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Discussions: Radiohead

By Daniel Griffiths & Jason Hirschhorn; September 20, 2011 at 5:00 PM 

Radiohead

The latest chapter of our Discussions series explores the sprawling, ever-evolving catalog of Radiohead.

DANIEL GRIFFITHS: How about I start with something controversial? I want to put forward the case of The Bends as Radiohead’s best album.

JASON HIRSCHHORN: Well I can’t say I think that’s crazy, though I don’t share that opinion. It is a great album after all, and has some of their most enduring pieces of music. For me it has always been OK Computer, which itself may no longer be the jewel in the crown of Radiohead’s catalog given the decade-long, near-universal praise that Kid A has garnered. Before I get into why I think OKC is their best work, I’d like to know why you think it’s The Bends? Is it that you just prefer more organic rock sounds as opposed to the electronica dabbling of their later work or is it a matter of The Bends songwriting/performance/etc.?

DANIEL: It’s definitely because of the songwriting and performances. I’m a fan of their electronic forays, but there’s just something about The Bends. If you look at the tracklisting there’s at least eight tunes in Radiohead’s top tracks, which I’d say no other album can claim. Couple that with the raw energy and electricity on songs like “My Iron Lung,” “Just” and the title track and you have a near-perfect album. And then there’s “Street Spirit”!

JASON: If you’re going to judge by how many top Radiohead songs an album has, I’d still put OK Computer at the top. Besides stone cold classics like “Paranoid Android,” “No Surprises,” “Lucky,” and “The Tourist,” the side 2 (the “Meany” side) might be the best side of an album, ever. “Exit Music (For A Film),” “Let Down” and “Karma Police” are an unfuckwithable 1-2-3. I also think OK Computer works better than The Bends as an album because the songs are coming from the same place: anxiety and rebuke caused by the insipidity and struggles of modern life.

DANIEL: Some of the great songs on OK Computer are only great, in my eyes, because they’re part of that overall “concept,” if we can call it that. Take them out of that and they’re not as strong. Now, with most of the stuff on The Bends you have songs that stand on their own as well as being strong amongst a group of songs. “Planet Telex” through to “My Iron Lung” is a remarkable run of strong songs that everybody knows.

That’s the one thing about OK Computer I prefer over The Bends though; that there is a strong thematic aspect to the album. Even though that kind of writing doesn’t always work for Radiohead, when it does it’s spectacular.

JASON: See, I think you can indeed abstract the songs from OK Computer and they remain great, but that’s subjective and I know other people who feel the way you do. You’re absolutely right about the songs on The Bends working both in and out of the context of the album. While there isn’t so much of an overarching lyrical theme on that album, it’s by far their hardest, “rockiest” album, and they did that sound very well.

It’s probably also worth discussing our opinions on Kid A. From an anecdotal perspective, that album appears to be their most well-regarded by fans as well as critics. Since neither of us picked it as our favorite, it’s probably worth discussing why.

DANIEL: I’m going to let you start off on this one considering you gave me the honours last time.

JASON: Fair enough. There’s little negative I can say about Kid A. There seems to be some semblance of a concept to the album, but that concept never fully creeps out of the ether. It’s not all atmosphere as some have pejoratively claimed. There are several really great songs on there: “Everything In Its Right Place,” “How To Disappear Completely,” “Optimistic” and “Idioteque.” I don’t, however, feel that every track’s a winner, or that the best versions of the songs are on Kid A. The early demos of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” suggest that it could have been a much better song. Overall, Kid A is still masterful, and probably my second favorite of their albums. I’m very curious to see where you stand on Kid A. Given that you felt that OK Computer‘s songs weren’t as strong outside the album as in it, I’d think you’d take an even harsher stance here.

DANIEL: Funnily enough, I’m a very big fan of Kid A. I think I prefer it to OK Computer, actually. What’s great is that all conventional Radiohead wisdom flies out the window when you analyse it. There’s no way of looking at something like “Idioteque” the same way you would “Exit Music” because the songs are from a completely different place, and I don’t mean that contextually.

Kid A is where Radiohead moved towards having their music tell the story rather than the words, a complete role-reversal from The Bends and OK Computer where the music propped up the lyrical message. The song titles are starting points, but the music takes it a step further; the way “The National Anthem” starts structured (like an anthem) then slowly spirals out of control (a take on countries/nationhood, maybe?), the complete uniformity and rigidity of “Everything In Its Right Place” where the tempo never, ever changes, and the haunting synths on “Idioteque” lending a chilling sense of panic, coupled with that manic breakdown.

Because the focus is on the music rather than the lyrics, I can take any of the songs out of context here and they’re still fantastic for me, because music is usually what takes up the most space when people listen. With OK Computer, if you can’t be bothered to listen to the lyrics of a song out of context it’s just a guitar album, but Kid A‘s songs put you firmly in the world Radiohead want you to be in when you listen to them whether you like it or not.

JASON: I am a bit surprised you feel that way but I do follow your reasoning. The music does tell the story here and I don’t think I could have articulated that any better than you just did. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Radiohead are operating on that kind of musical and intellectual plane. I do think though that in some regards, Kid A extends some of the thoughts and emotions of OK Computer. Songs like “How To Disappear Completely” came directly out of the tour for that album, and share OK Computer‘s fear of the modern world. As such, I’ve always interpreted that album as the breakdown from the pressure and panic Yorke felt when he wrote the songs for OK Computer.

DANIEL: Definitely. Although what’s strange is Yorke’s comments on how Kid A is looking on at a certain event, whereas Amnesiac is that actual event being played out on record, which is something I’ve never really seen, personally. Kid A has always been more schizophrenic for me, and definitely more linked to OK Computer and its themes than Amnesiac.

