I kind of ignored Radiohead for a long time. In fact, they were pretty easy to ignore. They haven’t made a straight-up rock record since 1997‘s OK Computer, and they haven’t had much of a presence on commercial channels since. Yet their records have continued to sell well, a testament to the band’s loyal fan base and their surprisingly broad artistic appeal. That’s the genius of Radiohead: They may have some pretty bizarre music but it’s almost always accessible. I wouldn’t describe their stuff as “out there” like most people probably would. It’s really just the presentation that throws people for a loop. Because so much of their work is an exercise in aesthetic exploration, I would argue their artistic ambitions tend to be broad, not deep.
On no album is this more apparent than The King of Limbs, which they released in 2011. I didn’t much care for that album until I watched them perform it in a studio on TV. (Thank God for the Palladia channel. Just wanted to give credit where credit is due.) The songs came absolutely alive, and now I’m a big fan of The King of Limbs, so much so that it came close to making the cut for this list, making it another honorable mention. I think Amnesiac, released ten years earlier, is something of a precursor to The King of Limbs. Both are follow-ups to albums featuring stylistic shifts, Kid A (2000) and In Rainbows (2007), respectively, and put less emphasis on content than their predecessors, instead opting to push their newly developed aesthetic to the foreground.
When I decided to listen to Radiohead some years ago to see what the fuss was all about, I saw that Amnesiac had garnered the least amount of critical acclaim in their discography aside from Pablo Honey (1993), their debut. I think most critics wrote it off as a leftovers album, since it contains songs from the same sessions that yielded Kid A and was released just eight months afterward. Radiohead’s albums are usually quite ubiquitous at the public libraries I frequent, but Amnesiac was an exception. I managed to track down every single one of their albums except for Amnesiac, and it was a hole I desperately wanted to fill. So I decided to buy it, not expecting to like it as much as their more renowned works, but to my pleasant surprise, I liked it quite a bit. It’s actually kind of a harrowing experience to listen to it. “Pyramid Song” is downright scary, as is “Like Spinning Plates.”
I love vocalist Thom Yorke‘s insight on the difference between Kid A and Amnesiac:
I think the artwork is the best way of explaining it. The artwork to Kid A was all in the distance. The fires were all going on the other side of the hill. With Amnesiac, you’re actually in the forest while the fire’s happening.
The only reprieve granted from the album’s traumatic narrative is the swell of a surging piano at the end of “You and Whose Army?,” an empowering attempt to fight back the blaze. Amnesiac‘s two instrumentals, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Hunting Bears,” are especially telling. The former, track 3, is loud, abrasive and overwhelming. The latter, track 9, is desolate and defeated — there’s nothing left to burn. It would follow that the two tracks after “Hunting Bears” — the final two tracks of the album — document a surreal transition in the penultimate track “Like Spinning Plates” and a message from the other side in the drunken, brass-filled album closer “Life in a Glass House.” Of course, this is just speculation on my part. Amnesiac is probably Radiohead’s most overlooked album, and it’s a shame, because it’s damn good. Yeah, they have albums that are better, but this one’s good, too. If you’re not a Radiohead fan, then there’s pretty much no chance you’ve heard this album. If you are a Radiohead fan, then you probably either haven’t heard it or haven’t heard it in a while. Well, this is my recommendation to give it a go.