Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Radiohead Retrospective

Radiohead never really ceases to surprise. Every time a new album surfaces, ├╝ber-fans spend inordinate amounts of time dissecting each and every part of the album. Countless articles surface looking at what it is that makes the band so intriguing. They went from being a band who makes good music to a band who makes good music with a sense of the mystique. Even their ninth album, released early this month after only a few days notice, was a bit of a surprise to most fans despite years of anticipation. The coverage that the band receives around album release times is always a little overwhelming. Seemingly every music website has articles, interpretations, speculations, critiques, analyses, and investigations on any facet about the band and its music. It’s easy to observe it all and perceive it as overzealous.

The attention they receive, while obsessive and slightly overrated, is not entirely undeserved. They truly do make some really great music, but I can’t read every little piece that comes through about them. The attention always seems, to me at least, diametrically opposed to the intimate nature the music actually possesses. To be honest, Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. But as of this month, I had not seriously listened to them in over a year. I don’t feel the need to listen to them regularly; they are the perfect band to set aside for a long while before coming back to savor. As always happens when one of my favorite artists is releasing an album (I’ll be doing it in about a month with my favorite band of all time), I like to do a dive into their past releases just to get in the mood for a new one. So, here I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on each of their albums as I listen to them. If not for any reason but to remind myself of how fantastic this band is during the next long stretch between listens.

Pablo Honey (1993) - The first album may very well be the most different sounding of all of their albums, which makes it a little hard to classify. There is more guitar work and standard “rock” sound than any of their albums. It sounds more in tune with their British contemporaries, Blur, Oasis, and Pulp. It’s also hard to miss the clear influence of the Smiths, which is never a bad thing. Favorite song: “Creep”; how couldn’t it be? Their single-most recognizable song holds up incredibly well, despite the band’s unwillingness to acknowledge its existence.

The Bends (1995) - I know it is the favorite pastime of Radiohead fans to list, argue, reorder lists, and argue some more about which is the band’s best album. Usually, it’s easy to claim the can’t-pick-only-one defense, but since I started listening to them, The Bends has unwaveringly been my top choice. It signifies the transition from the standard alt-Britpop sound to their more modern qualities. And the opening four tracks is one of my favorite series of songs on any album. Favorite song: “Just”; really tough choice here. I easily could have said two or three others, but this song (and its accompanying video) is simply amazing.

OK Computer (1997) - However you feel about the music website, Pitchfork Media, there is a quote about OK Computer that I always remember when I listen to this album. “I don't listen to OK Computer that much anymore, and occasionally I get the idea in my head that it must be overrated. Then I put it on again and realize that it's even better than I remember. I find new things to appreciate every time I listen.” I really don’t think there is a better way to describe this album. It is an efficient album, perfectly blending the titular computerized digital sound with the astounding presence of acoustic guitars. Seriously, it is easy to forget just how much acoustic guitar there is in this album. Favorite song: “No Surprises” AND “Lucky”; I’m sorry, I just can’t give credit to one without the other. Both are so full of emotion and complex, and they play next to each other so well.

Kid A (2000) - Kid A is a weird one, an album that I think may be slightly divisive in the Radiohead-fan community. I’ve read hyperbolic statements that this is the their best album and the best album of the 2000s and the best album of all time. I’ve also seen comments that it is overrated. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not my favorite album by them, but it’s certainly not overrated. For a follow-up to something like OK Computer, this album permanently changes the musical direction of the band for (I believe) the remainder of their output. Side note: one of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, has this fascinating piece about how he thinks Kid A predicted the events of September 11, 2001. Very highly recommended. Favorite song: “Everything In Its Right Place”; no question here, this is actually my favorite Radiohead song of any album. With the proper headphones, the opening notes of the studio version are actually perfect. Also worth checking out is the live version from their 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong. The counted lead-in to the opening notes gives me chills every single time.

Amnesiac (2001) - An album is unofficially known as Kid B, the songs from the same time period as the previous album that go hand-in-hand and might as well be considered the second half of a double album. Honestly, it is hard to separate the two in my head, as to which track goes with which album. But there are some differences as well. Amnesiac loses a tad of the overall electronic feel that Kid A had, and returns to some more conventional guitar-driven songs. This album, perhaps more than any of the others, has the feeling of more of a collection of songs than an album as a whole. Fortunately, it is a collection of good songs. Favorite song: “I Might Be Wrong”; one of the band’s heaviest songs and the closest thing they come to playing a blues song.

