Alright, so Radiohead may have messed up our plans a little by releasing The King of Limbs a whole day earlier than expected (a cynic might wonder if it was released early just to drum up even more publicity for their big release), but that’s no reason to pull the plug on our big retrospective. We’ll be putting our reviews of the record up in the near future, once we’ve had a bit of time to recover from the initial shock. So without further ado...
Kid A (2000)
If OK Computer was considered revolutionary by critics in ‘97, then you can only imagine what they thought of its follow-up, Kid A. In the biggest evolutionary leap the band have taken, Radiohead more or less ditched the guitars, brought out the loops and synths, and created one of the most beautiful, challenging and downright brilliant albums of all time.
From the chilling opening synth melody of ‘Everything In It’s Right Place’, with its distorted vocals and frankly bizarre lyrics (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”), Kid A immediately marked itself as a whole world, nay, universe away from anything Radiohead had previously released. And though the initial reaction might have been one of confusion, on the whole it’s a move that most fans embraced, and for good reason. The musical complexity combined with an unflinchingly ominous mood (sample lyric, “Flies are buzzing round my head/Vultures circling the dead/Picking up every last crumb” on ‘Optimistic’) proved endlessly rewarding, every minute put into listening to and persevering with the album paying back tenfold.
From extremely low-key instrumental tracks (‘Treefingers’) and glitchy atmospherics (‘Kid A’) to an incredible horn-laden jazzy freak-out (‘The National Anthem’), Kid A is all about contrast - beauty vs. decay and destruction, controlled electronic beats vs. sporadic bursts of sound, and, of course, the album’s overtly electronic style vs. the guitar-oriented previous releases. Though that’s not to say there aren’t guitars on Kid A - ‘Optimistic’ is propelled by an overdriven riff, whilst the mournful ‘How To Disappear Completely’ contains softly-strummed acoustics beneath the mountain of strings.
With Kid A, Radiohead also bucked releasing trends for the first time, opting to release no promotional singles from the album, in a move that seems more significant than ever with the release methods of In Rainbows and The King of Limbs.
Kid A, therefore, is Radiohead’s rebellious child, one that took against musical convention in a way that few could have predicted. Whilst this departure was a surprising one, it’s inescapable that Kid A is simply an hour of truly incredible, beautiful, terrifying, intense music that demands to be listened to as a whole. It’s by no means Radiohead’s most accessible album, but it definitely ranks as one of their best and most rewarding.
Other recommended tracks: ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘The National Anthem’, ‘Optimistic’, ‘Idioteque’, ‘Morning Bell’
(But seriously, listen to the whole thing from beginning to end!)
Whenever I listen to Amnesiac, I can’t help but be reminded of the icy mountains of Dun Morogh in World of Warcraft. Geeky I know, but it was the perfect visual accompaniment to the album: a grim, hostile and glacial landscape the player must wander.
Recorded in the same studio sessions as Kid A and released just six months later, Amnesiac shares its sibling’s flirtations with electronica and jazz, and though its guitars are considerably more noticable, ‘I Might Be Wrong’ and ‘Knives Out’ still sound nothing like the Radiohead of old.
Though forever in its predecessor’s shadow, Amnesiac is certainly not a collection of Kid A’s dregs. ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’ opens the album with a surprisingly catchy keyboard riff, followed by ‘Pyramid Song’ - a beautiful, mysterious piano-based ballad. Elsewhere, there’s more glitchy electronica in ‘Like Spinning Plates’, more ambient goodness in ‘Hunting Bears’, and a new version of ‘Morning Bell’ in a different time signature.
Essentially, Amnesiac takes the ideas of Kid A - terrifying visions of the twenty-first century packaged in dark, experimental pop songs - and has a second go, with results almost as impressive.
Singles: ‘Pyramid Song’, ‘I Might Be Wrong’, ‘Knives Out’
Other recommended tracks: ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’, ‘You and Whose Army?’, ‘Like Spinning Plates’
Hail To The Thief (2003)
After dividing critics with their verge into electronica, Radiohead’s sixth album was hyped as a return to the guitar-based rock of The Bends. When Hail To The Thief was released, however, those buying it on the promise of hearing something like ‘High and Dry’ must have been very disappointed. Though the album includes some guitar-based tracks, there’s also a significant amount of electronica on here too.
