Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020
A patched-together overview of some of my Spotify artists’ playlists in roughly alphabetical order…
It was some time around the tail-end of the holidays, 1995. We (that is myself, WH, and our mutual friend Allen) were on one of our many record shopping excursions in Sacramento. Our route always began out in suburbia with Tower Records on Watt Avenue, then we worked our way into the city center by way of The Beat on J Street, and we usually ended up on K Street in the heart of downtown. Like many hearts of many downtowns, Sacramento’s K Street has faced the usual challenges of street crime and homelessness. It may have been at its lowest point on that cold, gray day as ‘95 changed over to ‘96. Someone in an army overcoat was loudly telling sinners to repent on the corner of 7th and K, and the scent of fortified wine and urine was in the air as we walked by huddled, sleeping figures, and slipped through the seedy doorway of 708 K Street. A former saloon, the address still boasted a flophouse hotel on its upper floors.
But its ground floor was home to K Street Records, one of the most gloriously disorganized and haphazard retail establishments I have ever had the pleasure to peruse. Stacks of vinyl lined the walls with no rhyme or reason, and even the supposedly alphabetized bins of CDs were a crapshoot. To make up for it, a very friendly mottle-coated cat offered an almost deafening purr in exchange for an ear-scratch, which may have been the best deal in the place. Nick Cave was playing on the store’s sound system that day.
Even more stock was available down in the basement, but I don’t recall ever going down there. It may have been closed to the public entirely at that point. Local legend states the basement of K Street Records was haunted by the spirit of a lady (“Gertrude,” I’m told) in a Victorian dress who could be a tad hostile. The establishment is also semi-famous for being on the cover of DJ Shadow’s breakthrough sample-fest Endtroducing…, a photograph taken not long after this day’s visit. One has to assume a lot of the vintage vinyl that comprised the Davis native’s debut album came from K Street.
We didn’t find anything at K Street Records, so we moved on down the block to another Tower Records. The K Street Tower Records was the venerable chain’s third Sacramento location (after the Watt Avenue and Broadway stores, both dating from the ‘60s), which opened in 1973. The entryway was decorated with a massive, funky, very ‘73 mural.
We weren’t there long before WH waved me over. “Come here.”
I did so.
“Hold out your hand.”
I did so.
He dropped two brand-new, shrink-wrapped CDs into my open palm.
“Buy these today. Thank me tomorrow.”
That’s how I came to buy Oasis’ 1994 debut Definitely Maybe and their new release (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. And WH was right. I had no regrets. Oasis rocketed to the top of My Favorite Bands list before Definitely Maybe was halfway over. (My other purchase from that day, Southern Culture on the Skids’ Dirt Track Date, ended up getting sold off within a few months.)
Oasis’ formula was simple: Build a song solely around its best parts — the big riff and the catchy chorus — and repeat them as loud as you can. It’s really not much different from AC/DC’s approach, but Oasis added just a splash of Beatles/Kinks melodicism. I derived immeasurable joy out of those first two Oasis albums. My white Dodge Colt (with the black left front fender) soon boasted an Oasis sticker in the back window. They were all I wanted to listen to in the first few months of ‘96 (well, them and Tom Waits, and the Pogues — see below — but I was never able to find a good Pogues sticker for the car).
[Sacramento’s K Street has been undergoing renovation and renewal for several years now, aided by the development of the adjacent Golden 1 Center basketball arena. The old K Street Records building now houses the stationary bike gym All City Riders. The Tower Records mural has been painstakingly restored, and the space is now occupied by Solomon’s Deli, named after Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut-down has hit K Street businesses pretty hard.]
The “Britpop Wars” broke out around this time. It was Oasis (simple, working-class) versus Blur (nuanced, middle-class). It was the noisy pub versus the quiet university common room, and each band’s fanbase was very opinionated. Naturally, I was in the Oasis camp, and had many spirited debates at the local coffee shop with the snobbish and pretentious Blur crowd. In retrospect, Oasis and Blur weren’t really all that different.
The true polar opposite to Oasis — musically, philosophically — is Radiohead.
I am dedicating the next portion of these Chronicles to a band that will probably not be getting a playlist. For a little over fifteen years now, I have declared Radiohead to be absolutely, without a doubt, the most overrated band in popular music history. But it’s been awhile since I voluntarily listened to them. Now it’s time to see if I need to eat my words. I have announced to certain members of the Idle Time collective, who never fail to quiver like jelly and sigh in ecstasy whenever Radiohead’s name is mentioned, that I would use some of my quarantine time this past summer to clear my mind of prejudices and preconceived notions, and listen to each and every album in the Radiohead catalog as if I’m hearing them for the first time (which, in the case of their last two albums, is literally true).
