Generic Flow’s Cruel Summer: The Radiohead Debate

Nixonin 80 (6/25/12)

I am really excited about the prospect and potential of this little project. I agree that grading albums and pretending we were journalists was both unfulfilling and even a little embarrassing. We may not be very good at writing about music, but I know that we are the kings of arguing about it. It seems only fitting to me that we come back to the Genesis of basically every musical disagreement we have ever had; Radiohead. Whoever thought that five scrawny English guys could cause so much dissention amongst friends and family. I spend a lot of my energy convincing my parents that Radiohead are unappreciated geniuses of their time, and then turn around and try to convince my friends that they’re overrated and simplistic. They’re an exhausting band and challenging to say the least. Nonetheless, my interest (and dare I say) love of their material returned with a bullet after I caught their show at the Palace a few weeks ago. I reviewed their entire catalogue; everything from antisocial top 40 ballad “Creep” on up to “Full Stop.” I concocted my top five and had to return to a debate with one of Radiohead’s biggest supporters. So, here it goes…

#5. “Nude” In Rainbows
For a very long time, this was my all time favorite Radiohead song. I think that I was clinging to it as a relic of their older sound in the middle of their rapid evolution. From a band that dived into a slue of 10/4 electronic ballads, “Nude” popped up as the third track on In Rainbowsas a shockingly shelled little groove tune. The guitar plays about three chords throughout the course of the entire song, but for some reason this one just hits with me. For starters, I think this is Thom Yorke’s vocals at their absolute best. He stays up in the highest regions of that falsetto and hits every note at absolute perfection. The song just gets to me for some reason. I don’t know how to really alliterate it but it just does. I think it’s just really impressive that a song as slow, quiet and really simple feels so epic and important. Does that make sense? It’s a praise of Radiohead, so I’m sure it’s speaking your language on some level.

Subquestion for debate: Do you consider The King of Limbs be the dawning of a new era of Radiohead music (a la Kid B), or is the second half of the album just too similar to In Rainbows? Instead, are we sort of getting a more OK Computer type crescendo to their music with TKOL? Are they saying farewell to their days of be an electronically driven experimental rock band and forging ahead into some new sound that we do not know yet?

Goldenage (7/12/12)

Hey, sorry this took longer than I thought it would. I actually thought I sent this to you yesterday but it, for whatever reason, didn’t go through. LET THE DEBATE COMMENCE
In June, I saw Radiohead live for the first time. For me, what one might call an omega-level Radiohead fan, it was something of a minor revelation. A band that had already defined my musical taste for the majority of my adult life was simultaneously elevated and dispelled of their aura of mystery. I have seen Thom Yorke dance with my own eyes, and I will never be the same. Before the show, I had been intentionally avoiding Radiohead, going so far as to completely remove them from their long-held place on my iPod. Since seeing them in concert, I’ve gone back to (re)listen to anything and everything they’ve recorded. It will be difficult, but I will attempt to narrow their extensive catalogue (and my unbridled adoration of the majority of said catalogue) down to only my five favorite songs.

5. “Bloom” The King of Limbs
“Bloom” seems to be one of the more divisive tracks from Radiohead’s newest, The King of Limbs. Perhaps because it’s the first track on the album, and everyone popping TKOL on the day of its release was expecting something wholly different. I certainly didn’t expect Radiohead to go in the direction they’ve taken with TKOL, but I also seem to fall into the minority that couldn’t be happier with the detour they’ve taken.  Like most of the album, “Bloom” was something of a mystery to me at first listen. In the intervening year and a half or so since its release, however, it has come, for me, to stand among Radiohead’s classics. The layered guitar melodies and brass section wonderfully complement Radiohead’s addition of a second drummer. The bass line gives the song a stiff backbone, and as always Thom Yorke’s rousing, emotional vocals bring it home.

4. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” In Rainbows
In Rainbows was, coincidentally, my first exposure to Radiohead, and, at 17, I would never approach music the same way again. I remember having the album in my car and listening to it constantly, but never really understanding why. At first I wasn’t even convinced that I liked it, but I couldn’t stop listening. Strangely enough, I remember consciously thinking, at the time, that “Weird Fishes” was my least favorite song on the album. Well, suck on this, teenage me, “Weird Fishes” is not only one of my favorite Radiohead songs, but one of my favorite songs period. The way Radiohead manages to intertwine the intricate guitar work, stacking it in top of beautiful ambient sounds and intense, energetic drums is masterful. Ed O’Brien’s back up vocals deserve special mention here: spectacular.

