Pablo Honey [Parlophone-1993]
The Bends [Parlophone-1995]
OK Computer [Parlophone-1997]
Kid A [Parlophone-2000]
Hail to the Thief [Parlophone-2003]
In Rainbows [ATO-2007]
The King of Limbs [ATO-2011]
On September 13th, 1993, comedian Conan O'Brien made his debut as host of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. As it turned out, his first musical guest was a British quintet from Oxford named after a Talking Heads song, with a growing buzz and whose debut album had been released in February of that same year.
It's not surprising, given what has transpired since Feb. 22, 1993, that the band's latter day fanbase would shun a debut album which led the object of their undying and unwavering obsession to be nicknamed "the British Nirvana"–the record was produced by the renown "grunge" team of Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, of Pixies and Hole fame–and was named after a Jerky Boys skit. (Of course this tidbit is somewhat shocking proof that the Oxford quintet once had a sense of humor.) But rather than a skeleton in their proverbial closet the band's uneven initial long player has its moments, including "You", "Anyone Can Play Guitar", "Ripcord", "I Can't" and–-to Thom Yorke's everlasting chagrin, we imagine–-their most famous song: the anthem of self loathing known as "Creep".
Although Pablo Honey held the title of Radiohead's weakest album until The King of Limbs showed up and blew it out of the water 2 years ago, it's not the filler-laden dud many would lead you to believe. In reality, it's always been a snapshot of a young band with a few decent songs attempting to find its footing. That their songwriting grew in leaps and bounds over the following two albums has sharply overshadowed Pablo Honey's simple charms in the two decades since its release. (Even Jonny Greenwood believes it's been underrated.) At the very least, it hints at what was to come just two years later.
If for some reason Radiohead had called it quits after Pablo Honey, "Creep" would have been its lone claim to fame; their legacy a "one hit wonder" label forever affixed besides their name. Fortunately, this was not the case. What followed was an amazing album, a remarkable leap in terms of songwriting and production and, arguably, the blueprint for '90s Brit-pop. Produced by the great John Leckie (Stone Roses, XTC ) and engineered by Nigel Godrich–the latter to become a close associate and collaborator of the band in the years to come–The Bends elevated Radiohead's status via five singles–"High and Dry", "Planet Telex", "Fake Plastic Trees", "Just" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"–as well as album tracks that became favorites ("Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was" and the title track). In fact, Cast, Coldplay, Travis and a host of others should cough up royalties to Radiohead, grateful for having created this record. But the band's big musical statement was just around the corner.
What else can be said about OK Computer that has not been repeated ad nauseum in the more than decade and a half since it was released? That it's an incredibly visionary album in which Radiohead further pushed their own musical boundaries? That not only is it one of the great albums of the '90s but of all time? That it was Dark Side of the Moon for a new generation? That producing it established Nigel Godrich's career? All that and more has been written and discussed about this great album that managed to presciently capture the empty feeling of the crushing daily routine, rampant consumerism, political disenchantment, and social and emotional alienation that marked Western life in the beginning of the 21st century.
Only three singles were released from the album: "Paranoid Android", "Karma Police" and "No Surprises". But despite the high caliber of these songs, OK Computer works best as a concept album, though it wasn't formally conceived as such.
With a couple of classics under their belt, Radiohead once again surprised fans with a new musical direction on their next album. Disturbed by the legion of groups copping their style and disillusioned with the traditional parameters of rock music, vocalist and main songwriter Tom Yorke was motivated to go for a change of musical scenery. (Although, it must be said, "The mythology around [rock music] has run its course" is truly one of the most pretentious statements ever made by Yorke or any other rock star.)
Despite experimenting with an electronica-based sound, Kid A managed to retain much of the majesty of their previous album and reach the top of the album charts shortly after its release, later winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album on the strength of "Everything in its Right Place", "The National Anthem", "How to Disappear Completely", "Treefingers", "Optimistic" and "In Limbo", among others.
Amnesiac, meanwhile, is on the same wavelength as the previous album and was recorded during the same sessions as Kid A. But lacking similar presence, not to mention the same kind of impact as Kid A and taking into account that were recorded at the same time, it's not difficult to conclude that Amnesiac is a weaker, watered down version of Kid A, despite notable tracks as "Pyramid Song", "I Might Be Wrong" and "Knives Out".
The initial burst of faux studio verité–-a guitar being plugged into an amp–may well be an inside joke, signaling to Radiohead fans that the quintessential rock and roll instrument–-and a big part of the band’s early sound–was back to the fore. But the fact that the very next sound is an anxious, programmed beat is what’s most telling: the promised return to The Bends-era guitar play was not to be this time out. However, the beloved six-string is featured more prominently than on the previous two releases and ultimately lets Hail To The Thief come across as a more conventional record–for Radiohead, anyway–than either Kid A or Amnesiac. This isn’t a dig: in fact, the songwriting and arranging are both close to the same level of artistry found on their masterpiece OK Computer, with Hail To The Thief including some of their very best work (“2+2=5”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Go To Sleep”,“There, There”, “A Punch-up at a Wedding”). This is the work of a band trying to find a compromise between classic songwriting and progressive/avant-garde experimentation; struggling between being true to the muse and not alienating and leaving its loyal fans behind. In lesser hands, this could spell death to a promising career. But Radiohead succeeds here way more often than not, and in the end that’s what makes this album such a wonderful listening experience: a love/hate relationship between man and machine that humbles one and humanizes the other. And we get to sit back and enjoy it.
After the expiration of their recording contract with EMI, Radiohead chose to release their next album on their own and let the public decide how much they would pay–including nothing, if they so chose–for the digital download of this new album. This unleashed a whirlwind of opinions for and against from every conceivable corner of the music business: established and aspiring artists, critics and marketers, insiders and fans, etc. etc. etc. All this chatter eventually overshadowed the album itself, the brilliant In Rainbows.
Kicking it off at a satisfying intensity level with the skittish, electronic Aphex Twin-influenced intro of “15 Step” and the krautrock-meets-Sonic Youth drive of “Bodysnatchers”, Radiohead’s heavily anticipated seventh studio album revels in moods and more often than not fails to return to the driving pulse which it starts off with. Sometimes it manages to do both. And the breathtaking, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is a wonderful example. Further on, the haunting “All I Need”, with its hints of Massive Attack–like flourishes is probably the most straightforward Radiohead song since “Karma Police”. And yes, it’s a love song. ("House of Cards" is another highlight.) As for the rather uncharacteristic album title, the music certainly evokes the mood and peacefulness that comes with that calming celestial bridge of colors.
Because of its mostly abstract and static nature, The King of Limbs sparked polarizing reactions at the time of it release. A few critics and some fans alike considered it a throwback to the less interesting aspects of Radiohead's heavily electronic incursions, while others found it to be both beautiful and inspiring. Notwithstanding the divergent views, The King of Limbs sold respectably and was nominated for five Grammy Awards.