The first introduction to arguably the greatest band of the past decade plus, Pablo Honey has been overshadowed by the band's subsequent albums, but is in retrospect an accomplished debut if judged solely on its own merits. That said, by and large the album is a mere appetizer for the much better things that followed, when the band would find their own identity by embracing Pink Floyd along with their obvious debt to U2 - and then abandoning rock altogether. But more on that later; this album is primarily remembered for “Creep,” the band’s classic anthem of self-loathing angst that mixes melancholia with grunge, but there’s much more here than just that one great song (despite the "one hit wonder" whispers at the time). In fact, there are several very good songs, and the band as a whole rocks harder and with a rawer edge than on any of their later albums, though the downside to this being the band’s infancy is that the album isn’t nearly as free flowing or original as what would come later. Strong though some of these songs are, they don’t sound like they absolutely belong together. For example, the big arena rock riffs of “How Do You” (actually one of the album's weakest songs) offers a stark contrast to the R.E.M.-like ambiance of “Stop Whispering,” which, along with “I Can't” and “Blowout,” surge to soaring endings. Elsewhere, “Thinking About You” is a mellow acoustic showcase carried by singer Thom Yorke, and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” is alternately noisy and melodic, while the short but impressively intense “Prove Yourself” and the dreamily atmospheric “Lurgee” are also enjoyable. So is the album as a whole, though there are a few generic moments too many, particularly on the choruses; "Ripchord" and "Vegetable" come immediately to mind on that front. However, those with reasonably downscaled expectations should find Pablo Honey a pleasant surprise (I’m also fond of “Stop Whispering” and “You”), and only the band’s far superior follow-ups have prevented it from getting the recognition it deserves as the solidly enjoyable album that it is.
The Bends (EMI ‘95) Rating: A
Although “Creep” remains to many the definitive Radiohead song, it’s safe to say that Radiohead really came into their own as a band on The Bends. While the U.K. hype machine followed the Oasis-Blur duel, this superior band quietly released this under acknowledged (back then, at least) beauty. With U2’s shimmering guitar textures and the big fuzzy riffs of grunge as reference points (awesome singer Thom Yorke also somewhat recalls Bono), The Bends is kind of like the great U2 album I hope they still have in them. Which is a gross oversimplification of the band’s unique and brilliant sound, which also owes a debt to arena rock’s anthemic qualities and art rock’s angularity - all crystallized here by a masterful John Leckie production. Yorke’s sighing vocals (detractors would say “whiny” vocals) ache with resignation, longing, and emptiness, and dreamy guitars can briefly give way to futuristic freakouts (“(Nice Dream),” “My Iron Lung”) before landing back in safer waters. The Bends is remarkably inventive and accomplished throughout, and the surging guitars of “Planet Telex,” “The Bends,” “Just,” and "Black Star," as well as the edgy ending to the riff-tastic “My Iron Lung” are (unlike the scattered Pablo Honey) seemingly of a piece with lovely ballads like “High And Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees” (guaranteed chills at around the 3:05 mark), and “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” The angst-ridden lyrics makes this record distinctly a ‘90s creation, but the band differs from their contemporaries due to the sheer splendor of their soundscapes, the dramatic intensity and beauty of which makes most of the other Britpop pretenders sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks by comparison. Every once in awhile a band comes along with a truly distinctive voice, and this one continues to grow and experiment at a rapid rate, striving for greatness instead of popularity, ultimately achieving both in the process. Which, to quote “Creep,” makes them pretty fucking special.
