Album as an Art Form: Radiohead

Somehow, the idea of the album has been lost in recent days. Suddenly, the single has come to the forefront of musical importance. The idea is that if you can’t make it on the radio, you really haven’t succeeded. This is a really frightening concept to me. So, I’m going to take a look at the importance of the album in the context of a particular artist. I hope to do this for other artists as well. Today, we start with Radiohead.

Instinctive responses are quick to come at the utterance of the name “Radiohead.” Some find them as a truly innovative force in an overly commercialized world. Others cite them as a bunch of pricks who can’t play a good tune to save their lives. I happen to fall happily into the first category.

Taken as a whole, the entire Radiohead catalogue is quite overwhelming. Across seven albums, the band has traversed vast musical ground, ranging from near-grunge, to light pop, all the way to ambient electronica. Even so, they manage to hold a sense of identity. If verbally described, their music tends to be paranoid, anxious of the future, and generally melancholy. This doesn’t indicate a sense of “emo” in their output, but instead finds a tone – worried, but never whining.

But what allows Radiohead to hold such unity through their career? I argue that it is their albums that allow the band to develop as such a unified-yet-innovative presence.

The Opener

To expand on this, let’s look at the newest Radiohead release, The Best Of. This compellation album attempts to summarize the work of this band in sixteen tracks. An unfortunate decision occurs immediately as the album begins. The opener, “Just” (from The Bends), while an excellent song, sounds like a track that should occur mid-album. With no real introductory work, the song steams in, setting an apparent tone of loud mayhem.

Yet every other Radiohead album manages to open with an appropriate song. Pablo Honey starts with the soaring “You,” which pulls the listener in (even if the rest of the album can’t deliver). “Planet Telex” creates a sense of wonder as the proper opener to The Bends, sounding like nothing else the band has ever done. Even the most recent In Rainbows starts with a wise choice, as “15 Step” develops from a drum sequence into a fluid song. This idea of proper start is simply lost on a collection of singles. While one song may sound as a good beginning point, it doesn’t necessarily connect with the remainder of a record. “Just” simply does not cut it as the first song of a Radiohead album.

Sequencing

The Best Of manages its worst offences in terms of song order. While consideration was taken to allow for appropriate song pairings (“Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” are wonderful when taken together), there is no good place for “Creep” to land. The song, while undeniably important in the realm of Radiohead, isn’t at all reflective of anything the band has done after Pablo Honey. So in The Best Of, we find “Creep” unfortunately following “Karma Police.” This absolutely seems like a step backward for the band (despite the fact that “Karma Police” comes years after their most popular single).

This sort of non-progression further shows the weakness of the singles-based music collection. Both “Karma Police” and “Creep” are highly popular songs from Radiohead, but they are not very compatible together. “Creep” works best surrounded by the similar-sounding tones of Pablo Honey, where crunchy guitars are allowed to run free on a more personally emotional album. Meanwhile, the depth of both musicality and subject matter in “Karma Police” simply belong on the oft-praised OK Computer. To pair the two is almost hilarious, if not simply pathetic.

Then, at perhaps the most absurd point in the release, the light, touching strumming of “Fake Plastic Trees” is placed beside the cold, rigid techno of “Idioteque.” The powerful character sketches viewed in “Fake Plastic Trees” simply do not allow for proper preparation and lead-up to the difficult, alienating tones of anything from Kid A.

When viewed in an original scope, Kid A stands as perhaps the best-sequenced album of Radiohead’s career. By beginning with disarming sounds in “Everything in its Right Place,” the band can further lead the listener into their dense world of sound. Thankfully, “Idioteque” is introduced in this context in the literal aftermath of the preceding song. “In Limbo” carries forth until it can power itself no longer, eventually collapsing into computerized sound. This destruction serves as a perfect setup for the cold techno of “Idioteque.” It is the intelligence in sequencing that allows Radiohead to even use the songs in Kid A. Without each song building into the next, there would be great audio distress as the album plays.

The Closer

For an album to leave a good taste in the ears, it nearly always must possess a worthwhile closing song. While it needn’t be “great,” there should be at least some sense of finality, or at least not a new sense of beginning. The Best Of fails in this task by using one of Radiohead’s best openers as a closer. “Everything in its Right Place” simply does not work to end an album. While the concept sounds good in theory (end with the idea of things being in their right place), too much is attached to the song for it to end anything. Instead of completing a statement, it serves as thoroughly a jarring departure from the rest of the record and seems like a new direction of thought. It’s really hard to be left hanging, waiting for something more from a band.

Perhaps the best choice in closer would have been “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” a haunting track that ends properly (very “final” in the guitar part). Unfortunately, this was relegated to the penultimate position, which further ruins the sequencing of The Best Of.

Unity

I argue that OK Computer is the greatest album of all time, not simply because of individual songs. Instead, I see the whole product to be vastly greater than a simple addition of the value of each part. Throughout the grand sweep of the album, recurring themes of paranoia and technology create a grand tapestry of meaningfulness. OK Computer would be totally different without the epic “Paranoid Android,” yes, but even “Fitter Happier” adds to the scope of the entire product.

There is a great deal of focus in each Radiohead album. Thanks to this, it would be difficult to imagine songs from other records appearing together (can you imagine “Paranoid Android” and “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box” resulting from the same era?). Yet, The Best Of tries things like this, bringing together grunge from Pablo Honey and electronic visions from Kid A. Without this sense of unity, there is no extraordinary greatness to be found; instead, we get some good tracks all cobbled together.

The Great Radiohead

It should be noted that Radiohead, despite this collection, still manage to be a great group. It is simply unfortunate that such an album-oriented band be picked apart and summarized by only a few songs. Even though these singles are often quite good, they don’t show the organizational intelligence of the band. Furthermore, the true depth of Radiohead is lost on those who don’t further explore their works.

There is a reason why Radiohead is so regarded as a great modern band, and it is thanks to records, not just songs. By hearing The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, or In Rainbows attached to the band’s name, you listen to the importance of an album. No one discussed how Radiohead released “Bodysnatchers” and some other songs last year – it was In Rainbows. The band’s devotion to the album is inspiring and encouraging. At least we know that every few years, we’ll get to see a carefully crafted release, instead of a bunch of songs all put in one place. That is the promise of Radiohead.

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