Named after a Talking Heads song, Radiohead are the most critically acclaimed band to emerge in the 1990s. They convened informally in 1986 as teenagers while attending Abingdon School in Oxford, and were originally known as On A Friday. Front-man Thom Yorke infuses his gorgeous voice with his neuroses, while the band’s main weapon is guitarist Johnny Greenwood whose unpredictable style gives the band a vitality and edge. Drummer Phil Selway, guitarist Ed O’Brien, and bassist Colin Greenwood are all strong musicians as well, but less distinctive.
Radiohead initially enjoyed exposure with the song ‘Creep’ from their 1993 debut Pablo Honey, but as a whole, the album was a developmental effort that only hinted at their potential. With their sophomore effort, 1995’s The Bends, Radiohead effectively clocked Brit-pop and 1990’s alt-rock; their consistent songs and Johnny Greenwood’s unorthodox style left pretenders like Oasis and Blur looking listless in comparison. With success, Radiohead became more ambitious; 1997’s OK Computer feels inspired by Pink Floyd’s spacey, nihilistic work, and is often cited as a key album of the 1990s.
2000’s Kid A was regarded as a major departure at the time, adding electronics and grooves to their sound, and often abandoning conventional song structures. Released at the height of their influence, it effectively stakes out the sonic territory for their later career. Since then, the group have settled into a more comfortable routine, releasing an album every few years to widespread interest and acclaim. While it’s impossible to repeat the incredible artistic growth of their first few albums, Radiohead have remained a vital creative force.
As much as I enjoy Radiohead, I’ve always found them to be a band I admire more than a band I love. This is probably deliberate on the band’s part; there’s a detached austerity to Thom Yorke’s voice and lyrics. But it’s difficult to argue against the proposition that Radiohead are the most significant rock band of their era.
Radiohead Album Reviews
Pablo Honey | My Iron Lung (EP) | The Bends | OK Computer | Airbag/How Am I Driving (EP) | Kid A | Amnesiac | I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings | Hail To The Thief | Com Lag (EP) | In Rainbows | The King of Limbs | A Moon Shaped Pool
The Smile: A Light for Attracting Attention
Radiohead’s debut album is very much formative – it’s lacking the idiosyncrasies of their later work, and sounds like a generic alt-rock album. The single, which received far more attention that the album itself, was ‘Creep’, which has proved somewhat of an albatross for the band as it’s still arguably their best known song even though it lacks the subtlety of their later work; it’s still admirable with Johnny Greenwood’s spasms of guitar noise.
The stop start dynamics of the opening ‘You’ (betraying a hint of Pixies influence) are effective, while the anthem of ‘Stop Whispering’ is also effective. The acoustic ‘Thinking About You’ is a simple, low key winner, while ‘I Can’t’ balances a hard guitar sound and introspective and pleasant vocals. The guitar freak-out of the closing ‘Blow Out’ is also one of Johnny Greenwood’s best moments on the disc. The punky ‘How Do You Do’ is too far out of character to be particularly enjoyable, while songs like ‘Lurgee’ and ‘Ripcord’ are generic and unremarkable.
Pablo Honey is an undistinguished debut; given Radiohead’s rich catalogue, it’s primarily an historical curiosity.
My Iron Lung (EP)
Despite that it’s a short collection of outtakes from The Bends sessions, My Iron Lung is a big step up from Pablo Honey, and marks the moment where Radiohead started to make an impression of being more than just another promising band, displaying the inclinations and idiosyncrasies that would make them one of the most closely watched entities in the current music scene.
My Iron Lung is book-ended by two otherwise available tracks (‘My Iron Lung’, a reaction to the success of ‘Creep’, later appears on The Bends, and there’s a live acoustic version of ‘Creep’, but the songs in between are surprisingly substantial. The acoustic pair of ‘You Never Wash Up After Yourself’ and the Eastern-influence ‘Lozenge Of Love’ are less adorned than anything on their studio records, while ‘Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong’, with a beautiful ringing guitar hook, is absolutely gorgeous. ‘The Trickster’ and ‘Lewis (Mistreated)’ are solid rockers that would have been right at home on The Bends, while ‘Permanent Daylight’ has a similarly epic feel as the best songs on OK Computer.