OK Computer (EMI ‘97) Rating: A+
Excellent though The Bends was barring a track or two, it was easily eclipsed by the blinding brilliance of OK Computer, one of the greatest albums of all-time. These linked songs ebb and flow like the seamless tides of a mighty river, defying standard pop song structures while remaining highly listenable, the entrancing whole eventually becoming completely addictive. Thom Yorke’s disconsolate if often-exquisite vocals alternately soar and float around wonderfully textured but desolate soundscapes that again brings to mind an unlikely alliance between Pink Floyd’s expansive headphone sonics and the gorgeous guitars of classic U2. Again, that’s just my lame attempt at pinpointing their unique sound, and the ambitious music here is aided and abetted by interesting lyrics that almost match the lofty execution of the musical performances. Alienation and a distrust of technology are the core themes that resonate throughout the album, and discordant guitar lines are likely to fade into blissfully beautiful acoustic melodies without warning, as one is never quite sure what will happen next. The songs on OK Computer don’t really lend themselves to the single format, which is just as well since the album simply must be listened to in its entirety for its overwhelming majesty to be fully appreciated. Still, though I could certainly name others such as “Let Down” (utterly flawless with a hair raising vocal climax) and “Karma Police” (best song ending ever?), I’ll single out two songs that are peak examples as to why this band is the best in the business right now. The 6+ minute “Paranoid Android” starts off as a lovely acoustic song featuring Yorke’s crooning falsetto before eventually erupting into metallic mayhem that’s capped off by a razor sharp guitar solo. Quiet solitude then returns, but loud eruptions again close out the song, and each section somehow manages to surprise. It’s a total tour-de-force that’s in stark contrast to the simple but equally enjoyable pleasures of “No Surprises,” a beautiful lullaby-like ballad that features the simple perfection of tinkling keyboards matched to Yorke’s sleepy vocals. One of the best sounding albums I’ve ever experienced (props are definitely due to producer Nigel Godrich, their go-to guy ever since), OK Computer is an absolute masterpiece that seems destined to sound as fresh and imaginative fifty years from now as it does today.
Kid A (EMI ’00) Rating: A+
It’s tough to follow up one masterpiece, let alone two back to back, so rather than try to repeat past successes the band has veered off in another direction altogether. The end result is as strange as it is unexpected, and though Kid A is difficult going at first, with repeat listens it soon becomes a wonderfully addictive listening experience that has no real reference point. Oh, the trippy textures (which are perfect for headphone listening) still bring Pink Floyd to mind at times, but the U2 guitar signatures are all but gone as the album is instead heavily reliant on mellow electronics for its coldly mysterious aura. Then there’s “The National Anthem,” a dazzlingly inventive cacophony of sound on which drums march, a bass guitar buzzes, and horns blare all seemingly independent of each other, yet these disparate elements are somehow brilliantly held together in ways that have little to do with logic. Elsewhere, singer Thom Yorke whispers repetitive mantras to hypnotic effect on “Everything In Its Right Place” and “How To Disappear Completely,” brilliant highlights both, while the drifting shape shifts on the title track and the ambient interlude “Treefingers” demonstrate how standard song structures are rarely in evidence. “Optimistic,” the album’s intense guitar-driven single, is a notable exception, and is the song that most recalls Radiohead’s “classic” earlier guitar-based sound. The track is also distinguishable for its tribal beats, and it kicks off the album’s more conventional and consistent second half. From there the band gets jazzy on “In Limbo” before the slowly percolating dance groove of “Idioteque” (the #1 song of the 2000s according to Pitchfork). Finally, there’s Yorke’s breathtakingly beautiful vocal on “Morning Bell” and then the sleepy, hymn-like “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which peacefully ends the album perfectly. Restlessly experimental, occasionally disjointed but always fascinating, Kid A begs the question: “where did these guys come up with this stuff?” For Kid A is that rarity of rarities, a truly unique creation that simultaneously meets and defies enormous expectations. The band de-emphasizes what had been their two greatest assets, as there are hardly any guitars on the album and Yorke’s vocals appear less frequently and are often electronically manipulated. Yet the band has still come through with a classic, thereby distancing themselves from any and all contenders for rock n’ roll supremacy in the process. All while making an album that often has precious little to do with rock n’ roll. Amazing.
