Artist Profile: Radiohead

ryansliao
Okay so this is a new series of essays called Artist Profiles. Not sure if I’ll do anymore of these but I was going to review a few Radiohead album proper but then decided to put all my thoughts into one essay. Basically I will go through everything album in the artist’s discography and give my thoughts. I might also discuss a little history and substance behind their work.
Radiohead is in my opinion the most influential music act of the last 25 years. It’s almost shocking their reign lasted that long considering that even legends such as Nirvana or The Beatles both lasted less than a decade. My point is that I could probably count with one hand the amount of bands that still have this much influence and critical acclaim associated with their work after 25 years. But things did not start this way. Not even close.

Pablo Honey: A name that will forever live in music infamy. Radiohead’s debut album is often seen as the band’s worst musical effort. In the beginning of their careers in 1993, Radiohead had attracted a few followers with the song Creep, but outside of that had done very little for their musical legacy. Critics labeled the album as a Nirvana wannabe and just generally mediocre. I on the other hand, don’t like this album at all. The angsty songwriting is not as deep or edgy as it thinks and Thom’s voice is completely indistinguishable among the sea of bad Nirvana impressions of the time. Radiohead had one hit under their belt, but their debut album was so lackluster that they were already being branded as one hit wonders.

If Radiohead was made of the stuff most bands are made of, this would’ve been the end. But instead, the band decided they wanted to improve. They listened to the critics, and they agreed. For their next album, Radiohead would ditch the petulance and the clumsy instrumentation of their Pablo Honey for something more original and daring. The album that followed in 1995 was called The Bends. This is really where Radiohead came into their own. Thom’s songwriting didn’t even feel like it was coming from the same person as before. The Bends was a gigantic leap in maturity. Radiohead exchanged their youth angst for some of the most beautiful rock songs of that decade. Songs like Fake Plastic Trees and Street Spirit showcase Thom’s songwriting skills as well as his much more emotive voice. Even the instrumentation was better, using more complex guitar melodies and drum rhythms than Pablo Honey. The Bends capitulated Radiohead into mainstream rock once again. But this time, it looked like they were there to stay.

So there are those certain albums that people brand as “classics”. This term applies to very few albums in music history, and even fewer albums are given this title almost immediately among release. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar is a good example of an album pretty much labeled as a classic among release. But almost exactly 20 years ago, Radiohead released their magnum opus; the album that would define their career; and an album that would be remembered as one of the greatest of all time. Of course, you all know what I’m talking about. Released in 1997, OK Computer was a revelation to the rock community. Since Nirvana, many bands had tried to fill the gap, including many others from Britain such as Oasis. But Radiohead finally were able to achieve the acclaim that Nirvana owned in the early 90’s. OK Computer came at the end of a century of rapid technological advancement, and awaiting a century of uncertainty. And those themes are what the album is based off of. The songwriting was just as beautiful as it was on The Bend. But the new production from Nigel Godrich made all the difference. Radiohead sounded like they were the future of rock music. But they would soon almost ditch it all together. I have always thought OK Computer was a near flawless album and one of my favorites personally. But it’s not my favorite Radiohead album.

After touring OK Computer for months, Thom Yorke started having various emotional episodes. It became apparent to him and the band that they were no longer content with doing the same old thing anymore. Back in the studio, Radiohead was about to create their most abstract, groundbreaking, and daring album yet. Kid A received positive reviews among its release in 2000, but it also received a lot of backlash from critics from fans and critics who just didn’t understand what Radiohead was doing with all these electronic noises and abstract concepts. In actuality however, Radiohead had just pulled off one of the most shocking sonic shifts ever without skipping a beat in quality. While OK Computer was an expose on the collapsing world outside, Kid A took a turn inward and explored the emotions that make us human, which is quite the juxtaposition to the rigid song structures and album cover. As mentioned before, Kid A featured the most experimental instrumentation in any Radiohead album. It had a variety of electronic instruments that very few bands had ever played with, much less in the rock genre. I love everything about this album. The way Radiohead used these sharp and robotic tracks to convey something so meaningful and complex was simply brilliant. For Radiohead to take this gigantic of a risk right after their biggest release was insanely brave. In hindsight, it’s probably the reason their careers went on to last all the way to today.

Following Kid A, Radiohead released Amnesiac: a similarly themed and structured album. Many people have labeled the record as collection of Kid A B-sides. While I don’t think it’s that simple, I can certainly see where these people were coming from. It had only been a year since the release of Kid A, and Amnesiac did feature very similar production. But instead of the enthralling sounds of Kid A, Amnesiac was a little more minimalistic and organic, while still featuring some slightly more reserved electronic synths. Its successor, Hail to the Thief, was also branded a copy of their earlier work. Many compared its socially aware lyrics and guitar riffs to the sounds of OK Computer. This comparison is more appropriate in my opinion. But Radiohead focused more on the outer world itself rather than its relationship with it. Both of these records are still great, despite being more forgotten than their other efforts. Amnesiac featured a sort of charm to it despite all of the electronics and Hail to the Thief was brilliant in its songwriting approach while still featuring some terrific guitar melodies. But both of these album did pale in comparison to what was to come.

It’s 2007. It’s been 4 years since Radiohead has released a full length LP. They’ve got to be working on something right? Well, it turns out they were. In Rainbows was dropped out of nowhere and showed that Radiohead was not done. Not even close. Radiohead seamlessly blended the electronic and rock elements of their career into a single album. This album was their brightest and most minimalistic effort. All the guitar melodies are quite bare bone (with the exception of Bodysnatchers) and the synth melodies are also quite one dimensional. The percussion however, is something that isn’t talked about enough. It’s the main aesthetic that makes this album stand out. 15 years into their career, and Radiohead was still inventing and experimenting. And more importantly, they were still coming out with career defining records.

Now we get to Radiohead’s most controversial album, The King of Limbs. Released in 2011, this album split Radiohead fans and critics with its abstract and droning beats as well as its vague and esoteric themes. I know many people think this album is emotionless experimentation with no real purpose, but I do see merit to all weird and off kilter elements. I thought the production was some of the best I had ever heard from them. While I did miss the powerful lyrics, the sounds were enough to keep me happy. But for many others it wasn’t. Radiohead, more than ever, were kind of seen as a relic of the 2000s. It was a new decade after all, and Radiohead would not release any material for the next 5 years.

In 2016, Radiohead silenced anyone who thought the band was done with the melancholic masterpiece that was A Moon Shaped Pool. Much like In Rainbows, Radiohead went for a more organic sound. But while that record was their brightest record, A Moon Shaped Pool is depressing at almost every turn. The synths are somber and the guitar melodies are subtle. Thom had just been through a divorce while writing this record, and that remorse really shows in the songwriting. Even though Radiohead had covered many emotional subjects before, none had matched the despondency of this one. It’s hard to imagine where Radiohead will go from here. After all they’ve been surprising us their entire career. Just… please don’t wait 5 years again.

ALBUMS RANKED: (UPDATED 5/6/17)
1. In Rainbows 10/10
2. Kid A - 10/10
3. OK Computer - 9/10
4. A Moon Shaped Pool - 8/10
5. The Bends - 7/10
8. Hail to the Thief - 7/10
6. Amnesiac - 7/10
7. The King of Limbs - 6/10
9. Pablo Honey - 4/10

Comments

Maybe because I haven't listened to it in months, but I really actuallly like Pablo Honey. Fantastic post, I highly encourage you to do more. - WonkeyDude98

It's mainly considered the worst due to the fact that it was the least unique. - djpenquin999

I'm not a fan of a lot of the writing as well. There are a few moments of brilliance but most of it is just surface level angst. - ryansliao

In my opinion, I remembered less from Kid A than Pablo Honey. - WonkeyDude98

Good post! - ProPanda

Haha I forgot the bends - ryansliao

Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon - djpenquin999

Here's my Rankings (not entirely accurate)

Pablo Honey (4/10) ~ It's okay, just can't compare to the rest of their discography.
The King of Limbs (6/10) ~ Kind of uninteresting. Felt like the songs needed something more.
Amnesiac (7/10) ~ While it has one of my all-time favorite Radiohead songs, "Pyramid Song", some of the rest of the songs aren't as memorable.
Hail to the Thief (7/10) ~ It's underrated for sure. Has a great opening track too.
The Bends (7/10) ~ Great album, with some very dramatic and melancholic tunes. Just felt some tracks were forgettable.
A Moon Shaped Pool (8/10) ~ I really enjoyed their recent release. It felt like they were the creative and interesting Radiohead that I remembered. Some songs give me huge In Rainbows and Kid A throwbacks too.
Kid A (10/10) ~ The rest of the albums could all easily tie for the top. This is definitely their most unique and daring release yet.
Ok Computer (10/10) ~ One of the greatest albums of the 90s. So many amazing tracks in this record. I absolutely love it!
In Rainbows (10/10) ~ Best Radiohead album by far! A mid-2000s classic! Kid A and OKC come real close but I don't think they can beat In Rainbows for me. - cjWriter1997

P