Here we go.
Pablo Honey (1993)
Radiohead’s debut album is the one most likely to be dismissed as sub-par (especially by the band themselves). I thought it was pretty good, although the oppressive sulkiness of the lyrics precludes me from saying I “enjoyed” it. The production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade were chosen for their work with the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. and it shows. The quiet/loud/quiet dynamic of the Pixies (also used by Nirvana to great effect) and guitar crunch of Dinosaur Jr. are the dominant modes of Pablo Honey. The band were still clearly wearing their early influences on their sleeve. In addition to the aforementioned acts, there is a very healthy dose of early U2 all over the place, particularly in Thom Yorke’s Bono-channeling vocal gymnastics.
Ironically, as later releases would downplay the dominance of the six-stringed instrument, Pablo Honey may be one of the best “guitar albums” of the 1990s. Clear, ringing chords and arpeggios reminiscent of the Smiths or XTC are neatly interwoven with the fuzzed-out distortion of grunge — causing the album to be (unfairly, in my opinion) lumped in with the many other grunge knock-offs in the post-Nirvana world of 1992-93. (Remember, early Radiohead weren’t copying Nirvana, they were copying the bands Nirvana copied. There’s a difference.) What sets Pablo Honey apart from the more pedestrian knock-offs were the little sonic surprises that littered the first half, such as the stately piano that wanders into the last few seconds of “Creep,” the massive hit single that made the band instant stars and MTV darlings, and the song the band has worn like a millstone around their necks ever since.
Pablo Honey’s music itself is often quite sprightly, even though the lyrics wallow in alienation and self-pity, always warning the perpetrators of their torment that some kind of personal or spiritual retribution is coming. At times they sound like Material Issue’s depressed, vindictive British cousins. The album does suffer from second-half fatigue. (Certainly not the only album guilty of this — many artists and their production teams beginning in the CD era felt it was best to front-load albums with the strongest stuff to keep short attention spans from punching the skip button too early.) As the album winds down, it gives us a run of mid-tempo odes to self-loathing that blend into each other with little to distinguish them. The closer, “Blow Out,” has a nice, hushed urgency, and reminds me a little of Television. Overall verdict: A solid, but at times gloomy and derivative, debut with a great guitar sound that elevates it slightly above its post-grunge peers.
The Bends (1995)
I had been saying for years that The Bends was my favorite Radiohead album (if I had to choose). The Bends is the sound of a band full of confidence, without the try-hard posturings of the first album. Yorke sounds settled and comfortable with his own voice, and the lyrics, while undoubtedly melancholy, have mostly abandoned adolescent petulance in favor of a more cryptic tone of isolation and distrust.
The guitars are still very much to the fore, and carry the musical weight of the album, but are no longer limited to just a grungy buzzsaw attack. The band’s sonic palette has definitely expanded, keyboards are sneaking in, and there are many moments of acoustic quietness. Both of the album’s big singles, “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” are acoustic-driven and meditative. The sound has found its footing in more original territory (though I still hear a lot of U2), and at this point Radiohead have become the influencers (just listen to Travis or early Coldplay — all children of The Bends). Creative inspiration now spreads to both halves of the album, and some of my favorite moments (“Just,” “Black Star,” and the finale “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”) are in the second half. This is a prime example of the Modern British Rock Band firing on all cylinders. Overall verdict: This is my favorite Radiohead album, and that is unlikely to change.
OK Computer (1997)
It’s changed. The Bends is now my second favorite. OK Computer is generally considered the band’s masterpiece, and it’s difficult to argue against it. I think what made me place it below The Bends for so many years was the inclusion of “Fitter Happier,” two minutes of a synthesized “robot” voice rambling over a sound collage. I have a low tolerance for things like that cluttering up albums, and back in my more judgmental days, its presence meant instant banishment to second place for OK.
From this point forward, Radiohead would be their own producers, and elevated The Bends‘ expert recording engineer, Nigel Godrich, to co-producer status.
