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The Rockologist: Is It Radiohead Or Wilco?

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Okay, it's a weird question I know.

But tonight I got to thinking, who really is the best modern day rock band out there? Coldplay? White Stripes? Kings of Leon?

I mean let's face it, we really haven't got that many really great candidates waiting in the wings to assume the throne right now. There certainly isn't any Beatles, Stones, or Who standing in waiting and ready to step up to the plate — to say nothing of a future Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

As far as songwriters go, I likewise can't see the next Dylan, Springsteen, Brian Wilson, or Neil Young anywhere out there on the horizon — as much as I would really like to. I mean, I like Conor Oberst as much as the next guy, but honestly speaking I just don't see him filling the shoes of Bob or Bruce.

These are different times than the sixties or the seventies were, and I understand that. Believe me, I do. But the question is where to look for that sort of greatness now? In other words, to quote the great Pete Townshend, "Who's next?"

Fleet Foxes? Great harmonies, but they still need work in the way of a writing a nice concise song that runs less then six minutes. Say it, don't spray it right?

Porcupine Tree? Great band, with one of the most underrated songwriter/musicians around in Steven Wilson. But still way, way too obscure at this point to make any kind of a dent in the international subconscious.

TV On the Radio? As much as the critics love to jizz all over these guys, I'll bet you dollars to donuts that nobody will remember them two years from now. Again, it comes down to that whole thing of having memorable songs here. Business aside, we still need actual songs that people will remember. No offense guys.

So as I was thinking about all of these weighty matters (and yes, I confess that this means I need a life), it came down to two bands for me.

Radiohead and Wilco.

For my money, these are the two most prominent bands out there that stand the best chance of being remembered years from now.

So I thought it would be fun to break these two bands down by category.

Let's start with songwriting:

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy wins this one hands down.

I mean Radiohead haven't really written actual songs since OK Computer have they? What they write is more like soundscapes, and they are without a doubt mostly beautiful ones at that. But they are still more about ambiance and atmosphere than they are about actual songcraft.

Wilco on the other hand write these really great songs, with actual real characters populating them that you can relate to. Although they may be wrapped in a more exotic package, they still communicate basic timeless emotions like love and all that sort of thing. Where Jeff Tweedy writes about the Sky Blue Sky and trying to break your heart, Thom Yorke's thing is about how he woke up yesterday sucking a lemon.

Edge: Wilco

Musicianship:

Since Wilco added guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline to the mix, this has become a much tougher call to make. Cline basically completes the Wilco package and is an absolutely monster guitarist. Just listen to his solos on "Impossible Germany" or "Bull Black Nova" (from the upcoming Wilco: The Album) if you doubt me there.

But one of the things that makes Radiohead such a great band is their willingness, and in fact their eagerness to experiment with new sounds. In Rainbows is an amazing album, and what Jonny Greenwood does with all of his effect boxes and the like is a big part of why that is. The rest of the band are likewise not exactly slouches in the musical department either.

Edge: Radiohead

Live Show:

Radiohead wins this one pretty much hands down, although again the addition of Nels Cline to the Wilco lineup makes it a slightly tougher call.

The thing about Wilco is they pretty much play it straight down the line. As in no frills, just the music. The thing is that the music is so good that it works. Radiohead on the other hand have some of the best lighting effects in the business, and the way they use it to such dramatic effect is a big part of what makes their live shows so special.

Edge: Radiohead

Vocals:

Thom Yorke. I mean my God, is there a more haunting voice anywhere out there? The more atmospheric Radiohead's music gets, the better Yorke's otherworldly voice suits it. Jeff Tweedy is cut more from the Neil Young school (as is Yorke actually), and I have to say that for what Wilco do, his voice is equally suited. But again, that voice of Yorke's is an instrument unto itself.

Edge: Radiohead

So for now, I guess Radiohead still wins. But only by a hair…

Wilco is creeping up on me by leaps and bounds. Their new album, which comes out next month, is an easy album of the year candidate which is making me rethink my thoughts by the minute.

"Bull Black Nova" is a great Kraftwerk meets Neil Young sort of successor to "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," and "You Never Know" marries a great Marc Bolan-esque vocal with the always amazing Nels Cline conjuring the spirit of George Harrison on guitar.

Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    there is no “next big thing” out there not because there are no contenders, but because the way people consume music has changed so much that there is no longer any focus. attention spans (including those of stupid major labels) have been, fractured so much that it’s just tougher for any band to become ‘big’.

    as far as these two bands go, i’ll take Wilco. much more organic. and i’ll take Tweedy over Yorke. Yorke has a great instrument but man, so cold.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I love em both Mark, and it was a tough call to make. In the “musicianship” category, I was tempted to call it a tie, because Cline is such an MFer of a guitar player.

    As for the other part of your comment, you’ll get no argument from me. The nature of the beast these days means that for the most part, bands don’t have to try as hard because the majority of the audience is either seeking individual songs rather than albums, or even worse, whatever the flavor of the moment happens to be.

