So, Radiohead. Critics love them. Loyal, devoted, hardcore fan base claim the greatest band ever! A catalog of widely acclaimed releases.
But not exactly my thing, And yet, surprisingly, I have all their music. And….my “Best of Radiohead” playlist gets a lot of play. That’s because when Radiohead are good…they’re uniquely good, unlike any other band before or since. If you want to hear “Radiohead-like” music you have to listen to Radiohead (which is different than many bands that have a gaggle of sound-alikes).
So, take this for what it’s worth…a Radiohead career retrospective by a meh Radiohead fan. Honestly I’d never be here were it not for my wife who is a dedicated Thom York fan. She’s often grooving and singing along to what initially sounds to me like computer beeps with drowning cat accompinament. But I’m open-minded, I’ve given it a chance…and yeah, some really good stuff to be found among the weirdness.
As always, a couple house-keeping notes:
- The band has a long history and some of the images are hard to read; you can click any image for a full-scale version.
- I have my own rating system; it’s not complex but read the link if you’re interested in understanding more about it.
- “Point Rating” represents the rating on a 5-point scale
- “Rating” converts the “Point Rating” to a 100-point scale
- “Prog Arch” represents the average rating found on the Progressive Archives site
- “Total Points” represents how many points the band earned, based upon my rating system.
- “Potential Points” represents how many points were possible through my rating system (=minutes * 5)
So, Radiohead has been consistent, 8 studio releases over 20+ years. While the band has never taken a sabbatical or broken up they’re also not the most prolific group. You get about 20 minutes of music per year. My overall ratings are pretty low; I wouldn’t create a “history of” post for most bands with these scores. But because I really do like the Radiohead I like and because they’re a noteworthy band here we are.
There’s also an abundance of bonus music, a complete absence of official live releases and two official live DVDs (and one bootleg…which we’ll get to). In total, barely six hours of studio music, four hours of video and four hours of bonus material.
Amazingly, it’s been the same five guys throughout the band’s history. I had no idea the band had been so stable; I just assumed it was Thom Yorke and some other guys. (And yes, I’m aware that some misguided folks claim Jonny Greenwood to be among rock’s great guitarists but they’re mis-guided souls who probably mean well. The same folks named Skillex the 100th best guitarist ever and he’s never even PLAYED guitar so that’s the kind of dumbassery we’re talkin’ ’bout here). Point being, without Thom Yorke no one’s ever heard of a guy who can use a bunch of guitar effects while if Jonny never existed Thom Yorke would still be world-famous Thom Yorke.
Sorry, I got off on a bit of a rant there. Frankly, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often as I have some….firm opinions on such things. Anyway, for me, Radiohead has consistently delivered “good” quality output across all their albums. In my mind Ok Computer is the no-questions-asked highpoint and yet, based upon my rankings, the album is only slightly better than most of their output.
Here’s their studio albums charted by overall score (and a cool background pic of their performance on Austin City Limits!).
Those are my opinions, and I’m sure any Radiohead fans would vehemently disagree. How much so? Let’s check Progressive Archives, which is a crowd-sourced site with a taste for progressive music, where RH is probably embraced a bit more enthusiastically:
Albums to the right of the white diagonal line are rated more highly by me, and those to the left more highly by the PA crowd. Not surprisingly, the PA crowd likes the band’s material more than I…with several releases rated in the 75-80 range. Still, I would have expected even higher ratings but to be fair, crowd-sourced ratings tend to flatten out.
The following is my favorite chart, as it captures the share of each release that ranks 1, 2, 3 , 4 or 5 (in terms of total time).
So what we see is a lot of 3s with 4s appearing on most albums and a smattering of 5s. There’s also some 2s on every album (and quite a lot on the most recent King of Limbs) and a fairly substantial amount of 1s on Kid A and Amnesiac (not at all surprising as those are the two most “computer beepery” of the band’s releases).
The following shows ratings for each individual song. More yellow space here than I’m accustomed to seeing on these charts. While they don’t rate truly great overall, the two RH albums I would recommend are OK Computer and In Rainbows.
One of the really odd things about Radiohead is they’ve been a touring entity throughout their career. Despite being known as an “art band” with machine-sounding songs they in fact are a very effective live outfit. I never would have imagined that. It wasn’t until I watched the band’s Live From The Basement DVD that I realized that all the drum-machine / computer beep sounds were in fact band members playing real live instruments! Who knew?
Seriously, perhaps the single biggest advantage to a real drummer over a drum machine is the flexibility to play ever-changing beats, rhythms, what-have-you. The core strength of a drum machine, on the other hand, is the ability to perfectly repeat the same monotonous beats. Radiohead uniquely the worst of all worlds: the same beat repeatedly played over and over and over by an actual human being! And all those computer beeps is actually Jonny Greenwood or Ed O’Brien or whoever turning knobs or pushing buttons or even strumming a guitar and working the sound through some odd effect. And it’s mezmerizing in a way….because I always assumed it was largely machine-driven when in fact it seems completely void of pre-recorded or machine-generated sounds!
And yet Radiohead has never released an official live album. They do have a live video from a 1994 show that can be pieced together from bonus content from their special edition versions of their albums. It’s an uninspiring performance to me, featuring a lot of The Bends and Pablo Honey and suffering 1990s-itis. King of Limbs is much more interesting, as it’s performed in a basement, just the bandmates playing the songs live. It’s a cool approach to “live” performance that I’d love to see other bands emulate.
The 2001 German show is a bootleg but has the best actual performance because it largely pulls from OK Computer and has the best setlist. Video and audio quality is pretty poor but it’s my favorite performance of the band.
And finally individual charts for each album. Remember, you can click on any chart for a larger image.