The Initial Position
I might be one of the really few music journalists and ‘nerds’ in that field who didn’t get hooked up on Radiohead so far. It’s not like I haven’t tried. At least I gave OK Computer a few spins before but it never clicked. Prior to this listening experiment I’m aware of a few of the band’s more iconic singles (High And Dry, No Surprises, Karma Police, the inevitable Creep) and over the years I listened to new tracks by them occasionally but the only thing that stuck with me was the wonderful Daydreaming from 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Apart from that I always considered Radiohead to be highly overrated. Maybe I’ve always been so sceptical due to the fact that everybody loves and praises these folks. And that’s something I always find quite irritating. Maybe it’s also Thom Yorke‘s distinctive vocal performance that never really clicked with me. I don’t know and at the beginning of this little experiment you can consider me sceptical but we’ll see how this whole thing will turn out and whether my problems of Radiohead are actually based on an actual lack of taking some time to get to know them.
Day 1 – The early phase
So when I introduced this challenge on NBHAP’s Instagram somebody said early Radiohead sounds like a poshed up version of Nirvana which really surprised me. Then I started listening to their debut Pablo Honey and I got what he meant. This album is more 90s teen angst than the actual 90s were and not just because it features Creep. Opening track You comes with loud guitars and a screaming Thom Yorke. Immediately I get a feeling of “Oh this is gonna be tough” because Yorke’s voice is challenging. Noisy tracks like Stop Whispering continue that vibe. This is the sound of an angry young band that is still looking for its path, it seems. There are more melodic approaches like Thinking About You which appeal more to me. But on the other hand songs like Anyone Can Play Guitar are pretty cringy. As far as I’m informed Pablo Honey is considered the band’s weakest release and apparently they don’t like it either. It’s interesting to witness the beginnings of such an influential band and realizing how, well, simple they are. As a Depeche Mode fan I can relate to that since their debut album is a pretty cheesy affair as well.
1995’s follow-up The Bends is a different situation, obviously and in general considered to be their peak in terms of classic guitar rock. I find myself remembering tracks like Just and Street Spirit (Fade Out) although I can’t recall having actively listened to them before. The title-track puts the whole teen angst vibe into more ordered territory so I can see why this attracts a lot of people from that generation. I realize that I personally prefer the more melodic side of the band’s earlier work. High And Dry is a longtime favourite and probably the only Radiohead track that played a part in my adolescent life. But I never realized how good Fake Plastic Trees is. Well, maybe it’s the strings but this is a hidden treasure. (Nice Dream) as well, despite the noisy ending (strings again). Still, noisier moments like Sulk make me shiver… not in a good way. Yorke’s voice is challenging on these songs. Although I actually like 90s guitar music I realize once again how tricky it is for me to connect with that sound if it isn’t for nostalgic reasons. Okay, The Bends is apparently better than Pablo Honey but you don’t need to study Radiohead that much to realize this.
Day 2 – The album everybody’s talking about
It appears to be common sense that OK Computer is considered to be Radiohead‘s peak work. I don’t know. Can somebody please confirm that? I tried it before but probably not to the extend I did it this time. Following the first two albums I think it feels like the next logical step. The noisy angst is still there but it’s getting ordered and teams up with abstract structures. That’s the impression I get from the first two songs Airbag and Paranoid Android. Although I think the latter one is waaaaay too long. Throughout my listening experience I find myself thinking“That sounds a lot like early Coldplay and Muse” … along with a few other bands I felt musically closer throughout the years. Foals is a good example here. So it more or less underlines the band’s influential status and listening to a track like Climbing Up The Walls I can totally get why it influenced so many artists over the past twenty years. However, I still prefer the quieter songs. No Surprises remains indestructible and same goes for Karma Police. I might have underestimated Exit Music a bit which I mainly know due to a really sweet cover version Vampire Weekend released ten years ago. Yeah, you Radiohead purists can officially hate me for that, haha. Anyway, I realized that this album needs a bit more time so I decided to give it at least another day.
Day 3 – Time to grow
We tend to forget that some things just need a little bit more time and this is a great time to remind us of that. So, instead of rushing on to the next releases I gave OK Computer another day and it truly had an effect. It really grew a bit on me. Plus it also got a better effect when being experienced via headphons. Especially Subterranean Homesick Alien really starts to make sense. Exit Music is a monster and I have now massive respect for it. Overall I realize that melancholic and melodic Radiohead are more my cup of tea instead of the noisy chaotic ones. Let Down is another hidden treasure here. So far it’s my favourite of the three albums which shouldn’t be a total surprise. Sometimes complex music needs a bit more time and that’s probably the most valuable lesson I learned on this day.
Day 4 – Shit’s getting weird
Alright, here comes Kid A and with it the probably most significant shift in the band’s history. Forget about the noisy guitars, its opening song Everything In Its Right Place surprises with a tender electronic beat and a fragile piano. I like where this is going. The title-track of their 2000 album heads for the same direction. This record definitely feels like a similar big break for Radiohead like the one Talk Talk had in 1988 when they released Spirit Of Eden. Things are getting experimental, jazzy (I mean, that brass section on The National Anthem) and way different. There’s room for ambient textures, electronic beats and (again) pretty cinematic string sections. Especially the one on How To Disappear Completely instantly clicks with me. This feels more like the sound I associated with Radiohead in my mind. Kid A is a challenge but its companion album – 2001’s Amnesiac – takes things even further. It’s even weirder although there are tracks on it like I Might Be Wrong and Knives Out which I find quite interesting. Although these two albums are more adventurous and difficult than their predecessors I actually find them more appealing, especially the piano-driven moments. Maybe it’s due to the effect that I always enjoyed gentle electronic sounds and ambient textures and find it easier to connect with them. These two need a bit more time (and good headphones) but there is something about them which I find quite addictive. Oh, and I always respect musicians who take brave steps towards new directions.
