Radiohead, Radiohead, Radiohead. Where to begin? Formed in 1985 in Oxfordshire, the band have been a cultural mainstay since their 1992 grunge anthem, ‘Creep’. With a career spanning nine Grammy-winning albums, three headlining Glastonbury performances, and no less than six ground-breaking commercial, cinematic and technological innovations in the music industry, they’re easily one of the most notorious acts of the last two decades.
It is the seemingly boundless evolution of their musical aesthetic, however, which is why I love them so much. From blitzkrieg style alt-rock to tetchy electronica, diaphanous jazz, folk and grandiose orchestral pieces – their style has influenced everyone from Beyoncé, the xx and Frank Ocean to Muse, Coldplay and Everything Everything, easily making them the most transcendent band of a generation through sheer diversity alone.
Consider, for example, their bruising sophomore album, The Bends (1995). The krautrock-inspired album is packed with both fist-pumping rock anthems like ‘Just’ and the titular ‘The Bends’, as well as some of their more meditative, lullaby-style ballads. Anyone who’s seen Clueless, for example, can probably testify that Yorke’s infamous Elton John-inspired ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ lyrics, with the lethargic references to ‘cracked polystyrene men’ and his lost love forcing him to ‘float through the ceiling’, still strike a powerful note. Meanwhile, the album’s closer, the arpeggiated ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, remains one of the most haunting and desperately sad songs of a generation, encapsulating a theme of perpetual nightmare and sorrow which has permeated their work since.
The band’s third album, OK Computer, saw their reputation as one of the all-time greats fully cemented. Tackling themes like alienation, consumerism and paranoia, OK Computer’s gleefully Kafkaesque and distinctly avant-garde feel helped distinguish it from the Britpop spirit of the day; with tracks like ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’ and ‘No Surprises’ overflowing with dense, beautiful instrumentation and an unnerving prescience towards some of the more isolating pressures of post-millennial life.
juggling esoteric, intimate melodies with anti-establishment anthems is what makes their discography so great
If Ok Computer represented a peak in the alt-rock genre, the band’s formative 2000 album Kid A (as well as its sister album Amnesiac) did not seek to build upon these foundations. Rather, the record strips back, disassembles and resurrects them entirely in a fusion of Ondes Martenot, rollicking electronica and grandiose brass and string sections. Influenced heavily by the Warp artists Yorke was listening to whilst studying at the University of Exeter (oi oi), this sound would later come to be a recurring mainstay in the band’s discography. The untrammelled frenzy of ‘Idioteque’, for instance, can be seen in Hail to the Thief’s carnivalesque ‘A Wolf at the Door’ and In Rainbow’s ‘Bodysnatchers’, whilst the Disney-inspired malaise of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ most recently made a stylistic return in the band’s 2016 record A Moon Shaped Pool with tracks like ‘Daydreaming’, ‘The Numbers’ and ‘Glass Eyes’. Even still, the alluring syncrisis of ‘Pyramid Song’, a single from Amnesiac that touches upon themes of cyclical time and resurrection to an intoxicating, waltzy 7/8 beat, remains, in my opinion, their best work.
Radiohead’s knack for juggling both esoteric, intimate melodies with antisocial and anti-establishment anthems is exactly what makes their discography so great. When Thom Yorke first embarked upon the project in the 1990s, envisaging a future dominated by technology and total societal alienation, he could never have predicted that Radiohead would be recording songs about the catharsis of an omnibenevolent, comforting force (‘Reckoner’) or falling in love with an intimate friend (‘House of Cards’). And yet, despite such radical shifts in tone and composition, the crux of the band remains unchanged. A consistent and temperamental drive to innovate, emulate and meditate on contemporary society has been a mainstay throughout. We can only hope with that, in the age of Brexit and Trump, they can still keep it all going.