Compared to the introspective albums that preceded it, Hail To The Thief is globally aware and politically-conscious, with warnings of totalitarian governments and references to 1984 in ‘2+2=5’, a call to political action in ‘Go To Sleep’, and visions of humans leaving Earth in ‘Sail To The Moon’.
With fourteen tracks, however, the album is unwieldy and focused compared to Radiohead’s other work. The themes are all over the place, and the tracks don’t really follow a logical progression. That said, there are some absolute crackers on here and it’s very difficult to pick out which tracks should have been left off.
‘Where I End and You Begin’ is a terrifying, bombastic piece that combines eerie synths with a full band backing, and then supercharges them; ‘Sit Down. Stand Up.’ is a similarly haunting apocalyptic rave. On a more personal note, it was ‘Go To Sleep’, that inspired me to learn guitar. Less of a great album, then, but a good album of great songs, then, rather than a great album.
Singles: ‘There There’, ‘Go To Sleep’, ‘2+2=5’
Other recommended tracks: 'Where I End and You Begin', 'Backdrifts', 'A Wolf at the Door', 'The Gloaming'
In Rainbows (2007)
Radiohead’s most recent album arrived in a storm of media hype. A four year wait between albums was the longest of the band’s career. Surely there had to be something coming soon, fans asked themselves. And there was.
When Radiohead popped up online and announced that their latest album was due for release in 10 days time and that fans could pay what they wanted for it, the internet almost collapsed on itself. Picking up where Kid A’s no-singles approach left off, Radiohead were set to change the music industry. Whether it worked or failed is in dispute - some claim that The King of Limbs’ £6 minimum price tag is a result of few people coughing up much for In Rainbows. In many ways, whilst this was a revolutionary way of releasing an album from a major music artists, as always with Radiohead the music is actually far more important.
One of the best qualities of In Rainbows is that it genuinely takes aspects from all of their previous albums and combines them into an album that is at once completely different from the others (again), and yet wholly Radiohead. ‘15 Step’ takes a 5/4 time signature and makes it catchy and danceable, with a thumping, bassy beat, jumping bassline and Thom Yorke’s signature falsetto. Combining the electronic loops of Kid A with the more traditional instrumentation of OK Computer and Hail To The Thief, it’s an amalgamation of purely distilled Radiohead. And, what’s more, it’s also upbeat! As kaleidoscopic as the album cover, there’s less doom and gloom, with choruses of children shouting ‘Yeah!’, and toe-tapping drums.
‘Bodysnatchers’ turns up the distortion with a bassline that hearkens back to Pablo Honey and The Bends, whilst ‘All I Need’ sits comfortably between the ominous gloom of OK Computer and the electronic stylings of Kid A. In Rainbows also features a studio version of ‘Nude’, which had been played live in various forms for years, and has to be one of the most spine-tinglingly beautiful, angelic pieces of music ever committed to, er, MP3.
On a personal note, ‘Reckoner’ has to be one of my very favourite Radiohead tracks of all time. The guitar playing is simple but exquisite, the vocals heavenly, with a subtle piano heightening the perfection. It has to be heard to be believed, but it’s radiant.
Despite finishing upon the downcast crawl of ‘Videotape’, In Rainbows is a refreshingly positive burst of bright, hypnotic colours. Yes, it was an amazing way to release an album, and the speed of release made (and is making again with The King of Limbs) for an incredibly exciting few weeks, but it’s the music of In Rainbows that deserves to be remembered.
Singles: ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, ‘Nude’, ‘Reckoner’
Other recommended tracks: ‘15 Step’, ‘Bodysnatchers’, ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’, ‘All I Need’
So there we have it, seven incredible albums from a truly amazing band. Now, it’s online already, so what are you waiting for - get listening to The King of Limbs!
The King of Limbs (2011)