Who Is America’s Radiohead? Ranking 20 Fitter, Happier Contenders
Radiohead are far from the first popular band to bend genres. It’s a proud tradition that dates back at least to Dylan’s “wild mercury” excursions and the Beatles’ maximal Sgt. Pepper sessions. Nor are Radiohead the first band to eschew industry conventions for the sake of art. In fact, giving the middle finger to your record label and then shoving off to make art on your own terms is practically part of the rock ‘n’ roll ethos.
But Radiohead are the post-classic rock, alternative-era bellwether for acceptable experimentation – a paradigm that flowered on 1995’s The Bends and 1997’s OK Computer but that found its fullest expression on Kid A, which turns 15 years old this week. They became known as a band whose modus operandi is the changing of skins; the making of music that is difficult at first, but that, after repeated listens, reveals both the band’s distinctive melodicism and their claustrophobic anxiety about modern life.
Unlike some of their predecessors who embarked on brave musical voyages — Lou Reed circa Metal Machine Music or Bob Dylan circa Self Portrait, to take two random instances — their intention wasn’t to nullify their aesthetic, but to modify it and expand it, and in so doing, prove that their perspective wasn’t limited by what instruments they were playing. Nor was the music to be limited by the format in which it was digested, for there were no singles released for Kid A, and no music videos. (Later, they showed that their free-thinking attitudes extended to the institutions of the music industry, too, as they cast off the major label machinery that had facilitated the making of all their music.) They experimented, but they never abandoned the musical sensibilities that defined them.
After decades of fawning music press coverage and mainstream accolades (including three alternative album of the year Grammys) Radiohead are the international alternative act of the last two decades, and their name is synonymous with ambitious, erudite and unprecedented experimentalism.
Because of that, Radiohead function as a kind of lens through which we can view much of the alternative music of the last 15 years. How have different bands transformed the essence of alternative rock? How have some bands maintained their core sounds through decades of altering their sound? How have others forsaken their sound completely? And one more question we thought it would be fun to ask: How do American artists tackle these questions in their own distinct way?
To commemorate the 15th anniversary of Kid A, we came up with a list of 20 contemporary artists who are America’s answer to Radiohead — bands that, when cast in that light, can be understood as Radiohead’s artistic successors, but with a distinctly American outlook. Check them out in the gallery above — 20 American bands that do their own versions of edgy-yet-eminently-appealing experimentalism — artists that, knowingly or not, follow Radiohead’s adventurous path through sound and craft.