Conventional wisdom is that the best Radiohead album is either OK Computer (1997) or Kid A (2000) with the latter usually shading it in most verdicts. These ranking lists are more meaningful than most with Radiohead by most measures the most influential band in the world for two decades and my personal favourite. I certainly loved OKC from the moment it came out and played it on high rotation for at least 12-18 months in the time that followed. Perhaps because I played it so much, I listen to rarely these days though several songs on the album still have the ability to enchant. Kid A I liked less from the off though has been growing on me over the years. But the Radiohead album I most often turn to these days is the album usually listed by critics as their third best album In Rainbows (2007).
I still remember the buzz around OK Computer when it first came out 21 years ago. I didn’t like their 1993 debut Pablo Honey (and was possibly the only person in Australia who hated the single Creep) so was uninspired to pick up the second album The Bends (I would later grow to appreciate that album). But OK Computer touched me in ways I did not expect, despite its nerdy off-putting title. As a Pitchfork review said it combined “delicious melodrama with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration which perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Thom Yorke’s choirboy cry.” Radiohead were certainly feeling Lucky “I’m your superhero /
We are standing on the edge.”
Their pre-millennial tension gave way to Kid A three years later, an album Rolling Stone said “was the pinnacle of their trying-too-hard genius (which loomed) over everything else they’ve done before or since.” While the critics agreed it was their best and it had three or four great tracks, it strangely left me cold. It seemed to forgetfully blur into the off-takes that followed, appropriately called Amnesiac (with Morning Bell linking both).
Hail to the Thief (2003) was released in the aftermath of the Iraqi War and like most political albums failed in its over-earnestness. Radiohead being Radiohead it still had some great tracks like 2 + 2 = 5 and Go To Sleep.
The hype around any new Radiohead album was enhanced with In Rainbows over the band’s decision to introduce a pay-what-you-want model including getting it for free, after the band has broken up with record label EMI. It was worth every penny people didn’t pay for it. 15 Step got the album off to a cracking start “You reel me out then you cut the string.” The rocking Bodysnatchers was released as a single, while Nude sounded lushly romantic with its strings and swooning guitars.
I have no idea what Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is about, but its pulsating rhythm makes it one of the best tracks on the album. All I Need slows down the pace but is just as good. “It’s all wrong, it’s all right.” It sure is. Reckoner is an instant classic and is voted by many as the best song of the decade. “We separate / Like ripples on a blank shore / In rainbows.” And if that wasn’t enough there is still room for another great song Videotape, with a secret reason as to why is a deceptively difficult song to record for such as great earworm. As Open Culture said about the song’s structure “the chord sequence is not on the downbeat, but shifted a half-beat earlier. Hence, it is a heavily syncopated song that removes all clues to its syncopation.” For some it was Thom Yorke’s way of saying goodbye “because I can’t do it face to face.”
Radiohead are still producing great music today – A Moon Shaped Pool is a fine album but as the Guardian wrote In Rainbows flows seamlessly along. “It sounds supremely confident, like a band who know they’re at the height of their powers,” the Guardian wrote. “Whatever you paid, it’s hard to imagine feeling short-changed.”