Radiohead, an English rock band from Oxfordshire, has made a career out of defying expectations. Over eight studio albums, the band—which consists of Thom Yorke, Johnny and Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien—has constantly re-invented their sound, and managed to rack up 18 Grammy nominations and over 30 million in record sales along the way.
The five men met as boys in 1985, and quickly formed a band called “On A Friday.” Yet they didn’t hit their first break until 1991, when they happened upon a representative from EMI. After requesting that the five-piece change their name, the band signed a six-record deal as the newly named “Radiohead.”
Radiohead released their first record, Pablo Honey, in 1993. Largely influenced by the recent grunge and alternative rock movements, Pablo Honey sold relatively well and spawned the hit “Creep”; it also spawned the band’s first nickname, “Nirvana Lite.” Yorke and company quickly grew tired of being lazily lumped in with their peers, so for their next record, The Bends, they worked with producer Nigel Godrich in an attempt to shift their focus. What resulted was critical success and a cemented status as one of the top Brit-rock bands around.
Yet again, Radiohead quickly grew tired of being set side by side with the other Britpop bands of the ‘90s. They responded in 1997 with the illustrious OK Computer, an album chock full of guitars and Thom Yorke’s now-legendary falsetto. Lyrically, OK Computer harks on the pitfalls of consumerism and the isolation experienced in the modern age; instrumentally, it’s all over the map: there are ballads (“Karma Police”), rockers (“Electioneering”), and songs that hit every mark in between (“Paranoid Android”). OK Computer was both a critical and commercial blockbuster, instantly landing the number one spot on the U.K. charts and eventually winding up at the 162nd spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Expectations to deliver a hit record vastly increased after OK Computer, and again, Radiohead responded by shifting into new sonic territory. In 2000, they unleashed Kid A onto the world. Or should I say, the Internet did; Kid A was one of the first albums to ever leak on file sharing programs, and, with its heavy reliance on electronic samples and digital effects, it was an eerie fit. Even though Radiohead’s trademark guitar-driven sound is nearly absent on Kid A, it’s arguably their best. Heck, forget Radiohead: Kid A—which went on to win a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album and was subsequently ranked the number one album of the 2000s by both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork Media—is arguably one of the greatest albums of all time.
Rumor had it that the Kid A sessions had fostered enough music to span two discs, and, lo and behold, Radiohead released Amnesiac the following year. Amnesiac explores the same digital world as Kid A, (they both feature “Morning Bell”) but their respective perspectives are quite distinct. Amnesiac marked the fifth time the band had worked with Nigel Godrich, and it was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2001.
Radiohead returned to their rock roots in 2003 with the release of Hail to the Thief, their most overtly political statement to date. Hail to the Thief is also the band’s most musically sporadic work, due to the way it was quickly recorded and loosely assembled. It was their fifth straight album to be nominated for the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.
After Hail to the Thief, Radiohead was no longer under contract with EMI. So for their next album, In Rainbows, the band opted out of signing any new contracts. Instead, they released it themselves in a pay-what-you-want format that many independent bands have adopted for use today. At the time, I thought they broke music. Now, I see that the marketing strategy was tremendously successful, though it doesn’t hurt that In Rainbows is a blend of nearly every version of Radiohead imaginable. In Rainbows is also arguably the band’s most accessible album besides OK Computer, which was, perhaps coincidentally, released exactly ten years earlier.
In 2011, Radiohead released their most recent album, King of Limbs. Again working with Nigel Godrich, King of Limbs found the band focusing less on typical song structures and more on looping techniques. On one hand, the album is clearly distinct from the rest of their catalogue; on the other, its differences are what makes it wholly a Radiohead record.
As of 2014, Radiohead is on a well-deserved break. In the mean time, us fans are anxiously awaiting their next pitch. I hope it’s another curveball.
Andrew is a communications intern at Murfie. When he’s not blogging here, you can probably find him blogging at a handful of other music sites. And when he’s not blogging at all, you can probably find him curled up with a good beer and a great book.