This is a slightly updated version of the original article I posted three years ago. I’ve filled in the new releases and adjusted a couple grades, though nothing major. I’ve added YouTube links to songs when available so you can get a better feel of their progression as you read along. It also contains an abbreviated version of the review for A Moon Shaped Pool, which can be read in full here.
Many writers I admire love to hate Radiohead—their chief complaint takes one of two forms, often both: 1) Their lyrics suck, and 2) their reputation is overblown. As with any band that speaks to large numbers of people, the second is expected when critics get on board, too, and it becomes essentially worthless, especially when the first claim rings true because it’s often impossible to discern what Yorke’s talking about. They’re not like the Chili Peppers with words often moronic. What Yorke’s got going for him in spades is his ability to emote, so even though most of the time I can’t tell what he’s going on about, I at least know how he feels. And given these irony ridden times, that’s saying a lot more than many artists whose words don’t match their delivery, even if he’s not saying much. As for those who gripe about the music, I could make a laundry list of albums far more boring sonically that they’ll rally to support, and considering I have ears, I can’t support for a second anyone bald enough to claim the sounds they concoct aren’t intriguing in the least.
This overview isn’t complete. Amongst the oddities not included, I’ve wholly skipped singles—although added together they create a bevy of B-sides, you’re better off exploring them on your own, thinking of them as signifiers of the band’s evolution. Usually they’re average songs that serve as connectors from album to album. This doesn’t always work, though—“Cuttooth” is a step away from OK Computer, but none of its Neu! characteristics present themselves on anything in Kid A. I’ve also skipped several EPs, but not all of them. Com Lag is included because in spite of its fickle and slapdash construction, it has enough interesting studio material and remarkable remixes to be worthy of comment. Others—like Drill—are absent for obvious reasons; if it’s not here, I don’t think it’s worth it. This is the same for solo albums. Jonny Greenwood has several movie scores I haven’t considered largely because instrumental music bores me, not to mention that his latest two (There Will Be Blood and some flick about a cult leader) are classical compositions, a genre of music about which I know nothing. Lastly, there’s no mention of EMI’s Radiohead: The Best Of box set, video releases, or reissues.
It’ll become very clear very quickly that I like this band a lot. I won’t comment much on their future remembrance—part of me thinks haters will have their way and tarnish their reputation in retrospect to favor whatever punk equivalent breaks next. Personally, I think they hit their peak with In Rainbows, and I don’t foresee them ever coming up with anything as good. The King of Limbs, while a fine album, is evidence of their decline. It split fans and critics, though not in the way Kid A did. Instead of paralleled reactions concerning the outlandish novelty of its sound, The King of Limbs has received complaints of being too tame, too much a return to Kid A. The sound is far more reminiscent of In Rainbows.
A Moon Shaped Pool marks the newest entry in this series, and there’s a lot of fretting about when, if ever, another Radiohead album will drop. Who knows whether this is their final outing as a quintet (or sextet if you count Godrich—septet if you count Donwood, too), though I think we can rest assured that Thom Yorke won’t stop making music. And that’s what’s kind of great about the band members: despite a Radiohead album only surfacing every five or so years, they have since 2000 put out a substantive release in some iteration (Yorke solo, Selway solo, Atoms for Peace, Ultraista, remixes by various artists) about every other year, so there’s no shortage of material worth exploring. Even if you’ve exhausted that, they’ve got tons of virtually uncollected material floating around in the ether. It’s really easy to create a long, wonderful playlist with your favorite Radiohead et al songs, one that can easily last for hours. I wouldn’t recommend doing it on bright, sunny days, but I’d recommend it when you feel that need creeping around in your stomach.
