So the first edition of Rank The Albums kicked up a bit of a fuss, but if ranking The Killers three albums was contemptible and highly debatable, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. Our next band of choice is former R&L headliner, and all round rock/pop/indie/whatever Gods: Radiohead.
Radiohead behind the curve? Once upon a time they were. Infact, they were atypical to the point of the parody. Despite the brilliant “Creep” and some memorable offerings (“Anyone Can Play Guitar”, “You”, “Lurgee”), Radiohead were viewed as just another in act in a long line of stereotypical Alternative rock bands: potential one hit wonders with a sound, despite the band’s formidable professionalism, that served as a pastiche of 1990s. The smarter cookies in the journalistic world had them pegged for greater success, but Radiohead’s beginnings were undeniably humble.
In the wake of Kid A Radiohead would enter something of a crisis. Struggling to truly rediscover a definitive direction of travel as their fans divided between those who wanted more of the old, and those who wanted more of the new. Each album that followed had its merits. Some were incredible triumphs, some stumbled and fumbled in an intriguing fashion, but they were never dull, and certainly not predictable. The King Of Limbs was the moment when that all changed. Arguably a more complete and coherent record than either Hail To The Thief or Amnesiac, it is nevertheless tragically pedestrian. The sound of Thom, Jonny, & co. being 21st Century Radiohead without any truly staggering moments of invention or perfection. Enjoyable and to the point, but that’s about it.
The release of 2003’s Hail To The Thief coincided with a giant sigh of relief from a great swathe of Radiohead fans. By no means easy listening, Hail To The Thief suggested that Radiohead’s alienating and uncomfortably icey textures would merge with the band’s stadium sized despair. “2+2=5”, “Sit Down, Stand Up” and “Backdrifts” were fidgety and constantly on edge, but they built towards glorious crescendos and around discernable verses/chorus structures. The inclusions of some genuinely brilliant singles helped too. “Go To Sleep” and “There, There” steadied the minds of wavering fans as they worked through “The Gloaming” distorted depths. Still, despite some pristine moments, and prevailing feeling of inclusive compromise, Hail To The Thief had the unshakeable feel of a halfway house record: too long and unfocused.
Amnesiac often gets a bad rap historically. Those who spurned Radiohead in the wake of Kid A struggled to diminish the reputation of one of the most universally lauded LPs in music history. So naturally, Kid A’s sister record, the skittish and uncompromising Amnesiac, drew scorn from both the jilted former Radiohead lovers and the Kid A devotees (angered that their beloved Radiohead couldn’t release four near-perfect albums in a row).
Now that those seething emotional flash points have subsided, and in the light of a decade moulded by Radiohead’s antithetical approach to the mainstream, Amnesiac is starting to get its due. Containing arguably Radiohead’s best and most beautifully composed live recording (“Pyramid Song”) and a host of sensational, albeit understated, cuts (“Packt Like…”, “You And Whose Army”, “Knives Out”, “I Might Be Wrong”) the once maligned album is finally standing on its on two feet – more focused than Hail To The Thief and infinitely more exciting than The King Of Limbs.
I don’t think my teenage self could possible envision a day where I’d say that The Bends was anything but Radiohead’s best album, but then again, this is an album custom made for rebellion. Full of bruising guitars, screaming angst, righteous unspoken rage, and soul crushing frustration, the brilliant Bends will always be one of the great teen records. Of course the record plays brilliantly to an adult audience too. The grand sweeps and ungodly chimes of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar were destined to fill stadiums, just as Thom Yorke’s tortured cries were certain to altered moods across the world.
The Bends effectively works as a self contained greatest hits with textural masterpieces (“Planet Telex”), storming mosh-friendly anthems complete with an IQ (“The Bends”, “Just”, “My Iron Lung”), unnerving ballads (“Street Spirit”, “High And Dry”, “(Nice Dream)”, “Fake Plastic Trees”), and even an old fashion glam rocker (“Bones”). It couldn’t get better than this right?
3. In Rainbows (2007)
Those of us who hate having to choose between new Radiohead and old Radiohead were overjoyed with the release of 2007’s In Rainbows. Famed for its pick your price/charity box release (which preoccupied most of the media), In Rainbows was in fact the final piece in a decade long puzzle. How do you follow OK Computer? Radiohead did it perfectly with Kid A, but from that moment on they floated in space, stuck between their urge to experiment with formless glitch-laden textures on one hand, and their seemingly innate ability to write generation altering pop songs on the other.
In Rainbows was the first Radiohead records since OK Computer to really feel like a cohesive Radiohead record – all that untapped potential showcased on Hail To The Thief, finally unleashed.
Every fan had a lose approximation of what the new Radiohead should sound like buried somewhere in their mind, and In Rainbows was the moment when it became a reality – bringing with it some of the band’s best ever material. The album works perfectly as a mellifluous whole, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out “Nude” and “All I Need” for special attention. The first is a decade in the making fan favourite (an improbably serene ballad), and the second is the most brutally warped love song ever recorded. Don’t believe me? Check out the opening line: “I’m An Animal Trapped In Your Hot Car” – gee that Thom Yorke sure is romantic..
It’s time to discuss the two most overly discussed records in modern music history. OK Computer is majestic anxiety incarnate, an album of glorious sound. Jonny and Ed’s incredible sonic achievement (best captured on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”) may have been smoothed away by decades of reverence and countless imitators, but when you stick OK Computer on, and it swirls through your headphones, it’s impossible to avoid sinking back into those luscious sweeps and enchanting chimes.
In classic Radiohead fashion, it’s rarely plain sailing. The mood can be contorted in second; vengeful epics, hateful ballads, and eternal pessimistic sentiments lurk around every corner. Thom Yorke is not easily outdone, and with all the game changing trappings removed, the lead singer can still suck the air out of the room with the crushingly beautiful “Exit Music (For A Film)” or the moribund majesty of “No Surprises”. A regular greatest album of all time contender, it needs no further praise – it’s OK Computer, you know how good it is.
Personal preference plays a massive part in ordering this list. The top four could appear in almost any order. Radiohead are in an elite class with The Beatles and Bowie where finding consensus becomes impossible. They’ve released too many peerless albums to say definitive that one is truly better than another. Fans will disagree with fans, and experts will argue with experts.
Kid A is my choice. As an album it changed the direction of travel for the entire music industry, as the most highly regarded rock band of the 90s ditched their guitars in favour of abstract, haunting electronica. Choruses, even discernable verses were noticeably by their absence. Radiohead embraced the chilling avante garde sounds more commonly associated with Aphex Twin, without even the slightest hint of pastiche. This was an album intent on sending shivers down spines. The soundscapes are still magnificent 12 years on. Even a track as quaint and silly as “Kid A” itself, is pitched to perfection, and record’s standout moments continue to shine brightly.
The cacophonous crescendo that concludes “National Anthem”, the warped hisses and disconcerting vocals of “Everything In Its Right Place”, the spasmodic indie disco of “Idioteque”, the oft overlooked pop song “Optimistic”, the forlorn “How To Disappear Completely”, and the tragic, stifling finale “Motion Picture Soundtrack” are all fantastic in their own right, but they are considerably lessened in isolation. Kid A is a gloriously uncomfortable warped mess of a record, and every track, and every snatched eyebrow raising shimmer is in its right place – trust me.