Monday, 5 April 2010

The Greatest Band of the 90'S/00'S

Radiohead Are The Best Band In The 90s-2000sOriginally written: 08/10/07


Like the 50's had Elvis. Like the 60's had The Beatles. Like the 70's had Pink Floyd and the 80's had The Pixies, it is so often asked, "Who was the band of the 90's?" and now as we reach the end of the first decade within the new millennium, "who is the band of the 2000's?"

Agree with me, disagree with me, I know the answer, and much like the bands I have just mentioned, it is unchallenged, and I don't care what you say. Yes, it's Radiohead. Now, as I type this I can imagine some heads nodding in agreement while others open their mouths, ready to blurt out why their favorite band is better, blah blah blah, shut up and listen, I have my reasons.

So lets start from the beginning shall we? One of the best-documented downfalls of any band is the "curse of the debut". It works like this: a band gets together, they write songs and they write songs. They perform shows and they perform shows. And then they get discovered by some label and are now in the great position where they can record their first album. So basically, or at least generally, we have a band with a shit-load of material and that is why so often a debut's work is much like a "Best-Of", they pick their top 10-14 songs and release a great album to much critical and commercial success, only to follow it up with a half-assed album put together in half the time due to pressures from the label, fans and fame. It's sad, but is to be expected.

But Radiohead, yes Radiohead, were so far from that. They got their hit single by the name of "Creep". This song hit number 7 in the pop charts and became and anthem for wrist-slitters around the globe, to the point of KoЯn covering the song in their embarrassing MTV Unplugged performance. This song was on their debut "Pablo Honey" and, unfortunately, overshadowed all the other songs quite drastically. So much so that on the U.S. release, the song was featured twice on the album, the bonus version being the radio edit ("so fucking special" became "so very special"). Their second single "Anyone Can Play Guitar" achieved minimal success, and then, they were labeled the worst of all musical labels: A One Hit Wonder. Another generic Pixies/U2 band, another bunch of depressed youngsters riding the grunge "I Hate Myself And Want to Die" trend, which in my opinion, was born and died in Seattle and everything else was just an aftershock.

I would love to meet those critics now.

My point is this: who else could possibly challenge Radiohead as the greatest 90's band? REM? Well, REM are specifically an 80's band, and although a MASSIVE influence on Radiohead (Thom Yorke going as far as to say "We've ripped off R.E.M. blind for years, you know-- amongst other people"), the main reason why I don't view them as a challenge is the same reason as I don't see Nirvana as a challenge. Hehehe, you knew that was coming, didn't you? The "N-" word, in fact, I am pretty sure 90% of people would automatically respond to the original question with that answer. Nirvana are the greatest 90’s band. Well, they were, no doubt, a phenomenon. Hell, I was caught in the whirlwind of their influence long before I even noticed who Radiohead were. That was the moment I said to myself "I want to be in a band"; the moment I said "I want to grow my hair long" (which I did the moment I got out of school), I mean, Kurt Cobain warped my fragile little pre-teenage mind: personal hygiene seemed to loose some importance, suicide and the junkie lifestyle was glamorized, I wanted to be that, a waste, and that’s a difficult thing to convince a generation to become. Luckily, I snapped out of this in time, but I still base a lot of my musical decisions on this band.

It may seem like I have dug a hole for myself here, but there is one word that applies to Radiohead like no other band of our time, a word that could be applied to the Pink Floyds and The Beatles. Progression. Nirvana and REM never pushed the boundaries, especially in Nirvana's case, it's very rare that you will find a song of theirs that doesn’t follow the four-chord format, the "verse-chorus-verse" formula (which they mocked themselves in a song with that exact title) and further more, their trademark "soft-heavy-soft-heavy" sound, which Kurt admitted was a complete shameless Pixies rip-off, who are the band I would actually credit the most when it comes to the real beginnings of grunge.

The progression of Radiohead is no short of incredible. In fact, incredible is too subtle of a word; I am so familiar with the bands massive body of work and yet am still in awe of their ability to move forward. Pablo Honey means very little to me, I ignore it, but what came next destroyed all preconceptions beyond even the harshest of critic’s imagination. Baby, you've got "The Bends".

Now, I have friends who swear by this album, and many hailing it as their best work (including a poll a few years back where many of the British public voted, and secured it's position in those charts as "the greatest album of all time") and sure, it was a massive leap into a sound that Radiohead themselves were going for. Instead of the post-grunge feel of Pablo Honey, we were introduced into the art rock side of things. The Observer called it one of the "50 albums that changed music" and was ranked 110 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 greatest albums of all time". And if you look around at the Travis', the Muses, the Coldplays, you can see why. It is safe to say that of all Radiohead's catalogue, this is the one that has been ripped off the most, and never that well I might add.

Q Magazine rated The Bends as the second best album of all time in the years 1998 and 2006. And in all fairness, it didn’t deserve to be in the top spot. Because the top spot was owned by Radiohead as well. Their follow-up. Their masterpiece, OK Computer.

