Radiohead notice how we’re increasingly staring into unreality – on the computer, on cable news, and in movies – and it worries them. As wary soothsayers for the Internet age, the Oxford quintet have remained a vital rock act by stretching and morphing what it means to be a rock act while also teasing out the modern anxieties that connect us more than any smart phone could. They aren’t just a bunch of uppity Luddites, though. The band is savvy enough to take cues from technology as they constantly change their sound, fix bugs and offer new ways of thinking about music both sonically and as a commodity. Not unlike shape-shifting forebears the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie or U2, Radiohead use the element of unpredictability to their advantage. And their curiousness isn’t limited to a new costume or stage dressing; from the yelpy grunge of Pablo Honey to OK Computer‘s interstellar rock to Kid A‘s twitching electronics, Radiohead continue to reinvent themselves while retaining a vital strain of wracked humanness. They feel your pain, and they make it sublime.
Nearly 20 years removed from Pablo Honey's 1993 release, it's funny to think that the long Radiohead odyssey started with such a conventional ode to American indie. Oscillating between acoustic love songs inspired by R.E.M. and Pixies-esque grunge rockers, the album is a product of youth, the band readily revealing their restless 20-something mindset. And while there's no indication of the genre-defying pillars to come, Pablo Honey does show flashes of the band's way with a hook (a talent they would soon be trying to undermine at every turn). Of course, the most famous chorus was "Creep"'s, their first and still-biggest U.S. hit. The band may treat the song like an embarrassing high school picture now but, without it, there's reason to believe this band's story would be a lot shorter. Bouncing between a choir-boy wail and a Johnny Rotten snarl, Thom Yorke had yet to figure out how to abstract his emotions, so Pablo Honey has him at his most vulnerable and personal. On "Thinking About You," he "plays with" himself while pining for a starlet, and he clumsily references Jim Morrison on "Anyone Can Play Guitar." And, with "Creep," he voices a slacker anthem that sums up the sardonic grunge era with such succinctness it almost reads as parody. "I'm a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?" wails Yorke. As Radiohead continued to expand their fan base as they explored less immediate instrumentation and structure, that question continued to be perfectly apt.
It's their first genuinely great album and still their best pop record. The Bends showed that Radiohead were intent on being more than just a grunge footnote. It was released a year after Kurt Cobain's death and it bursts open the guitar-driven loud-soft dynamic he popularized by adding dollops of U2-style grandeur and Pink Floyd-y atmospherics. Immediately deeper and richer than Pablo Honey, the album hints at the far-reaching ambitions that would soon have a chorus of fans and critics citing them as prophets for a wired generation. These songs are built for sing-alongs in large spaces crashing highlight "Fake Plastic Trees" continues to send cascades of goosebumps through festival audiences every time it gets pulled out. Radiohead also flashed an impressive new range on The Bends, from the straight-up pop-rock of "High and Dry" to the grooving bluster of "Bones" to the hymn-like gorgeousness of finale "Street Spirit (Fade Out)." Everything is elevated even further by Thom Yorke's aching falsetto and its unmatchable angelic sweep. On much of the album, Yorke sings about death and disease not exactly typical fodder for a burgeoning 26-year-old rock star. But, with his droopy left eye and spastic twitchiness, not much about the singer is de rigueur. "I don't want to be crippled and cracked," he bemoans on "Bones." But the only thing worse than his hospital-ridden nightmares is modernity's unsophisticated way of glossing over such fears. "If you're frightened, you can be frightened/ You can be, it's OK," screams Yorke at the peak of "My Iron Lung." The battle to stay human in a society doing its best to numb would become a recurring theme.
