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Published: 2004/01/29
by Dan Greenhaus

Radiohead: One Fan’s Album Primer

The latest issue of Relix offers artists picks of their favorite album of 2003. The disc that appears most often on these is Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief. Bela Fleck, Al Schnier, Jack Cinninger, and the Yonder Mountain String Band all selected this release. As a result it seemed appropriate to run Dan Greenhaus’ overview of the group’s recorded work to date…


To many, the name conjures up memories of concert experiences the likes of
which may never be duplicated, with swirling lights and color schemes that
please the eye, working alongside music that pleases the ear. To many, they are quite simply the best band in the world, the modern-day equivalent
of Pink Floyd, the inevitable comparison arising as a result of masterful studio work,
highlighted by the use of the cutting-edge equipment to paint soundscapes of musical beauty, floating
underneath waves of soaring vocals, and lyrics that alternate from insane to
insightful. However, to many others, Radiohead is simply the name of a band
they haven't gotten around to listening to…...yet. As I've said in other
articles, with the amount of music we all listen to, its very easy to miss
one or two bands that you should be listening to, and Radiohead is one of
them. So, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure of discovering _The
Bends_ or Ok Computer, I present to you, "An Introduction To Radiohead."

For starters, it would be nearly impossible to discuss Radiohead without first touching on their live show. While their albums, and the musical mastery they've displayed in making them, is what has rocketed them to the top of the music world, their live show is certainly no afterthought. At some point in their career, the band decided they really wanted to be progressive and "interesting" and their live show is an extension of that. Always a multimedia event, a Radiohead concert these days comes complete with video screens, as well as a stunning light show that rivals any of today. Thom Yorke, standing center stage, always challenging the audience to get louder, soaks in the adoration when they oblige. Johnny Greenwood proves in the live setting, more than anywhere else, that he is the mad scientist of the band. It's the live show that shows people just how integral he is to the band. Radiohead is a progressive, electronic band, and you realize, after seeing them live, that it is Johnny that makes them so. And he does virtually all of it with his guitar. Ed O'Brien (guitar), Colin Greenwood (Bass) and Phil Selway (drums) round out the band, but are by no means second rate musicians or any less important than the others. Radiohead is truly a band that is greater than the sum of its parts, and seeing the band perform in the live setting reinforces that point.

And then there are the albums. Each a step in the band's evolution,
Radiohead albums tend to be less collections of songs the band wrote in a
particular time period, than a statement of observation and unrest, with a
central theme. And it is exactly that approach to the album that garners
multiple comparisons to the legendary classic rock band Pink Floyd. While
the purely musical comparisons are not made as easily, the approach
each employed, the use of the most modern equipment and ideas, is what ties
the two bands together. And with that, I offer up my opinions on each of
Radiohead's unique albums.

Pablo Honey (1993) Arguably the only Radiohead album every fan does not
meet eye-to-eye (or ear-to-ear) on. Sure there are people who defend it and say
that while its not up to modern day Radiohead standards, it's still a quality
album on it's own. I disagree to an extent. This is not really a
good "whole" album, and I will not say so just because it's Radiohead. The
album, released in 1993, reeks of poppy, grungy guitars indicative of the
times, and the music itself lacks the creativity that permeates every single
later album, as it comes off as a weak attempt at sounding like a disturbed
version of U2. There are, however, a few individual bright spots, notably
"Creep", the radio single that put the band on the map. Thom Yorke's
lyrics aren't enough to save this album from its lack of direction and inspiration. The opening track "You" is as good as anything on the
album, even "Creep", and the combination of the songs, together
with "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and several other solid songs,
make this an album you should have, even if you may not listen to it with
any regularity whatsoever.

The Bends (1995) Given four stars by Rolling Stone when it was released,
The Bends quickly put Radiohead among rock's best up and coming
bands, and rightfully so (they were picked to open R.E.M.'s tour that
summer). The album, considered by many to be their best, is a musical
masterpiece from start to finish. The band, not yet immersed in the
electronica that would come to dominate their later albums, is still purely
a Brit-Rock band, and if the first song, "Planet Telex" with its atmospheric
layering doesn't prove that, the second, "The Bends", certainly will. With
loud, bombastic guitars, the band quickly establishes its intentions with
the album, to prove to everyone that they were more than just a pop band,
and even on the band's poppier songs, they still retain a sense of
"musicality" that was severely lacking in so much of popular music at the
time, and still to this day. Thom Yorke's lyrics come to fruition on this
album, for the first time at least, as he explores various topics, not the
least of which is Thom's own unhappiness, and his unhappiness with the world
as he perceives it. Song after song bombards the listener, both from a
musical and lyrical standpoint, as the band does a little of everything,
from headbanging rock ("The Bends") to introspective ballads ("High and Dry").
Enough cannot be said about this album. If you do not own it, you are doing
yourself a great disservice.

Ok Computer (1997) It's been called "the best album of the 90's", surpassing
legendary 90's rock albums such as Ten, Smells Like Teen Spirit and
Blood Sugar Sex Magik. And while its exact placement in the "best album"
list is debatable, one thing is certain: This album is drop-dead fantastic.
The opening track, "Airbag" continues the swirling guitar-heavy songwriting
from the previous album, however from there on in, the album delves into
electronic textures and sounds that were only hinted at on The Bends.
"Paranoid Android", perhaps Radiohead's most popular song among its fanbase,
is one of the best written rock songs in modern times. "Subterranean
Homesick Alien", recently covered by Vida Blue, is a touching story about
being abducted by aliens, and is as psychedelic as anything put out in any
era. The musicianship displayed on the opening three songs is stunning in
its minimal simplicity, however the band achieves sonic heights as result,
and garnered the first real solid comparisons to Pink Floyd's "ambition"
with the release of this album. The album continues on, after
"Subterranean" with a barrage of stellar, quality songs about the impact of
machines on humanity, the sum total of which comprise an indescribably great
album, even if it suffers somewhat (to some) from being lyrically dark and

Kid A (2000) Continuing the journey away from guitars, and towards the
electronic experimentation used on Ok Computer, Radiohead pushed even
further into uncharted territory with 2000's Kid A. While not on the
level of either The Bends or Ok Computer as whole album,
Kid A still continued Radiohead's tradition of fearless
experimentation. Sometimes falling flat, other times flying high, the album
is, at the very least, an up and down journey, even if its less cohesive
than either of the two previous albums. "Everything in its Right Place"
opens the album, and while the lyrics are non-sensical, they just seem to
fit perfectly with the music, much like another band that we're all familiar
with, and their own seemingly confusing lyrics. "Kid A" and the bass heavy
"The National Anthem" follow and continue the flow and feel of "Everything".
The songs are devoid of standard structure, which is unusually refreshing,
and "Optimistic" is a another perfect example. Perhaps the best overall
song on the album "Optimistic" is virtually the only pure rock song on the
album, as its Dropped-D droning guitars fit perfectly underneath Yorke's
whining vocals. However, the album is not rock for long, as "Idioteque" and
its techno driven beats return the album to the electronic sounds and
feelings that begin the album.

Amnesiac (2001) Virtually devoid of heavy guitars, at least in any
meaningful way, and swimming up to its neck in effect-laden musicianship,
Radiohead's Amnesiac is a statement. And that statement is that
Radiohead is simply going to do whatever it feels like, whether they think
it's going to be popular or not. There is just no other way to explain this
album. I'm not saying its good or bad, quite frankly I'm not even sure, but
I am saying that you have to respect a band that puts out an album that is
miles and miles away from the formula that made them popular in the first
place. The album was released only eight months after Kid A, as they
were both recorded at the same sessions, leading many to believe then, and
now, that this was a "leftover" album, made up of throwaway songs and
afterthoughts. And while the album certainly isn't the best of Radiohead,
it definitely isn't the worst. "Pyramid Song", the album's second "Knives
Out" is one of the few songs to have any heavy participation by the two
guitar players, however the song suffers from sounding a little too much, to
my ears, like earlier material. "I Might Be Wrong", the best whole song on
the album, with electronically-influenced blues guitar and bass, is placed
perfectly in the middle of the album, along with "Knives Out", however it is
not enough to save this album in many fan's eyes. In the end, this is still
a quality album with some quality points. But knowing what Radiohead has
already done, and what they are capable of, the album leaves fans wanting
more Radiohead, and less computer.

Hail to the Thief (2003) What can one say about this album that hasn't
already been said? Bottom line: It's incredible. It took many a little
longer to get into this album than usual, but once listeners "understood"
it, the response was near unanimous. Easily the most overtly politically
charged album from the band to date, the album is a direct response to both
the American and British governments and their behavior as Thom Yorke
perceived it. "2+2=5", a title ripped right from George Orwell's 1984,
contains piercingly direct lyrics, as does "Sit Down,
Stand Up", even if the latter's are a little more vague. The album,
musically, sees the band returning somewhat to the formula that made them
popular in the first place. The album lands somewhere in between Kid A
and Amnesiac as it builds on the solid points of both albums, and avoids
the pitfalls of them as well. But again, it's the lyrics that drive this
album and make it worth owning. There are so few bands around today with
both the balls to tackle worldly issues, and the credibility to back it up
(not like the "Bands Against Bush" tour which is nothing more than a money
making joke), which makes this album even more amazing.

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