    But yeah, this new Wilco album is pretty great, innit’?

    -Glen

  • http://www.marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    haven’t listened to the new album yet.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I really, really like the new Wilco. That “Bull Black Nova” that you mentioned knocks my freaking face off. Can’t wait to get the actual disk and listen to it in something other than a stream. And then, of course, to hear it live.

  • JC Mosquito

    Wilco over RH. But whether you like them or not, the last great rock band that means anything is U2, and I say that despite not being a particularly big fan of the boys from the Emerald Isle. Bands like Counting Crows or Fountains of Wayne don’t have the clout in the marketplace yet – and likely never will.

    Ryan Adams is one of the best songwriters in recent memory, but he’s not a band, is he?

  • Paul Roy

    Not the biggest fan of either band, although I can appreciate Radiohead’s music a lot more than Wilco. I never quite understood their appeal. I do think that Porcupine Tree is the best modern day rock band going. They keep improving with each album too. I think Radiohead is equally as obscure a Porcupine Tree, but for whatever reason certain bands get promoted more than others. Too bad.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    JC beat me to it. I was sitting here this morning listening to the Fleet Foxes which reminded me of this article which got me to thinking about U2.

    I haven’t really appreciated them in several albums, but they really are a phenomenon. Likely one that won’t happen again due to the splintering of the way we now listen to and acquire music.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I didn’t include U2 in this discussion because they’ve been around so long — it’ll be thirty years next year since “Boy” (can ya’ believe it?).

    My own take on U2 is that they really represent the last great classic rock band. And I agree that we are unlikely to see their like again anytime soon.

    -Glen

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I don’t get this notion that the changing music industry means there will be no next big thing. Did individual songs over albums hurt the careers of Chuck Berry or Elvis? It’s all about appealing to masses, not that I mean selling out, but tapping into something that appeals across boundaries. The next big thing is coming, but it’s like watching a pot boil.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I don’t think it is so much that the album is dying, but that we now have access to so much music from so many sources.

    Its like how cable/satellite and now streaming online video caused a splintering of what people watch. With more choices fewer people watch whats on the networks.

    With more choices in music, fewer people listen to pop radio.

    None of this has anything to do with quality, of course.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The other problem with all of this is that with the download genie out of the bottle and the resulting dip in album sales, artists have had to turn to live concerts as the primary revenue stream to make up the difference.

    There’s your inflated ticket prices right there.

    -Glen

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “Its like how cable/satellite and now streaming online video caused a splintering of what people watch.”

    Don’t buy it. We still get the next big thing when it comes to TV.

    The inflated ticket price is because suckers are willing to pay it. I don’t think a lot of Barbra Streisand fans are downloading her albums.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    But a lot of U2 and Neil Young fans are.

  • JC Mosquito

    Why are Neil Young and U2 fans downloading Barbara Streisand albums?

  • deadulus

    I find it endlessly fascinating when I see people accusing Radiohead of not really writing songs.When in fact I think they write some of the best lyrics this side of The Hold steady.There is some repetition in there in the vein of T.S Eliot.I’ve never heard anyone use allusion so powerfully in a tune.The problem with Thom is when he writes he writes for himself and for others who sit and pick apart a song word by word and every intonation.You have to work to really get a Radiohead song.

  • http://www.riddledphantasms.com R.P.M.

    I agree Wilco…the Killers…Cat Power (if you call her rock, but if you don’t take Shabtai Zimmerman off the list too), The White Stripes, the list goes on and on – and should.

    Sadly this debate won’t matter much as only bands like Radiohead, NIN and Smashing Pumpkins can afford to give out free music. Even Wilco merely streams.

    If you want this conversation to really last much longer, like who is the best basketball player ever…sorry MJ I love you, but did you win 9 championships or score 50 a year with 20 reboounds a game? Heh it’s subjective and that is what is great.

    Point being, that unless something is done so that bands don’t have to tour 365, there will be a lot less of them. What was it 1998 when you still had to buy albums? Later? Torrents will kill this conversation faster than OJ with a ginsu. Spend the $2.71 (Greg Holden’s EP is certainly worth that right?) to maybe 10 or 11$ and buy it legally or bitch when all music is the stuff the LABEL make for us.

    Remember all the bitching about Bush being “made” b/c they were purdy and sounded nice? Well imagine that times everything. Rock and Roll might be here to stay, but indie rock not so much if people steal. Stealing an album is the same as stealing groceries….how did that work out for the guy in Les Miserables? Bread…CDs…your wife…whatever, the effects wind up hurting more than one.

    Good post!

  • AndWings2k

    WILCO WILL LOVE YOU BABY

  • AndWings2k

    Before reading this it alway came down to these two bands and id like to think of it as RH as the modern Beatles cuz we have sooo many UK band trying to get up RH nose coldplay muse we could go on just like the british invasion tried with the beatles

    And Wilco as the dylan all american band organic song style a radiohead counter band doing a total different thing and doing it more then well with zero radio play