Amnesiac (Capitol ’01) Rating: B+
Burdened by extreme expectations after delivering three consecutive classics, Amnesiac was bound to be disappointing by comparison. The album was recorded at the same time as Kid A, and it’s tempting to consider Amnesiac not as the band’s next album proper but as leftovers from those sessions. This is especially true since it continues in the same vein as Kid A, albeit with a much warmer overall glow. As such, Amnesiac works well as a companion piece but breaks little new ground, and it seems like baby steps compared to the giant leaps taken by its predecessors. Judged solely on its own merits, however, Amnesiac is a very good album with several outstanding highlights. “Pyramid Song” delivers bright and lovely atmospherics, “You and Whose Army?” starts slowly but eventually surges with a symphonic power, “Knives Out” is quite simply one of the band’s most beautiful songs yet, and “Dollars and Cents” contains striking multi-tracked vocals from Yorke. Elsewhere, however, the band delivers too many dreamy mood pieces that work best as background music, and abstract (not to mention murky) electronica experiments. The fact that the admittedly gorgeous “Morning Bell” is reprised from Kid A suggests that new ideas were harder to come by on this album, a point that’s further reinforced by “Hunting Bears,” an also not-quite-necessary instrumental interlude. All of which makes me think that, much like U2 just successfully did with with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, perhaps its time for Radiohead to deliver a back to basics guitar-based rock album (I should note that “I Might Be Wrong” is guitar-based and that it’s another highlight here). For, despite its often-fascinating layers of electronic sound, which even diehard fans will need to listen to several times in order to fully appreciate, I can’t get past the feeling that Amnesiac is but a placeholder release before the band’s next brilliant reinvention.
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (Capitol ’01) Rating: A-
Radiohead are a rare current band who have never made an album that's too long, and I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings keeps that streak intact. Actually, this live album is too short, especially given how good it is. Concentrating exclusively on Kid A and Amnesiac tracks and adding one somber new song ("True Love Waits," a solo acoustic showcase for Thom Yorke that's successful despite how absurdly elevated in the mix his vocals are), I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings is a reinvention of sorts. I mean, who suspected that Radiohead would be able to recreate these strangely atmospheric studio concoctions, let alone that they would rock so convincingly? Accentuating their underrated rhythm section (Colin Greenwood, bass; Phil Selway, drums), the band's fierce playing and tremendous energy propels "The National Anthem," "I Might Be Wrong," and "Idioteque," whose stripped-down arrangements arguably improve upon the originals (though I miss the horns on "The National Anthem"). Sure, yet another version of "Morning Bell" is really pushing it (excellent though this version is), and I'd also argue that "Everything In Its Right Place" is overly expansive and that "Dollars and Cents" sounds ordinary here. Still, the plusses here easily overwhelm the negatives, and this album bodes well for a return to the guitar-based rock I hope they'll unleash on their next studio album. Yet the album's clear (and most surprising) high point is their complete transformation of the Amnesiac track "Like Spinning Plates," which they turn into a shattering piano ballad. Clearly this is a band that can do anything.
