Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#7)


On with the countdown. Find out who landed at #7 after the break.

One could argue either way whether or not Radiohead was the best band of the 90s, and that same person could also argue day and night over whether or not they were the best of the 00s, but being in the conversation is irrefutable. And that makes them one of the extremely rare examples of an artist that consistently and completely commanded two different decades with resilience. And radiohead1even if they weren’t the absolute best either decade had to offer, they were doubtlessly among the boldest, most intriguing, and most thoroughly satisfying. They also pulled off that increasingly infrequent feat of being an arty, adventurous and experimental group that is both a major commercial success and critical darling. You just don’t see that much since the last gasp of the late-60s hangover.

And in a lot of fundamental ways Radiohead resembles one of those late-60s experimental psych-rock-type bands, with two egregious differences—this “psychedelic rock” is driven by futurism, subliminal tension and technology instead of wah wah, tabla and copious psychotropics, and the “freakouts” are compelled by isolation, fear and nuisance that lash the mind and heart far more than the eardrums. Many describe them as being “ahead of their time,” but they react to the now as much as the when; really, they’re just ahead of the curve. Their instincts react in the opposite direction than the norm. When they attempt catharsis, they don’t build to a crescendo or release; when they stay obscure and unresolved, they unwind until they discover musical closure. Their rock hooks are fried, frayed and tossed aside like an accident while their drawn-out drones are almost impossibly beautiful and melodic. And if another group had managed something akin to OK Computer, the instinct would be to keep fans and critics happy by pushing onward in the same direction, sticking with similar themes and dense, expansive guitar atmospherics (and maybe try writing a new single that sounds suspiciously similar to “Karma Police”). Instead, Radiohead pulled a fast one on all of us and took a jarring, radical left turn into the electronic/jazz-inspired melodies and glacial, splintered textures of Kid A.

radiohead2They were bucking conventions long before it was even safe to allot them conventions to begin with. In the mid-90s, Radiohead was riding high on their big alternative rock hit “Creep,” known for the jagged crunch of its guitar hook and the withdrawn but deeply wounded vocal (blackballed by the BBC for being too depressing, it only became popular in the UK after climbing into the Top 40 in the States). In their homeland, Britpop had never been bigger, and the media-bolstered “battle” between Oasis and Blur was underway, with dozens of other Englishmen (and women) circling with their own versions of the loosely-defined subgenre (Pulp, Elastica, Suede, etc.)—some had been there since the beginning and others were just catching up, but it seemed like almost every major pop act in Britain was eyeing the same prize—king of Cool Britannia. Now, anybody will tell you that when you’re coasting on a “one hit wonder” and the entire British Empire (not quite as robust as it used to be but still mighty enough) is consumed with a hot new sound—which everyone knew wouldn’t be all the rage forever—it is time to capitalize, capitalize, capitalize.

Based on evidence of that first album, Pablo Honey, who knew how long Radiohead’s stay in the limelight would last if they didn’t cash in with a catchy new single? I mean, it’s not as if their ambitious leanings were going to pay out anytime soon, right? But then we figured out that Pablo Honey was the standard “debut crisis”—a band getting growing pains mid-recording, discovering what they were good at and what they wanted to pursue and explore while getting their stuff out into stores—and that they would be no crass, trend-jumping single-spitter. A lifetime of “Creep”s radiohead3was not in the cards. Instead they dropped The Bends, and so-called post-Britpop was born right at the same time that genuine Britpop was peaking. Did Radiohead kill Oasis? Of course not, but they certainly did give the English (and entire world) more intriguing options.

One of those intriguing options was a return to genuine “album design.” Not the physical visual aspect, mind, but in the way that a musician becomes a filmmaker and arranges his or her intent on a vinyl (or digital) canvas. It’s not that this concept disappeared, but let’s be honest: even Britpop’s best and brightest, Blur, never tried anything like that—they preferred messy pop free-for-alls (Damon Albarn didn’t even bother with that “experiment” until the third Gorillaz LP). But Radiohead also went one step further than anyone had consistently tried (and succeeded) since the Pink Floyd peak: don’t just make one of those album-y album things, but also go ahead and make incredibly appealing singles mixed inside, too. It seems obvious, of course, but who else could make it seem not only obvious but even kinda easy?

It’s not easy, though, and the only way that Radiohead makes it look easy is through their consistency—they don’t make bad records. They’ve disappointed in the immediacy, but that’s our own fault for forming expectations (often made absurd by hype and impossible optimism). Every album they’ve ever released improves upon revisits—the “disappointing” ones, the instantly engaging ones, even that scattered debut of theirs that initially seemed like “Creep” plus eleven others, but repetition unearths small but genuine winners like “You,” “Blow Out” and “Stop radiohead6Whispering.” Even Hail to the Thief, which I’ve long been grousing about how I found it lacking a “spectacular” quality, has grown on me slowly but surely. It’s still their weakest album since Pablo, which is not unlike saying that Let It Be is the Beatles’ weakest album since Help!, but I’ve finally arrived at the reflection that it’s almost great. Almost.

