Radiohead is one of the most important bands of this generation, but perhaps for different reasons than many would imagine. The five-piece English rock band had austere origins in 1993’s Pablo Honey, and 1995’s The Bends, both heavily influenced by the grunge sound popularized by Seattle-area bands Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden in the early 90’s. These albums were influential in their own right and many bands, such as the popular Coldplay, Muse, and Keane, took a liking to Thom Yorke’s angsty falsetto vocal technique. Nevertheless, they were overshadowed by the release of OK Computer in 1997, to universal acclaim. Radiohead’s audacity in releasing the chorus-less and relatively lengthy single “Paranoid Android” at a time when bands like Oasis were popular marked the end of britpop dominance, and alternative rock from there on out would be influenced by OK Computer‘s melancholic and atmospheric approach to songwriting.
Yet even OK Computer would be dwarfed by the release of its successor Kid A in 2000. Weary of what he saw as imitators of Radiohead’s style on OK Computer, Thom Yorke sought a radically different vision for Kid A. Almost completely forgoing rock instrumentation, Kid A instead drew its influence from jazz, contemporary classical music, krautrock, and electronic musicians such as Autechre and Aphex Twin. Tracks such as “Everything In It’s Right Place,” with its synthesizers and drum machines, and “The National Anthem,” a dystopian political satire featuring a heavily distorted bass riff and a chaotic Mingus-inspired free jazz section, highlight the distancing of Kid A from the relatively tame rock ballads of OK Computer.
Amnesiac, recorded during the same sessions as Kid A, would be released just a year later. There were fears that Amnesiac would simply be a compilation of B-sides for Kid A, but triumphantly Amnesiac manages to carve out its place in a lengthy and excellent discography. Whereas Kid A may have been a suitable music for the ending of the world, the compositionally stripped down Amnesiac might be more appropriate as a personal soundtrack for a mental breakdown. This more intimate rendition of musically similar themes is immediately evident in opener “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” where the sparse, echoic clanking and confrontational lyrics (“I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”) place the listener at arm’s length from Yorke. “Pulk / Pull Revolving Doors” is downright terrifying, featuring a schizophrenic, industrial beat and a distorted, barely intelligible voice chanting the names of various types of doors, ending ominously on the word “trapdoor”. “You and Whose Army?” boasts one of the most stirring moments on the record when the song transitions from a relatively calm Thom Yorke taunting his opponent to angrily reminding him that they “forget so easily,” apparently referring to his sizable army. A heavy blues-based guitar riff and ghostly, introspective vocals characterize the rocker “I Might Be Wrong,” the most accessible track on the record. Jazz-tinged “Life in a Glasshouse” is a highlight and fitting closer to the album. Here, Radiohead grab musical motifs from the bright concert halls of the Big Band era and drag them kicking and screaming into a tiny room alongside polyrhythmic jazz piano and distraught vocals. The result is a haunting ballad that is partly melodic, partly dissonant, and wholly distressing.
Amnesiac has always been an overlooked album, being released so soon after the overwhelming applause for Kid A, yet it contains some of Radiohead’s most thoughtful and creative compositions. As for Radiohead, perhaps it’s true that nothing in their discography had not already been done by krautrock bands in the 60’s or 70’s, or by contemporary electronic composers in the United Kingdom. In that case, it could be argued that Radiohead’s legacy is not in their innovation, but in their ability to synthesize these ideas into compelling works and bring them to the wider, mainstream audience.
Radiohead – I Might Be Wrong
Radiohead – Life in a Glasshouse