Hail To The Thief (Capitol ’03) Rating: A-
After delivering two albums of experimental electronic music, 2001’s more rocking live album I Might Be Wrong had many fans anticipating a return to the guitar-based style of earlier masterpieces such as The Bends and OK Computer. Sure enough, when the rip-roaring guitars kick in at 1:54 of the first song, “2 + 2 = 5,” it’s certainly a thrill. However, it’s a misleading one, as that’s the hardest hitting track on an album that rocks out only intermittently. Still, guitars are much more prominent than on the band’s two previous studio albums, yet the electronics are again out in full force as well, though they complement rather than dominate the music, adding subtle sonic details that only reveal hidden pleasures after repeat listens. Recorded quickly over a two-week span, Hail To The Thief has a warmer, more off-the-cuff feel than recent Radiohead, and again the band revels in atmosphere above all else, though it should be noted that there’s also an increased percussive presence and use of piano. As usual, Thom Yorke’s at times manipulated vocals are a highlight, as are his lyrics, which remain intriguing (samples: “just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there,” “your voice is rapping on my window sill”) and ever open to interpretation. Clearly they’re political (the album’s title may or may not be a reference to George Bush allegedly “stealing” the 2000 election), but usually in a vague and mysterious way, while Yorke’s recent fatherhood has also influenced his outlook, making him even more worried about his (and our) uncertain future. In addition to the aforementioned first song, “Sit Down. Stand Up” is another highlight, in particular due to its spectacular finish, as Phil Selway unleashes a psychotic drum assault as electronic noises seemingly surround him. “Sail To The Moon” is a beautifully atmospheric ballad, as are “Where I End And You Begin” and “Scatterbrain,” while “Go To Sleep” unleashes the type of loud guitar outbursts that have long lain dormant in Radiohead’s arsenal. Alas, with a running time that approaches an hour, Hail To The Thief is by far Radiohead’s longest album, and it would have benefited from the stricter editing standards that we’ve come to expect from them. The album sags somewhat in its mid-section, as “We Suck Young Blood” is a boring piano dirge and “The Gloaming” a fairly anonymous electro-filler. Of course, Radiohead being the best band in the business today, things take an upturn on “There There,” while the short “I Will,” though not an album highlight, sees Yorke writing in a refreshingly straightforward style (“I won’t let this happen to my children”). That directness continues on the musically brighter but lyrically venomous “A Punchup At A Wedding,” while “Myxomatosis” delivers one of the band’s most chaotic melodies. Still, I love the song’s atmosphere, and “A Wolf At The Door” ends an impressive album on a high, with stream of consciousness vocals and a typically atmospheric (there’s that word again) chorus. Then again, the word “chorus” may be pushing it, for once again Radiohead hasn’t delivered much in the way of “radio friendly” songs. No, this is challenging music, but it’s not too challenging; it takes awhile but these songs will eventually seep in and leave a (positive) lasting impression. Still, this is the first Radiohead album in some time (if we count Kid A and Amnesiac as a single album given that they both came from the same sessions) that doesn’t really push any boundaries. Neither a return to their earlier guitar-based rock or a continuation of their recent past, this album at times feels like a compromise, and though it will likely satisfy fans of both camps, it will probably bowl over neither.
In Rainbows (Self-released download ’07) Rating: A
Of course, you can’t talk about this album without talking about how it was delivered. We’ll get to the actual contents of the album in a minute, because even if this album wasn’t superlative (it is), it would still be an important release because of the way it provided a much-needed punch to the gut of a disgustingly arrogant and out of touch industry. Working as free agents and cutting out the middleman, the band made the album available as a download on their own Web site, and they made the album affordable (hell, free if you so wished), all while still presumably making a heady profit. After all, no record company marketing department can possibly buy you that kind of publicity and goodwill from the fans, who were also rewarded with arguably the best album of the year. Simply put, this is the best Radiohead album since Kid A, because even though it doesn’t exactly offer anything new, it corrects the main flaw of Hail To The Thief merely by presenting only 10 songs, all of which are extremely strong and several of which (“Nude,” “Reckoner,” “House Of Cards”) are uncommonly lovely. Sure, I wish that the band would’ve delivered a few more guitar-driven rockers along the lines of “Bodysnatchers,” on which they let the great Jonny Greenwood loose for a change, but complaining about a lack of variety is nitpicking given the high overall quality of these songs. You could also argue that the album is too “normal” by the band’s adventurous standards, but how can anyone possibly complain about a song as awe-inspiringly perfect as “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” a serious candidate for the best Radiohead song ever? Without getting into individual song details, which is fitting since In Rainbows works best as a singularly cohesive whole, I’ll note that this is arguably the band’s most warmly inviting, jazziest, sexiest, and most easily accessible album ever, and that there are plenty of guitars (often acoustic) on the album for those of you who had grown tired of the band’s embrace of chilly electronics (and fear not fans of the latter because there are plenty of swirling keyboard atmospherics as well). Listen to “15 Step” or “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and tell me that Phil Selway isn’t a first-class drummer with a deft touch, and on “All I Need” superlative singer Thom Yorke needs only the sparsest of musical settings to shine. True, aside from the imaginative PR garnered by this release, you could argue that this is "just another Radiohead album" at this point, but even so it serves as another superb reminder that when it comes to modern music, there’s Radiohead…and then there’s the rest. Simply put, In Rainbows is an instant classic.