I won’t attempt to comment on where Radiohead is or where they’re going, it’s clear that they’re beyond any kind of predictability at this point. TKOL was less of a curveball and more of a sucker punch for most fans. It’s impossible to guess where they’ll go from here, all I know is I can’t wait.

Nixonin80 (7/12/12)

Interesting choices there. I must say, I didn’t think you could surprise me here. I was expecting you to go full tilt obscure, but I did not see “Bloom” coming. Giving them the proverbial slap on the back for being different and avant garde is one thing, but top 5?!? We’re one song in and I am stunned.

Since I can see that you’re going to take us into the depths of Radiohead’s unknown, I better bring us back to familiar territory here.

#4. “Paranoid Android” OK Computer
Have you heard this one yet? All jokes aside- is this a predictable choice? Yes. Is this probably the first song any moderate music fan thinks of when they think of Radiohead? Yes. Should this be their everlasting legacy in the mainstream music world in lieu of “Creep?” My God yes. But is its overwhelming popularity and exposure enough to bump it from the list? Some modern Radiohead fans say yes. I say no. I can’t iterate how important this song is. Trying to explain to someone why its a big deal now is incredibly difficult. This was 1997! Rock songs were three and a half minutes long. They were about angst. They always went hook, refrain, hook, refrain, bridge, refrain.  Suffice it to say, they weren’t six and a half minutes long and really four songs packed into one! It totally changed the mold of what an alternative rock band is capable of. I know you’ll love this comparison- it reminds me of the two nine minute ballads Green Day has on American Idiot. It takes serious balls to have a song that is way way too long for the radio.

Beyond its importance, they fire on all cylinders here. It has some of my favorite lyrics of any Radiohead song. “Kicking screaming Gucci little piggy!” I think you can also hear them (3:05 to 3:30) literally fighting their way out of studio confinement and marketing handlers. I sense a bit of derailleur there. It’s easy to say that in retrospect, but they play like a band that is angry that they are being forced to make this type of music.  Above all, though, I think I appreciate its Christian message, reminding everyone that God loves his children. (Thought you’d appreciate that).

I know its probably fruitless to speculate and that you have spent many more hours on it than I have, but their whole newspaper theme with TKOL is just making me curious. They say its a temporary snapshot of their music like the newspaper is a temporary snapshot of the world (sorry that’s horribly pretentious). But my question is whether TKOL is the new stuff that they’ve transitioned to, or is it just a gateway to new-er stuff? Tell me, man. You’re the expert!

Goldenage (7/24/12)

I’ll just start by saying: great choice.

3. “Kinetic” Pyramid Song EP (B-Side)
Well if you thought “Bloom” was off the wall, here’s a song most Radiohead fans have probably never even heard of, let alone actually listened to (although I hope I’m wrong about that). It was released as a b-side on the Pyramid Song single all the way back in aught one. Strangely, it’s not too dissimilar in style from TKOL-era Radiohead, (although it’s likely taking more of a Jazz influence than the electronica influenced megabeats on TKOL) with its frenetic drum track and too many layers of rhythm to comprehend let alone count. It’s relentlessly and unabashedly artificial sounding, like Thom Yorke trapped in a computer. Sounding suitably disembodied, Thom Yorke opens the track with one of my favorite lyrics: “You’re being took for a ride”.

2. “Kid A” Kid A
A divisive song from a divisive album, I wish I could say I loved this song (hell, this album) on first listen, but it simply wouldn’t be true. Like so many others, I found this song incredibly creepy when I first heard it. Over time though, since that long-ago initial spin, “Kid A” and the album that surrounds it have grown to be some of my all time favorite music. For a band at their zenith, the gods of 90s rock, to turn, and in the year 2000, release something as forward-looking and brashly original as “Kid A” (and Kid A) is, still today, impressive. The drums do so much work in this song, out in front of a subdued synth. Thom Yorke haunts this track with his vocoder-warped vocals, turning the otherwise rather minimal, pleasant sounding track into a dark, moody, and deeply unsettling song. This is history’s greatest art-rock band at their best.
I like the way you describe the newspaper theme for TKOL, and I think that sort of ‘snapshot’ idea applies to pretty much any and all of their albums. They’ve clearly ‘transitioned’ into something new with TKOL, but every album they’ve ever released has been distinct. My guess is that their next release (may it come soon) will be nothing like TKOL, just like Kid A was almost nothing like OK Computer.
Looking forward to #1. You may or may not find mine surprising, but I can’t wait to see what yours is.

Nixonin80 (7/24/12)

Ah yes, I had a feeling you would go with “Kinetic.” Okay, all jokes aside, I had a feeling that when this started you would have at least one song I had never heard of. Well, lo and behold we arrive at “Kinetic.” I give you an emphatic tip of the hat for a choice that makes your dedication and knowledge of this band very evident.

