7. Pablo Honey (1993)
Pablo Honey, Radiohead's first album, routinely gets knocked as their worst. Really, though, its middling reputation comes partially due to circumstance. It preceded one of the most fertile creative runs in rock history; few albums wouldn't pale in comparison. Pablo Honey also suffered from poor timing. Grunge was peaking when it came out in '93. Its alterna-rock pose, and especially its ubiquitous single "Creep," drew plenty of unflattering comparisons.
And Pablo Honey is not without flaws. Radiohead's identity was still malleable at the time. Their influences -- U2, Scott Walker, the Smiths, -- push through into pastiche territory at times. The self-pitying lyrics sound weirdly naïve next to the cynicism of their later material. Pablo Honey also suffers from inconsistent songwriting. Its second half is noticeably less well-developed than its first -- the same problem The King Of Limbs would suffer from 18 years later.
But despite its adolescent character, Pablo Honey remains a charming and occasionally brilliant rock album. Their youth brought vigor as well as naïveté; Thom Yorke belts out his lines with such force that his more recent recordings sound thin by comparison. Overplayed though it is, "Creep" remains one of Radiohead's finest hours -- Yorke's vocal crescendo in the bridge still raises goosebumps. "Anyone Can Play Guitar," meanwhile, foreshadows the apocalyptic themes that would color the band's coming creative storm: "And if the world does turn / and if London burns / I'll be standing on the beach with my guitar."
“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.