4. The Bends (1995)
After Pablo Honey became a moderate chart success, Radiohead found themselves supporting it in a nigh-endless touring cycle. True to form, the band developed distaste for the shallowness of the touring musician's lifestyle. Out of this revulsion came The Bends, Radiohead's first truly great album.
Like its predecessor, The Bends is a guitar-driven alternative rock album. Phil Selway's drums still sound organic, and Johnny Greenwood contributes ear-slicing solos that would go extinct just two albums later. But where Pablo Honey was conventional enough to draw "Nirvana-lite" digs, The Bends is stranger and spookier. It's Radiohead's first collaboration with Nigel Godrich, who worked under head producer John Leckie. Still, his presence shows -- the band's experimentation with druggy layering starts with "Planet Telex," The Bends's fantastic opener.
And while Pablo Honey's soaring U2-isms crop up in places ("Bones," "Sulk"), The Bends's tone skews dark. Thom Yorke turned his attention away from his navel and toward the scary world around him for the first time here. The fan-favorite closer "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," he once said, "has no resolve. It is the dark tunnel without the light at the end … it's about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes, and knowing that no matter what the hell you do, he'll get the last laugh."
This combination of ingredients -- rock + vibes + terror -- produced some of Radiohead's most indelible songs. Quite a few of them, including "Planet Telex," "Street Spirit," "My Iron Lung," and the painfully sweet "Fake Plastic Trees," are right here.
“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.