Sound-wise, OK Computer is beautiful. Recorded throughout several rooms of an empty English country estate, the acoustics have a depth and richness that far exceed what I’ve heard on the first two albums. Even the quieter moments (“Exit Music (For A Film),” “Lucky”) seem like they have a thrumming live wire running through them. Squiggly, sci-fi guitars and keyboards now share the space equally and blend-but-not-quite-blend, like olive oil and balsamic vinegar (I’m hungry as I type this), especially on the album’s grander moments (“Subterranean Homesick Alien,” the multi-section “Paranoid Android”). Overall verdict: Masterpiece status confirmed. New favorite (despite the presence of “Fitter Happier”).
Kid A (2000)
Here’s where the big turning point comes — Radiohead becomes essentially an electronica act, a troublesome genre where undeniable moments of greatness are outnumbered about twenty-to-one by knob-twiddling tedium. Repetitive loops are the order of the day for Kid A, and sometimes their embrace of electronica pays off with some really interesting sounds, as on the album opener “Everything In Its Right Place” and the intense “Idioteque.” Then there’s the misses — about half the tracks run the gamut from the mildly uninteresting (“Kid A”) to the aggressively boring (“Treefingers,” which sounds like they accidentally recorded an equipment test or level check). Yorke’s statement at the time — “All melodies to me are pure embarrassment” — did not bode well for listeners like me.
Moments of their old sound surface here and there, and while those can be vitally-needed spark plugs (such as “Optimistic,” my favorite track on the album), they can also be anchors (the monotonously downbeat “How To Disappear Completely,” which I suspect is a fan favorite, but no one will ever get me to like.) But for the most part, they’re trying so hard to shed their old skin that they out themselves as plain old high-horse “most-people-don’t-get-us” contrarians (the most overplayed hand in the art-rock rule book), taking perverse delight in yanking the wheel hard to the left and shaking off listeners that they feel aren’t worthy of their new direction.
And yet…for all my carping, there is still something bubbling under the surface that makes Kid A, if not always compulsively listenable, then at least difficult to dismiss. Portions of the album did manage to make me lean in and close my eyes, and served as a reminder that this is still a major recording act determined to crash through some barriers, despite my own formalist apprehensions about the “anti-song” approach they begin taking here. Overall verdict: Objection(s) overruled…but proceed with caution, counsel.
In my memory, this is where I truly parted ways with Radiohead. I thought it was terrible when I listened to it back in 2001. After what was originally viewed as a temporary sowing of experimental oats with Kid A, Radiohead decided techno-deconstruction was the way to go. Amnesiac was, in fact, drawn from the same recording sessions as Kid A, which was certainly not a selling point for me at the time.
Imagine my surprise when I started re-listening, and found the first two tracks, the loop-based “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box” and the slow-building “Pyramid Song” quite enjoyable. Then came “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” which embodies all the worst of electronic music. Robotic repetition, random noises, and a sped-up Ween voice yammering nonsense over the top of it all. I think in my mind nineteen years ago, all of Amnesiac sounded like this to me. But as soon as that “Revolving Doors” thing fades, the album goes on an incredibly strong run — “You And Whose Army?,” the flat-out excellent “I Might Be Wrong,” and “Knives Out” combine experimentalism and accessibility quite comfortably.
I can’t say anything in the album’s second half surpassed or even equalled those moments, and the overall vibe does begin living up to the stereotype of Radiohead I’ve carried around in my head for so long. Especially “Like Spinning Plates” — spacey swirls with Yorke’s voice plaintively warbling drawn-out vowels. But that’s only one song. Overall verdict: A very strong first half puts this above Kid A for me.
Hail To The Thief (2003)
If my memory tells me that Amnesiac is when Radiohead crossed the line into semi-listenable self-indulgent twaddle, then my re-listen tells me that line is actually Hail To The Thief. A bit of a dog’s breakfast as the Brits say, Hail To The Thief has a little of everything, from plodding piano ballads to Warp Records-style video game music. The only thing the tracks have in common is their lack of impact. Nothing stands out or demands attention (as even the weaker Kid A material did.) After listening through the whole thing twice, I can’t conjure up a single thing as truly memorable, with the possible exception of the grinding “A Punch Up At A Wedding.”
Not only is the material sub-par, there’s an awful lot of it. Hail To The Thief is criminally overlong. Every three or four songs, I’d glance at the track list and wonder “How much more is there left to go?” Overall verdict: “How To Disappear Up Your Own Ass” is a viable alternate title.