JASON: I don’t entirely follow Yorke there either, but the albums are certainly linked sonically and thematically. Those two albums sound similar to each other and different from the other album in their catalog.

Hypothetical: if Kid A and Amnesiac were indeed one double album, how would it be regarded in the Radiohead cannon?

DANIEL: I don’t think it would be as critically favoured as both individual albums, or indeed just Kid A, are now. There’s too much similarity and if all the tracks were included it would plod. Of course, we’re speaking now having heard the albums for a few years, but there’s such a flow to Kid A that I wouldn’t want to see it interrupted.

That being said, if you could mash those two albums together, how would you do it?

JASON: A chance to play god! In the process of performing this exercise, it occured to me just how many songs from these albums concern themselves with war, economics, patriotism, or some combination of the three. I tried to tie that into my Kid Amnesiac album, which meant leaving out a lot of great songs. I don’t consider these to be the ten best songs on the two albums, just the ten that I felt worked best together. To me, this tracklist has a politics of war theme to it, but maybe that’s just me:

01. The National Anthem
02. You And Whose Army?
03. Knives Out
04. Everything In Its Right Place
05. Like Spinning Plates
06. Dollars & Cents
07. Idioteque
08. I Might Be Wrong
09. How To Disappear Completely
10. Life In A Glasshouse

I’m curious to see what your combination album looks like.

DANIEL: I have to say, though, I had never thought of those two albums as having a strong war/politics message in them. I’ve always been looking for something more emotional in them. It’ll certainly be interesting to listen to them with that new slant on them in my mind! While I was doing it, I realised how well those songs fit together on each album. It was so hard to separate them.

01. Everything In Its Right Place
02. The National Anthem
03. You And Whose Army?
04. Knives Out
05. How To Disappear Completely
06. Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box
07. Optimistic
08. I Might Be Wrong
09. Idioteque
10. Pyramid Song

The only interchangables are “Optimistic” and “I Might Be Wrong.”

JASON: It was difficult for me to sever the tracks as well. You get an appreciation for the tracklisting process. I noticed that half of your tracklist is pulled from each album. Was that intentional or did that come about by chance? I went back and looked at mine and discovered that I had selected four tracks from Kid A and six from Amnesiac. I found that quite surprising since I favor Kid A as an album.

DANIEL: The equal split was unintentional. I wanted a strong first three to open up, then some deep cuts in the middle with some excellent songs to end. I’m surprised I put “Pyramid Song” at the end though. How did you make yours?

JASON: I picked the tracks based on the aforementioned political bend, and then I ordered them with consideration for music flow and what I felt told a narrative (starting with “The National Anthem” and eventually working to the “I Might Be Wrong”/”How To Disappear Completely”/”Life In A Glasshouse” ending). A fascinating exercise this has been.

DANIEL: Absolutely. Interesting how we found it hard to split the tracks, yet managed to do it anyway. Kind of shows how linked the two albums are.

JASON: Certainly more so than we originally gave them credit.

DANIEL: So, In Rainbows. I’m not sure if the pricing policy or the way it was announced helped feed the legend more than the actual music. Don’t get me wrong, the music’s awesome, but do we put this alongside OK Computer and Kid A?

JASON: I do. In Rainbows is totally on an island as far as the Radiohead catalog is concerned. It’s their most accessible post-OKC album, but I don’t think it’s particularly straightforward. In terms of songwriting (as opposed to the sonic architecture of Kid A), In Rainbows contained their best batch of songs in a decade. That’s not to be critical of the other albums during that time frame which were different approaches but still rewarding. However, when they want to, the band can write brilliant songs and it was nice to have another album like that before they returned to their more experimental side.

DANIEL: Couldn’t have put that better myself! Never thought of it as being on an island, but that does make sense.

JASON: So what’s your take on In Rainbows? You’ve already mentioned that you don’t put it up with OK Computer or Kid A, but I’m interested to hear more.

DANIEL: I do hold it up there against those two. I was only posing the question because something about it just doesn’t fit with those two albums. It is a classic, but it bears no hallmarks that made OK Computer and Kid A classic albums. It’s very downbeat, there isn’t really a signature song that you can skip to every time or release to radio with success and the lyrics aren’t filled with big political agendas. And that’s the beauty of it.

In Rainbows is a very insular record, especially for Radiohead. You can relax to it. It’s certainly very evocative, and that human touch gives it a different vibe, almost a complete 180. It’s probably my favourite because of how personal the album is (I still think it’s an album you have to listen to alone). Plus, every emotion is amplified and every instrumental intricacy is brought to the fore as the lyrics and music go hand in hand, just like we were saying about Kid A. There isn’t a lot to hate on In Rainbows.

JASON: I consider In Rainbows to be Radiohead’s “R&B” record. The album contains their most danceable beats and rhythms, and many of the songs focus on Yorke’s more carnal desires and frustrations. The imagery is pretty vivid. “I’m an animal trapped in your hot car” (“All I Need”) very uniquely describes unrequited love. The line, “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover” (“House Of Cards”) sounds like it was ripped from a D’Angelo track. I think that’s what makes In Rainbows stand out. It feels so out of character for Radiohead, but it absolutely still sounds like a Radiohead record.

DANIEL: Definitely, and kind of the reason why it defies any wisdom to put it alongside the typical Radiohead albums. That said, OK Computer and Kid A are worlds apart themselves.

It deserves to be mentioned just for that “All I Need” line though.

JASON: So any final thoughts before we wrap up our Radiohead discussion?

DANIEL: I don’t think so. Only that in the time it took we still didn’t figure out their ‘best’ album!

JASON: Not only that, but we didn’t breakdown any of Thom’s hairsyles. The bleach blonde mullet was his best, hands down.

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Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
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The Beatles

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