By: Ron Hart
When you talk to anyone who is big into Radiohead and ask them what their three favorite Radiohead albums are, chances are you'll get something along the lines of The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A, or perhaps OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows; or you might even have the rare Pablo Honey, The Bends and OK Computer combo plate - rare because most fans of Radiohead today hardly acknowledge the Oxford progressives' 1993 rote stutter step of a debut album. In any case, many would consider it nothing short of sin incarnate not to include OK Computer when talking about the three best Radiohead albums, regardless of the other two picks.
However, while it is readily established that OK Computer is indeed the band's best album of the 1990s and one of the five best recordings of that decade overall, there are a select few who do harbor the belief that Computer was merely a launchpad for what would be the group's true trilogy of creative genius: 2000's Kid A, 2001's Amnesiac, and 2003's Hail to the Thief. And similar to the treatment given to their first three albums earlier this year, the bottom half of the group's six-album major label run have been repackaged as 2-CD/1-DVD deluxe editions from Radiohead's former label, Capitol-EMI, in their attempt to squeeze every last dime from their successful catalog act as the band continues to shed the old skin of a creaky, outdated music industry with each download they make available on their digital store, W.A.S.T.E..
Fatigued and disillusioned by the voracious lionization bestowed upon them following the release of OK Computer (brilliantly documented in director Grant Gee's 1998 film meditation Meeting People Is Easy), the band journeyed inward for OK Computer's follow-up, Kid A, the album some arguably consider to be Radiohead's true singular masterpiece. It has been said that much of the material from Kid A stemmed from a collective bout of writer's block the band experienced upon trying to work up material that would meet the expectations of both industry brass and their fans following the release of OK Computer. And, rather than kowtowing to critics hailing them as the new Pink Floyd, the band opted to become the new Soft Machine instead, creating an album brimming with improvisational adventurousness and dynamic explorations into their own love of the music emanating from their private stereos back in 1999-2000. Boards of Canada, Autechre, Aphex Twin, Charles Mingus, electric Miles Davis, Brian Eno's late '70s collaborations with German experimentalists Cluster, Scott Walker, soundtrack music for Disney nature films, minimalist classical, and mid-20th century computer music were all obvious touchstones that fade in and out across these 10 tracks, signified in the IDM rock of the album's title cut, the analog Arthur Kreiger samples that flutter and bleep across "Idioteque," or the free jazz "traffic jam" that kicks in at the height of "The National Anthem." According to a 2001 article in Wire by noted music journalist Simon Reynolds, Thom Yorke admitted to reading Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the head, which chronicles The Beatles' recording sessions with George Martin during their Sgt. Pepper/White Album period, and it certainly shows the daring moves Radiohead made while creating what still remains arguably their sonic Sistine Chapel.
2001's Amnesiac, meanwhile, consisted of material recorded during the Kid A sessions, which had initially given the album the stigma of being a Kid A outtakes compilation (or "Kid B", as many wannabe comedians moonlighting as music critics hailed it upon its release).
"In some weird way, I think Amnesiac gives another take on Kid A, a form of explanation," offered Yorke with regards to Amnesiac in a 2001 post on the now-defunct website Spin With A Grin.
And while Amnesiac might not have been as warmly received in the summer of 2001 by those very critics who hailed its predecessor, time has indeed been kind to the album. Many of the songs have since become live staples, such as "I Might Be Wrong", "Dollars and Cents" and the simply gorgeous "Pyramid Song," which seems to have helped the plight of what is definitely the band's mellowest and most nuanced album to date. In listening to Amnesiac again, it most definitely deserves a space in the Top 3, if only for its soulful closing number "Life in a Glass House," pretty much the finest New Orleans funeral march ever crafted by English blokes. If any album served as the proper precursor to Yorke's solo album, The Eraser, it's Amnesiac.
2003's Hail to the Thief, Radiohead's sixth album whose title was widely rumored to be a thinly-veiled swipe at George W. Bush, was released with the promise of a return to the guitar rock of their '90s era. What we wound up getting instead was a brilliant fusion of The Bends and Kid A eras, where the group ventures into territories that makes the Krautrock sound anthemic, as on the album's great initial single "There, There." Elsewhere they explore elements of jungle on the kinetic "Sit Down, Stand Up," do some Warp Records raiding on "Backdrifts" and "The Gloaming," and yes, a return to good, old fashioned guitar rock on songs like "2 + 2 = 5" and "A Punch Up at a Wedding." If Radiohead recorded The Bends after OK Computer it could have sounded like Hail to the Thief.
Like the deluxe editions of their first three albums, these versions of Kid A, Amnesiac and Thief all come doubled up with a bonus disc loaded with all sorts of rare treats. Most of the stuff on here many serious Radiohead fans already have in terms of b-sides from each album, but also featured is some great, previously unreleased live material, especially on Kid A and Amnesiac, both of which include a particularly amazing performance at Canal+ Studios from April of 2001 spread equally across both second discs, not to mention a great BBC Radio One session featured on Kid A. Sadly, Hail to the Thief has a bit of a deficit in live material, save for a version of "Sail to the Moon" from a May 2003 edition of the Jo Whiley Show on the BBC and a wonderful take on "Go To Sleep" from DJ Zane Lowe's Radio 1 show. If you shell out the extra dollars, there are special collector's editions of all three of these albums that come with a DVD filled with the promotional videos that accompanied each release and some pretty great performances from their three separate appearances on the beloved BBC talk show Later…With Jools Holland promoting each album. Hopefully the next Radiohead-related project EMI rolls out is a complete Radiohead live album from this era (a 2-CD version of I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, perhaps?).
Now we can argue over which three Radiohead albums are their trilogy of greatness until the cows come home, but a strong case can be made for Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief marking the most significant arc of creativity and artistic expression in this band's career, particularly when you consider the stuff these guys are doing beyond the realms of the group: Thom Yorke's freshly recruited, as-yet-unnamed band featuring Flea on bass, master session drummer and music industry progeny Joey Waronker on drums, and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich; Jonny Greenwood's soundtrack work on Paul Thomas Anderson's oil baron drama There Will Be Blood and the 2003 biological documentary Bodysong; and guitarist Ed O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway's recent collaboration with the Finn Brothers as 7 Worlds Collide. And when you look at these three LPs in such a context, it's hard not to consider Kid, Amnesiac, and Thief anything BUT their most prized trifecta of greatness.
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