Since I have so little to say about Hail To Thief, maybe I should discuss my Radiohead re-listening process. Each album gets two full listens — no skipping, no distractions. One listen first thing in the morning, through earbuds before the household is awake, where I note my first impressions. Then one later that night, over external speakers and with a cold old-fashioned in hand. In between, I read up on the album’s production, reviews, and legacy, to see if there’s anything I should be on the lookout for on the re-listen. One thing I learned about Hail To The Thief is that most of the band agreed it should be shorter. And maybe they should have actually finished some of the songs. Radiohead may be self-indulgent, but they’re also the most honestly self-critical band you’re likely to run across. (Thanks to the old-fashioneds, I also tend to be in a mellower mood on the re-listen — my original notes said “dogshit,” which I moderated into “a bit of a dog’s breakfast.”)
In Rainbows (2007)
Poor Philip Selway. Most band’s drummers are the pulse of lifeblood, the literal heartbeat of the sound. Selway’s role (at least in the recording studio) seems to be providing small snippets of percussion that are then sampled and looped. He seems happy enough to do so, and I guess their process must be respected, but it does drain a little vitality.
In Rainbows is mostly inert.
Synth pulses, a little fingerpicked guitar, a few other odds and ends, and Yorke’s vowels. That’s 60-70% of the album. And they don’t seem to realize an increase in tempo doesn’t always mean an increase in drama or excitement. I’m sure they’re sincere guys, but Radiohead always seems to be a replication of human emotion rather than the real thing. In other words, despite the ostensible feelings gushing from Yorke’s mouth, I just don’t believe him.
Some interesting moments do shine through, making this much less of a slog than Hail To The Thief. “Bodysnatchers” builds up a legitmate head of steam, and the acoustic/orchestral change-up “Faust Arp” is quite pretty. “All I Need” seems less labored than most of the other tracks, with more breathing room, and sounds like cool, vintage Hearts of Space stuff. They saved they best for next-to-last — “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” which works through a successful slow build based on the aesthetically opposing forces of acoustic guitar and syntheszier, and makes for my best Radiohead listening experience since the first half of Amnesiac.
In Rainbows was originally released as a pay-what-you-want download several months before its physical CD release. The “special edition” of the CD contained a bonus disc of session leftovers. In Rainbows is a definite improvement over its predecessor, but if you think I’m sitting though the bonus disc, you’ve got another think coming. Overall verdict: Will not be re-visiting this one any time soon.
The King Of Limbs (2011)
New territory here. This is the first Radiohead album I have never heard before.
There’s still one more album in the discography to go, but I think I can safely say I’ve reached Radiohead Rock Bottom. As tuneless as it is meandering, The King Of Limbs is an endurance test. Even at a lean 37 minutes, it still felt twice as long as Hail To The Thief. At this point, they should stop calling themselves a band. “Sound assembly technicians,” maybe. (They are writing their own sampling software at this point, which is actually kind of cool.) It all sounds pretty random, especially the percussion loops and vocals that are totally disconnected from whatever electronic hisses and farts are floating along underneath them, but I don’t want to say it’s “amateurish” this far into their career. I’m sure every bleep, bloop, and hum was chosen and placed in the audio picture with care — but the results are dire.
Here’s something from Pitchfork’s review: “aggressive rhythms made out of dainty bits of digital detritus, robotically repetitive yet humanly off-kilter, parched thickets of drumming graced with fleeting moments of melodic relief.”
I mean, I guess so. I think the melodic “relief” may have been too “fleeting” for me to catch. Here’s a bit from Rolling Stone: “moody, rhythm-heavy electronica, glacially paced ballads and ambient psychedelia.” Others have referred to it as Radiohead’s “dubstep” album, and if you feel the way I do about dubstep, that probably tells you all you need to know.
To be fair, as indicated above, many professional music critics loved it (especially the British), with several publications (again, mainly British) naming it Album of the Year. But come on. When a sketchy, dubstep-inspired catalog of electronic sounds can be hailed as the year’s best album, we’ve finally reached our emperor-has-no-clothes moment for Radiohead as far as the music press is concerned. (For the record, the Holy Bee pick for Album of the Year in 2011 was the Decemberists’ The King Is Dead, which is pretty emblematic of the wide gulf that separates my taste from what latter-day Radiohead has been producing.) Overall verdict: Woefully out of step with the British music press circa 2011, as I so often am, I declare this the worst of the lot (so far).
