The modern masters and their 10 greatest albums. By Pete Paphides.
- CORE MEMBERS:
Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway
Rock, indie, electronica
- YEARS ACTIVE:
Listen to Radiohead’s debut Pablo Honey 20 years on, and it feels like a prologue. The grungey ingénues of 1993 seemed happier to run with the pack than set the pace. Also on that record, of course, was the breakout hit Creep, and their entire career can be seen as a chain of events that leads directly from that period. The group’s mortification at being defined by one song prompted the creative block that singer Thom Yorke found himself only able to exorcise by delivering the confessional catharsis of The Bends. Speaking to MOJO in 2003, drummer Phil Selway opined that the opaque, esoteric detours of Kid A and Amnesiac were prompted in part by Yorke’s feeling that he had laid himself too bare on the group’s preceding albums…(continues below)
TOP TEN ALBUMS
10. Radiohead The King Of Limbs
XL | 2011 Remove the weaker tracks from 2003’s Hail To The Thief and you’re left with a great album. Do the same with Radiohead’s eighth – jettisoning exercises in almost comical impenetrability such as Feral and Bloom – and what remains is an EP. That said, what an EP. The seductive tendril-grip of Little By Little; the muggy opium embrace of Codex and the Narnian campfire incantation of Give Up The Ghost brooked no comparison with any of their contemporaries. When King Of Limbs is good, it stands up to anything from Radiohead’s illustrious past – but even for diehards, a little more wouldn’t have gone amiss.
9. Radiohead Airbag/How Am I Driving?
CAPTIOL | 1998 Fanfared by OK Computer’s opening song Airbag, all the songs on this US mini-album originally appeared as b-sides. Packaged amid a series of Orwellian quasi-governmental questionnaires, diagrams and two short stories (Chip Shop and New Job), they represent a fascinating missing link between Radiohead’s third album and the febrile excesses of Kid A: especially the dystopian raga-rock of A Reminder, the proggy powerpop of Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2) and the Radiophonically-inclined ruminations of Meeting In The Aisle. Even amid such cast-offs though, there lurks the occasional surefire hit – case in point: the clattering, cathartic Pearly.
8. Jonny Greenwood The Master
NONESUCH | 2012 With the possible exception of ex-Pop Will Eat Itself and and former grebo guru Clint Mansell, no musician in recent memory has managed to make the transition from rock to the art house movie score as assuredly as Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. The exponential improvement between every soundtrack since 2004’s Bodysong has made him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after composers. The paranoia and portent that permeated the American post-war psyche is fertile ground for Greenwood’s work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master: in particular the ornately-turned portent of standout cuts such as Time Hole and His Master’s Voice.
7. Radiohead Amnesiac
Parlophone | 2001 Released eight months after Kid A, Amnesiac was assembled from the same sessions. Yet the bright, boxy extremes of the former set an altogether different mood from that established here by standouts like Pyramid Song and I Might Be Wrong. It doesn’t all work; the Blair-baiting cabaret noir of You And Whose Army? is heavy-handed; Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors represents perhaps one too many musique concrète detours. But just as you can’t edit your dreams to your absolute liking, even these songs are faithful to the shadowy wits-end ambience that also yields gems like Morning Bell/Amnesiac and the distressed ragtime of Life In A Glass House.
6. Atoms For Peace Amok
XL | 2013 Soft sinewy collisions of sustained bass notes and pattering dubstep beats have latterly been a Thom Yorke calling card. A few of those punctuate the moonlighting alliance with the live band – Flea, Mauro Refosco, Joey Waronker and the Nigel Godrich – that Yorke assembled to play songs from his 2006 album The Eraser. Crucially though, there’s a depth and humanity at work on Amok that distinguishes it from the sub-zero synthscapes of that solo effort. The restive half-funk of Reverse Running locates a sumptuous mid-point between Yorke’s “proper” band and D’Angelo, whilst the shape-shifting pop of Ingenue singlehandedly justifies the admission price.
