Album Audit: Radiohead
So we can pretty much lock in Radiohead’s ninth studio LP for sometime in 2016. While fans await the latest instalment in one of the finest musical canons of the past quarter century, we take a loving look at everything that has come before. We’re dealing with classics here, so no decision was made lightly. Here is every Radiohead album (so far), ranked from worst to best.
8. Pablo Honey (1993)
Radiohead’s debut album is not the worst grunge-inflected indie rock record of the early nineties, it’s just not worthy of the band they would become. A squall of guitars, mish-mashed influences and overly earnest lyrics, Pablo Honey runs on the fumes youthful enthusiasm, a haphazard vomit of energy from a band that had been waiting for its moment in the sun since Friday afternoon high school band practice.
Of the few early tracks worth remembering, ‘Thinking About You’ is an anxious acoustic gem while ‘Stop Whispering’ and ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ have awful but undeniable hooks. As for the lead single, history has spoken. As po-faced and posturing as ‘Creep’ may be, it’s still a classic, and it gave the band just enough momentum to go on and get better.
7. The Bends (1995)
Radiohead were on unsteady ground when they came to record their second album, unpopular with the UK press and one-hit wonders to the rest of the world. “If you’re going down, everyone can sniff it, and they wanted to see us fail. We were five minor public school boys from Oxfordshire. We weren’t liked by Melody Maker and NME, the reviews were terrible. We had one chance,” guitarist Ed O’Brien explains. No more of the shambolic, derivative rock that marred their debut – every song on The Bends had to be a single. They did it, too.
This is the greatest collection of rock songs that Radiohead ever recorded, an emotionally direct avalanche of verse-chorus-verses – ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Just’, ‘Street Spirit’ – all utterly distinct but beautifully coherent. And here in spectacular misery was Thom Yorke – a little more restrained than before, a little less sulky, now undeniably a star. The Bends was Radiohead’s real debut and it’s still an incredible album. It has slipped down the list merely because mid-’90s guitar rock is such a small part of their legacy.
6. Kid A (2000)
Kid A was a revolution, a reaction to the hype surrounding OK Computer. As captured in Grant Gee’s haunting tour film Meeting People Is Easy, Radiohead got lost in the media frenzy following their seminal 1997 release; Thom Yorke in particular felt swallowed up and spat out by the experience. They were broken and needed to rebuild something more endurable than before – something decidedly outside of the rock ‘n’ roll myth they had come to inhabit. Thom had long been a fan of electronica, dating back to his early rave days at Exeter University, and he had come to see the experimental electro of Warp artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin as the future of music. Over the painful year that Kid A was recorded, he forced his band mates to come around to his way of thinking.
Made from samples on computer screens, with virtually no guitars, Kid A was the album that repulsed half a planet of Radiohead fans. Thom the Soothsayer of Pre-Millennial Anxiety was gone, disappeared in incoherent vocal lines, a warbling texture amongst the hum and glitch – the closest we ever got to him was the cauterised ghost of How To Disappear Completely. He was supplanted by brass squall on ‘The National Anthem’, drowned out by a heavenly host on ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’. He was lost in the icy break beat of ‘Idioteque’. Kid A was obtuse, oblique, completely self-indulgent, and yet it went platinum. It won a Grammy. Billboard called it, “”the first truly groundbreaking album of the 21st century” and Pitchfork gave it a perfect score. Kid A was weird but it worked, and through it Radiohead earned complete artistic freedom.
5. The King of Limbs (2011)
Radiohead’s most recent album is their most unfairly maligned – a stunningly textured fever dream that suffers from being a little too “samey” compared to their other work. Built from an experimental process involving custom-made sampling and vinyl emulation software, it is an electronic record that only Radiohead could muster, warm and liquid despite the driving beats. It runs short but deep, clocking in at just 40 minutes but travelling to Mars and back via the black pools of ‘Codex’, the looping vocals of ‘Give Up The Ghost’ and the psychedelic echoes of ‘Separator’.
There is no breakthrough single from TKOL but Thom Yorke broke the internet with his freestyling dance moves in the ‘Lotus Flower’ film clip, which he initially wanted to bury. The other notable accessory was a companion album, TKOL RMX 1234567, which featured beat work from the cream of the British club scene, including Four Tet, Jamie XX, SBTRKT and Caribou – all long-time fans and collaborators.