Pablo Honey (EMI ’93): Rough start to a brilliant career. Wish I could offer up a choice cut—and call it overexposure if you wish—but I can’t stand “Creep” save for an a cappella version used in The Social Network trailer. LEMON
The Bends (EMI ’95): Too mopey for me to find any value in Yorke’s self-hatred and misanthropic tirades, pretty enough musically that I occasionally catch myself enjoying it. This means the narcissistic attitudes of bored young 90’s kids were apt in channeling emotions wary of vapid contentment even if they were misguided—too self-involved to look beyond their doorstep, too shortsighted to see what was around the 21st Century corner. Can’t blame them, necessarily. Don’t have to take them seriously, either. Just look at Eddie Vedder, for example. Better yet, Billy Corgan. B PLUS (***)
OK Computer (EMI ’97): Possible exception Kid A aside, this is the Brits’ best-known and most-hailed album—by critical consensus a monumental 1990’s rock masterpiece and groundbreaking admixture of paranoiac electronica and U2’s emotionally-charged arena rock, only I’m calling bullshit on novelty and wonder just who would pray for Bono intimating Orwell. Much of the praiseful prose overzealously credits the group’s ‘innovation’ or extracts excess meaning from Yorke’s harangues. His cynicism detailing the vapidity of late Western capitalist society misses the mark, where the “disappointed people clinging onto bottles” are as faceless and soulless as the robotic life-checklist read-off of “Fitter Happier”; dark portraits of urban sprawl whose inhabitants are automatons mechanically maneuvering from one empty gesture to the next. Only it’s as false as its weepy-faced admirers extol its truth—after all, Yorke, like his audience, is clinging onto bottles in the pub with ‘em, but clearly thinks himself above it (and, by extension, so do the admirers) even if he’s hopelessly muddled in the muck. So figure half the lyrics as typical shoegaze groan and moan self-loathing and ignore detractors who can’t even get past the music: anyone with ears should appreciate the intricate if dissonant layers of their skittish guitar con atmospherics, Colin Greenwood’s sparse and scattered basslines, and Yorke’s weathering croon—not as polished and pretty as in The Bends, and better for it. A
Airbag/How Am I Driving? (EMI EP ’98): Called an EP but more a glorified single for OK Computer-opener “Airbag.” “Polyethylene” and “Palo Alto” both beat “Bishop’s Robes,” rendering the No Surprises/Running From Demons EP obsolete. (“Meeting in the Aisle,” “Palo Alto”) B PLUS (*)
Kid A (EMI ’00): These cacophony of commentary-causing fifty minutes of Yorke’s distorted, repetitive mumbling over beats-not-melody-centered electronica-not-rock were, take note, distributed without lyrics—a telling sign given such enormous anticipation from the unfortunately-dubbed “best band in the world.” So of course they claimed wanting listeners to discern the words on their own or completely make them up… which translates to “what we say isn’t as important as how we sound.” Anyone who can’t figure out that this abdication of guitar whitewash (and, more importantly, words) in favor of rhythm wasn’t a one-off but a career choice is hapless. Sixteen years on, it’s not so shocking, and even Yorke would later comment Kid A “was pretty fucking mild” compared to their less-known contemporaries or krautrock influences. A once-divided music world still stays divided, though many have predictably come to embrace the pretty mood tunes the boys concocted. Why shouldn’t they? Sounds almost as good in 8-bit as it does on CD. A PLUS
Amnesiac (EMI ’01): Recorded simultaneously with Kid A, this darker cousin wasn’t released with it as a double album because, in the words of the band, “no one would have listened to it.” Too true. Where Kid A works because of its crisp details, Amnesiac sputters because it’s so goddamn hard to distinguish. Muddled and murky like swamp water, it sounds like the master tapes were dropped in a bathtub and then played backwards. Makes for an interesting experimental session, less so as a coherent album, and barely enough for a Kid A deluxe edition. More like a B-side collection for the ultra-curious and obsessive completists. B PLUS (***)
