In the aftermath of Pablo Honeyfrom 1993 on, the last thing Radiohead would ever consider doing ever again would be to replicate the sound of everyone else. In 2016, however, they have done so in their own uniquely ubiquitous way, and it has become their sixth number-one album on the UK chart, an enormous achievement-- even for a band who have virtually already rung the bell of every success available in the music industry.
Just in case you’re just waking up from some dense multi-decade coma, Radiohead is a five piece band, formed in the mid-1980s, they hit hard with their first album and its enormous radio-single “Creep” which led them to massive successes early on.
Instead of cashing in and reaping the benefits like some other bands of the time we could mention, Radiohead distanced themselves from ever being able to be remotely known as some one-hit wonder, pushing themselves strongly into their sophomore record, a solid record called The Bends, more defined and thorough than the slightly amateurish sounds of Pablo Honey, the first. The admirable successes of the early Radiohead years seem insignificantly minor at this point, but it’s still worth taking a moment to appreciate.
After The Bends, Thom Yorke and friends reinvented themselves and established an album to help music journalists worldwide have a solid example for the idiom ahead-of-its-time for the next quarter century, with their third record, 1998’s OK Computer. I won’t waste everyone’s time singing its praises, but just note that besteveralbums, a website that collects the data from 23,000 various online and print album reviews and top album tier charts, discovered that OK Computer ranks above Dark Side of the Moon and Revolver as the album most consistently ranked as the greatest of all time.
Radiohead is three albums deep, aggressively touring the globe, performing 104 shows in 10 months, and beginning to amass an undying army of fans that would remain to this day. Probably the most difficult and dangerous move commercially would be to completely reinvent themselves, which naturally they do and do very well.
Kid A, again there’s really nothing much to contribute that wouldn’t come off as overwrought and said previously. A band that found its first success with their initial single, a grungy rock anthem would now release a record with absolutely no guitar at all, and no drums. A moody album with strong themes of disillusionment and isolation, an absolute triumph that, like its predecessor is often ranked as the greatest album of its decade, and often, of all time.
My personal favorite Radiohead album would follow, Amnesiac, which is probably the most difficult to pin down. It’s a nostalgic album but also continued to move the band forward to new places electronically, and saw—in particular—the talents of Jonny Greenwood emerging most excitingly.
Amnesiac was followed by the hyper-political Hail to the Thief released at the height of the War on Terror and highlighted the absurdities of the enormous separations of wealth in the western world, as well as direct stabs at then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-President George W. Bush. While the record was very well-received and beloved by fans, in retrospect, I think it might be the weakest post-Bends Radiohead record. But, that’s just my opinion, everyone has their own best-to-worst Radiohead rankings, naturally.
Before the colossal In Rainbows, Radiohead took a little breather and gave its members time to stretch their creative muscles. Thom Yorke put out a respectable solo record and Jonny Greenwood scored the gorgeous soundtrack to the film There Will Be Blood.
But then, in 2007, Radiohead revolutionized and challenged the entire music industry once again when ten days before its released, they suddenly announced their new album, In Rainbows and announced that in addition to the regular CD, vinyl and deluxe editions, fans could pay what they wanted to download the album.
Digital music piracy has had such a colorful history in what has really only been a couple decades. The eras, the years between Napster, Limewire, Megaupload and others have come and gone and taught us that, so similar to the release of blank cassette tapes, another “killer” of music sales, fans downloading albums for free, would not cripple the music industry.
Indeed, In Rainbows sold twice as well as Hail to the Thief which was released traditionally. It helps that the album was another nearly flawless one with absolutely genius production by longtime producer Nigel Godrich and saw the band really embracing its place in the current place of music at the time.
2011 saw Radiohead’s The King of Limbs released to probably the most divided reception critically of any of their modern albums. I still don’t think it was THAT bad; you have to bear in mind that the album is only 8 songs, the shortest Radiohead album by far, by a lot, and while it doesn’t have any stunning moments in it, it’s by no means a bad record, and "Lotus Flower" was a lovely tune.
It's easy to criticize, and examining the hyperbole regarding a bad Radiohead album should be taken with a grain of salt; a bad Radiohead album is still an album that is considerably above and beyond what most other bands are ever going to be capable of producing.
Because of its brevity and not living up to the legacies of its monstrous predecessors, The King of Limbs was a bit of a letdown.
That was five years ago, and in the time that followed, the band continued touring and recording, contributing time to their increasingly wonderful solo projects as well.
And now, here we are, announced only days before its sudden release, A Moon Shaped Pool-- their ninth album and another enormous success for the band.
Now, back to my original statement. Uniquely ubiquitous.
There is a trend this year in album releases, to attempt to convey a certain ambiance and moodiness that most are really failing at conducting eloquently. It almost feels like people listening to ambient minimalist records, neoclassical records, and the like, and thinking: well that’s simple and repetitive, I can do that. And then failing.
Radiohead obviously has already demonstrated their mastery at incorporating these themes into their music—and done it years before this was a trend for English rock bands to be doing—so it’s not as if they’re trying to prove anything by putting out an ambient electronic album right now. Indeed, the album at times is almost eruptious, on tracks like “The Numbers” and the initial single “Burn the Witch”.
Radiohead has been openly critical of music journalism and its own ubiquitous shortcomings, remarking on the paraphrase clusterfuck that tends to take place between your respective Pitchfork, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound, Spin and the other usual suspects, when a record is released. Someone sets the tone and everybody else tunes up or down to that tone and follows suit with very similar verbiage. So, at the risk of stepping into the territory of repetition, and echoing what has already been said about the album, I’m cautiously proceeding with what is—distinctly and directly—simply my own personal subjective opinion about a new record from a band I have been listening to for most of my life.
A Moon Shaped Pool is an enormous sigh of relief (which is, an ironic analogy given its often alarmingly morose tone and occasionally anxious orchestration). Nobody wanted Radiohead to fail, especially on an album 5 years in the making, the longest wait for a Radiohead album ever.
The record is definitely a triumph but of not without setbacks; notably, Yorke’s vocals are mixed rather loudly on certain tracks, which definitely feels a little pushed into the foreground at times, leaving the subtle complexities of the production sitting awkwardly in the backdrop. This isn’t a consistent issue but a little surprising.
Like Amnesiac, the album is very encompassing, with so many influential airs it’s pointless to list them. I think the two initial singles do a good job of directly projecting the range and variety of the record and the talent of its veteran owners. “Burn the Witch” is angry and catchy, “Daydreaming” is eerie and unsettling, but with the calmness that is conveyed throughout the entirety of the record.
The A-side of the album really stands out to me as being pretty flawless; there’s not really a single track here to complain about. “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes” in particular compliment the album really beautifully.
Any worries or hesitations brought with The King of Limbs and its lackluster release have been laid to rest. A Moon Shaped Pool is a superb record that helps set the standard for the quality of album we should expect from the greatest bands of our time.