3. Exit Music (For a Film), OK Computer
A very bold move on my part to go with back to back OK Computer tracks, but this one couldn’t stay off of my top five. So much attention is given to Radiohead being the band that breaks down barriers, experiments with new styles and effectively reinvents itself as it goes along. I’m all for the prog shit, but isn’t their something to be said for bands that can tinker we an existing formula but provide something fresh with it? I mean, Led Zeppelin didn’t really do anything new. They just spiced up a bunch of old blues song and gave us heavy metal. I swear I have a point. The formula on this song is as basic as it gets in rock; slow acoustic beginning that builds and builds until the rest of the music section kicks in with a heavy riff. I’ve heard it a MILLION times, yet something seems so unique about this one. The bleak tone of both the singing and the lyrics (“wake…. from your sleep”) makes me feel as though I am watching depressing black and white reels of my own meaningless life- which is awesome! The kick that comes towards the end of the song is so satisfying though. The chanting voices, the hissing electric guitar, and the sound of a fucking airplane. It makes me crave a payoff for two and a half minutes and then delivers it by the spoonful.

2. “Reckoner” In Rainbows
I can’t remember if it was you who said it in one of our Radiohead arguments or if it was something I read over the years, but SOMEONE at SOME POINT said, “Radiohead doesn’t try to tell a story, they try to capture the emotion behind it.” Initially, I rolled my eyes and found this to be a cheap excuse for the NOISE that they offer in a lot of their latter day sins. However, I found it to ring so true ten times over on “Reckoner.” I can’t think of any word to describe the song other than “emotional.” Now, I know in this day and age that “emotional” music means we have to bitch and moan at the top of our lungs about how hard it is to exist, but the emotion in this song is something much more subtle and much more real. I don’t know if its the guitar being played so softly that it slips into my subconscious, the perfectly timed piano chords or Thom Yorke’s single greatest vocal performance of his tenure, but the song just hits me on another level. They take their emotional game to another motherfucking level. I’m seeing parts of emo town I’ve never seen before. It may sound horribly pretentious, but this song is purely art and it is beautiful.

I’m on the edge of my seat for your #1. Honestly, you’ve hit all of the bases of their career except for Hail to Thief… going out on a limb (HA!) and guessing that your #1 comes from that album. Any wild guesses for mine?

Goldenage (8/2/12)

1. “Pyramid Song” Amnesiac
It feels a little odd to pick this song having already picked a b-side from its single release, but here we are. The first time I heard this song I was riding in a car with my cousin. He had a mixtape of Radiohead songs that his friend had given him and when this song came on, my cousin, who plays piano, unsuccessfully tried to define the song’s weirder-than-weird time signature. At the time I was an absolute Radiohead novice, neither of us even knew the name of the song, but I loved “Pyramid Song” even then. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Radiohead transformed from a band I was interested in and intrigued by to a band that I knew I had to listen to. I was a stupid seventeen year-old kid who listened to nothing but hard rock and the classic rock songs we’ve all heard a million times, and my taste in music was never the same.

For a band whose catalogue is made up almost entirely of heady, emotional songs, “Pyramid Song” is one of the headiest and, at least for me, the most powerful. In the opening lines, Thom Yorke wails: “I jumped in the river and what did I see? /  black-eyed angels swimming with me”. I find that line immensely creepy but unbelievably beautiful. “Pyramid Song” comes during a time when Radiohead (or at least Thom Yorke) was pulling a ton of influence from Jazz, and it shows. The wonky time signature gives the song a completely distinct feel, but when the strings and drums come in, also in an irregular time signature, it doesn’t shed that awkward rhythm but crescendos into a gorgeous finish, with some of Thom Yorke’s most powerful vocals on display. This is the emotional side of a normally emotional band, and it makes for one of their most stirring and rousing songs.

“there was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt”

When you guessed that my final choice would come from Hail to the Thief I realized I hadn’t picked any songs from it! For shame. I love that album to death, but I suppose it sort of slipped through the cracks. I’ll go ahead and throw out a bonus pick! My #6 favorite Radiohead song of all time is “Sail to the Moon. (Brush the Cobwebs out of the Sky.)” I can’t want to see what your #1 pick is.

