Instant Expert: Radiohead
You’ve seen them at parties, lurking in the corner, waiting to engage in battle disguised as conversation. They’re indie rock know-it-alls, and no matter what band or musician you mention, they’ve got an opinion — strong and almost certainly negative — ready to ram down your throat. With Instant Expert, we offer preparation for these very situations. Each Thursday, in advance of your weekend carousing, we pick an artist and provide a quickie career overview, highlighting both prevailing critical opinions and the inevitable contrarian counterarguments. Even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the music, you’ll be able to bluff your way through and defend your indie cred. This week: Radiohead.
When Radiohead released their first single, 'Creep,' in 1992, they came off like just another group of early-'90s misfits with no self-confidence (see Beck's 'Loser' and the Offspring's 'Self Esteem'). Only they had a slightly more British take on the subject. But by their second album, 1995's 'The Bends,' they had transformed into one of indie rock's smartest, most influential and beloved bands. Over the past 20 years they've traded guitars for electronics, made art-rock acceptable again and ditched their record company so their fans can pay whatever they want for their albums. In short, they became the most important band on the planet.
Like 'Creep,' Radiohead's 1993 debut album, 'Pablo Honey,' is rejected by fans as being a product of record-company maneuvering and other sorts of things that reek of music-industry cynicism. 'OK Computer,' from 1997, is the band's masterpiece, an Orwellian-style concept record about fear of technology and making connections in the real world. (Ironically, the group's next two albums, 2000's electronic-heavy 'Kid A' and 2001's 'Amnesiac,' sound exactly like something Big Brother would have a monetary stake in.) Actual songs don't matter much as the way the albums unfold. Each record since 'OK Computer' has been increasingly more complex and difficult to get into.
'Kid A' (and 'Amnesiac,' an album of 'Kid A' leftovers) is way better than 'OK Computer' because it abandons traditional songcraft, which is so overrated.
'OK Computer' and 'Kid A' are for amateurs. Radiohead didn't really hit their stride until they took total control of their music. That's why 'The King of Limbs' is their most definitive album.