohead CD is to be skipped, it’s this one.

9. Pablo Honey, 1993. The Beginning. Every band has to start somewhere, and this is Radiohead laying its foundation. This is the album with “Creep,” which opened the door to commercial airplay in the U.S. and around the world. Had the band stuck with this post-punk style, they probably would have done o.k. But I would have lost interest. Luckily, the band used this sound as a springboard to the next level.

8. The King of Limbs, 2011. The Mis-step. I’m really not sure what the band was going for here. Over the years, I’ve come to view Radiohead’s music as either “organic (guitar driven),”  “digital (synthesizer driven),” or a “hybrid (a balance of the two).” I suppose this album is a hybrid that never completely jelled. It’s not a bad record, per se. It’s just a bit of a letdown, particularly since it follows In Rainbows, which was absolutely incredible. What’s more, the band left the best song of the session, called “Staircase,” off the album altogether! I’m still shaking my head at that one. But even “not great” Radiohead is better than many band’s best efforts. So this one still gets an occasional bit of “airplay” at home.

7. A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016. The Transition. It often takes me more than a couple of listens for a Radiohead album to truly sink in and become part of my musical consciousness. This is a good record that hasn’t sunk all the way in yet. The addition of orchestral instruments adds a nice new layer to the bands ever-evolving sound. The songs have a nice groove to them. I like this album already. But I’m sure I’ll love it once I’m able to give it a little more attention. I’m very curious to find out just where Radiohead goes from here.

6. Amnesiac, 2001. The Overload. Radiohead went full-digital, in a manner of speaking, for this record. The guitars all but disappeared, and the resulting sound could be a bit much for someone enamored with the older sound. But given the time to grow on you, this album contains some remarkable electronic moments. This is the sound of a band pushing a musical envelope as far as it can be pushed, and then backing off the precipice at the very last moment. This album also contains one of my very favorite Radiohead tunes, “Pyramid Song,” which I’m still trying to count accurately. I can find the “one.” But after that, things get wonderfully fuzzy.

5. Hail to the Thief, 2003. The Adjustment. The guys decided to back off from the electronic overload of Amnesiac, and brought the guitars back to the fore. The results are rock solid, and the music feels balanced again. This is probably the ultimate “hybrid” Radiohead album. Everything fits nicely into its own musical pocket. And where else are you going to find a sing-along title like “Myxomatosis?”

4. Kid A, 2000. The Cosmic Shift. I was so caught up in the hype of OK Computer, it took me a while to realize just how brilliant this album is. Radiohead could have easily made another album like OK Computer and gotten away with it. Instead, they tossed that playbook out and went in a completely different direction. A lot of fans weren’t ready for it at the time, and rebelled. I scratched my head for a while. Then I really listened to Kid A, and before I knew it, I couldn’t stop. If the opening notes to “Everything in its Right Place” aren’t the most beautiful to ever start an album, I’d like to hear the competition. Then there’s the organized chaos of “The National Anthem,” the heartbreaking beauty of “How to Disappear Completely,” and the killer groove of “Idioteque.” This album has it all, and then some.

3. The Bends, 1995. The Catalyst. If someone walked up to me and said that, song for song, the best Radiohead album is The Bends, I would have a hard time arguing with them. The album is positively brilliant, and perfectly paves the way for what was to come. The band begins to sprinkle in the first of the serious electronic sounds, and the songwriting takes a quantum leap forward. The Bends is the sound of a band finding itself. Equally amazing is the material Radiohead left on the cutting room floor, based on the B-sides contained in the album’s box set re-issue. I was positively floored by the extra material, and found myself wondering why Radiohead didn’t make The Bends a double album. They certainly had the material! Which is more than I can say for many bands, whose B-sides usually tell me they made the right choice by not putting those tunes on the album proper.

2. In Rainbows, 2007. The Fun (and Free) One. Liberated from their label, Radiohead shocked the world by offering their album In Rainbows to fans for as much (or as little) as they wished to pay for it. I myself ponied up five pounds (about 10 bucks U.S.) for the download. Later, I paid for a physical copy as well. WORTH IT!!! Wise men say nothing free is worth having. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this is one of them. In fact, In Rainbows is so good, you feel that you have no choice but to pay for that which the band was trying to give you. Or maybe that’s just me. Here’s another word rarely associated with Radiohead: fun. This album sounds like it was a blast to make! It’s beautifully paced, well played, and contains more than a few of my favorite lyrics (“I love you, but enough is enough”). A Radiohead collection without this album is woefully incomplete.

  1. OK Computer, 1997. The Watershed. I realize this is an obvious choice. But it’s an obvious choice for a reason! This is the first Radiohead album when it all came together. The guitars, the electronics, the groove, the lyrics, the concept … it’s all here, presented marvelously. I made the mistake of listening to this record for the first time while cleaning my house. So I listening to it without truly hearing it. The impact was lost on me. The second time, however, I was on an airplane wearing headphones. I was dumbfounded, repeatedly saying to myself, “What the hell is this?” By the time the plane landed, I had played the album twice, and Radiohead had a new Fan for Life. I could talk about OK Computer all day, but that will never take the place of experiencing the album for yourself.

So there you have it, cats and kittens. I’m sure many of you have a completely different take on this band and its output. Well, that’s what the “Comments” section is for. Grab a drink, have a seat, and let’s talk Radiohead!

 

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2 Comments

  1. Funnily enough I was chatting to our new neighbours a few weeks ago and as a Radiohead fan he recommended In Rainbows as the follow on to Computer. Mind you, its taken 20 years to even moderately warm to that album, so it could be another 20 before I reach out to Rainbows – so hope the band aren’t holding out for my contribution to their pension plan…

    Liked by 1 person

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