Nixonin80 (8/4/12)

The long wait is finally over today. Your list wasn’t terribly surprising to me in the sense that it didn’t include a single song before Kid A. You, like most, seem to occupy the side of things that likes to pretend their earlier work doesn’t really exist. Sure, you don’t mind hearing “Paranoid Android” or even “Ripcord” every now and then, but the very mention of “Karma Police” or “Creep” makes you sick. Fair enough. Still, your list held a few surprises. I mean “Kinetic?” Never heard of it. Ever. Never even heard you mention it until this string of emails. You know your way around Radiohead much better than I do, so I’ll take your word for it.

One final thought on TKOL so we can have closure. It’s not that I’m not a fan of progress. As much as I love OK Computer, I didn’t want to see our scrawny pale friends keep making acoustic alt rock for the next fifteen years. Their always-changing dynamic is good for music. No one can deny that. I have come to really appreciate Kid A, tolerate Hail to the Thief and steer clear of Amnesiac. So it’s not the avant garde that is pushing me away from them. It’s that The King of Limbs just isn’t very good. I made the effort over the past eighteen months since it came out, and that’s still my stance. I found “Lotus Flower” to be enjoyable live and think “Little by Little” and “Give Up the Ghost” are decent, but the rest of it is just unenjoyable. I don’t know how else to put it. When the album first came out and I voiced these complaints, you said “Yeah, it’s challenging.” At the time, I found this quite smug (which, no offense, I think is how you intended it). The album is challenging. It is hard to get. You certainly need to do a little homework to even see what the hell is going on in some of those tracks. In time, anyone can see that the album is intelligent, incredibly difficult to compose and comprehend and, yes, “challenging.” However, intelligent + difficult composition + challenging does not = good. When someone is your favorite band, you are inclined to love all of their material, even the stuff that you know isn’t as good. I get that. I, too, saw them live for the first time this summer and found them be incredibly alluring performers. This whole “above it all” persona does not seem like a gimmick. When you watch Thom Yorke burst into dance moves to his own songs, you can see that these guys are legit and dedicated to making music that they love. (PoC- if they were really above it all, would they sell t-shirts for $35 a piece at their concerts? Just saying.). I’m sure Radiohead will go to new heights and continue to leave their stamp on the music culture, but I’m really betting good money that we’ll look back at TKOL and realize that it was a low point for an otherwise prolific band. Just saying.

#1. “The National Anthem” Kid A
So that leaves us with the band perpetually pulled in two directions. My half loves their more conventional material (which they have excelled at) while your half thrives off of their barrier bulldozing experimental stuff. While both are vitally important, they seem to constantly be at odds with one another. Which lead me to this choice. I thought hard about the one time it all came together. When did they have a song that brought both of those elements into one piece? Is “National Anthem” a rock song? Undeniably. Does it follow a somewhat conventional structure? Oddly enough, yes, with it’s riff-driven loop and loose two verse structure. Is it enjoyed by the old school Radioheard? Every time. On your end, though, is it much more than a rock song? Definitely. It flirts on post-punk with its repetitive style and doesn’t sound anything like something you’d hear on the Billboard Rock Top 40. Is it unconventional? Not in the sense that creepy  “Kid A” is, but it defies conventions with the abstract jazz sections and distorted vocals. Is it enjoyed by the new era Radiohead fans such as yourself? I sure hope so!

It’s funny that nine out of ten people you stop on the street have probably heard of Radiohead, but of those people, how many do you think would respond to “what do you think is their best song?” You’re either going to hear “Creep” or get a confused look as they slowly realize that they don’t actually know any Radiohead songs. They definitely have a strange existence. So, for the people that say “Creep,” it’s very hard to tell them that 95% of the band’s catalog sounds NOTHING like that. At the same time, I don’t know if you could ever really pick one track that would be a good indicator of their “type” of music. I’m not saying that “National Anthem” is, but it’s definitely their track that pulls in the majority of their styles. As one of the middle tracks on one of their middle albums, it is the closest thing to their crossroads at the moment. Not to mention that the song is fucking disgusting and amplifies their common themes of isolation, anger, depression, confusion and (apparently) September 11? And it gave us the greatest Saturday Night Live performance of all time. Fact.

There you have it, amigo. Let the true discussion begin…

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3 thoughts on “Generic Flow’s Cruel Summer: The Radiohead Debate

  1. You’re absolutely right, that definitely gave us one of the greatest Saturday Night Live performance that I’ve ever seen in a long time. Radiohead is really good if you ask me.

  2. I recently listened to ‘Kinetic’ for the first time – what a great surprise! Loved it. And I would agree with ‘Pyramid Song’ being #1, especially as Amnesiac was probably my favourite album. I’m only liking Radiohead more and more after TKOL (it’s their first two albums that I come back to less often), and can completely relate to listening to In Rainbows again and again without knowing exactly why.

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