6. In Rainbows (2007)
History will remember In Rainbows as much for the circumstances of its release as for its content. When Radiohead split with EMI after Hail To The Thief (Thom Yorke dismissed the label as "genteel arms manufacturers who treated music as a nice side project"), they were left to devise a new means of distributing their music. The pay-what-you-want download model they settled on literally changed the game, as countless Bandcamps can attest.
Though In Rainbows sported a unique business model upon its release, it's a musically conservative album by Radiohead standards. After four albums in a row of sonic and procedural experimentation, In Rainbows marked a return to streamlined pop songwriting. It continues Hail To The Thief's combination of analog rock and digital programming, but its arrangements breathe more freely -- Yorke's vocal melodies take the lead, while the digital textures modify rock instruments rather than standing in for them.
The suffocating political paranoia of In Rainbows's predecessor is largely gone as well. In its place are quotidian concerns: loneliness, unrequited romance, and dissatisfaction with everyday pleasures. When paired with the stripped-down arrangements, these themes sometimes feel like small potatoes by Radiohead standards; the bland single "House of Cards" in particular suffers from this problem. Weirdly, Radiohead also relegated some of the album's best songs to its bonus second disc. But at its best, In Rainbows offers thrilling jitters ("15 Step," "Bodysnatchers," "Bangers And Mash") and aching catharsis from Yorke ("Nude," "Reckoner," "Last Flowers").
“Big things have small beginnings.” So says Michael Fassbender’s character in Prometheus. He was referring to a blob of alien goo that would go on to spawn the monster that drives the Alien series, but he just as easily could’ve been talking about Radiohead.
Like that daub of black goo, Radiohead’s origins were inauspicious. The band — consisting throughout its existence of Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, piano, electronics), Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, various other instruments), Colin Greenwood (bass, synths), Ed O’Brien (guitar, backing vocals), and Phil Selway (drums) — formed in 1985 in the music rehearsal room of their Oxfordshire boys’ school. The band’s awkward original moniker was On A Friday — their usual practice time.
Unlike so many of their contemporaries, On A Friday did not spend years slugging it out in the indie tour circuit before achieving broader success — their path to glory was more in the classic-rock mold. After a university-born hiatus through the late ’80s, On A Friday signed a six-album deal with EMI without ever touring. Pressured by their label, the band changed their name to Radiohead, after a Talking Heads song. A year later, the band recorded a song called “Creep,” and the rest is history.
When most people think of Radiohead now, they think of Radiohead the iconoclasts: the band that resurrected progressive rock with OK Computer, dove headlong into experimental music with Kid A, and precipitated an entirely new business model with In Rainbows. For a high-profile band with so much to lose, Radiohead has historically been relentlessly ambitious. No two of their albums sound alike. (Not even Kid A and Amnesiac — more on that later.)
But Radiohead has achieved their status as one of the last consensus-building rock bands because of their broad populist streak. That populism is musical as well as political. Even at their most challenging and experimental, Radiohead ruthlessly edits their music into catchy, pop-sized chunks. Beneath the swathes of digital gauze and strange sound is a Beatles-style hit machine.
After eight albums, Radiohead may be close to the end of their creative arc. The band has expressed growing (and characteristic!) dissatisfaction with the process of writing and recording albums. Said Yorke during the press cycle for The King Of Limbs: “None of us want to go into that creative hoo-hah of a long-play record again … I mean, it’s just become a real drag.” (Then again, The King Of Limbs concludes with Yorke informing the listener that, ”If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.”)
So now is as good of a time as any to reflect on Radiohead’s catalog. Here are all eight of their full-length albums, analyzed and examined, and ranked from worst to best. If you disagree — and oh, will some of you ever disagree — then feel free to crush my list like a bug in the ground with your comments.