Now, even this album I can't really tell if it is my favorite. But it is the most highly acclaimed, by a long way. Consider this: (the greatest music site in the world hands down) is a site where you, me, everyone in the world can play critic and rate any album in existence. So what you get is an average score on an album based on thousands of people’s opinion and so it is, in essence, the real popular opinion above all the shit you read in magazines. So when an album is not only rated the best album of "1997" but also of the 90's all together ( ... well, you start to get some idea what I am on about. In fact, as I am typing this, it is currently number 9 album overall ( It won a well deserved Grammy for "Best Alternative Music Album" and was nominated for "Album of the year" but lost to Céline Dion. Er... 'nuff said? In fact, just about any worthwhile "best album" list will include this entry, and close to half of them will place it in the upper-section of the top 10.

The reason for this is not lost on anyone who has heard it, and is the same reason why I place them above Nirvana, the word: progression. Comparing Nirvana and Radiohead is like comparing The Sex Pistols and The Beatles. Now, I find Sex Pistols to be the most overrated garbage ever to be even considered as a "masterpiece" so maybe this isn't fair, but the message is there. Sex Pistols "gimmick" as it were was the anti-studio trickery, anti-complex compositions, simplistic raw under-produced anti-commercialism kind of style, as is Nirvana. And there is nothing wrong with that. But it doesn't represent the times it was made in whatsoever. That is to say that the style of Nirvana could've easily been made in the 60's, it was a guitar, a bass, drums, vocals, and was not given the time to be polished. I mean, sure Nevermind was a slick record (and just for interest sake, was in fact named after Sex Pistols "Nevermind the Bollocks" just to justify the similarities further) but it was still a bad representative of the 90's. Once again, this is not a bad thing, it's a very good thing, but it was not progressive and won't be looked back on as "the album that defined the 90's" because it is not miles apart from what was being achieved in decades before.

Whereas The Beatles (in particular: Sgt Pepper) defines the (year/decade/MILLENIUM) of it's creation because it pushed the limits of what the studio can do. An album as a separate work of art, something that was (for it's time) impossible to recreate live. Self-indulgent without alienation and completely destroying all that came before and creating one hell of a challenge for anything that came after it. Maybe that's not what you look for in music, and I am not claiming that this is all I look for either. But an album is a product is an art piece, and I'd be a fucking idiot if I spend my money on something that took a month or two to create over something that took a few years, because ultimately, this is when the artist gives a fuck about you, the consumer.

I could go on forever about Ok Computer, but what it comes down to is that it blew apart the competition once and for all and secured Radiohead as one of the most important acts of all time. While British acts where scrambling themselves together trying to still get their heads around The Bends, Radiohead had already leaped 10 steps further, and while bands like Muse make a very good carbon copy of the Bends, no band has ever even copied Ok Computer yet, they couldn't, they would make an ass of themselves. It's been 10 years, but listening to these tracks still sound ahead of their time (excl. Fitter Happier, a real pity of a track that used a "text-to-speech" program which was innovative for it's time, but now is unfortunately, a cliché).

So at this stage, what does a band that rewrote the rulebook do? Well, this is Radiohead, they rewrote it again. And boy, did they rewrite it. It was the ultimate progression, while MTV addicts were still bobbing their heads to The Bends and having a confusing time with Ok Computer, Kid A was released and even the biggest fans of the band echoed together... "huh?". Some called it "commercial suicide" and a "contract breaker", basically an album thrown together to get them out of their relationship with Parlophone, Capitol. This wasn't a rock record, it was an electronic soundscape and divided fans, everyone positive it was destined to fail.

It didn't. Of course it was hard to swallow and as a result, did not achieve the commercial success of its predecessor. But Radiohead were not after that, they had done that, they were an art band and were challenging themselves and everyone else. They took a calculated risk, as I am sure releasing another "Ok Computer" would've been the easier, safer option, in the long run, it was only now that they were truly a part of history, innovators and masters of the trade. It took a while, but people started to get it, it was nominated for the best album Grammy once again and won the Grammy for best-engineered record for 2001. It still fights for the top position of the entire 2000's according to rateyourmusic ( never dropping out the top 5, and now justifying my point that maybe, just maybe, this is the best band we've got for 2 decades running (the only other band I can think of for the 2000's would be Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but that’s a different story). Kid A also went on be called "the best album of the past five years" by Pitchfork Media and Stylus Magazine separately. This may be my favorite Radiohead album. I'd like to see Nirvana or REM do something like that.

Admittedly, and sadly, the general consensus was that it had begun to decline. One year after Kid A, Amnesiac came out. It was brilliantly nicknamed "Kid B" by fans, mainly because these songs were from the same sessions as Kid A, but were deemed not to fit the overall sound of the album. The band urged fans to treat this as a separate album, but what we got was a somewhat disjointed and erratic offering, and although not as progressive as their album-by-album pattern went, it was unbelievably even more challenging than anything they had done before. Even some of the most die-hard fans were confused and some rejected this as rushed and the least accomplished of all their releases. Me? Well, when it comes to music, not only am I up for a challenge, I thrive on them.

It took a lot of sitting down time and careful analysis until I got it. And I got it. It is what it is, ignore what the band say, this is the scraps from Kid A, but Radiohead have never written a bad song, as any collector of their extensive b-sides will tell you. It's a trip, a difficult trip, but a solid album nonetheless. I mean, "Pyramid Song" has got to be one of the best songs ever written. It was just another view into genius, a well produced effort, which sounds like nothing else on this planet, and without being completely copied note for note, will never be reproduced again.

However, the band felt the backlash from fans and critics it seems, and 2 years later in 2003 we got their next album "Hail to the Thief". The experiment here was speed, to record as fast as possible rather than spending countless hours on each track like they had done in the past, nearly killing each other in the process, it has been said. This album is definitely the only one in their catalogue that does not apply to the term "progression". If anything, it was a mix of Kid A and Ok Computer, the guitars were back and the electronics still ran strong. It was a lot more accessible and straightforward, less overdubbing, but still by no means cliché. Once again, they suffered because of it, NME's James Oldham saw it as "a good rather than great record", and Alexis Petridis of The Guardian called it "neither startlingly different and fresh nor packed with the sort of anthemic songs that once made them the world's biggest band."

There was a time I would've agreed, but this album has grown on me and it saddens me to hear all the negative responses. People that are comparing their albums to past releases are always going to set themselves up for disappointment, the real idea here is that this album still whips the majority of anything out there, hands down. It is also the longest Radiohead release yet.

And that is why I pain where I hear Thom Yorke complaining that of all their records, this is the one he was least happy with, even stating that he wished he "had another go at it". I wish he didn't listen to the criticism and looked at this album as just another awesome part in their almost flawless journey.

I think, besides my excessive use of the word "progressive", an almost synonymous word that can apply to what they do is "innovative". And it was their innovations that lead me to write this essay. I have wanted to for a long time, but with their recent activities hitting the news, it gave me the tiny bit of inspiration I needed to write this proud worship of my favorite modern band. Some of you know what I am talking about.

"The Day That Music Died" has been a term applied to many moments in music, the most notably and famously used would be the tragic plane crash which killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson, Jr. However, the term has cropped up again now in association with the up and coming Radiohead's album "In Rainbows". Despite having the worst name and worst cover in their collection, and despite whatever it is the album sounds like, already their innovative ideas are unlike any done before, once again, people gasping "they can't do that... can they??"

The biggest enemy in modern music is downloading and file sharing (if you are a downloader, please, stop reading now and shoot yourself in the head, you are not a true supporter of the industry, you do not deserve to read this, you do not deserve to even listen to music because you think your entertainment is a free right, it's not). I would love to see how Nirvana would have handled this, Kurt Cobain escaping just in time before the chaos began, although I am sure he wouldn't care, he had Heroin after all.

So what is a band to do? In Radiohead's case, having just fulfilled their contract and unsigned, they are the first to ever apply the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" technique. And sadly, when it comes to piracy and the desensitized nature of the general public to this method, you can't beat ‘em. So they took the next step.

"How much? Seriously How Much?" the website prompts you ( What? You mean... I decide how much I pay for the new Radiohead? Yep, that’s what is happening, from October the 10th. Fuck overpriced cds and fuck the fight against piracy, Radiohead have laid down their guns. You pay whatever you want, if it's nothing, it's nothing. However, if you want the physical cd, you can wait until December the 3rd, where it will be issued with a bonus cd with new material. Needless to say, the media is in frenzy, this is unheard of, and proves that even though it is their 7th album, they still have a fair amount of tricks up their sleeves. I for one am in awe and jump in my seat every time I type their name into Google news, no band that still exist does this for me.

So in conclusion, I ask you, do you challenge this as our number 1 band? Our Beatles? The band that people will remember in 50 years? In a 100 years? Nirvana got through 3 albums in their time (excl Incesticide which was a b-side album and Unplugged which was not new material), Radiohead progressed more in 3 albums than David Bowie. REM is a great rock band. Radiohead dabbled in so many different genre styles in the last decade and a half that when listening to Pablo Honey and Amnesiac back to back, despite being only separated by 8 years, sounds like completely different bands. And while the labels and bands throw their fists up to piracy, Radiohead had the brains to see it as a war already lost and have embraced digital distribution without limits, and prove that unlike so many of their counterparts, they are truly in it for the art and not the money.

Look, the point is this. We can all sit here and list our favorite bands, but who are we to decide what the "best" band is. Surely, as a general society, we all have a say. We can all find comfort in the underground and claim that we know the greatest band around, but it is not the individual that decides. It is everybody. Radiohead are critically acclaimed and commercially accepted, MTV loves to play them while art-scholars love to analyze it. It works on levels that the most uneducated listener to the most accomplished of musicians can appreciate. They are multi-platinum and have never sold-out, in fact, have done quite the opposite even when the odds were against them. And this, my friends, is why you can't argue with me. No other artist has embraced technology like this with this extent of success, and this is why it represents our generation above all else, Anyone Can Play Guitar, but to push the studio to the limits they have, to inspire so many b-rate versions of themselves without ever giving us something predictable, always maintaining originality and integrity, always remaining Radiohead, this is why, like The Beatles, I believe they have changed music for the better and will be remembered forever.

Knives out. Challengers?

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