Hail to the Thief (2003) - I’ve caught a lot of flack for thinking this is the band’s weakest album. It’s not that I think it’s bad by any stretch, but I do think it gets a little lost in its intended message at times, making it feel somewhat disjointed. Even looking at the tracklisting, there are quite a few songs that I simply cannot recall. That said, the highlights are very high. The opener is great, “Myxomatosis” hits so hard, and I always fall for the slow, plodding nature of “A Punch Up at a Wedding.” There are some really standout songs, to be sure, but I still rank it as my ninth favorite album. Favorite song: “There There”; from the way the drums work together to open the track to the guitar creeping its way in, this song is an excellent mid-album track.

In Rainbows (2007) - For awhile, I ruined this album for myself. The band released under a pay-what-you-want plan that meant you could download the tracks for $0, if you chose. I did choose this, as I had other things to buy when I was in high school. I ‘bought’ the album and listened to it for the first time late on the night I got it. For whatever reason, it was not a good first experience. I thought it was the end of the band, and I did not find myself returning to it for a few months. I think I was just too tired that first night. In any case, I’m glad I did eventually return though. Something came together for me, and I heard what I’d been missing. It is probably their finest album of the second half of their career. Favorite song: “House of Cards”; this was the one song that stuck with me from the very first time I heard it to the most recent. Close second is “Bodysnatchers,” tonally completely opposite, with a chord progression resembling an Iron Maiden song.

The King of Limbs (2011) - For me, this was the most anticipated Radiohead release. In college, I was surrounded by like-minded friends, all eagerly awaiting this album. From its announcement, it was the topic of discussion, and we could not wait to get a hold of the tracks to hear them. I was snatching up every bit of news I could get. My favorite rumor of the time, was that this was going to be the surprise first half of a two-part double album, a concept I’d still like to believe. In the end, the payoff was worth it. I listened on repeat when it was finally released. Although it has not proven to be the longest lasting album, slipping away somewhat into forgotten territory, at the time, I could not be happier with the album after all the time I had dedicated to waiting for it. Favorite song: “Separator”; I’m tempted to cheat again and use the last TWO songs, but I won’t. Seeing the second-to-last song was a great experience live, but the final song, “Separator” is a really strong album closer.

A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) - Now, this year, as I said, I was not following the rumor mill as closely as I had for the last release. I had a general idea of which songs to expect, but beyond that, I knew nothing else. I figured there would be a ramp up of anticipation online, and I would have time to consume the band and get in the mood for a new album. Not so. Announced and released in what seemed like a weekend, I was totally unprepared for it. Even after it was available for purchase, I was not ready for it. I still wanted to work my way into it, because as I said, I like to listen to the band’s previous albums first. Since high school, I never dreamed that a Radiohead album could come out and I would not listen to it immediately on the day it was available. So, what’s the consensus? I have to give it more time to see where it truly settles compared to the rest of the albums. Initially, I would say it’s a better-than-average Radiohead album--which is to say that it is better than I feel about a lot of new releases. Favorite song? I can’t quite tell yet. Time will tell what song or stretch of songs holds up for me.

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Along with each of their albums, I listened to the corresponding B-sides and unreleased tracks from each era. These can be found on the special collector’s editions of the first six albums. There is some suggestion that these were made against the wishes of the band by the owning record label as a way to turn more of a profit. Regardless, these collections are some of the finest released packages for fans of the band. One disc is the original album, another is bonus tracks, and a third is a DVD with music videos and live performances from the album’s release. They are ranked with the re-released first four Pavement albums, in terms of valuable supplementary content.

At any rate, in addition to the core albums, there some bonus tracks which should really be considered. The Bends-era, “Maquiladora,” almost feels like a math rock track at times, showcasing modern genius, Jonny Greenwood’s guitar work. “Talk Show Host,” also from The Bends was featured in Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, Romeo + Juliet, and it is one of the coolest parts of the movie. The haunting “Amazing Sounds of Orgy” from Amnesiac has had a resurgence as a live song lately. “I Am Citizen Insane,” which lends its name to a great online database of everything Radiohead-related, should have been on Hail to the Thief.

Probably, the fandom surrounding Radiohead has ballooned to be something greater than the band itself. Even as a fan of the band, it is easy to see the sheer number of online posts and discussions and become a bit jaded. I want to be both critical and defensive of Radiohead adoration, and it’s hard to have it both ways. In the end, though, I am happy that the band has had such a truly outstanding career.

There was a lot of goofy speculation that this is their last album based on vague lyrics in the newest album, which I find preposterous. I did, however, elect to think of this as a retrospective because I do actually think this could be Radiohead’s last album. It would be fitting if they called an end to a really excellent span, and honestly, I would love it if they closed on a good note. Overrated or not, I really don’t think they have put out a bad album. On the other hand, they could announce a free triple album next week. Nothing they do would surprise me anymore. I’ve been listening to Radiohead for quite awhile now, and I’ve enjoyed my time doing it.