Grab The Bends first, but it’s a comfort to know that there’s a worthy companion piece floating around.
Like Pablo Honey, The Bends is guitar rock, but it’s a lot more interesting, displaying more personality than its bland predecessor. Lead singer Thom Yorke’s persona is more developed, and guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s given a lot more room to impress; his ballistic solo in ‘Just’ is one of the record’s best moments. Even though Radiohead went on to make more innovative records, with The Bendsthey mastered Brit-pop.
‘Planet Telex’ opens The Bends with an awesome reverb keyboard effect, while the anthem title track feels instantly British, unlike the Americanisms of the previous record. ‘Bones’ is the overlooked track here, an aggressive rocker that’s right up amongst my Radiohead favourites, although the equally intense ‘Just’ is rightly recognized as a highlight. The delicate melody of ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ showcases Yorke’s upper register, while ‘My Iron Lung’ is an effortless multi-part rocker.
The Bends balances mainstream accessibility, quality songwriting, and innovative production to satisfy repeated listens. Fanatics will probably prefer the more challenging OK Computer and Kid A, but if you’re interested in Radiohead’s credentials as a rock band, start here.
All the hype of “the first great album of the twenty first century” meant that OK Computer inevitably failed to measure up to my expectations. It wasn’t until I enjoyed The Bends and Kid A that I allowed OK Computer a second chance. While the best tracks on OK Computer are more developed than anything on The Bends, the latter scores through consistency, and there are too many throwaways here like ‘fitter happier’ and ‘Electioneering’. But at its best, OK Computer is like Pink Floyd for the 1990s, with soaring melodies, engrossing textures, and probing lyrics.
Most of OK Computer is wonderful, containing some of the best songs of the 1990s enhanced with innovative production and complex textures. The best moments are gorgeous as Thom Yorke utilises the full emotive potential of his wonderful voice; ‘The Tourist’ is my favourite while ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, and ‘Lucky’ are also poignant. There are two great singles; ‘Paranoid Android’ is a coherent and entertaining multi-part epic, while ‘Karma Police’ boasts a lovely chord progression.
OK Computer is often an artistic triumph, but it’s over-hyped all the same.
Airbag/How Am I Driving (EP)
Although I think that OK Computer is too inconsistent to be the greatest album ever made, the quality of outtakes presented in this EP is convincing evidence in its favour. While Airbag/How Am I Driving opens with the awesome ‘Airbag’, also the lead off track from the parent album, the rest of this stuff is previous released and highly impressive. These songs do feel less ambitious and less claustrophobic than those that made the album proper, but even so it’s tempting to imagine OK Computer with a couple of the best tracks from here substituted on for ‘Electioneering’ and ‘Fitter Happier’.
The standout tracks on Airbag/How Am I Driving are the awesome ambient groove of the ‘Meeting in the Aisle’, which is impressively memorable for an instrumental, and especially the amazing ‘Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)’, which is extremely catchy and easily one of my favourite Radiohead songs. It wouldn’t fit onto OK Computer, since it’s too blatantly straightforward and anthem-like, but it deserves a better fate than to be buried in an EP. ‘Pearly’ and ‘Palo Alto’ are neat rockers, and the closing ‘Reminder’ is also pretty; the whole EP is substantial and shaped nicely, like a miniature album in its own right.
Airbag/How Am I Driving is a surprisingly impressive release; anyone who’s a major fan of OK Computer would be well advised to pick this EP up.
Kid A emphasises the textural territory that OK Computer suggested. Instead of staying with the rock music that characterised their 1990s catalogue, on Kid A Radiohead explore more esoteric influences like Brian Eno, 1970s German bands like Can, electronica like Aphex Twin, and jazz like Charles Mingus. Kid A polarised fans; one camp intrepidly followed Radiohead into the deconstruction of their sound, while the other moaned about how Radiohead had deserted them.
While Kid A starts with the gentle, hypnotic keyboard groove and backwards vocals of ‘Everything In The Right Place’, it’s often not especially confronting. There is still guitar rock in the form of ‘Optimistic’, which apart from a bit of extra sonic layering, would fit fine onto The Bends, while ‘In Limbo’ is also guitar driven. Perhaps the biggest outlier is ‘Treefingers’, but it’s not unlike the ambient instrumentals that Bowie was including on his 1970s albums like Low, which made #2 on the British charts. ‘The National Anthem’ descends into a free jazz breakdown at the end, but it’s driven by a strong rock groove, and it’s not that difficult to follow.