The King Of Limbs (TBD Records '11) Rating: B
Released in low-key fashion, which of course then became a big deal because it was released in such low-key fashion (trust me these guys know what they’re doing), The King Of Limbs is definitely a grower album, one whose modest ambitions (at 8 songs and 37 minutes it seems almost incomplete) and largely inaccessible songs makes it among the lesser Radiohead albums. Spend some (ok, a lot) of time with it, though, and its strengths eventually become apparent (side two is pretty stellar, actually), even though it takes a bit of work (too much work for some people I’m sure). Opener “Bloom” is the highlight of the glitchy, more electronic-based side one, which is consistently compelling without being especially memorable (thankfully, though, the band’s brand of mostly mellow electronic music is imbued with a rare warmth). The band revels in layers of textured sound, yet memorable melodies are hard to come by, but then again this album is more about atmosphere and mood than memorable songs. Surprisingly, the standout performers on the album to me are the rhythm section of bassist Colin Greenwood and especially drummer Phil Selway, two guys often taken for granted as they’re typically support players rather than stars. Here, they often take center stage on these rhythm-based songs, the funky, groovy “Lotus Flower” for example, which starts side two with one of the albums strongest tracks (Yorke lends his trademark falsettos as well). Continuing, “Codex” is a gorgeously sad and atmospheric ballad that’s more in line with what Radiohead has given us in the past, and “Give Up The Ghost” is another fine track, one that’s notable for its (admittedly repetitive) chanted vocals and easily discernible guitar melodies (some of these songs barely seem to feature any guitars at all). Finale “Separator” is another strong song with pretty guitars that resemble classic Radiohead, but it’s also “groovy” like most of the rest of the album is (the difference is that this song is actually memorable whereas some of the others which tend to blend together for me aren’t). Anyway, this is Radiohead we’re talking about, so naturally The King Of Limbs is a good album, one that’s best experienced as a late-night mood piece, but it’s also probably their least successful studio venture since Pablo Honey.
A Moon Shaped Pool (TBD Records '16) Rating: A
Unsurprisingly given their track record, Radiohead followed up the comparatively disappointing The King Of Limbs with this excellent album, which I consider to be only a slight notch below their very best albums (The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows). If I had to describe the album I would use adjectives such as “atmospheric” and “melancholic,” and though perhaps it’s a bit too ballad heavy on the whole, the album’s lush sound (heavy on the orchestrations along with Yorke’s often-sleepy vocals) is richly rewarding when all is said and done. Simply put, Radiohead still do sad and desolate better than anybody else, and they still do gorgeous exceedingly well too, resulting in a cohesive album experience by a band who still clearly believe in the album format as a singular statement. Granted, I’d argue that easily discernible individual highlights didn’t jump out at me, and that this is a grower album that requires multiple listens for a full appreciation, but it’s far more inviting than The King Of Limbs, and highlights do jump out eventually. Actually, most of the songs could be singled out as highlights, but I’ll start with the first singles “Burn The Witch” (whose chaotic violins makes it memorably twitchy) and “Daydreaming” (lush, dreamy, and gorgeous, with perhaps the album’s most memorable lyric: “dreamers they never learn”). I’m also partial to “Ful Stop” (a bass-heavy builder that gets better as it goes along), “Identikit” (with its memorably “broken hearts make it rain” refrain and some excellent guitar work of the type I wish the band did more of), “The Numbers” (whose nice melody is buttressed by lush strings), and “True Love Waits,” a longstanding fan favorite that’s finally given a studio version (you may remember it had appeared on I Might Be Wrong; this version is better). Again, the prominent use of orchestrations stand out as being unique to this album, and it's also worth noting how effective the band’s backing vocals are. I don’t have much more to say other than that this is another terrific album from a terrific band.
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