OK Computer was released on June 17, 1997. The domain name "Google.com" was registered just three months later, on September 15. In 1997, the Internet had yet to become an omnipotent cultural force, yet Radiohead could see the signs. Every once in a long while, an album comes out that not only sums up a musical moment but also an underlying universal inkling. OK Computer is one of those albums. Musically, it's all over the place there's elements of prog, alt-rock, and psych, not to mention lullabies, murder ballads, and horror movie soundtrack fodder. But the album is tied together by an encroaching sense of dread. On OK Computer, Radiohead are both the canary in a coal mine and the peaceful dove; they warn of a senseless, mechanic future while doing their damnedest to provide bloody respite from the clacking of keyboards. With its six-and-a-half-minute length and freewheeling structure jumping from mosh-worthy riot rock to Gregorian chants in a blink "Paranoid Android" certainly wasn't the most obvious choices for a lead-off single. It did do a remarkable job of setting Radiohead apart from any and all musical trends, though. And it vaulted the band from alt-rock heavies to art-rock gods, a slight but important switch in the darkening days of '90s alternative culture. OK Computer was also the first Radiohead album produced by Nigel Godrich, who has manned the boards for all of their subsequent LPs and turned into something of a sixth member. Here, he's able to help coax out the quintet's darkest dreams (so far), peaking with the one-two punch of "Climbing Up the Walls" and "No Surprises." The former has the band delving into the most awful shadows of man's psyche that allows us to kill, hurt, and maim while the latter has them falling into an unfeeling coma straight out of Orwell's 1984. Those two extremes are depicted with frightening realism, and they're both horribly beautiful in Radiohead's hands. But the album's closer, "The Tourist," gives a glimpse of hope amidst the suffocating ones and zeroes. "Hey man, slow down," sings Yorke, his vowels stretched to the brink. It's a plea, and a futile one at that. But while OK Computer didn't lead to a breakdown of Moore's law or an escape to nature, it made us stop for a second, look around, and consider technology's god-like powers in a stark light.
For a band of self-conscious perfectionists, following up an album that many called the best of the decade (or, in certain hype-fueld U.K. circles, the century) is no easy task. Knowing that they were in the rare position of being popular enough to sell out arenas while making music challenging enough to earn respect from rock's vanguard, Radiohead did not take the making of Kid A lightly. The recording sessions for the album were infamously wrought, but Radiohead came through on every level, doubling down on the art-rock cachet they earned with OK Computer to make a record that opened their musical scope in a way nobody could've anticipated. The same jittery moodiness that typified OK Computer is found here, too, but instead of relying on traditional guitars, bass, vocals, and drums, Kid A is an exploration of fresh textures and approaches. "Idioteque" impressively recalls the synthetic electronics of Aphex Twin and Autechre while shooting it through with Yorke's pleading emotions. "The National Anthem" does nothing less than reinvent the festival anthem, centering it around a sinister bassline and relying on a cacophony of horns for the climax instead of Jonny Greenwood's guitar theatrics. The title track subverts the band's most recognizable asset Yorke's tortured voice with effects that make the front man sound like a microscopic alien all alone in the Arctic Circle. Most impressively, though, Radiohead didn't just grasp at random newness for the sake of it with Kid A, they totally internalized their new set of inspirations. Though opener "Everything in its Right Place" features absolutely zero guitar or live drums, it's knowing title made perfect sense nonetheless. The risk involved in releasing a record as outre as Kid A can't be overestimated, and the payoff was just as big. Radiohead hit number one in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, bagged even more best album of the decade kudos come 2010, and, best of all, introduced a legion of open-minded fans abetted by the limitless of the Internet to discover new sounds themselves.
Released less than a year after Kid A, Amnesiac was made during the same fertile recording period that birthed its predecessor. Yet it's hardly a bunch of also-rans and B-sides. Instead, Amnesiac is at once more traditional and more experimental than Kid A. For every "Knives Out" — a relatively straightforward track that would sound at home on OK Computer or even The Bends — there's something like "Hunting Bears," a two-minute guitar-based instrumental that comes off like Neil Young soloing over Boards of Canada ambient washes, or "Like Spinning Plates," which seems to unfurl its proto-dubstep bizarreness in reverse. Meanwhile, "Morning Bell/Amnesiac" is essentially a remix of the Kid A track "Morning Bell"; the redux showed how Radiohead had adopted more of a producer's mindset to their songs, which were now just skeletons that could be built up in myriad different ways and styles rather than just fitting into three-chord, verse-chorus-verse orthodoxy. Amnesiac also has Yorke feeling more directly antagonistic than on the lyrically obtuse Kid A. Songs like the sultry "Dollars & Cents" and the billowing "You and Whose Army?" come off like taunts at a unnamed oppressors. More than anything else, Amnesiac showed that Kid A wasn't a one-off experiment — Radiohead were seriously committed to convulsing the known order in every way they could manage.
