It's strange how whenever I'm having a conversation with someone and I mention Radiohead to another fan of their music, it's almost as if some metaphysical bond is created. I'll often have a discussion on how I believe In Rainbows is their best album while they may agree or respond by saying they prefer Kid A or OK Computer. When I speak of how I love the pure emotion and unconventional sounds in their tracks I'll always receive a silent nod of agreement. While explaining how I felt after listening to Karma Police for the first time, I know he or she will understand exactly what I mean when I felt like I wanted to cry. That's how good Radiohead is.
Thom Yorke and his gang of musical misfits have been at it since the early 90's. Beginning as a punk-alternative British rock outfit, they unexpectedly soared to fame with the raucous single Creep which remains their most popular song. Many critics were already hailing them as one hit wonders, with mixed reviews of their first album Pablo Honey. They couldn't have been anymore wrong. Their sophomore effort, The Bends, cemented them as one of the best alternative rock bands of the 90's. Singles such as High and Dry and Fake Plastic Trees have soft melodies with powerful lyrics on feeling isolated and suicide. Just and My Iron Lung are alt-rock staples with roaring guitar segments and catchy riffs that get me banging my head back and forth. Street Spirit (Fade Out) ends the album with Yorke's haunting voice over a melancholic guitar that evokes feelings of loss yet beauty.
The Bends was clearly an album still on the hinges of the punk-rock era in alternative, but the 1997 release of OK Computer actually changed the alternative rock scene forever. Hailed as one of the most progressive and influential albums of all time, Computer tapped into the social angst and societal pressures of a millennial age group who needed a voice. Karma Police begins as simple piano ballad and ends with a synth induced outro highlighting the confusion that comes with falling in love. No Surprises makes a lullaby out of living a menial life with a dead end job. Paranoid Android is a literal assault on social anxiety that plays out thematically with an eerie beginning, a raging guitar solo in the middle, and a angelic fall from heaven in the third act. The album's use of unconventional sounds, mixing of instruments, and surprising accessibility make it nothing short of a modern day masterpiece.
After the critical and commercial success of OK Computer, Radiohead decided to push the boundaries even further. The 2000 release of Kid A ushers in the new millennium of technology with a techno heavy album that was unlike anything during its time. The albums highlights include the pulsating Everything in its Right Place, the apocalyptic tone of Idioteque, and the rough riffs of Optimistic. Ultimately I do feel that the album is best listened as a whole rather than in its parts. Many would've considered such an experimental album at the time to be commercial suicide, but the album was a hit. Once again Radiohead ignored the critics and the mainstream to do their own thing.
Amnesiac (2001) and Hail to the Theif (2003) received somewhat good reviews but felt very inaccessible to mass audiences. The albums aren't bad by any means but take some time and more than one listen to truly appreciate. Amnesiac's Pyramid Song may just one of Radiohead's best songs and Theif's There There is probably the best alt-rock song they've produced since The Bends. Many fans felt worried the band had passed its prime. No one could've anticipated what the surprise release of In Rainbows in 2007 would've had on the perception of Radiohead as musicians and ultimately artists.
In Rainbows was digitally released with a revolutionary pay-what-you-want marketing system. The album was a critical success and commercial success. In Rainbows is a culmination of over two decades of experimentation and introspection done by Yorke and the rest of the band to effortlessly create a masterpiece. From the catchy tune of 15 Step to the emotional piano ballad Videotape, the album is nothing short of an experience. If you haven't listened to Radiohead, this is the album you should listen to first from beginning to end. In Rainbows is the product of musicians with stellar chemistry and years of a perfectionist approach towards their craft.
The King of Limbs was another surprise release after a four year hiatus in 2011. The album received a great deal of disdain from the community and critics because it was a 37 minute album that sounded, as some put it, "lazy". When I first heard Limbs I really didn't know how to feel about it. It didn't grab my attention like In Rainbows or OK Computer. But it was only after a couple of more listens and watching the Lotus Flower music video that I began to appreciate the album. It's slower and softer than their past efforts but it has a lot of layers in songs such as Codex and Separator that make the record powerful. But seriously, I recommend everyone watches the Lotus Flower music video.
Their most recent album reminded everyone who didn't like TKOL that they weren't leaving them behind. A Moon Shaped Pool feels very dreamy with several songs utilizing synthesizers and acoustic guitars but the overall tone is melancholic. Yorke recently had a divorce and the anguish he feels is event throughout the record. While this may turn off many listeners, it makes way for some great songs such as Burn the Witch, Present Tense, and Identikit that are my personal favorites.
I never really listened to Radiohead outside of their most popular songs until this past summer on the heels of a rough break up. While this may sound corny, their music really spoke to me. Songs such as Reckoner and Weird Fishes/Arpeggi felt as if Yorke was having a personal dialogue with solely me and he understood. Rather than continue to keep me in a state of perpetual melancholy, the music actually raised my spirits because I felt as if someone else had gone through the same situation as me. Most artists today could never get to the same emotional level as Radiohead in such an effortless way.
What truly separates Radiohead from most other artists today or in recent decades is their unique sound. Each album on its own could be classified into a different genre of music from Pablo Honey's punk rock to Kid A's electronic-jazz infused alternative. They're an ever changing project, constantly experimenting with new sounds and melodies. There are several bands who have tried to change their sound and utterly failed or others who almost refuse to try anything new which makes the music feel stale. Radiohead knows exactly how to practice restraint enough so to not sound mainstream while still being accessible.
If you are reading this as a casual music listener, these guys will literally change the way you listen to music for the rest of your life. For those of you reading this as a Radiohead fan, you are silently nodding your head right now. Thom Yorke and his crew of talented musicians will go down as one of the greatest artists of the 21st century
and I know for a fact that they will
continue to make amazing music as I'm certain that I'll enjoy Yorke's dance
moves for years to come.