Day 5 – Unexpected flashback
Alright, so next one in line was 2003’s Hail To The Thief which wasn’t quite a dramatic twist as Kid A back then, more like a continuation of the OK Computer formula as it appears to me. Right from the beginning with the opening track 2 + 2 = 5 the record shows that the noisy guitars are back after taking a little break on the two predecessors. Now, it feels as if these two worlds find a way to coexist in some way. I really love the hypnotic way of Where I End And You Begin and the ghostly electronica of The Gloaming also fascinates me. There’s even an almost pop-structured tune on the album with Myxomatosis but I may interpret a bit too much into this one. Fun fact: I totally forgot that the gritty rocker There, There existed. I remembered it from when I was 19 because it was a lead single and I actually liked it back then although it never made me listen to the whole album back then. The fact that this happened when I just left school suddenly make me realize how old I am and how long this band is actually already around. Well, the album sounds interesting and at the end of this day I’m not sure yet whether I should move forward to In Rainbows or give it another shot tomorrow. Well, that’s the great thing about living in a time with an unpredictable future, right?
Day 6 – Slowing everything down
I decided to continue my ride through the discography with 2007’s In Rainbows which I mostly know for the fact that it was released with the ‘pay what you want’ concept which was quite revolutionary back then. Jeez, it’s yet another reminder that I’m getting old. First tracks 15 Steps and Bodysnatchers got a driven krautrock-infected groove but over the course of the record things are slowing down and these are the moments I always enjoy the most. That’s what I already learned during the past days. Nude got that wonderful string arrangement I really like (by now you get the pattern), I’m also enjoying the dreamy and melancholic vibe of Weird Fishes and the majestic build-up of All I Need. More than on its predecessor I realize the strive for musical perfection these guys are delivering on this one. They are simply really crafted musicians I guess and in that position you might lose your interest in traditional song structures over the years. That’s another aspect I realize during this challenge – Radiohead continue to push themselves forward with these albums and that might also explain the ‘event’ effect you get whenever they release a new album.
The King Of Limbs from 2011 is a relatively short affair with only eight tracks. It’s more electronic and minimalistic again and I think that was also the time when Thom Yorke and Modeselektor engaged in a friendship, right? Songs like Bloom and Feral are quite structure-lacking experiments and later on there are some really wonderful moments like Codex and Giving Up The Ghost. Also liking the laidback vibe of Separator, the record’s closing track. It’s quite a moody and mellow album and maybe that’s when Radiohead entered a more mature phase where noisy elements are less important than the musical and artistic challenge. I mean, they probably started giving zero fucks around the time that Kid A was released so this attitude seems quite consequent.
Day 7 – Not so creepy anymore
We’ve come a long away from Creep to something like Separator. That’s the thought I have while giving The King Of Limbs another spin. It’s fascinating to see how much these guys matured. TKOL is a solid but short record and now I only notice how close to a traditional pop song Lotus Flower, the record’s lead single, is which I mainly remembered for Thom Yorke’s cringe-worthy … I mean… very artistic music video back then. Moving on from here directly to the most recent album A Moon Shaped Pool. As I’ve been enjoying the string-focussed moments the most on the past albums I’m in for a special treat on this one as they are way more in the foreground. I knew that Daydreaming was a masterpiece and it sill is but songs like The Numbers and True Love Waits are also pretty outstanding ones. There is some of the most reduced work of the band in recent years on this one. The folky Desert Island Disk is a great one and so is the silent piano-driven Glass Eyes. They remain musically sophisticated on this album and I think for the first time the beauty of the music itself gets a spot in the limelight. I mean, yeah, it’s still pretty complex and ‘music nerd’ stuff but on A Moon Shaped Pool I feel like there’s also a more emotional approach towards the band’s music and that’s always the path I personally prefer. What a lovely little surprise this album is at the end of my journey.
No, I’m not a hundred percent convinced Radiohead fan after this week. That might have been a very unrealistic goal, right? But this week did change my perception of the group a lot and I think I do now have a better understanding on why they are such a holy grail for many music lovers. Each member appears to be a dedicated and highly crafted musician in his field and whenever these forces collide they are trying to push all their ambitions together for the best possible outcome. And it’s not about challenging their audience but also themselves. That’s why they appeal to get better with age, at least for me. Most of the early stuff feels a bit outdated and that makes it quite hard to get an emotional connection to The Bends, for example. My favourite record of all those so far appears to be Kid A as I really love the overall vibe it provides and the cohesive story it tells. It is followed by A Moon Shaped Pool which might surprise some of you. The third spot is currently a tie between OK Computer and In Rainbows but of course, that my change.
What’s even more important here: I now got an honest, intrinsic motivation and desire to return to some of these albums and visit them again with a bit more time.
Listening to an entire back catalogue in such a short time feels a bit like watching a band grow up in hyperspeed mode. Throughout the past thirty years they remained creatively hungry and stubborn. They became one of the biggest cult bands in modern music without delivering a proper hit single following the 1990s while still delivering profound and critically praised music. That’s quite something. I still have an issue with their noisier stuff and Thom Yorke’s voice can be a challenge but it annoys me a bit less now, especially on the slower and more silent Radiohead songs which warmed my heart more than once. So, yes in the week of my Lockdown Listening Challenge Radiohead earned my respect and I’m less ‘anti’ to say so. They probably deserve to be where they are right now, okay? The more valuable lesson here: good music needs your time and attention; it can be challenging but ultimately rewarding in the end and that’s something we should all appreciate a bit more during and after the Corona crisis.