Does anyone else find it weird that Radiohead has become so popular? I understand the critical acclaim, but the band’s pure commercial popularity seems like a clear anomaly within the commercial music industry, does it not? Especially when considering the trajectory of their career. The Bends remains their most immediately accessible album front to back. In fact, there’s a vocal segment of society who view everything the band has done since The Bends as having diminishing returns. I bought OK Computer the day it came out and I remember finding it hard to digest on the first couple listens; “Airbag" at least sounded somewhat similar to the band that released The Bends, but once "Paranoid Android" started, I didn’t quite know what to make of anything. I wasn’t alone in my initial resistance. The album was clearly a slow builder in terms of popularity. "Karma Police," the most popular single from the album, achieved buzz clip status for its video but still only made minor waves in terms of singles charts.
So when Kid A was released, I knew to expect the unexpected. And I was right. Any initial difficulty I had with the first listen of OK Computer was going to be compounded several times over, based on the opening notes of Kid A.
What was this? Was this a song? This sounds like robots. Did robots write and perform this song? Did I accidentally buy an Aphex Twin or Autechre album?
The questions multiplied throughout the entire album. Aside from “How to Disappear Completely” and “Idioteque,” there’s nothing here to indicate that this is the same band from OK Computer (let alone the same people that wrote “Creep.”) In fact, there’s very little here to indicate that it’s a BAND at all. The Pitchfork review of the album may have said it best:
It's cacophonous yet tranquil, experimental yet familiar, foreign yet womb-like, spacious yet visceral, textured yet vaporous, awakening yet dreamlike, infinite yet 48 minutes. It will cleanse your brain of those little crustaceans of worries and inferior albums clinging inside the fold of your gray matter. The harrowing sounds hit from unseen angles and emanate with inhuman genesis. When the headphones peel off, and it occurs that six men (Nigel Godrich included) created this, it's clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who. Breathing people made this record!
The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, which is absolutely baffling. There were no singles released. No videos made for the album. No talk show performances. No blog buzz back in 2000. Numerous reviews used terms like "alienating" and "anti-rock" to describe it. And while it may in fact be an anti-rock album (whatever that means), the songs in their purest forms are far from alienating. The album version of Everything in Its Right Place is dense with looping vocals and disarming electronics, but when performed live, it transforms into a dance-rock showstopper.
The brilliance of this band has never surprised me, but the fact that they’ve become stadium headliners will always strike me as odd. Is there another legitimate stadium band in the world right now that is actually taken seriously as influential artists? Most are once great nostalgia acts whose catalog still holds up enough to tour on (The Stones, Springsteen), or sure ticket sellers of whom we expect no real effort in creating compelling work (U2, Coldplay.) Radiohead are not universally beloved, but they seem to be the only band in the world that truly has both commercial and artistic influence on everyone who makes or listens to music.