Radiohead: Band of the Decade
Few bands are as close to the hearts of pretentious audiophiles as beloved art-rock group Radiohead. Developing a discography that has pushed the envelope of rock music, the band shed their stadium rock roots in the 21st century, experimenting with electronics, synthesizers, and continual innovation to their sound. The thousands (aughts, zeroes, whatever you fancy calling the last ten years) belonged to Radiohead, and a series of fantastic albums, live performances, and trend-setting marketing schemes combined to make them peerless in both artistry and innovation. Of course, Band of the Decade isn’t a designation one just throws around (regardless of what it looks like I'm doing here). From a purely musical perspective, the group is responsible for some of the best records of the decade. At the forefront is Kid A, the band’s 2000 release which has been hailed by everyone from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork as the best album of the 2000s. The ten tracks marked a departure from previous guitar-based rock music, with the band exploring the possibilities of computer synthesizers, sampling, and even autotuning of singer Thom Yorke’s vocals. Instead of releasing a single and promoting the album conventionally, the band released a series of video blips that were circulated on the Internet and played on music television stations.
Perhaps this was a fitting way for such an album to be released. Kid A was a complete and utter shock to the music world at release. While record sales were successful (USA Today called it "the most eccentric album ever to debut at No. 1"), it was panned critically, with many longing for a return to the tranquillized rock roots of OK Computer (which, incidentally, is frequently cited as the best album of the 1990s). Kid A's layered electronic textures and lack of traditional verse-chorus song structure makes it difficult on first listen. Radiohead pioneered the use of the internet in distribution of the album, which leaked in its entirety online prior to its physical release. The album was accompanied by a website that very well may be the most bizarre text-based site to hit the world wide web.
Radiohead followed up the immense artistic success of Kid A with Amnesiac, an album pieced together from the same marathon recording session that spawned Kid A. Despite being made at the same time, the latter group of songs has an entirely different feel, and had a successful single in both Britain and the United States with the haunting “Pyramid Song.” In spite of the changes to Radiohead's sound, with horns and upright bass finding a spot right next to Johnny Greenwood's Ondes Martenot. In 2003, another album, Hail to the Thief, attempted to find a semblance of balance between experimental electronics and traditional rock structure. Many of these songs were born out of live performances, as opposed to using the studio as an instrument as on previous efforts. The result was a return to a more conventional sound, with guitars and drums taking the spotlight on tracks such as "Go to Sleep (Little Man Being Erased)." With their contractual obligations to record label EMI completed, the band took a hiatus, and many fans feared the permanent dissolution of the group.
Yet in 2007, Radiohead returned in a manner that made international headlines. With a new album, the catchy and likable In Rainbows, the band announced they would be distributing the record without a record label, straight from their website. Additionally, the band instituted a “pay what you want” principle, with fans able to download the tracks for any price (or for free). The result was a resurgence in Radiohead fandom, with many new listeners finding the band through this free music distribution. It turned out to be a great pairing, as critics hailed In Rainbows as one of the bands best albums, with songs that redefined the band’s style without compromising the roots of their previous efforts.
The future of the group is currently uncertain, with members pursuing solo opportunities: guitarist Johnny Greenwood provided the musical score for the film There Will Be Blood, while Thom Yorke’s solo work found a way into Twilight: New Moon, of all things. Regardless, the band has released several stand-alone tracks in the last year, and made appearances at music festivals like the All Points West Music and Arts Festival and UK's Reading Festival. There could even be a new album in the works according to various members of the band in recent interviews. It will be difficult for the group to follow up on their immense success in the recording studio, but with a new decade at hand, other artists will have a difficult time keeping stride with the World’s Greatest Band as we enter a new decade.
PS: Radiohead makes some of the best music videos out there.