Radiohead


Radiohead
a British pop group formed in 1988. Their most successful albums include The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997).

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▪ 2004

      In 2003, as it had since the late 1990s, the unofficial title of the “world's most important rock band”—bestowed by critics but confirmed by music buyers and once claimed by the Clash, U2, and then Nirvana—belonged to Radiohead, a British quintet whose experimentation with rock's sonic possibilities had begun in earnest on its masterpiece album OK Computer (1997). Hailed an instant classic, it fused techno electronics with guitar virtuosity and deepened the angst-ridden alienation of lyricist and operatic vocalist Thom Yorke, who reluctantly became, for some, the voice of a generation. On subsequent albums Radiohead seemed to disavow its musical past, moving away from melody and rock instrumentation to create intricately textured sound scapes, before melding this approach with its guitar-band roots on the much-anticipated album Hail to the Thief (2003).

      Radiohead was formed in 1987 in Oxford, Eng., as On a Friday (the group's rehearsal day) by schoolmates and friends: Yorke (b. Oct. 7, 1968, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire), guitarist Jonny Greenwood (b. Nov. 5, 1971, Oxford), his brother, bassist Colin Greenwood (b. June 26, 1969, Oxford), guitarist Ed O'Brien (b. April 15, 1968, Oxford), and drummer Phil Selway (b. May 23, 1967, Hemingford Grey, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire). Having separated when the members attended different colleges and universities, the group reconvened permanently in 1991 but received a lukewarm response from listeners and was dismissed (sometimes rudely) by the British music press. Radiohead's breakthrough came in 1993, when “Creep,” a self-loathing outsider anthem, became a hit in the United States, as did the group's debut album, Pablo Honey. Rereleased in the U.K., “Creep” repeated its American success, and Radiohead's next album, The Bends (1995), was acclaimed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic.

      It was OK Computer, however, that launched the group up the charts and garnered a Grammy Award for best alternative rock performance. In science-fiction-inflected songs such as “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “Paranoid Android,” the diminutive Yorke plaintively evoked a world whose humaneness was compromised by technology. Musically, Radiohead brought new subtlety and shading to its efforts, proving itself to be a progressive rock band in the tradition of Pink Floyd. With Kid A (2000), the group steadfastly refused to resort to formula. Substituting synthesized sounds and tape loops for guitars, concentrating on texture and tone, and employing increasingly reductive lyrics, Radiohead dared fans to follow it down the experimental path. Though the album was a commercial success, it met with mixed critical reaction, as would the similar Amnesiac (2001), produced during the same sessions as Kid A. Some of the Radiohead faithful wavered, but most returned to the fold with Hail to the Thief, which, rather than a calculated effort to return to the group's roots, was viewed by many as a logical progression in Radiohead's musical adventure.

Jeff Wallenfeldt

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▪ British rock group
      British rock group that was arguably the most accomplished art-rock (art rock) band of the early 21st century. This revered quintet made some of the most majestic—if most angst-saturated—music of the postmodern era. Formed in the mid-1980s at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, Radiohead comprised singer-guitarist Thom Yorke (b. Oct. 7, 1968, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Eng.), bassist Colin Greenwood (b. June 26, 1969, Oxford, Oxfordshire), guitarist Ed O'Brien (b. April 15, 1968, Oxford), drummer Phil Selway (b. May 23, 1967, Hemingford Grey, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire), and guitarist-keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (b. Nov. 5, 1971, Oxford).

      Strongly influenced by American bands such as R.E.M. and the Pixies (Pixies, the), Radiohead paid early dues on the local pub circuit. With their university education completed, the group landed a deal with Parlophone in late 1991. Although its debut album, Pablo Honey (1993), barely hinted at the grandeur to come, the startling single “Creep”—a grungy snarl of self-loathing—made major waves in the United States.

      The Bends (1995) took even the band's most ardent fans by surprise. A soaring, intense mix of the approaches of nirvana and dramatic vocalist Jeff Buckley, the album's powerful sense of alienation completely transcended the parochial issues of mid-1990s Britpop. Driving rockers such as “Bones” were skillfully offset by forlorn ballads such as “High and Dry.” The widely acclaimed OK Computer (1997) was nothing short of a premillennial version of Pink Floyd's classic album Dark Side of the Moon (1973): huge-sounding and chillingly beautiful, with Yorke's weightless voice enveloped on masterpieces such as “Lucky” by webs of dark, dense textures. In its live performances, Radiohead became one of pop music's most compelling acts.

      The pressure to follow up one of the most acclaimed recordings of the 20th century told particularly on Yorke's fragile psyche. The band made false starts in Paris and Copenhagen before settling down back in England. When Kid A came out in October 2000, it signaled that Radiohead—and Yorke above all—wanted to leave the wide-screen drama of OK Computer behind. The resulting selection of heavily electronic, more or less guitar-free pieces (notably “Kid A” and “Idioteque”) confounded many but repaid the patience of fans who stuck with it. Though the album was a commercial success, it met with mixed critical reaction, as would the similar Amnesiac (2001), produced during the same sessions as Kid A. But if Radiohead had seemingly disavowed its musical past on these two albums—moving away from melody and rock instrumentation to create intricately textured soundscapes—it found a way to meld this approach with its guitar-band roots on the much-anticipated album Hail to the Thief (2003), which reached number three on the U.S. album charts. In 2006 Yorke, who had reluctantly become for some the voice of his generation, collaborated with the group's modernist producer, Nigel Godrich, on a solo album, The Eraser.

      The band, having concluded its six-album contract with the EMI Group in 2003, broke away from major label distribution and initially released its seventh album, In Rainbows (2007), via Internet download. An estimated 1.2 million fans downloaded the album within its first week of availability, paying any price they wished to do so. The novel distribution method generated headlines, but it was the album's content—a collection of 10 tracks that served as a confident, almost optimistic, sonic counterpoint to The Bends—that led critics to declare it the most approachable Radiohead album in a decade. In Rainbows was released to retailers as a standard CD in 2008, and it immediately hit number one in both the United States and Great Britain.

Barney Hoskyns
 

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Universalium. 2010.

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