Every once in a while, you’ll still meet people who claim that Pablo Honey is Radiohead’s best album. Musical taste is an entirely subjective thing, and we’re all special unique flowers, but these people are obviously attention-hungry psychopaths looking for ways to dominate conversations and shit on everything you hold dear. Even if you prefer Radiohead’s relatively brief straightforward rock-band phase to their endless stressed-out computer-programmer era — an entirely understandable position — the album that you’re looking for is The Bends, the one where they figured out how to push that side of their sound to its logical conclusion, confidently translating grand festival-stage gestures into open-hearted personal pleas for help. You can hear distant echoes of The Bends in Pablo Honey the same way The Bends gives vague premonitions of OK Computer. But if Radiohead had ceased to exist after Pablo Honey, they wouldn’t get a whole lot of love outside the odd nostalgic alt-rock radio spin. Still, it’s pretty staggering to consider Pablo Honey in the wake of everything the band has done. Next week, Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace band will release AMOK, a minor album for Yorke but still a difficult and fascinating piece of work. And in a more just world, Jonny Greenwood would be accepting a Best Score Oscar for The Master on Sunday night; for the second time, some weird bullshit Academy rule froze him out. The journey to that sort of mystical kingliness started with Pablo Honey, an album that turns 20 today.
Before I got ready to write this piece, I’d had Pablo Honey pegged as something of a minor Britpop album, but that’s not quite right. For one thing, it came out a couple of months before Suede’s self-titled debut, effectively Britpop’s big bang. For another, it’s light on the blazing, fashionable cockiness that the label denotes, though you do hear flashes of it in “How Do You?” and a couple of other songs. Instead, it fits into a brief window where guitar bands absorbed bits and pieces of grunge and shoegaze without ever quite giving themselves over to either genre. That makes them a slightly crunchier and more tuneful Catherine Wheel, say, or a more British Buffalo Tom. At their first Canadian show, they were opening up for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Their second American tour — in September, after Pablo Honey had been out for months and “Creep” was already a hit — they were the support act for Belly. Their first American network TV performance wasn’t on Letterman or even Conan; it was on Arsenio. They named their first album after a line from a fucking Jerky Boys routine. These are not the moves of a band set to take over the world or change music forever.
So we didn’t know what Radiohead had in store back then, and listening to Pablo Honey, I get the feeling that they didn’t know either. It’s an album very much of its time — pure alt-pop, full of fuzzy but memorable-enough melodies and extremely early-’90s production choices. It’s a perfectly solid album and at times a very good one. A song like “Stop Whispering” shows that they had festival-ready grandeur in them, though they weren’t ready to show it very consistently. Greenwood’s raggedly melodic, Mascis-indebted guitar solos were some of the best of the era. Yorke’s high notes could raise shiver-bumps. But the whole affair feels slight — and this was in a moment when classic albums seemed to be dropping every month.
But Pablo Honey did go platinum, and the reason for that, as well as the reason Radiohead got enough time and major-label money to get good enough to make The Bends, was “Creep.” “Creep” remains a near-perfect alt-rock song — instantly recognizable from the opening bass tones, calmly assured in its build, utterly unencumbered in its expression of open-hearted emotional dorkisms. At least in terms of the cartoonish Gen-X cultural representations you were seeing around then, Beck’s “Loser” was probably its closest radio cousin, but that song was surreal and sardonic and self-mocking, and of course Beck’s extreme lack of seriousness immediately pegged him as the more important voice-of-a-generation career-artist type. But “Creep,” in its utter lack of affect and its adherence to a deeply satisfying big-rock blueprint, has aged way better. A few years ago, thanks to Rock Band and Prince’s Coachella cover, it had another little cultural moment, and that might’ve marked the moment it became a new standard. Or maybe it already was one. Maybe it always was one.
The first time I saw Radiohead live was at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998, when they’d already forsaken their Pablo Honey material and started to build a cloud of mystique around themselves. Their performance was a big deal. The night before, they’d played a secret show at the 9:30 Club, with Pulp opening and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston standing in the balcony, singing along with every song. Michael Stipe sang backup on “Lucky,” and Radiohead’s set, on an extremely packed day of amazing sets, left my head spinning. But one moment stood out: They played “Creep.” This was already understood as something they didn’t do anymore, so even in a stadium, there was a general holy-shit-is-this-really-happening murmur when the song started up. And honestly? “Creep” sounded better than any of the other songs they played that day. And if you, today, wanted to make the argument that “Creep” was Radiohead’s best song, you would not necessarily be marking yourself as an attention-hungry psychopath. You could probably make a pretty good case.