After toying with machines and making a habit of blowing up conceptions over the previous decade, In Rainbows is the band's back-to-basics record. It's the sound of five guys playing together in the same room once again, reacting to each other in real time. It's also their warmest and prettiest album, one that finally thaws the immaculate ice that they'd built up. On In Rainbows, Radiohead sound dare I say it kind of happy. Well, as happy as a group of apocalyptic Brits eying middle age can get, at least. Gone is the menace that ignited Hail to the Thief. It's replaced with an airiness that nears spontaneity. Shuffler "Reckoner" ambles along with Yorke pushing his falsetto to lovely heights; it's about the closest Radiohead have come to a jam-based tune. "Bodysnatchers" flies loose with unadorned, crunched-out rock. The recording process was reportedly arduous (as usual), but this time the agony is hard to find in the finished product. Back-to-backers "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" and "All I Need" shimmer with an ecstatic sensuality the band had never been loose enough to totally nail before. And on the reverbed near-R&B track "House of Cards," Yorke slinks through a mysterious, possibly adulterous escapade, sounding remarkably uninhibited. If their previous four albums were about the encroaching end of the world, In Rainbows lives in the heavenly aftermath. Fittingly, last track "Videotape" has Yorke singing his own eulogy. "When I'm at the pearly gates, this'll be on my videotape," he hums. There's no anxiety, no angst. Just arms open, lushly coming to terms with the inevitable.
The Peaceful Surrender
In a SPIN cover story during the press run-up to Hail To The Thief, Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien mused to Chuck Klosterman about longevity in rock. "I'm interested in bands as beasts," he said. "I'm interested in U2 and the Rolling Stones and Neil Young & Crazy Horse....[Being in a band] is a complicated thing to do over the expanse of time, which is why I respect it so much." For Radiohead, the most revered apocalyptic doomsayers in rock, this is a disarmingly prosaic concern. For hardcore devotees, it could be deflating to hear the band's members discussing their inner dynamic like marriage counselors. And yet: Asserting the right to exist, and pondering the absurd level of difficulty inherent in maintaining such a basic right, has always been one of Radiohead's great themes. From the moment the first of their Great Trembling Visions of the Future dawned that would be 1997's OK Computer Radiohead have always spoken in two voices: the screaming panic of data overload and the whimpered plea, behind it, to just be left alone. Hey, man; slow down. They are reasonable men; get off their case. On The King of Limbs, their eighth studio album, Radiohead sound like a band that has figured out, once and for all, how to exist. In that regard, it is both an achievement and a subtle forking in the road from here on out, Radiohead don't seem likely to struggle very much; they know who they are, and they have gotten fearsomely good at making their music. The corollary to this is the slight pang from realizing that, well, they might never truly surprise you again. If you can listen past this pinprick of disappointment, King of Limbs offers a wide set of generously enfolding arms for you. At a serenely inscrutable 37 minutes, it is their shortest record yet, but it beams with relaxed, lived-in confidence. The music never attempts something it doesn't achieve with aplomb, offering glimpses of every facet of Radiohead's ever-fluid sound along the way. "Bloom" layers a small tumble of piano and against a rippling, blinding sea of clicks and pops once the bass line starts crawling up the center of the song, you realize with some astonishment that they have built a sensual, undulating groove from a blizzard digital snow. They do it again on the twitching arrhythmia of "Good Morning, Mr. Magpie," which sputters like a set of cut wires on a basement floor until Yorke's voice glides in, clear and calm. Throughout The King of Limbs, you sense that Radiohead been living with the noise of their own chattering machinery for so long now that they can't imagine life without it; on "Lotus Flower," Yorke plays patty-cake with it, punctuating the piston-like hammering of the downbeat with handclaps. The second half of the record dissolves into a shimmering blue sea of sound, with Yorke's croon sailing over top like a boat pushed with one foot. "In your arms/ I think I should give up the ghost," he sings on the beatific "Give Up The Ghost" a peaceful hymn of surrender, perhaps, to the machines he's spent years cowering beneath. Jayson Greene