Talk to most any longtime Radiohead fan, and they will tell you that the band's glory years came in the mid-to-late nineties with albums like The Bends and OK Computer — the latter of which has been hailed by many of those same Radiophiles as one of the greatest records ever made.
Me? I don't buy it. Not to take anything away from OK Computer — it's an amazing record to be sure. OK Computer is dense, complex, and full of really great songs like "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android."
But it is also more than a little derivative in places, of late seventies prog-bands like King Crimson, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, and even Uriah Heep (something about that mellotron). Not to say that this is a bad thing, but I've still gotta' call it the way that I see it.
Great listening, yes. Innovative and ground-breaking? Not hardly — at least not in the same way that the Pitchfork crowd might lead you to believe. Sorry.
The fact is — for me anyway — Radiohead's most interesting, challenging music in fact came with their post-millennium work. That's right. I am a proud fan of Radiohead's "Ice Age." While there has never been anything even close to a Radiohead backlash on the same level as, say, there was with Coldplay — the albums Kid A and Amnesiac were still the place where more than a few fans got off of the hipsters bus.
In fact, it is with these two albums that I thought things first began to get really interesting. With Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead more or less rejected the idea of the big arena rock band wrapped in a post-grunge alternative package that they had become, in favor of something far more stripped down to the bone. And it made for some of the most interesting music of their career.
Critics of these records will often point towards the more experimental, ambient noodlings you'll find on each of them, and on the surface at least, I wouldn't entirely disagree. Songs like Kid A's "Idioteque" and "Everything In It's Right Place," and Amnesiac's "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box" are more like ambient soundscapes than actual songs really.
In that respect, Radiohead's so-called "electronica" records have always reminded me a lot of David Bowie's "Berlin" period with Brian Eno on albums like Low and Heroes. Musically, everything is stripped to nothing but the barest essentials. Lyrically, it isn't that far of a stretch from Bowie's "Lately, I've been, breaking glass in your room again" to Thom Yorke's "Yesterday I woke up feeling like sucking a lemon."
Correct me if I'm wrong here.
But for every cold sounding whirr, beep, and click of those songs, you get something that surprises, and quite often knocks the living shit out of you. On Kid A it's the throbbing bass-runs of "The National Anthem" and Thom Yorke's haunting falsetto vocals on "Optimistic." On Amnesiac it's the droning, jazz-flavored drums and bass of "Dollars And Cents," and the fluid, George Benson meets Duane Allman guitar flourishes of Jonny Greenwood on "Knives Out." Come to think of it, Yorke turned in one hell of a vocal on that one too.
If these albums seem cold in places, many of the songs found there thaw the freeze, and warm things up in a hurry.
The other thing about Radiohead's icy-sounding music from this period is the fact that at exactly the same time they were performing some of the best live shows of any band on earth.
My first Radiohead show — at the Gorge in Eastern Washington in what I want to say was around the summer of 2001 — was one of the greatest live concerts I have ever witnessed. I'd put it on a par with Springsteen shows I attended on the tours behind Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town in the late seventies. It was that good.
Radiohead were a revelation on that hot summer night in the desert. Despite the experimental albums they were touring in support of, they also rocked like one hard-rocking, quite ferocious sounding 'sumbitch.
A few years later, I saw them on the tour supporting the more "rock-oriented" 2003 release, Hail To The Thief, and it was no less explosive. I had seen Springsteen on The Rising tour at Giants Stadium the night before, and flew across country back to Seattle (nursing a really nasty cold and a case of jet-lag to boot), to catch Radiohead at White River Ampitheatre.
While songs like "There, There" and "2+2=5" from Hail To The Thief clearly established that Radiohead were still a formidable rock band, some of the best moments in the show came during chestnuts from Amnesiac like "You And Whose Army?"
I all but forgot I had just seen my hero Springsteen in Jersey.
Anyway, on those three Radiohead records — Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief — the chasm between hip alternative rock band, and cool ambient experimentation was bridged once and for all, paving the way for the musical freedom heard on 2007's brilliant In Rainbows. Radiohead music could no longer be confined to labels. It was just Radiohead music.
With that same artistic freedom now having been extended to independence from traditional record label distribution, Radiohead's former label EMI has been hard at work scurrying to squeeze the last drop it can from it's former golden boys. We've already seen deluxe editions of Pablo Honey, The Bends, and OK Computer this year, as well as a surprisingly well done Best Of Radiohead CD/DVD compilation. This past week, that cycle was (presumably) completed with double-disc deluxe collectors editions of Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief.
The good news here is, that while these deluxe reissues don't represent anything spectacular, they do provide a pretty damn fine upgrade. In each case, the bonuses found on the second disc — a mixture of live cuts, outtakes, and the like — is mostly stuff hardcore fans will already own. Regardless, it's nice to see it assembled individually on each disc where it really belongs.
For those of you who are new to the band, each of these discs also represent a better, more complete introductory point. Most of the essential stuff is included here, so there's no longer any need to seek out all those pricey B-sides and bootlegs.
On a cursory listening, I wasn't able to detect a whole lot of difference between the original recordings and the remastering job done here — if in fact any was done at all. The cover art is also mostly the same, although these packages come in eco-correct, fold-out, double-disc versions.
Still, having live versions of songs like "Optimistic," "Knives Out," and "Dollars And Cents" plays nicely back to back with the original versions. For newbies, this is the place to start. For hardcores, call it a nice little upgrade.