A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
Radiohead seems to have permanently committed itself to a world of perpetual dreariness, but with A Moon Shaped Pool, they have found a way to make their sound compelling again — add orchestral strings to everything! The is is the first album since Amnesiac that I actually looked forward to my late-night second listen. Age has mellowed Yorke’s voice somewhat, and he’s frequently joined by a chorus of backing vocals — sometimes whispering, sometimes in full-on choir mode, and it made me realize what I’d been subconsciously missing from pretty much every Radiohead song out there — the presence of other voices, providing harmony or at least a little back-up or contrast. It’s always been just Yorke’s voice, disconnected, floating around alone. I realize that’s their chosen sound, and wishing they had more backing vocals is like asking why a bluegrass band doesn’t play metal. But if, like me, you find Yorke’s voice over-affected and sometimes tuneless (more so as the years went on), then that can get a little oppressive.
Despite the welcome presence of other voices, the star of the show is the London Contemporary Orchestra, as arranged by the Radiohead’s resident multi-tasker and compositional genius Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood was originally responsible (or to blame, depending on your POV) for the grunge guitars on Pablo Honey, and later developed into the band’s electronics guru, their ondes Martenot player (just the sort of instrument Radiohead would make enthusiastic use of), and their choral and orchestral arranger on this album. The strings (frequently with Middle Eastern overtones) add a dramatic sweep that neither synthesizers nor the ondes Martenot can really match. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of synthesizers. But also some snatches of prominent guitar (as on my favorite track “Identitkit”), and we close out with another ethereal (i.e., dull) voice-and-piano ballad (“True Love Waits”) if that’s your thing. Overall verdict: For the first time since Amnesiac, I enjoyed a Radiohead album (mostly) all the way through.
So, in conclusion, is Radiohead “absolutely, without a doubt, the most overrated band in popular music history” as I asserted in an earlier paragraph? No, I have to admit, that is not the case. Whereas previously I had believed they went off the cliff after OK Computer, I have to extend the cliff-plunging moment to after Amnesiac. I veered between being bored stiff and actively irritated by the Thief/Rainbows/Limbs trilogy, but my ears perked up again on A Moon Shaped Pool, with its widescreen sound and “Kashmir” strings.
And despite what I said at the beginning, I’m not going to listen through a band’s catalog and not get a playlist out of it.
So, what is “absolutely, without a doubt, the most overrated band in popular music history?”
Easy. Pink Floyd.
It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Thom Yorke’s vocals just do not fall pleasantly on my ear. Not my fault. Certainly not his fault. And yet, I can listen to Bob Dylan’s voice for hours, even his post-2000 stuff where it sounds like he’s been gargling razor blades. I love Tom Waits’ thorny croak as well. And Shane MacGowan of the Celtic folk-punk band the Pogues, whose slurred babblings are spit through the stumps of twisted, broken teeth.
I stumbled onto the Pogues around the same time I was introduced to Oasis, but the details aren’t as clear. I have the feeling it was due to my acquaintanceship with the notorious Doyle Brothers of Yuba City, one of whom was a diminutive mandolin player who shared my first name and had a halo of poofy hair and a mandolin-playing leprechaun tattooed on his chest.
Here’s something I wrote about the Pogues for the Idle Time Decades book awhile back:
“Anyone with a bit of knowledge regarding the British music scene knows that Shane MacGowan is a shambling wreck, a drink- and drug-abusing walking pharmacy that makes Amy Winehouse look like Mandy Moore and has cheated death more often than Keith Richards. But out of his (supposedly) addled mind comes lyrics of such poetic quality you have to wonder if it’s all an act — if MacGowan really has the secret identity of an Oxford professor of literature or history, with an encyclopedic command of works by Coleridge, Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Edward Gibbon, and Lord Macaulay, and through some magic alchemy can distill the essence of their work into these magic little gems of storytelling. And they’re not solemnly intoned in some lecture hall — they’re liberally mixed with working-class profanity and rasped out at breakneck pace in MacGowan’s distinctive, gutteral “singing” voice as the rest of the Pogues go apeshit behind him, bashing away on traditional Irish folk instruments like the mandolin and pennywhistle, and kicking up such a punky ruckus one can easily overlook the depth of the lyrics.”
The unreliable MacGowan was ultimately booted from the Pogues, which is a shame, but it yielded two positive results: the Pogues briefly toured with Joe Strummer on lead vocals, and MacGowan formed a band called the Popes and put together a great album that sounded like the Pogues if they had crossed their Celtic folk with booming, Stones-style rock instead of street punk. (Popes highlights are on my Pogues playlist.)
After a bad fall in 2015 that shattered his pelvis, MacGowan has been off hard drugs, but confined to a wheelchair. He has a nice new set of teeth, too.