I Might Be Wrong ... but not about Radiohead - Reverb

I Might Be Wrong … but not about Radiohead

Thom Yorke knows where you sleep. Photo by Steve Forrest, The New York Times.

Thom Yorke knows where you sleep. Photo by Steve Forrest, The New York Times.

This column was named in reference to a Radiohead song (and, for that matter, a live album), so it’s pretty clear where I stand on the Oxford collective. But, my personal affections aside, there are objective reasons any modern pop music fan should care about Radiohead. I’d like to go one step further: Even if you don’t like Radiohead’s music, you should still love the group.

Common annoyances when it comes to Radiohead include tussling with Thom Yorke’s mournful falsetto or the over-experimentalist spirit of Jonny Greenwood. What is the latter creating if not an aural Frankenstein’s monster? And why is his vocalist more upset than Sylvia Plath?

And, while you’re certainly entitled to your opinion and a level of subjectivity, Radiohead should be appreciated by all — albeit on a different level.

It’s because Radiohead is the bridge between the late 1980s underground DIY rock (most famously collected by Michael Azerrad in his “Our Band Could Be Your Life”) and post-Joy Division European moody pop (New Order, Talk Talk, the Smiths et al.) into what I’d term the download era that we’re experiencing today. Our current landscape is markedly characterized by its divergence rather than its unity — perhaps also because of iTunes, perhaps also because of all the disparate opinions online. I’d argue that Radiohead is largely responsible for the factionalism, too.

The band followed a pattern of boundary-testing, slowly but surely becoming more and more — for lack of a better term — avant-garde. But, its fairly subtle climb to the peaks of “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” via “The Bends” and then “OK Computer,” allowed for listeners and, perhaps more importantly, its labels (Parlophone/Capitol) to adjust. They weren’t playing it safe but there was plenty of pop music to be found behind the technological loops and flourishes. In short, the band’s success in this period — commercially and creatively — paved the way for many other groups. And almost certainly a few bands that you really care about. (Björk, the Flaming Lips and a few others maintained a level of creative intensity and label autonomy during the same time period but they weren’t as influential or, frankly, as popular.)

And on a business front, Radiohead became that era connector because they actively participated in the winding down of the major label epoch before fully embracing the download model with “In Rainbows.” Many felt that the importance of their self-released mode was overstated at the time, but perhaps it wasn’t shouted from the rafters enough. Would Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan be releasing videos directly to their fans if not for Radiohead? Would a subscription-based posit that Rick Rubin made in a 2007 New York Times Magazine article have been fully realized as Spotify? Maybe; we’ll never really know. But time will almost certainly confirm the landmark status of the pay-what-you-wish release of “In Rainbows” as brilliant.

Creatively, the band isn’t its sharpest today, but they’re no also-rans, either. “The King of Limbs” is roundly under-appreciated and, live, Radiohead looks to be as magnificent as ever. (The touring addition of Clive Deamer on drums doesn’t hurt; the group shows him off Tuesday night at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield.) And they still keep us on our toes with electronic originality, Christmas-morning-like release surprises, remixes, peculiar and stunning album artwork and packaging, mysterious Dead Air Space missives, and fabulous live films. If that weren’t enough, they’re still making masterful music videos, an art form they helped to create and perfect.

What it boils down to is Radiohead’s status as a band of the past and future: no other group carried the torch more adeptly through such rocky territory. So, whether you’re headed to the Girls or the Joy Formidable show next week or downloading Pitchfork’s most recent Best New Music pick, you’ve got Radiohead to thank. In varying degrees, yes, but in some discernible way, undoubtedly. This time, I am not wrong.

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Colin St. John is a Denver-based writer and merrymaker. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog.

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