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Pablo Honey

Radiohead

1993

Pablo Honey is all about "Creep" to me, but unfortunately "Creep" only consists of less than 10% of the album's total running time.  The rest just sounds like decent 90s alternative rock with no clear standouts outside of "Creep".  That said, it's not bad really, but considering what was to come from the band, Pablo Honey sounds like amateur hour in retrospect.

7.5

The Bends

Radiohead

1995

Radiohead are generally considered by most music critics to be one of the most influential, groundbreaking bands of the past 20 years, and any many circles, one of the greatest bands of all-time.

The seeds of their greatness were planted with their modest (compared to latter releases) debut album Pablo Honey and really began to sprout on their 2nd album The Bends.  Prior to The Bends, Radiohead were just one of many new promising young bands, lost in the vast sea of alternative rock that was thriving in the early to mid 90s.  It was hard to separate the pretenders from the contenders, but on The Bends, Radiohead proved that they were much more than contenders, not only creating a great album, but also one of the best albums of the entire decade.

The sound on The Bends is quite varied, featuring layered, experimental guitar textures which serve as a backdrop to Thom Yorke's uniquely emotional and yearning vocal style.  Like most Radiohead albums, the predominate vibe found on The Bends is quite somber and downtrodden in nature, but Yorke's ability to convey a real sense of emotion through the songs is ultimately what makes The Bends such a compelling listen. 

Yorke's angst pours out of each song with such stirring authenticity it is hard not to get sucked into the emotion of it all.  The Bends has a uniquely personal quality to it, as most of the songs deal with themes such as loneliness, regret, depression, and a general pervasive sense of yearning.  The band compliments that vibe quite well with their ability to create a gripping musical backdrop for the songs, producing a compelling atmosphere that really enhances the gut-wrenching feeling of some of the tracks.

Good examples are the 1-2 punch of "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees", two incredibly somber and melancholy songs that are perhaps the best representations of the all-encompassing yearning vibe of the album.  But it's not all "woe-is-me", a lot of the songs flat-out rock, sporting an uplifting quality to boot, most notably on the title track, "Just", and "My Iron Lung", the latter of which featuring some killer guitar playing.

But ultimately, the most powerful moments on the album are also the most emotionally intense and draining.  "Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was" is an incredibly somber and haunting song, featuring a sublimely beautiful guitar along with Yorke's mournful singing.  It possess such a bleak and mournful quality it's almost numbing to listen to, but the melody and soul of the song are so beautiful, making it my personal favorite Radiohead song. 

By the time the listener reaches the final track on the album you almost feel exhausted from the emotional highs and lows (mostly lows) that dominate the album, only to be greeted with perhaps the most intense song yet "Street Spirit (Fade Out)".  Like many of the other songs on the album, it has a strong emotional weight, acting as the culmination of the yearning, somber, lonesome vibe that dominate the album, but with an added brooding feeling.  It's a gripping song and a compelling way to end a very emotionally heartfelt album.

On The Bends, Radiohead were in the process of evolving into something much more impressive than any of their contemporaries would prove capable of.  Their next two albums broke new ground artistically, as they ascended into the ether of sonic experimentation, pushing the limits of what was possible in rock/electronic music.

But on The Bends, they made a much more accessible, human album.  It's no less impressive than their future albums, and in many people's eyes, it's their best album, not because it broke new ground, but because of it's sincere, down-to-earth, and powerful emotional weight.

9.1

OK Computer

Radiohead

1997

In many critical circles, OK Computer is often ranked as the best album of the 90s, and with good reason.  Radiohead evolved their sound and broke new ground stylistically and artistically on OK Computer.  The sonic instrumentation and soundscapes on this album are often brilliant and complex, but most of the songs are still accessible and retain the band's trademark melancholy vibe.  Listening to OK Computer is kind of like listening to music on another planet.  A strange, despondent planet.  It struck a cord with me when I was in high school.  This was intelligent music.  This was music that took you somewhere, that tapped into something deeper than most of the other "angry" bands I was listening to at the time.  I appreciated what this album represented, a progressive, innovative, honest band that was pushing the sound of music into new territory.  Of course, 99% of people I was surrounded by didn't get it, and I liked that too (I did live in West Texas after all).  

OK Computer deserves all the critical acclaim it received, but like all Radiohead albums, the pervasive downtrodden mood keeps this album on the lower end of the countdown for yours truly.

9.0

Kid A

Radiohead

2000

If people thought OK Computer was a groundbreaking album, few could have predicted just how abstract Radiohead would get on their follow-up Kid A.  This album pushes the sonic boundaries explored on OKC to the extreme, so much so that a lot of Kid A is unrecognizable as alternative "rock" music.  The electronics essentially take over all aspects of the band's sound here, and the live instrumentation takes a backseat.  And while it's impressive, groundbreaking, and otherworldly to listen to, it's not necessarily better.  It is a continued evolution of their sound, but Kid A is not a better album than OK Computer (or frankly The Bends for that matter).  It is what it is...a compelling piece of abstract alternative music, essentially moody mental wallpaper for the most part.  There are songs here, but they're awash in a sea of electronic feedback and distortion.  It's certainly a compelling listening experience, it's art, but it's abstractness, density, and drab mood keep it just short of true greatness to these ears.