Kid A is very well done – it’s all memorable, not just a band playing lip service to their influences, and it’s effectively defined the sonic space that Radiohead have inhabited ever since.
Drawn from the same recording sessions as Kid A, Amnesiac is even less song orientated than its predecessor. While it’s weaker overall, Amnesiac certainly has its highlights; the somber yet trippy ‘You And Whose Army’ and the rocking guitars and burbling electronics of ‘I Might Be Wrong’ are two clear examples. The transition from the electronica of ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’ to the stately piano of ‘Pyramid Song’ is masterful, and the well sequenced first half alternates between trippy electronic tracks and slow piano pieces.
The second half of the album is much less convincing, and it’s weak enough to make Amnesiac the least essential Radiohead studio album since Pablo Honey, but it still has its share of highlights and anyone who enjoys their other key albums would be foolish to pass it up.
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
Hot on the heels of Amnesiac came this live album, focusing completely on Kid A and Amnesiac material. Of its eight songs, three come from each album, along with ‘Morning Bell’ which appeared on both, and a new song. Due to this set list it’s hardly a fan-friendly live greatest hits – if anything I Might Be Wrong is the equivalent of a 1970s progressive rock band releasing a live album so they could prove they could play their complex instrumental parts live. This album demonstrates that Radiohead were capable of making the relatively esoteric and electronic material from Amnesiac and Kid A into songs that could be performed in a live context with a traditional band format.
Some of these songs are substantially altered from their studio incarnations, tending towards more organic sounding instrumentation – ‘Like Spinning Plates’ is pared down to a gorgeous piano and vocal piece, the bass takes over the title track and ‘The National Anthem’, while Idioteque’ captures an intensity that it doesn’t quite manage on record. The new track, ‘True Love Waits’, is the most straightforward of the songs, an solo acoustic declaration of love for Yorke’s son, and an outtake from the OK Computer era
As much as I Might Be Wrong is an interesting record, and fans should definitely hear the excellent remake of ‘Like Spinning Plates’ and the new ‘True Love Waits’, you might think about how much of a Radiohead fan you are before you pay too much for an eight song, forty minute live album. I Might Be Wrong has much more artistic integrity than the average fan-milking live release, but as a result of this it also has a more limited appeal.
Hail To The Thief
For the first time in Radiohead’s history, Hail To The Thief fails to open up any new avenues for the group to explore. The textural cut and paste of their previous pair of albums is still present, but has been toned down into more conventional song structure with more standard instrumentation; it would have served as a helpful bridge between OK Computer and Kid A. The lyrics are similar to OK Computer‘s paranoia at the state of modern society; the title is a reference to George W. Bush’s controversial US presidential election win.
It’s not as ground breaking, but there’s plenty of great material; the single ‘There, There’ has a unique marching ballad feel, with the guitars belting out a gentle rhythm under the plaintive melody. The reflective piano inflected ‘Sail To The Moon’ might be the prettiest song Radiohead have recorded yet, although ‘Scatterbrain’ certainly runs it close. ‘Myxomatosis’ trudges astride a huge fuzzy synth-bass line, while ‘A Punchup at a Wedding’ cruises with a stylish piano riff.
It’s arguably a little overlong, but Hail To The Thief is another excellent album in one of the best catalogues in rock music; it may not be as ambitious as what’s come before, but there are just as many good ideas as ever.
Com Lag (EP)
Com Lag is a collection of Radiohead b-sides that, for once, actually mostly sound like b-sides. These songs are culled from the Hail To The Thief singles, and although it’s an excellent Radiohead album, it’s clear that Radiohead hadless awesome material left over than they did from other sessions. Many of the songs are reworkings of Hail To The Thieftracks: remixes of ‘Myxomatosis’ (the best thing about it is the inevitable ‘Remyxomatosis’ title) and ‘Scatterbrain’, and alternative versions of ‘2+2=5’ and ‘I Will’. There are some solid tracks to make it worthwhile for Radiohead completists; Thom Yorke’s solo performance of Amnesiac b-side ‘Fog’, the acoustic but predictable ‘Gagging Order’ and the serviceable ‘I Am A Wicked Child’ are all investigating.
