“Creep,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Karma Police”
Who Are They?
The hugely successful British quintet that gave Oasis some tough competition. Thom Yorke and company emerged on the music scene with 1993’s Pablo Honey and its lead single “Creep.” The song got the boys some attention from British critics, but not all of it was favorable. NME initially wrote them off as a run-of-the-mill rock band and BBC1 Radio just couldn’t fathom playing a song as depressing as “Creep.” But Radiohead found sympathetic ears in angsty American teenagers.
The Bends, released in 1995, seemed to have the opposite effect. It struck a chord with British fans, but was lost on American fans, who were probably expecting another anthem about self-loathing. Radiohead maintained some popularity with help from R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe. Let’s face it: if Michael Stipe likes your band, the rest of the world is bound to follow suit.
And then there was Ok Computer, and it was good. Actually, it was better than good. Rolling Stone readers voted it as the second best album of the ‘90s, beaten only by (wait for it) Nirvana’s Nevermind. Critics praised it, fans loved it, and all the other Britpop bands were kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.
Where Are They Now?
On top of the world. Radiohead decided to change things up for the new millennium. Albums like 2000’s Kid A and 2001’s Amnesiac featured diverse and textured instrumentation, as well as a sudden obsession with electronic gizmos. But it certainly worked in their favor. Kid A won the band their first Grammy in 2001 for Best Alternative Album.
Critics accused Radiohead of “treading water” with 2003’s Hail to the Thief, as it didn’t really bring anything new or mind-boggling to the table. After a brief hiatus, the band gave birth to the immensely successful In Rainbows, which fans could pay a pretty penny for. Or not. In a surprising move, the album was released through the band’s official website as a “pay-what-you-want” digital download. Whatever you thought it was worth, critics thought it was worth much more. In Rainbows earned Radiohead another Grammy for Best Alternative Album and cemented them as a music critic’s wet dream.
But Why Radiohead?
The band’s eighth album The King of Limbs dropped last week, along with a bizarre, yet oddly hypnotic music video for the first single “Lotus Flower.” Spoiler alert: Thom Yorke is actually a crazed dancing Muppet masquerading as a droog from A Clockwork Orange.
What Does Sam Think?
There are plenty of people out there who would call Radiohead overrated. Who these people actually are and what they’ve been smoking, I couldn’t tell you. The fact is that Radiohead are an incredibly talented band. Rolling Stone actually got something right there. They’ve remained relevant for two decades by experimenting with their sound and taking risks. And while they’re certainly not the first band in history to do so, they’ve mastered the art of it all with flying colors.
The general consensus among fans is that Ok Computer and Kid A are the two biggest contenders for the “best” Radiohead album (although my personal favorite is still Hail to the Thief. But alas, I am just one person). Between the two, my vote goes to Ok Computer. Surprise! I picked the ‘90s release. But when it was released doesn’t really matter. The album has a well-rounded sound while still managing to be fresh and intriguing. The lyrics aren’t as personal as those on The Bends, but are instead contemplative and observational. Thom Yorke is no longer a detached loner, but a philosopher of the new millennium. The best example of this? “Paranoid Android,” the three-part transcendental epic.
Comparing the Radiohead of the ‘90s to Radiohead now is almost unfair. If you listen to Pablo Honey and The King of Limbs back to back, it’s like listening to two great, but drastically different bands. The instrumentation, the vocals, and even the lyrics are polar opposites. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Radiohead accomplished what most bands wish they could, and that’s creating an almost entirely flawless catalog. I may go as far as to say that these guys can do no wrong. After hours of relishing in the wonders of The King of Limbs, that may be true.
But for old time's sake...
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.