I bought “OK Computer.” Everyone bought “OK Computer.” It was the album that no one saw coming, the one that re-engineered everyone’s thinking. The one that moved past the brutal limitations of grunge and ushered in the post-rock world, even as it rocked forcefully, at least occasionally, riding the crest of the most unconventional twin-guitar wave since Sonic Youth’s heyday. It did the unthinkable, knocking Nirvana’s “Nevermind” off the top of lists of the best albums of the 1990s.
I didn’t understand it at all.
I bought “Kid A.” Everyone bought “Kid A.” It was the album that took the bleeps and bloops and squiggles that accented “OK Computer” and put them at the heart of Radiohead’s sound. It was hailed a left-field masterpiece, an act of audio abstraction that put art – pure art – at the top of the charts.
I didn’t get that one, either.
Sure, I admired “Kid A” for its boldness, its brashness, its willingness to risk alienating an audience in pursuit of an artistic vision. I stood amazed when the band played that music on “Saturday Night Live” with diminutive frontman Thom Yorke thrashing like a fish dropped on a dock. They said “this is what we do now” and dared the world to enjoy it.
I didn’t exactly enjoy it, even if I applauded the spirit.
While the world hailed Radiohead, I tried. I listened over and over, searching for the doorway to enlightenment. But I only found walls.
Then one day I expressed my frustration to my music-loving friend Art, and he told me simply, “First, you have to listen to ‘The Bends.’”
Yes, “The Bends.” Radiohead’s second album, the one that preceded “OK Computer.” I had heard a couple of tracks when it came out in 1995, but they barely registered at the time. It was an album that failed to make much of a splash upon its release, initially dismissed by both critics and consumers. It hardly seemed like the gateway to a revolution.
Still, following Art’s advice, I bought it. And from the first few notes of the opening track “Planet Telex,” it demolished every barrier to appreciating Radiohead. It cracked the code.
On one level, “The Bends” is a conventional rock record. Two guitars, bass, drums. That’s been the formula since the Beatles. But on “The Bends,” it’s done with such a combination of force, delicacy, melody and imagination that it seems like the culmination of a form that traced an erratic line from the British Invasion through punk and beyond. Songs like “My Iron Lung,” “Just” and “Black Star” hurtle through space, zigzagging around debris at light speed. The sensation is physical.
But on another level, “The Bends” is an art record, relying on noise, odd abstract images and one of the most idiosyncratic singers ever to front a major band. The chilling “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” closes the album, but it also begins Radiohead’s next chapter, setting up the shift from quasi-conventional guitar rock to the uncharted territory of all that came after. And what came after is no less than the most important body of work of any band in the past two decades.
Radiohead plays the Sprint Center on Wednesday, April 5. Here are highlights from each of the band’s nine albums.
“Creep,” from “Pablo Honey” (1993)
Almost certainly Radiohead’s most famous song, it occupies a peculiar spot in the band’s canon. Their only true stateside hit, it threatened to make Radiohead a one-hit wonder in America for a time, and it also cost the band a shared royalty after it was determined to be too similar to the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” Not only that, the band all but disowned the song after they moved to more adventurous material. These days, shouting for “Creep” at a Radiohead show is akin to calling for “Freebird.” But every once in a while, they’re known to drag the old chestnut out.
“Bones,” from “The Bends” (1995)
Not nearly the most famous or celebrated song from the band’s second album, but the one that best taught me the limits of my car stereo.
“No Surprises,” from “OK Computer (1997)
Much of the majesty of “OK Computer” rests in the tension between the challenging (“Paranoid Android,” “Climbing Up the Walls”) and the beautiful. And this song, with its gorgeous swells, rates among the most beautiful things the band has done.
“Idioteque,” from “Kid A” (2000)
In the move from “OK Computer” to “Kid A,” Radiohead opted for less-obviously lovely songs and shot for something more ethereal, and even more challenging. This track with its soft, ghostly melody and hard electronic percussion turns Radiohead inside-out. The world’s greatest guitar band puts down the axes and makes music that is beyond definition.
“Life in a Glasshouse,” from “Amnesiac” (2001)
The most difficult of Radiohead’s albums to categorize is “Amnesiac,” which was culled from the same sessions that produced “Kid A.” Less cohesive and considerably less stirring than its predecessor, it still possesses a disconcerting and alien character. It’s both weird and weirdly compelling, and this, the closing track, answers the question that no one would have ever thought to ask – namely, what would happen if you merged Radiohead with a 1930s jazz band?
“There, There,” from “Hail to the Thief” (2003)
For me, the most underappreciated Radiohead album is the band’s sixth, a record that sounds like the missing link between their epochal third and fourth records. And in that way, “There, There” sounds like the Platonic ideal of all Radiohead songs, the one that seems to encompass elements found throughout their entire career. It’s odd and dissonant, but it’s built around the guitars that were so prevalent through the early years. And it moves like a freight train. A rock song for the ages.
“All I Need,” from “In Rainbows” (2007)
The album that redefined how music is distributed in the digital age, “In Rainbows” was quickly announced and made available to fans who were allowed to name their own price for a download. That alone would have made it an important record. The fact that it was also a great one only elevated its status. It’s still a long way from conventional, but it took some of the more avant elements of “Kid A” and streamlined them into more accessible songs. And none is more accessible than this, one of the loveliest things that Radiohead ever recorded.
“Lotus Flower,” from “The King of Limbs” (2011)
“The King of Limbs” is the album that stirs the fewest emotions among Radiohead fans. It possesses the ambient quality of the band’s later output, but little of the punch, which makes it pleasant, but not essential. Still, there are moments that stack up with the band’s best, including this haunting, hypnotic mid-tempo track.
“True Love Waits,” from “A Moon Shaped Pool” (2016)
The closing track from Radiohead’s most recent album traces its origins back to 1995, when the band first played it live. Over the next 21 years, they approached it a number of times with differing arrangements, even recording it during the “OK Computer” sessions. The song’s gentle pulse reveals that even when Radiohead was a guitar band, they were looking far beyond the horizon.