But breaking this down into a quick clip of each of their records and each of their phases is boring. My dad said that OK Computer sounds like “funeral music,” which is, um, curious. An old friend dismissed Kid A as being “masturbation for snobs,” which rubbed this snob the wrong way. And I used to describe In Rainbows as a “return to form,” as if anything had genuinely been lost since Kid A. And they’ve really only had one phase their entire career—being Radiohead. Although they've been highly influential, they’ve never followed trends and, with their peers’ refusal or inability to copy them, never really set any, either. What other bands are lumped into the sketchily defined post-Britpop sphere? Coldplay, Muse, Travis, Feeder…not exactly fellow travelers. And while plenty of acts have attempted to replicate powerful but puzzled emotion in seemingly cold, distant landscapes that actually surge expressionistically, it’s usually just a track here, an experiment there, and are almost always best described/dismissed as “Radiohead-lite.” And make no mistake about it: the only modern groups that don’t wish they were Radiohead are either lying or realize that they never could be so they don’t try. Most see what they’re doing and just say, “I give up.” Really, the closest Radiohead has come to making a broad and legitimate impact on the way other musicians carry on was the way they marketed and released In Rainbows—the actual pay-what-you-want system didn’t exactly catch fire, but the concept of leaking music online proactively has spread like mad cow disease in both the major and independent community. It will always work when the fanbase is large and devoted enough; when the album got a physical release months later, it still jumped to #1 in both the US and UK. 

radiohead7It’s easy to overlook the individuals in Radiohead, and forget their talent as musicians and performers. Most of the attention is directed at the songwriting and studio construction aspects (and not unfairly). If you never see Radiohead perform, you’d probably never assume they would be all that stunning in a live setting.  It seems so rehearsed, so clinical, so programmed, so manipulated, benefiting far too much on the precision of all of its meticulously produced and placed sounds. Great live bands need spontaneity, right? And where does spontaneity fit into a song that’s actually called “Everything in Its Right Place”? But then you see them and are blown away. They take their sound as far as it can go without losing control, expand on things only hinted on their records, and mesh like a single brain controlling a magician’s five nimble fingers.

They almost seem hypnotized enough to suggest some supernatural force controlling them, invisible marionette strings revealed as neural cables that plug into their cerebellums. There’s no faking it; they can’t simply trudge out on stage and run off the familiar chords and mechanically hammer out the appropriate keys. If there’s no passion, no dedication, there’s no Radiohead. Power of performance aside, it’s easy to think you don’t even need to see them onstage, or even check out their videos—their music is so layered and entrenched in aching beauty and rigorous insubordination that the mind is flooded with visions. If the beat doesn’t catch you, one of those radiohead4suspended guitar lines will, or a lyric that cuts deep like, “Your voice is rapping on my windowsill,” or, “Don’t know why I feel tongue tied, don’t know why I feel skinned alive,” will just race in a loop through your memory. A headless falsetto like Thom Yorke’s could make insurance claim fine print sound profound enough to verge on apocalyptic.

When I saw them in concert, it was in the aftermath of Kid A and Amnesiac and I feared that their trials with electronic music might make them too staid and programmed on stage. What would Phil Selway do now that drum machines were filling out so many of the rhythms? How would Jonny Greenwood continue his reign as resident guitar god when keyboards dominated the compositions? I thought it amusing that they would tackle the concept of technology running amok by using advanced technology in producing their music, but needless to say, my fears were flagrantly unwarranted—Selway was inhuman on songs like “Optimistic” and “Idioteque” and all of Greenwood’s leads bristled beautifully. Stage equipment obstructed my view of Ed O’Brien and Colin Greenwood, but I’m sure they were incredible, too. And I knew going in that Yorke wouldn’t disappoint. He always looks positively possessed, his eyes frequently shut, swaying and shimmying to the swing and stutter of the music, his neck and shoulders snapping about so it looks like he’s having epileptic fits. On record he’s just as powerful—even when he floats like a netherworld spirit over Eno-esque aural wallpaper, there’s so much longing, grief, pain and desperation coming out of his wail.

radiohead5I once read a rather condescending write-up of the band that suggested that unless you have a deep appreciation and intuitive understanding of music both in terms theoretical and practical, you won’t really “get” Radiohead. Beyond the smugness, it gets under my skin because it suggests that these guys are too “smart” for the average person. Lyrics can always afford an intellectual jump, but compositions that are self-consciously clever tend to also be aloof, and rarely work in execution. Radiohead is too urgent and emotional for that nonsense; even at their chilliest or most fractured, their songs teem with confusion, frustration, and awkward reactions. They could write “silly love songs” but that’s not a reflection of who they are and where they’re coming from. It’s not in our instincts to give voice to intangible fears, lonely disconnect and uncertainty, so Radiohead steps into that void. And they’re not pacifiers; they’re not here to calm you down with a cookie and a pat on the head and a promise that everything’s gonna be all right. ‘Cause it’s not. It can’t be. We don’t live in security. And every step forward we take, it’s three steps back. Everything is out of control. But in a twisted way, melting into a hypochondriac dream state with this band is acute therapy. Their music lives in the same unstable, blinded, perpetually unbalanced state of mind that keeps the Earth spinning precariously. But it ain’t enough to just be deep and meaningful—they’re also very musical, and are capable of moving you even if you live a sheltered, hermetic existence where none of it matters. 

Planet Telex
High and Dry
Fake Plastic Trees
My Iron Lung
Everything in Its Right Place
The National Anthem
How to Disappear Completely
Pyramid Song
I Might Be Wrong
Amnesiac/Morning Bell
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
...and the album OK Computer

Also endorsed: Doves, Mogwai, the Verve

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


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