Every generation wants its Beatles.
That is to say, everyone wants a genius to call their own—that one artist we've universally agreed upon as the best, who has not just the critical accolades but the numbers to back it up. In the '80s, depending on your perspective, it was either Michael Jackson, Prince or U2. Right now, it's probably Beyoncé. And since Nirvana got to put out only three albums before Kurt Cobain rode shotgun off this mortal coil, the '90s had Radiohead.
Crazy to think, but the last time Portland hosted the singular British art-rock troupe, on The Bends tour in 1996, Radiohead wasn't quite the consensus Best Band of Their Generation yet, just the best of that particular moment. In the years since, it seems like everything there is to say about the band has already been said.
Turns out, there are still a few takes left smoldering on the grill. No, we're not going to try to go the "actually, Radiohead sucks" route, or mount an argument for Pablo Honey being their best record. But there are still a few things that need to be said. Here are five of them.
Radiohead Is a Legacy Act Now
Take that as a slur if you want. It's really just the natural order of things. If you're a band that manages to stick around for 20-plus years without ever falling off hard enough that you're forced to "return to form," you're eventually going to become a victim of your own consistency. Radiohead has yet to make a bad record, but the reaction toward the last two, once the initial palpitations subsided, was basically, "Yeah, that sounds about right." The King of Limbs, from 2011, was the first Radiohead album to be greeted with a shrug, and while last year's A Moon Shaped Pool made all the requisite best-of lists, the one song that sent fans into a tizzy was "True Love Waits," and only because die-hards have been clamoring to hear the track in studio form since it popped up in live sets way back in the mid-'90s. Meanwhile, the impending 20th anniversary of OK Computer has already got the Think Piece Industrial Complex revving its engines, and recent set lists look more like a band reviewing its career than touring behind a new album. Again, this is all pretty normal for such a veteran act, but to this point, "normal" is the last word anyone would apply to Radiohead's trajectory. I'm not saying they're going to be hitting the casino circuit anytime soon, or they're no longer capable of the thrilling innovations they made their name on—only that they've crossed the plateau where their past is going to loom larger than anything they do in the future. At any rate, it's getting much easier to imagine their set at Oldchella 2035, when you lean over to your friend and say, "I didn't think they were going to play 'Fake Plastic Trees' and then, bam, second encore!" MATTHEW SINGER.
Only Assholes Think Kid A Is Radiohead's Best Record
We get it—you're "artsy." You too felt the weight of expectations as they crushed Thom Yorke in the wake of OK Computer. You're over "rock 'n' roll" and believe the future of music lies elsewhere. These are all defensible arguments, but the fact you're using Radiohead's fourth-best record as your fulcrum immediately razes whatever high ground you stand on. "It's a minimalist masterpiece!" you exclaimed the first time the girl with the bad tattoos at your college town's bagel shop made you give it a spin. In that Kid A has two songs that barely even qualify as songs, I suppose you're right. But have you experienced firsthand the synchronized convulsing that drugged-out festival crowds engage in when the band kick-starts the latter half of its set with "Idioteque"? Aphex Twin and Brian Eno—the IDM and ambient pioneers you inevitably glommed on to based on critics' suggestions after Kid A "blew their minds" back in 2000— would look upon this level of wookery with shame. It's assumed you've moved on to harder, more "challenging" shit like Lightning Bolt and Prurient by now. But if defending this album's electronic gobbledygook is still your life's work, give John Mayer's cover of the title track a listen and have a seat when you realize how much better it is than the original. PETE COTTELL.
Atoms For Peace Is Just As Good as Late-Period Radiohead
The old joke about Radiohead is that Thom Yorke could record himself farting into a paper bag and critics would call it "genius." He never actually did that, of course, but he did go out and recruit Flea for a side project. And indeed, it turned out to be a pretty brilliant maneuver. From a personnel standpoint, it felt like fan-trolling. Sure, he also enlisted producer Nigel Godrich, "the sixth Radiohead," to play keys. But the Red Hot Chili Peppers guy? Why else did you wear that Kid A shirt every day in college if not to separate yourself from the troglodytes blaring "Suck My Kiss" at keg parties? From Yorke's perspective, though, when you've spent two decades mumble-moaning about the darkness of the soul, a funk-rock frat party must be a nice reprieve. Amok, the eventual Atoms for Peace album, isn't exactly a funk album, but it is funky, in the twitchy-glitchy sense, and much more successful in that regard than The King of Limbs from two years earlier. And when I saw the band at Coachella in 2010, Yorke actually looked like he was having fun, busting out his Elaine Benes-on-ayahuasca dance moves as Flea did his usual full-body air-humping while jamming a melodica. I like to imagine Yorke leaves him a voice mail every couple months, like, "Oi, mate, if Anthony ever gets sick, I've been practicing: Rama-dong-a-dong-a-dong-bing-bong…" MATTHEW SINGER.
Radiohead's Best Deep Cut Isn't Even a Radiohead Song
Radiohead's success aligned perfectly with the ascent of the internet, and the combination of slow output, conspiracy mongering and out-of-nowhere releases has been fanboy fuel since day one. Driven by sites like Green Plastic and At Ease, a shadowy world of rarities and B-sides has been steadily propagating for three decades. This world felt stabbed in the heart when "True Love Waits," every devoted fan's "I know them better than you" card since the song trickled into live sets in about 1995, was finally released on last year's A Moon Shaped Pool. It's a fine song as far as Thom Yorke ballads go, but it barely holds a candle to the gloomy, angsty wailing he supplied for UNKLE's "Rabbit in Your Headlights." Conceived as a one-off project by DJ Shadow and Mo' Wax records co-founder James Lavelle to cash in on the hype of late-'90s trip-hop and big-beat electronica, UNKLE's 1998 debut, Psyence Fiction, was a dark and dystopian masterpiece stacked with blockbuster guest appearances that reaches its harrowing climax courtesy of Yorke. It's obviously not a Radiohead song, per se, but thanks to the crude nature of then-new file-sharing platform Napster, legions of plebs were fooled into thinking they had accidentally struck gold when they heard it for the first time. "Rabbit in Your Headlights" remains untouched as the peak of Radiohead's dread-ridden, piano-driven outliers. PETE COTTELL.
Radiohead made the internet cool
Everyone knows the internet was invented in 1973 by documentary filmmaker Al Gore. But it took Radiohead to take a then-obscure nerd technology and make it cool—like Afrika Bambaataa did with the 808 or Pink Floyd with the inflatable pig. Once upon a time, albums were circulated by compact discs, which were housed in plastic "jewel cases" with a little booklet that included notes thanking A&R guys, and sometimes lyrics or scribbles or band photo outtakes. The booklet for Radiohead's second record, 1995's The Bends, included what appeared to be a series of random letters and punctuation—http://musicbase.co.uk/music/radiohead/. (Unless you have a first edition of the CD, you've probably never seen it. Pitchfork ran a 7,000-word essay about Radiohead's web presence that never mentioned this.) Young Radiohead superfans such as myself—Radiohead is a band that's always lent itself well to obsession—realized this was a Hypertext Transfer Protocol all the kids in computer class were so stoked about, showing us how to go onto the information superhighway to see what was on the site. What was there? Nothing I can remember, and archive.org didn't capture the page. I can find no traces of the content online, anywhere; I had to dig through crates to find my old first-edition CD to even be sure it existed. Is there anything cooler than a website the internet doesn't even remember existed? No, there is not. MARTIN CIZMAR.
SEE IT: Radiohead plays Moda Center, 1 N Center Court St., on Sunday, April 9. 7:30 pm. Sold out. All ages.