Pablo Honey (Capitol, 1993)
The Bends (Capitol, 1995)
OK Computer (Capitol, 1997)
Kid A (Capitol, 2000)
Amnesiac (Capitol, 2001)
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (Capitol, 2001)
Hail to the Thief (Capitol, 2003)
In Rainbows (WASTE, 2007)
The Best of Radiohead (Capitol, 2008)
According to the script, Radiohead was supposed to disappear after its flukey 1993 smash, "Creep," leaving only fond memories of Thom Yorke's Martin-Short-after-electroshock yodel and that wukka-wukka guitar hook. Certainly nothing else on Pablo Honey hinted at things to come. But then Radiohead shocked the world with the wide-screen psychedelic glory of The Bends, the album that raised these pasty British boys to a very Seventies kind of U.K. art-rock godhead. The depressive ballad "Fake Plastic Trees" turned up in Clueless, in which Alicia Silverstone memorably tagged the band "complaint rock." In big-bang dystopian epics like "High and Dry," "Planet Telex," and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," Yorke's choirboy whimper runs laps around Jonny Greenwood's machine-head guitar heroics. U2 would have sold crack to nuns to make this record.
Radiohead officially became kings of rock with their next album, OK Computer, which zooms even further into futuristic mind games and headphone textures than The Bends, even if it's not quite as lyrical. OK Computer kicks off with "Airbag," the catchiest song ever written about a car crash, disintegrating into electronic chaos at the end as guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien warp their instruments into a DJ Shadow–inspired glitch-core coda. Things only get bleaker from there, in darkly emotional ballads such as "Let Down," "No Surprises," and "Exit Music for a Film." The seven-minute nervous breakdown "Paranoid Android" became a surprise U.K. pop hit. If Pink Floyd ever made an album this good, they kept it to themselves. Radiohead were claiming the high ground abandoned by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M., everybody; and fans around the world loved them for trying too hard at a time when nobody else was even bothering. Naturally, the band celebrated success with Meeting People Is Easy, a rockumentary about how depressed they were.
Radiohead's response to all the acclaim was to get even weirder, laboring over the sessions that spawned Kid A and Amnesiac. Kid A is a detour into electronics riddled with anxiety and paranoia, but once again, Radiohead defied all expectations by reinventing themselves and only getting more popular. "Morning Bell," "How to Disappear Completely," and "Idioteque" were brutally beautiful ballads of emotional disintegration, caught between the lines "this isn't happening" and "this is really happening." Some fans hailed Kid A as a masterwork; others feared the band was turning into Jefferson Laptop. But Radiohead saved equally great songs for the second half, Amnesiac. "You and Whose Army?" beams in from the fifth side of the White Album; "I Might Be Wrong" rewires the Allman Brothers even as "Knives Out" rewires the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead; and it all reaches an unlikely emotional peak in the two-minute guitar solo "Hunting Bears." I Might Be Wrong is an ace live album featuring a new song, "True Love Waits." Topping the charts with zero airplay, refusing to kiss a square inch of ass, too busy rewriting the rules to follow anyone else's, Radiohead remained the kings, and the worst you could say is that they're willing to fall on their faces.
Hail to the Thief offers their hardest rock since The Bends, going for punk aggression and disoriented electronic angst at the same time. "Sit Down. Stand Up," "There There," "Sail to the Moon," "2 + 2 = 5": The new tunes were pretty brief, rarely venturing longer than five minutes but raging from top to bottom with adult confidence, no messing around, and once more leaving bewildered fans in their wake.
Like William Butler Yeats, famously the only writer to do his greatest work after winning the Nobel Prize, Radiohead may be the only World's Greatest Rock Band to write their best songs after they'd already earned the crown. In Rainbows, full of songs the band been playing live for a while, turned out to be their most expansive and seductive album, possibly their all-time high, released via optional-pay download although it's definitely best heard in the expanded two-disc version. The band's exhilaration is contagious in the shivery tambourine buzz of "Reckoner," the jagged guitar waves of "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," the R&B lilt of "All I Need." These are the most intense love songs Thom Yorke has ever sung, especially "House of Cards," and the surprisingly warm live-percussion feel gives the whole album the vibe of a hippie jam session. After the end of the world, of course.
After In Rainbows, their old label put together The Best of Radiohead, a totally ignored yet strangely poignant corporate artifact that the band naturally had nothing to do with. Yorke's solo album The Eraser has pop ballads with Kid A-style glitchtronics; Jonny Greenwood showed off his classical chops in the soundtrack for There Will Be Blood. By the time of their amazing 2008 tour, the band's fans around the world were tuning in to every show online, as Radiohead thrilled the diehards by slipping in oldies like "Talk Show Host," the Neil Young cover "Tell Me Why," and the idiotequetastic new gem "Super Collider."
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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