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (EMI’01): Until their filmed Live from the Basement sessions and the mercurial Scotch Mist, there was no bootleg adequately capturing the band’s lively performances, including this official release. Two cuts make this otherwise okay remix-feeling affair worth it: a piano-led rendition of “Like Spinning Plates” and the album-escaping acoustic closer “True Love Waits.” Billed as an EP even though it runs over thirty minutes, a time that used to constitute an album. (“True Love Waits,” “Like Spinning Plates”) B PLUS (***)
Hail to the Thief (EMI ’03): Christgau says he believes Yorke when he says the title doesn’t refer to George Bush, but I don’t, especially when Yorke would later contradict himself by saying Radiohead were “stating the bloody obvious.” Right. A problem is that when standing alone, most of what might constitute protest rhetoric doesn’t seem like it, and sometimes still not clear enough even within the context of the album. Is it really a good idea to consider “We Suck Young Blood” is criticizing capitalism when it could just as easily be applied to the government/military or the church given its processional march? The song titles (and subtitles) and the lyrics within don’t signify as often as they should, masquerading as politics but vague enough to stay ‘timeless.’ At least they start smart with “2+2=5,” which couldn’t be more obvious even if they called it “George Orwell, and by extension Radiohead, Oppose Tyranny.” A MINUS
Com Lag: 2plus2isfive (EMI EP ’04): Two live cuts, two remixes, some Hail to the Thief B-sides, and an alternate take of “I Will” amount to easy listening of a Radiohead era long since passed: one of quality excess material. (“Skttrbrain [Four Tet Remix],” “Paperbag Writer”) B PLUS (*)
THOM YORKE – The Eraser (XL Recordings ’06): Loop-de-looped clickety-clicks. Unlike the rest of the universe, I never wondered how this would have sounded had the rest of Radiohead fleshed it out. The beats stand on their own and the Nintendo synths give Yorke his oft-favored eerie ambiance. The lyrics are at the forefront, a hodge-podge of anti-authoritarian sentiment whose trigger is “Harrowdown Hill,” about the death of scapegoated scientist David Kelly. So while some see Yorke exercising intimacy (and in retrospect, the lovelorn lyrics of In Rainbows paint this as a primer), everything from the German Expressionist global warming disaster cover artwork to his dialogue on the opener—“Please excuse me but I got to ask / Are you only being nice because you want something?”—as well as the rest clearly signal further resentment of Bush II and Blair. Why doesn’t he name-check them, you ask? Well, why bother? A
THOM YORKE – Spitting Feathers (XL Recordings EP ’06): Japanese-only release of four tracks that never made it off the cutting room floor and an elongated “Harrowdown Hill.” Includes two videos I never watched. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of this. CHOICE CUT: “Jetstream”
In Rainbows (XL Recordings ’07): Too often the pay-what-you-wish release strategy is the central talking point. Always nice to have a discussion about the value of music in a download-obsessed period, but the success or failure of this approach is a far second to the music itself, easily Radiohead’s apex. This is a late night album, for the road or your den, recommended to you in two listening sessions: First, the proper album of ten cuts, engaging at every turn, paced perfectly, starting with electro-percussion “15 Step,” raw alterna-rock-a-thon “Bodysnatchers,” subdued falsetto-fest “Nude,” climaxing with the even more falsetto-heavy “Reckoner,”—perhaps the best song the band have ever written—closing on dirge-like “Videotape.” Having been developed in concert (with some cuts—like “Nude”—kicking around since ’97) it benefits from sounding less calculated, more impulsive, propped by love lyrics riding the line between romantic and acidic, unmistakable in their pleads: “I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover,” “I’ve no idea what you are talking about / Your mouth moves only when someone’s hand is up your ass,” “Because we separate like ripples on a blank shore.” Second, the disc of extra material, which feels like a post-show behind-the-curtains cool-down; more stripped down than the first disc, and while not every cut is essential, they too are arranged in a perfect running order and indicate other ideas the band was toying with: Jonny’s love affair with the Ondes Martinot, dub-inflected “4 Minute Warning,” “Last Flowers to the Hospital” posing as distant cousin to “Videotape,” and the shot of energy “Bangers and Mash,” which could have nestled nicely next to “Bodysnatchers.” And by the way, hip-hop was founded on passing around mixtapes for free, and if you can’t come up with a list of now-successful artists who were propelled to the spotlight by releasing their material on the internet for free, you must not be on the internet much. A PLUS
