Sitting in Bennigan’s with my family the other night, I heard a familiar song creeping out of the restaurant’s speaker system – or, more specifically, a sweet ringing 90’s-filtered guitar solo that I instantly recognized. Well, almost instantly; for a split-second I thought it was some U2 song I had long forgotten about. But then it hit me: “Radiohead!” I exclaimed, taking my mom by surprise. “‘High and Dry!’ Oh man, I haven’t heard this song in years!” Of course my mom had no idea what the hell I was talking about and went back to eating her fried banana caramel sundae (can’t blame her, that stuff’s good). But since that night, I’ve had Radiohead on the brain.
Hearing “High and Dry” on the radio, unfortunately, forced me to realize that I’ve barely listened to Radiohead for the past couple years; even when their commendable comeback In Rainbows was released last fall I only gave it a few listens. It’s a shame, because I can say without hesitation that at one point in my life Radiohead were a very important band to me. Back in my senior year of high school, during my obsessive Zeppelin/Doors/Floyd classic rock phase, Radiohead proved to me the true power of modern rock music. Hearing OK Computer was a revelation; here was a 90’s band making swirling, textural alternative rock that moved me just as much as any Pink Floyd album if not more so. And The Bends, while maybe not a revelation, was a great slice of alt-rock heaven, proving to me that Radiohead didn’t have to be murky and sinister to be great – they could write pop songs too. Considering that at this point I had (foolishly) shunned most music past 1977, Radiohead brought me crashing head-first back into the decade I had grown up in.
So why have I been avoiding them all these years? Well, I could say that I simply “grew out” of them, or I could go the easy way out and claim that their Kid A phase was just too weird for me (as many other OK Computer diehards have claimed). But in truth my rejection of Radiohead is the unfortunate result of a “been there, done that” attitude I tend to have toward bands I loved in my formative teenage years (Weezer and even U2 are other notable victims) – I have this notion in my head that, as I grow older, I need to “mature” my taste to accommodate hipper, more underappreciated bands. As such my former love of Radiohead has been soundly usurped by the likes of Pavement, the Flaming Lips, Ween, and countless others; the more I listen to other bands, the less I listen to Radiohead. The fact that the British and American music press tends to pin them with the “Greatest Band Ever” label every chance they get (second place: the “Voice of a Generation” label) doesn’t help; the fact that they’re the choice “progressive” band for Sublime-loving frat boys only makes matters worse. Beyond all that, my tastes have shifted considerably since high school – recently I’ve been placing a lot of value in simple, catchy rock ‘n roll, and Radiohead has no aspirations to deliver that sort of thing. They’re a low-key, moody, electronically-focused band now, and as such I haven’t found myself in a Radiohead mood much at all in a while.
But when it comes down to it, that’s all petty foolishness. Radiohead are a fine band. While I wouldn’t call them the “Greatest Band Ever,” I can’t blame them for that label because I don’t think they want that label – Kid A and Amnesiac are proof positive of that. To me, Radiohead is a band that’s doing things the way they want to, and despite a number of bizarre, gutsy experiments, they’ve been able to maintain commercial success and critical respect – something I greatly admire them for. For the past few days I’ve been listening through every Radiohead album I’ve got (I have them all except for Pablo Honey; I’m no completist) and for the most part they all still sound good to me. The two big standouts for me now, however, are Kid A and Hail To The Thief; while OK Computer will always remain my personal favorite, the more I dig into Radiohead’s post-Computer experiments the more they appeal to me. Kid A was always a tough one for me, and I wasn’t the only one (Nick Hornby even compared it to Metal Machine Music upon its release, which seems kind of silly to me now); with Kid A I felt like I was a kid dipping his feet into cold pool water over and over, getting further and further into the cold with each step until I was able to dive in and swim around comfortably. Now that I’ve been neck-deep in the cold electronics of Kid A for a while now, it sounds to me like Radiohead’s most fully realized statement; while I can never embrace it like their 90’s work, I can appreciate it as a classic of textural mood and frightening electronic murk. Hail To The Thief, which took their experimental flourishes and married them with rock ‘n roll explosions, served as a wonderful release after the calculation of Amnesiac – and it sounds even more creative to me now, making The Bends almost look conservative. Now that they’ve got In Rainbows out and the world is in their pocket once again, I’m hoping that Radiohead will continue to do what they’re best at: experiment, experiment, and experiment more until their audience gets the picture. And I don’t doubt they will.
Here are a handful of my favorite Radiohead tracks, a mixture of old favorites and other songs that have jumped out at me during the past few days:
“High And Dry,” off The Bends
Maybe the sweetest, purest pop song Radiohead would ever record. With a loving Thom Yorke vocal and that great little Jonny Greenwood guitar solo during the bridge, this is a song to be cherished – mostly ’cause they’ll probably never write one like this ever again.
“Sulk,” off The Bends
An old favorite of mine, one that used to be a hot contender for my favorite Radiohead song. It doesn’t sound quite as peerless to me now, but it still moves me in a way. A swirling, propulsive epic that deserves more recognition.
“Let Down,” off OK Computer
In an album full of technological paranoia anthems like “Karma Police” and nihilistic dramatizations like “Exit Music (For a Film),” “Let Down” was an unusually graceful ode to feeling “hysterical and useless.” While most of OK Computer explored the crushing effects of the digital age, “Let Down” makes that crushing feeling purely personal, with its inimitable chorus “Let down and hanging around / crushed like a bug in the ground.” Besides “No Surprises,” it’s a decent candidate for the prettiest song Radiohead ever recorded.
“The National Anthem,” off Kid A
The most bizarrely danceable song I’ve ever heard. Dig that bassline, that looping electronica, that frightening vocal, that two-note horn solo, and that fierce multi-instrumental explosion near the end. Along with “Idioteque,” you can either let it mush you into depression or dance to the hypnotic rhythm. Call it a “National Anthem” for alienation.
“How To Disappear Completely,” off Kid A
This one jumped out at me just recently. When Yorke sings “I’m not here / this isn’t happening,” it’s hard not to feel like shit.
“Life In A Glass House,” off Amnesiac
Awash with horns, piano, and a beat that’s hard to pin down, this song builds and explodes better than any other on Amnesiac. Anyone who considers Radiohead’s embrace of electronica to be some kind of amusical sludge should check this one out.
“A Wolf At The Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.),” off Hail To The Thief
It starts off as a twisted take on the Beatles’ “Because,” leading into a series of bizarre verses featuring Thom Yorke speak-singing lines like “Get the eggs / Get the flan in the face / The flan in the face / The flan in the face / Dance you fucker / dance you fucker / Don’t you dare / Don’t you dare / Don’t you flan in the face.” And the chorus, one of Radiohead’s best ever, features a set of wonderfully paranoid lyrics: “I keep the wolf from the door, but he calls me up / Calls me on the phone, tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up / Steal all my children if I don’t pay the ransom / And I’ll never see them again if I squeal to the cops.” Maybe Radiohead’s best album closer ever.
“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” off In Rainbows
In Rainbows works best for me when it exploits quiet beauty and builds slowly, and “Weird Fishes” is the perfect example of this. A shimmering guitar line, a cool electronic drumbeat, and Thom Yorke’s newly graceful vocals make this one my personal favorite on the album, and it only grows more and more hypnotic as the song continues. The aural equivalent to swimming in the ocean at night – if this is the future of Radiohead, sign me up.