8.7

Amnesiac

Radiohead

2001

This is where Radiohead officially disappeared into the ether…they lost me here…they evaporated in the feedback/fuzz/cosmic background radiation/what have you.  I've never tried heroin before, but I'm pretty sure this is the aural equivalent of it…numbing, blissful, sad, isolating, etc.

7.9

Hail to the Thief

Radiohead

2003

Nice that they came back down from the ether and incorporated more guitars, but now everything just sounds kind of flat.  Not bad by any means, but never found this album to be a particularly satisfying or rewarding listen.

7.7

In Rainbows

Radiohead

2007

In Rainbows is probably just slightly the lesser of an album than "Kid A" overall, but you will get very few people willing to admit that.  Probably because IR lacks the freshness and groundbreaking stature and otherworldliness that Kid A had.  It's not as experimental, not as abstract, and perhaps not as compelling, but IR sounds like a more wholesome, listenable album.  Amnesiac pushed the limits that Kid A started a bit too far, to the point that it was almost non-music...it was like mental wallpaper...and when Radiohead attempted to come back down to earth with HTTT, it sounded a bit too bland and unimaginative.  IR straddles those two albums well.  It's certainly experimental, but the songs sound much more engaging and well-rounded.  Nothing gets completely lost in the ether here, but the songs are interesting enough to be compelling by themselves.  They don't have to fit until a broader puzzle/mood of the album, the songs themselves are the highlights here.  A good album, not as groundbreaking as OKC or KA, but much more satisfying than anything they had done since.

8.3

The King of Limbs

Radiohead

2011

This was probably the 1st Radiohead album I listened to that I wasn't impressed by...well maybe besides Hail to the Thief.  Not to say King of Limbs is not better than at least 90% of the music that came out in 2011, but it sounded pretty much exactly how I expected it to.  There were no surprises, it sounded like they were just kind of going through the Radiohead motions.  They've gone from alternative-rock, to progressive-rock, into the ether and back, and now they're just kind of somewhere in between it all...basically out of ideas.  So while it's not bad, it is unfortunately just more of the same.

7.6

A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead

2016

After listening to 2011's King of Limbs, you kind of got the feeling that Radiohead were nearing the end of their creative rope.  It's an incredibly impressive rope mind you, but aside from the slightly underrated In Rainbows, Radiohead have been somewhat struggling to sound as compelling or groundbreaking as they did on OK Computer and Kid A for over a decade now.  And while they've never really put out a bad album per-se, most of them lately have been a tad underwhelming (again, with the exception of In Rainbows).  A big reason for has to do with the very nature of Radiohead's artsy, yet eternally dreary sound.  There's really seemingly oh so much you can do painting with that template without slowly sucking the life out of your audience, and King of Limbs was a good example of that.

So 5 years later, Radiohead have dropped A Moon Shaped Pool rather suddenly, and comparisons to In Rainbows abound.  That's not so much because the two albums sound similar, but rather because they are both two high quality, bounce-back albums the followed up 2 somewhat lackluster ones (Hail To The Thief and Kimb of Limbs respectively).  And like In Rainbows, although A Moon Shaped Pool is very good and often compelling, it's still not quite in the same league as OK Computer or Kid A (or my personal favorite The Bends for that matter).  But taken on it's own accord, A Moon Shaped Pool is a very unique and impressive album in Radiohead's catalog, and represents a genuine evolution in the band's sound.  Radiohead successfully incorporate a symphonic/orchestral sound into many of these tracks, most notably on the lead-off tune "Burn The Witch".  It's adds a certain level of sophistication, beauty, and tension to their sound, and it's done modestly enough that it doesn't come across as overbearing, but rather complimentary to the overall mood of the music found here.

It's pretty brilliant, but perhaps the best song on the album is the transcendent "Daydreaming", which somewhat recalls the somber beauty of "The Pyramid Song", with it's comforting yet hazy mood. This is a truly special song, gently and quietly opening with the type of solemn pianos that recall Beethoven's "Midnight Sonata".  It sets the mood for a song that sounds like being in the womb and being on your deathbed at the same time.  It's the type of song that takes you somewhere, very compelling, but in a very pure, solacing way. Gorgeously profound.

The rest of the album reveals itself to be more like a series of vague, warm, earthy, and naturally melancholic dreams.  There's not much intense electronic experimentation here, there are no definitive hooks to speak of, but each song kind of slowly and unassumingly rises from the mist, building a modest tension before gently fading away.  These tunes typically feature a combination of ambient sonic backdrops, pianos, occasional choir vocals/harmonies (which evoke a spiritual feeling), as well as gentle acoustic guitars that give the album a more organic vibe.  They're generally easy on the ears.  Basically all the remaining tracks are slight variations of this idea, but "The Numbers" seems to pull off this subtle trick the best, and stands out as a solid pick for the 3rd best song on the album.

A Moon Shaped Pool seems to lie in a peaceful yet dreamlike plane of existence between wakefulness and sleep.  It's a somewhat mournful (this is Radiohead after all) yet comforting album.  It's unique in the band's catalog because they're not necessarily trying to impress you with their dense studio wizardry, but rather inviting you into the warm, solemn, and compelling dreamlike world that A Moon Shaped Pool resides in.  This is probably Thom Yorke's most naked album since The Bends, as it feels more human and less paranoid that any Radiohead album in over 2 decades.  It's an impressive and compelling evolution in Radiohead's sound, showing they still have a few new tricks up their sleeve after all.

8.3

 

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