THOM YORKE – The Eraser RMXS (XL Recordings ’08): “Remixes” seems like a misnomer considering the originals’ sparseness, making these songs more ornate add-ons than reconstructions. First half features just-as-good renditions by The Bug, Modeselektor, and Burial, finds its apex with Four Tet’s ethereal “Atoms For Peace,” cools off with The Field’s eight minute unrecognizable reworking of “Cymbal Rush” and strikes once more with a stuttering, staccato “Analyse” sandwiched between two subpar “Black Swan” versions by Christian Vogel that sound nearly identical to the original. Too bad they didn’t tack on XXXChange’s version of “The Eraser,” the only song from the album not represented. No big deal. Not like it’s the title track or anything. A MINUS
PHILIP SELWAY – Familial (Nonesuch ’10): Drummer’s solo debut is subdued and without any dynamic drumming due to his faint voice, which accounts for the acoustic guitar and vocal overlay favorability for songs about love—maybe for a wife, maybe for a daughter, maybe for the world. Hard to tell. (“The Witching Hour,” “Don’t Look Down”) B PLUS (**)
The King of Limbs (TBD/XL Recordings ’11): According to the way Ed O’Brien explained their recording process, it doesn’t sound like much was done live in studio, which In Rainbows definitely was (at least live in decrepit house), and I’m positive that’s the only reason these eight tracks don’t soar as high as they could. How do I know? Save for Yorke’s vocals, their always-explosive “Live from the Basement” sessions let “Bloom” flower and “Lotus Flower” blossom. These are eight deeply layered songs concerned more about groove and atmosphere than statements or innovation (neither of which I would say are their strong points but have been attributed to them regardless), The King of Limbs works because of its subtleties—C. Greenwood’s bass line stitching together glitchy loops; multiple beats coursing through “Little By Little”—and these subtleties let the album, like all Radiohead albums, unfold over time. Not their strongest (and how, pray, do you match In Rainbows, much less top it?), but fans who moan may take another listen to appreciate the delicacy of a finely-crafted if not perfect project. Would have been boosted with the addition of “Staircase,” possibly “Supercollider” or “The Daily Mail,” though there’s little use for “The Butcher.” A MINUS
PHILIP SELWAY – Running Blind (Nonesuch EP ’11): Four (more) soft songs that could’ve fit on the album. Title piece offers such profundities as “Forever’s a long time.” No lyrical genius, but earnest, unpretentious, and genuinely thankful for what he has. (“All in All,” “Running Blind”) B PLUS (*)
TKOL RMX 1234567 (TBD/XL Recordings ’11): Nineteen remix tracks of an album that’s only eight cuts to begin with nearing two hours in running time, over half lasting more than five minutes (with seven of those going for six or seven minutes), and not one of the talented DJs—which, by the way, includes Four Tet, Modeselektor, and SBTRKT—scores a home run. Released two or three cuts at a time on limited vinyl during summer because they must have known no one would slog through the whole thing more than once. I did. It was a mistake. LEMON
ULTRAISTA – Ultraista (Temporary Residence ’12): Everyone belatedly mentions percussionist Joey Waronker, much less his integral rhythms—the sole component giving this likely one-off a semblance of identity outside Nigel Godrich’s name. Note that young gun Laura Bettinson’s layered drone and Godrich’s straining synths revolve around whatever Waronker supplies; favorite example is the climactic “Smalltalk,” a stalling one-two one-two followed by vocals and keybs that, get this, might evoke emotion. So yak, yak, yak; we know this is Godrich’s ‘side-project’, we know his prior credentials inform this outfit, and if at the end of the day we’re honest we know it’s just too damn easy to invoke Radiohead or Eraser comparisons. Rhythm-centric, sure. Minimalist, okay. But God forbid a veteran producer having a sound. B PLUS (**)
