There are three things everyone seems to have opinions about: politics, religion, and Radiohead. On two of those topics, one dissenting view can cause a flat-out argument. When it’s Radiohead, it can cause someone to go insane. It’s quite a phenomenon.
That’s because, like politics and religion, Radiohead is complicated. When an ardent Radiohead fan hears disparaging remarks, or even worse, lack of acknowledgment about their favorite band, it’s easy for them to assume the disparager is uninitiated, and therefore not equipped to make the call. Because “getting” Radiohead isn’t like “getting” Puddle of Mudd. It doesn’t just happen after hearing a couple of songs on Internet radio (“They’re so dreary and weird … how can you like this?”). Most people who are wanton over Radiohead have listened to them for years, seen them evolve, and have grown immensely attached to them.
This is why whenever you ask someone what they like about Radiohead, you get a vague, impassioned gushing of adjectives, with no real explanation. It can leave you even more clueless than before. Or thinking your friends are hippies.
But if you’re into music, and a little open-minded, Radiohead is totally worth getting into. Because the hype is true. They’re like the 200-piece orchestra of pop bands. They’re a punk mentality shoved into something that is about as far from punk as you can get (without involving bagpipes or accordions. Yet.) Their music explains why Thom Yorke is so twitchy and paranoid, and why he sings like that. (He doesn’t always.) Radiohead is pure, 80-proof sonic bliss, if you get what they’re doing.
So What Are They Doing?
Before you “jump into the river” (little Radiohead joke there), there are a couple of things you should bear in mind:
1. They’ve changed a ton since they started out as an average alternative rock band, so it’s impossible to point out one song as the “most representative” of them. It’s even tough to point out one album.
2. Even though most of their songs are completely awesome (which may be because they signed a deal with Satan guaranteeing this sometime around 1994), not all of them are awesome. There are even die-hard Radiohead fans who don’t love every single Radiohead song. Also, listening to a ton of their songs back to back can be tiring, just like any other band. Yes, even the Beatles.
3. Finally, they’re just a band. Even after hearing everything, you just might not be into them. That’s cool, no sweat. At least you gave them a chance. (That’s better than the people who inexplicably hate Nirvana.)
So, there are a couple different routes one can take to getting on the same page with Radiohead’s most ardent fans. One way is to get the latest album and beat it to death on your stereo, but unless you’re already predisposed to liking them, you might get sick of it before they sink in. You can also go album-to-album, but without years in between transitions, they might just get too weird too fast. No, the best way is to listen to the simpler stuff first, then gradually build up your Blood Radiohead Content (BRC) by listening to the more mental stuff in increasing stages — like how you built up your whiskey resistance in college.
BRC Level 1: the Earlier Stuff
To get started, I’m going to introduce what I think are the most accessible zones of Radiohead first. Because back in the early ‘90s, they sounded a lot like a regular alternative band. Fans of late Nirvana, Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins, and other basic ‘90s bands will typically have no problem with this stuff. Here, check out these songs — if you like them, you’re off to a good start:
Just (The Bends)
My Iron Lung (The Bends)
You (Pablo Honey)
Sulk (The Bends)
Black Star (The Bends)
BRC Level 2: the Slightly Less Pop Stuff
After the Bends, Radiohead started branching out more. They also migrated from the common sad-sack rock-band lyrics down to a level of more disturbing lyrical content, including being afraid of cars, being isolated from society, and not liking “the system” in general. Since their later style tended to bounce back and forth between abstract electronic wizardry and vaguely more straightforward alt-rock, their more explorative stuff is spread across a few albums, both earlier and later. Most respectable Radiohead fans take these songs entirely for granted; this is the bar Radiohead set for themselves. If you can appreciate these, you’re pretty much getting Radiohead … make sure your friends still like you.
Paranoid Android (OK Computer)
Let Down (OK Computer)
Knives Out (Amnesiac)
Where I End and You Begin (Hail to the Thief)
Reckoner (In Rainbows)
There There (Hail to the Thief)
BRC Level 3: the More “Out There” Stuff
Radiohead’s musical experimentation peaked around the release of Kid A and its sister album Amnesiac, and since then the band has floated style-wise between the material you just heard and the material in this section. This is the stuff that really separates Radiohead from most contemporary pop bands, and is what most of the die-hard fans flip out over. I recommend you bookmark this page and come back to listen to these songs every day for at least week before you even read past this part.
I Might be Wrong (Amnesiac)
National Anthem (Kid A)
Optimistic (Kid A)
Sit Down. Stand Up. (Hail to the Thief)
Idioteque (Kid A)
Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box (Amnesiac)
BRC Level 4: B-Sides and Other Wacky Stuff
By now, your Blood Radiohead Content is such that if it were whiskey, you’d probably be passed out, chiefed, and in the hospital. But you should keep going, because another cool thing about this band is they have roughly one metric crapload of B-side material and solo tracks, including stuff from the Bends up ‘til about a month ago. Here are a few of them, so you can name-drop them at parties and scare the shit out of everyone:
Lewis (Mistreated) (1994)
Talk Show Host (1996)
Polyethylene (Parts 1 and 2) (1998)
The Amazing Sounds of Orgy (2001)
Wicked Child (2003)
Black Swan (Thom Yorke, 2006)
So that’s a taste. There’s a lot more, but geez, you’ve already wasted about 6 hours of an otherwise productive work day. Are you sure you’re still employed?
If you’re feelin’ the Radiohead vibe, feel free to hit up YouTube to your heart’s content, wear super-low v-neck shirts and order lattes everywhere you go. If you’re over it, hey, at least you gave them a shot. Go apologize to your boss for wasting his paid hours and call it a day.
(And because I couldn’t fit it in anywhere else):
Oh yeah, and you'll want to download my book.