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.