5. Radiohead Hail To The Thief
PARLOPHONE | 2003 These days, Thom Yorke feels that Radiohead didn’t cede enough power to producer Nigel Godrich in selecting the tracks for their sixth album. You can see his point. A little judicious editing (does anyone like We Suck Young Blood?) allows some of the group’s best work to shine: notably, the rapturous oilcan funk of Where I End And You Begin and the apocalyptic Sit Down, Stand Up. Elsewhere, 2+2=5 and There There reminded us that they could still summon the same synergy when standing in the same room. In short, most other artists would have traded an internal organ for a “dud” like this.
4. Radiohead The Bends
PARLOPHONE | 1995 The old adage about what doesn’t kill you making you stronger is a perfect fit for Radiohead’s second album. Ordered to go on the road by producer John Leckie after prolonged tortuous studio sessions, the re-energised group returned and recorded the whole thing in a fortnight. It shows. Using alcohol to catch themselves off-guard, Planet Telex blew the creative floodgates open; while My Iron Lung saw them formally exorcise the spectre of Creep by writing about it. The quantum leap both in terms of songwriting – Just, Street Spirit, (Nice Dream) – and Yorke’s voice means that even now, The Bends remains a set text for every young guitar band.
3. Radiohead In Rainbows
XL | 2007 Prior to In Rainbows, Radiohead had variously sounded like a great live band and hermetic musos prodding around on powerbooks in the hope that the next noise might yield a new direction. In Rainbows offered a seamless blend of both. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi refracted Aphex Twin’s occasional journeys into Cornish digi-folk through a gauzy analogue fever dream; 15 Step was a hobnail-booted military drill which owed just as much to forgotten avant-gardists Disco Inferno as Yorke’s beloved Four Tet. Even after its game-changing name-your-price download release, it entered the US and UK charts and Number 1. Big and clever were no longer mutually exclusive.
2. Radiohead OK Computer
PARLOPHONE | 1997 The word-of-mouth response to The Bends meant that Radiohead knew their third album would make an impact – the backdated goodwill even prompted Radio 1 to playlist obtuse lead single Paranoid Android. Hindsight and familiarity have conspired to make OK Computer seem like an album of standards. However, the spooked stoned alienation of Subterranean Homesick Alien and The Tourist felt unprecedented at the time – staging posts in a journey towards an uncertain, depersonalised future. Elsewhere, their ability to pluck peerlessly moving melodies out of the ether seemed to peak with Let Down, No Surprises and Lucky.
1. Radiohead Kid A
PARLOPHONE | 2000 Effectively redrew the parameters of the rock album for the new century. The padded cell ambience of Everything In Its Right Place and Morning Bell seemed custom-built for these obsessive-compulsive times – as did the fin de siècle night terrors of The National Anthem and Idioteque. And throughout it all – most notably on How To Disappear Completely and Optimistic – Radiohead still found time to remind us that their electrifying live synergy was still intact. Anyone seeking to establish the last time a mainstream rock group released such an experimental record and maintained their commercial stock would have to go all the way back to 1968 and The White Album. Therein lay the scale of Kid A’s achievement.
Increasing revulsion that they might be a part of rock music’s mooted obsolescence has created a tension in Radiohead’s music that is never likely to be resolved, and by evolving with every new album, they’ve become peerlessly adept at giving us the record that we didn’t know we wanted. To call Radiohead a band these days only goes some way to describing how they run their affairs. At times, they seem more like a loose aggregation of likeminded music workers dispensing sonic bulletins. The last two albums appeared with almost no advance notice, whilst you’d be forgiven for missing some of the inspired recordings that have surfaced between albums: in particular 2011’s digital two-hander The Daily Mail/Staircase and 2009’s Harry Patch (In Memory Of).
“We’re such a bunch of stupidly self-critical pathological over-achievers.”
Thom Yorke, MOJO, 2006
Like The Beatles and David Bowie, their influence seems to be all around us. To any young guitar band worth their salt, The Bends and OK Computer remain part of the core curriculum; to latter-day sonic expeditionaries such as Animal Collective and Jon Hopkins, Kid A and Amnesiac are proof that esoteric, challenging music can cross over to a discerning global fanbase. Over two decades, Radiohead have given us the best of both worlds.