ATOMS FOR PEACE – Amok (XL Recordings ’13): That Amok’s construction was more haphazard than The King of Limbs forgoes the pretense Yorke is interested in writing songs rather than dawdling in the studio for years until tailor Nigel Godrich can stitch the scraps together. Those who yearned for Radiohead’s golden touch on Yorke’s solo Nintendo-glitch The Eraser got what they wanted with AFP’s killer live sets, here see a sequel as close as what could be imagined—meaning no alarms and no surprises, please. The band (including RHCP bassist flea, percussionists Joey Waronker and Mauro Rubio, and synth-wizard Godrich) formed four years ago, and for what? I don’t care how much stock Yorke puts in rhythm—a beefier beat-heavy Eraser undercuts a large part of what made that album listenable. You know, that annoyance called discernible melody. (“Default,” “Ingenue”) B PLUS (***)
ULTRAISTA – Ultraista Remixes (Temporary Residence ’13): Ten remixes and six bonus tracks, only Four Tet and David Lynch worth a listen for curiosity, and every one of ‘em a dud. I swear, this kind of thing is only going to work with bare bones tracks like Yorke’s Eraser. TKOL didn’t work, so what made them think this synth fest would? LEMON
PHILIP SELWAY – Weatherhouse (Bella Union ’14): Radiohead drummer’s second solo full-length, predictably hushed although with fuller instrumentation. Still, I yawn like a lawn every time his throaty whisper hovers above his airy arrangements. LEMON
THOM YORKE – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (BitTorrent download ’14): More King of Limbs than The Eraser, and about as close to the antithesis of AMOK as possible. Where his Atoms for Peace venture featured Waronker’s and Flea’s rhythm-heavy jams, this uses beat as backdrop for the bleeding together of Yorke’s ambient synths and warm-bath vocals. Honestly doesn’t feel like it’s a whole lot more than that, which is fine; those unable to appreciate this as floral background music will miss the very real charms of a slowly unravelling album (aren’t all Yorke/Radiohead records this way?) whose moaned words can’t be anywhere near as important as the wall of paranoid sound. And do we need to address the ‘unconventional release method’? He charged six dollars to download it, which is more than the five for KOL. And is there something here fundamentally different from Bandcamp? No? Then who fucking cares? A MINUS
THOM YORKE & ROBERT DEL NAJA –The UK Gold (Soundcloud): Whether you’re a fan of Radiohead’s Yorke or Massive Attack’s Del Naja or both, here’s a fun game to play over the course of thirty minutes: take a guess as to who composed each song, knowing that of the twelve tunes writing credits are split down the middle, taking a shot whenever you fuck up. Had I done this, I might’ve been drunk by the end—Yorke and Greenwood’s contributions are easy enough to spot (esp. bc of vocals on “Pin Loon Break Up” or borrowed “A Brain in a Bottle” opening on “Mono Jam One”), but so similar are Del Naja’s compositions I was well ready to think everything here Radiohead laptop fuckery. Not much fully realized, more like sketches to fill in later, but I’ll tuck this documentary soundtrack away with the rest of my audial wallpaper collection. B PLUS (***)
A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings ’16): “It’s so pretty!” the entire music-loving community cries. Well, duh—Radiohead albums are pretty by default, but A Moon Shaped Pool comes dangerously close to having prettiness be its main attribute, and so for the first time I understand how disaffected OK Computer fans have felt since Kid A—they got into the band for the three-guitar attack, not the bleepity-bloops Yorke & Co.’s been obsessed with post-2000. Me? I like those bleepity-bloops quite a bit. But I also like fist-pumpers alongside slow-burners, and A Moon Shaped Pool with rare exceptions roams within the realm of the latter. And I don’t believe for a moment these songs’ seemingly more personal subject has anything to do with Yorke splitting with his partner of twenty-three years, Rachel Owen. Yorke actually sounds happy here; there’s little of the paranoia or outright anger and confusion that marked a lot of their earlier work. So yes. There was a time when this aging Radiohead obsessive would have written a several thousand word essay “decoding the politics”of lead single “Burn the Witch,” or painstakingly and foolishly wrung every lyric dry of its supposed meaning, or dropped $86.50 on a heavyweight double LP with artwork booklet and attendant, useless shellac 78 rpm records. No more. B PLUS (**)