It’s hard to imagine a list of albums from the 2000s that doesn’t include at least one entry from Radiohead, one of the most ubiquitous bands of the decade. And while this particular list exists happily outside of terms like “greatest”, “most influential” or even “best“, instead striving to be simply a collection of personal favorites, it still feels inherently wrong to deny them a spot. A lot of the musical elements that came to define the decade, namely the disassembling of traditional pop-music tropes, the inclusion of bleepy-bloopy electronic flourishes, the move towards smaller, more detail-oriented arrangements and the fearlessness in experimentation were proliferated, in large part, by Radiohead’s seminal “Kid A”. Easily one of the most important albums of the decade, “Kid A” redefined what a traditional “rock” band was capable of, and while previous albums “The Bends” and “OK Computer” spawned a legion of pale-faced, acoustic-guitar-wielding, caterwauling imitators, “Kid A” was influential in a different way: a cold splash of water in the face of stagnant guitar complacency, shaking an increasingly homogenized and lackadaisical music landscape from its stupor.
As important as “Kid A” was, though, it never really reached me on the deeply personal level that all of my favorite albums tend to do. Don’t get me wrong; I listened the shit out of it because it’s just that good, but my connection with it was always more on an intellectual level than an emotional one. I knew the album was amazing, but there was a crucial element missing; something I’d always loved about the previous Radiohead albums but they seemed hell-bent on completely doing away with, leaving icy-cold mini-beats and copious amounts of mood and texture in its stead: their outstanding gift for melody. This was what made “The Bends” and “OK Computer” such thrilling records to listen to. This was what made songs like “Let Down”, “(Nice Dream)” and “Exit Music (For a Film)” so powerful. And it was all but absent in “Kid A”.
In this sense, I feel like 2007’s “In Rainbows” is their most accomplished album to date, managing to be forward-thinking and cerebral as well as emotional, melodic and, dare I say it, groovy. Yeah, a group of five pale English rockers, the guys who made “Creep”, recorded an album that could be reasonably described as “groovy”, and what’s most surprising is just how well they pull it off. By dispensing with the thick, impenetrable globs of keyboard digital landscapes from previous records and putting the focus back on songcraft, the band produced their most coherent, cohesive and satisfying collection of songs.
Much was made of the controversial release method– the whole “name-your-price” downloading gimmick. But what a lot of people didn’t talk about was what a nice change this album was from the ones that preceded it. The production is stark and unadorned, yet airy and natural, without the baroque wall-of-sound clutter of earlier albums. Every little detail is mapped out intricately and is clearly audible, every arpeggiated chord and hi-hat strike ringing out clearly. This approach finds the band putting aside the deliberately difficult sounds of Krautrock and instead bringing their jazz influences to the forefront. And sure, jazz is something they had dabbled with in the past (see “The National Anthem” from “Kid A” or “Life in a Glasshouse” from “Amnesiac”), but only here did they successfully incorporate it into their own style rather than a one-track dalliance. It’s a sparser record, less obscure, with melodies more instantly “pretty” than anything since “The Bends”. This is the album that legitimized late-career Radiohead in my eyes– they could have become caricatures of themselves, churning out increasingly difficult records for no reason other than to maintain that sense of “mystery”. But here, I don’t hear a group of pretentious musicians struggling to remain relevant by conjuring the abstract and the overwrought. Instead, what I hear is a group of seasoned veterans more interested in writing and recording beautiful and evocative songs.
It feels like a bit of a betrayal to my “Paranoid Android”-worshipping teenage self, but this– this collection of airy, jazzy, soulful, understated pop songs– is the best Radiohead album. What the hell does my teenage self know about anything, anyway?
Listen to “Reckoner” from “In Rainbows” by clicking the player below: