My reviews of Radiohead studio albums.
1993: Pablo Honey (???)
Somehow, it seems, I have never listened to this. Read my reviews of 1993 albums.
1995: The Bends (10/10)
It’s hard to look back at this after Radiohead has become the Radiohead we all know and (presumably) love. They’re practically a different band, making conventional “alternative” pop rock, with only a few hints of the kind of wackiness they would get up to later (and more than a few hints of their influences, like when they totally rip off Nirvana on “My Iron Lung”).
But this is utterly excellent for what it is. It’s like a Greatest Hits record, few if any of the songs miss and, had the band never gotten more adventurous, I’m sure some Greatest Hits compilation would have been loaded up with this record, rather than the other records. (I have never heard Pablo Honey.) It’s one of the great rock albums of the year, even the decade, but the only reason we don’t remember it as that is because they released OK Computer and then sort of stopped playing guitar,
I’d actually say this holds up better than their most recent effort – better songs – and I think it’s shame that we don’t all celebrate this just because the band got even better later.
1997: OK Computer (10/10)
The Bends is a great album and this weird point where Brit Pop and US alternative rock meet in seemingly perfect harmony. I really think that, had Radiohead stuck to that formula, nobody would have minded too much.
Everyone (or nearly everyone) would have been perfectly happy with The Bends II. And The Bends would have just been regarded as their best album.
Instead, they made this record. Adding prog rock, post rock and post punk influences to their sound (though there was some of that earlier), as well as a lyrical concept that perhaps feels even more significant and prescient than it did at the time.
It’s a masterpiece – rarely do music and lyrics mesh so well, rarely do the lyrics of a band feel like lasting insights – and one of the great records of the 1990s. It outdoes The Bends on every level (one would have thought that an impossible feat) and established Radiohead as something much more than just a Brit Pop band (unduly) influenced by Grunge.
It’s not their best record, in my mind (which sounds insane given the praise I just gave it) but it’s very close, and it’s as essential as any ’90s rock album. Certainly it is their most essential record.
2000: Kid A (7/10)
It’s hard to separate an album like Kid A from the hype that surrounds it. We were told by many at the time of its release that this was some kind of revolution and there was so much of that going around that it’s sometimes hard to think independently about it.
I mean, it’s obviously a drastic, drastic change from OK Computer, that should go without saying. But despite it’s obviously drastically different approach and sound, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. And I feel the same way about Amnesiac at this point though, at the time – and likely just to be contrarian – I claimed I like Amnesiac more. Between the two records, they have some of my favourite Radiohead songs and a “best” of the two records would probably be a great record indicating a drastically new career direction (that they never followed through on).
But even though Kid A was, one must assume, meant as the curated finished product and Amnesiac was sort of the ‘b-sides,’ it doesn’t sound that way to my ears. Instead, I think there’s tracks that I don’t really ever need to hear again on both records. And that’s a shame because two of the songs here are among their very, very best – I am referring to “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque” – and there’s other good stuff.
But I feel like just because a band drastically changed their sound (an drastically changed their dominant influences, as that’s what’s going on here), doesn’t mean they should be acclaimed without criticism. They have to make that change well, and I don’t think they quite did it as well as the reputation claims. Neither this or its sequel are in my Top 5 Radiohead records. They’re just better at their regular sound.
Kid A got a lot of hype. (That’s an understatement.) And a naturally hype-averse person like me was apt to ignore it as long as possible, even though I was already a Radiohead fan by that point. So I think it was natural that I was, at least initially, drawn to defending its poor sibling, the “outtake” record.
I guess one reason for that is that this one has a few more conventional songs. Whether or not Kid A is as daring and as revolutionary as we were told when it came out, I think most of us can agree that Amnesiac is more accessible, even without prior knowledge of Radiohead. And this is a blessing and a curse.
There’s good stuff here, but it all seems a little schizophrenic, much like its sibling. One might wish that Radiohead had released a “best of the sessions” record instead of two albums, until one realized that that’s likely what the band believed they had in Kid A.
Don’t get me wrong: I like this. But Radiohead had a rather high standard for nearly a decade and this just doesn’t quite reach that standard. It feels like they really were trying to find themselves, perhaps a new version of themselves. And the results are a little all over the place. But that’s okay.
2021 Addendum: I’m not sure it’s clear how much I like this album. I like it a lot. But I also realize it’s because it’s the third Radiohead album I ever bought.
2003: Hail to the Thief (10/10)
This is probably my favourite album of theirs. I know, the consensus “best album” is OK Computer, but there is no “Fitter Happier” here and that’s a plus.
They are really musically subversive on this album. Almost every song sounds like it’s going to burst out and then it fails to. That’s right up my alley, personally.
And though the concept isn’t as spelled out as on OK, it is still readily apparent. (That could be another virtue.)
2007: In Rainbows (9/10)
I wrote this at the time:
This is like the Bends to Hail to the Thief’s OK Computer, which is a regression, in a sense. It’s odd that their internet-released album is so accessible, or maybe they knew it would have to be. It’s a very good album, but it doesn’t knock me on my ass like its predecessor.
It’s a lazy review that doesn’t reflect the rating or how I feel. This is a great demonstration of this band’s abilities in a fairly easily digestible form.
2011: The King of Limbs (7/10)
This is mellow, shockingly mellow. I don’t know what has happened except that they have gotten older. As others have observed, it’s like the mellow parts of Kid A / Amnesiac, only it’s less weird this time because we’ve had a decade to get used to Kid A and Amnesiac.
My big question is where is the energy of Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and the other pieces of Kid A and Amnesiac? There was earnestness and urgency there for a long time, a big part of their sound, and suddenly it’s gone.
This is like a relaxing, background noise-ish type of record, which I never thought Radiohead would make. I’m not saying it’s bad; it’s quite pleasant. But Hail to the Thief, for example, is hardly pleasant. I don’t want pleasant, personally. I can get pleasant from lots of other bands. I would rather have something with a little more spark to it. By mellowing out this much they are definitely headed off in a different (though not entirely new) artistic direction, but it is not one that I particularly like.
I can’t really bash it since, as I said, it’s not bad. I like a number of the songs. But I’m let down, definitely. I was so excited when I found out they were finally releasing another record.
And instead it’s their shortest and calmest album to date. Boo.
2016: A Moon Shaped Pool (8/10)
This is the most orchestrated album Radiohead has made since Amnesiac – and it’s considerably more orchestrated than that. The near-omnipresent orchestrations – with strings often scored to sound like other instruments – makes this record sound new and different (more often than not) compared to their last effort. The songs are still very much recognizably Radiohead, but I feel like they’ve replaced the traditional density of their arrangements – regularly combining traditional rock band instrumentation with non-traditional, and programmed noises – with an even more traditionally dense sound, that of a (large) string section. And that’s refreshing because I thought the last album really sounded like a band that was losing its edge, or had lost it. Here they’re as mellow – perhaps even more mellow – but it feels fresher. And that makes me happy.