But in you decide to track it down as an import from outside the Pacific Rim where it has been officially released, Com Lag is possibly the worst value for money Radiohead release available.
In Rainbows is most well known for its release strategy; the band self-released it as pay-what-you-want download, although it subsequently also had a physical release. It’s one of the tightest, most accessible Radiohead albums; it’s succinct at 10 songs and 43 minutes, while the sonic textures are gentle and subdued. The band are still dabbling with electronic and experimental sounds, but they’re subtly integrated into the album’s textures, leaving a uniform and consistent sound.
The closer ‘Videotape’ is little more than a Yorke vocal and piano, while ’15 Step’ and ‘Reckoner’ are driven by Phil Selway’s unconventional rhythms, but they all dovetail easily into the same album. Highlights include the emotional Yorke vocal on ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ and the spooky, string-driven ‘All I Need’.
In spite of the fact that the band were giving it away for free to people who chose to pay nothing, In Rainbows is yet another triumph for Radiohead, and is another gem in one of the most dependable catalogues in popular music.
The King of Limbs
Radiohead produced such a high standard of material for so long, that, if you’ll excuse the pun, the ordinariness of The King of Limbs is disarming. The group disowned it on release – Thom Yorke stated “none of us want to get into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again” – and compared to the high standards of their earlier work it’s more comparable to their b-side collections. Stylistically, it’s very identifiable as Radiohead, and a lot of these songs could have come from their earlier 21st century albums.
Essentially, The King of Limbs feels brief and unfinished, but even so, there are strong moments. The minimal, piano-led ‘Codex’ is very pretty, and is easily my favourite song here. ‘Little By Little’ is atmospheric and effective with its squelchy arpeggios.
There’s enough of Radiohead’s signature sound on The King of Limbs that it won’t disappoint fans too much, but it feels half-baked next to their strongest work.
A Moon Shaped Pool
If The King of Limbs felt half finished, A Moon Shaped Pool is a fully realised album. It’s slightly mellower in sound than usual, with more strings, and its backdrop was Thom Yorke’s separation from his wife – if such a thing is possible, it’s even more morose than usual for Radiohead. A Moon Shaped Pool is a workmanlike effort with some strong tunes, but there’s no new ground broken and one of the best songs is ‘True Love Waits’, originally released on I Might Be Wrong in 2001.
Unusually, the tracks are sequenced in alphabetical order, and even if it’s not a groundbreaking effort for the band, there are plenty of strong tracks here. ‘Burn The Witch’ provides a dramatic opening with its string flourishes, while the rhythmic pulse of ‘Ful Stop’ is also engaging. My favourite tune though, is the epically titled ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’, with a minimal arrangement backing a pretty melody.
With the lack of new ideas, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Radiohead are past their best, but even so they still have a lot to offer.
10 Best Radiohead Songs
Everything In Its Right Place
All I Need
Return to 1990s Album Reviews…
A LIGHT FOR ATTRACTING ATTENTION
There hasn’t been a new Radiohead album since 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. The Smile might be the next best thing. The two most distinctive members of Radiohead – vocalist Thom Yorke and guitarist Johnny Greenwood – have formed the trio The Smile. The third member is Tom Skinner, the drummer of London jazz band Sons of Kemet. Some of the material is clearly from Radiohead – ‘Skrting on the Surface’ was in Radiohead’s live set a decade ago, but is appearing on record for the first time.
Despite the different name and the smaller lineup, The Smile feels very much like a continuation of late-period Radiohead. Textures like the atmospheric guitars of the opening ‘The Same’ and the moody piano of ‘Open The Floodgates’ are straight from the Radiohead playbook, even if Skinner’s jazzy drumming provides a point of difference. The tough post-punk sound of ‘You Will Never Work In Television Again’ is welcome, while ‘Speech Bubbles’ is gorgeous.
I’m not convinced that an essential album has emerged from Radiohead’s orbit since 2007’s In Rainbows, but The Smile’s debut is still worthwhile.
More from Aphoristic Album Reviews
Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
I add new blog posts to this website every week. Browse the archives or enjoy these random selections: