Radiohead leads the way

Why it's the best band to debut in the past 20 years.

click to enlarge NO MYSTIQUE ABOUT IT: Radiohead, the best new band of the past two decades, will perform at the Ford Amphitheatre this Tuesday. - Kevin Westenberg
Kevin Westenberg
NO MYSTIQUE ABOUT IT: Radiohead, the best new band of the past two decades, will perform at the Ford Amphitheatre this Tuesday.

Critics dismissed Radiohead's debut single, "Creep," as gimmicky when it hit the airwaves in 1993. The song's melody greatly resembles The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" — the original composers now receive royalties — and its defining feature is a trio of noisy explosions detonated by guitarist Jonny Greenwood. The self-loathing lyrics are a rather sophomoric byproduct of the grunge era, another legitimate knock against the tune.

But when Thom Yorke sang — especially when he unleashed his iridescent falsetto — it was evident that a highly distinctive and emotive voice had entered the rock world. Like the opening salvos by The Beatles and Rolling Stones, Radiohead's first album, Pablo Honey, only hinted at future brilliance — achievements that would distinguish the British quintet as the most important rock band to debut in the past 20 years.

Granted, that's a strong statement. Baby boomers with their radios locked on classic-rock stations might argue that no new rock bands of consequence have emerged in the last two decades. But anyone with an open mind who has logged sufficient hours of listening knows that's bullshit. The past 20 years have produced numerous vital artists who have expanded musical parameters while providing one of life's ultimate pleasures: a great rock song.

But no modern rock band has made a more significant contribution than Radiohead.

Again, it's no easy argument. This became painfully clear when I compiled my list of "the most important rock bands that have debuted in the past 20 years." (See the complete list here.)

These were some criteria:

The band's debut album couldn't have been issued before 1988, which meant groups like Guns N' Roses and the Pixies just missed the timeline cutoff. Influence, innovativeness, listenability and live prowess were my chief guidelines. I used the term "rock band" loosely, including subgenres like emo, post-rock and even death metal, which made Deicide the lone local act on a roster whittled down to 25. For purposes of this endeavor, I  excluded hip-hop, contemporary R&B, dance, neo-folk et al.

In terms of influence, it's difficult to top alt-country godfathers Uncle Tupelo. Their 1990 debut album, No Depression, a landmark mix of punk, folk and hillbilly music, inspired a movement and a magazine, and Uncle Tupelo's principal band members eventually formed Son Volt and Wilco, anther pair of important rock bands.

In the innovation category, acts don't get much more progressive than Animal Collective, the New York (by way of Baltimore) indie-rock quartet that in recent years has subverted Brian Wilson's pop template with experimental flourishes and absurdist lyrics while still producing a largely melodic body of work.

As for listenability, Weezer has mastered the power-pop hook; Beck's freaky funk is often irresistibly catchy; and no band in the past two decades has done a finer job of copping The Beatles — no small achievement if done right — than Oasis.

On stage, Pearl Jam remains the most potent act of its generation; the grunge survivors are that rare band able to create a sense of urgency and intimacy, even in cavernous sports arenas.

Radiohead, which performs Tues., May 6, at the Ford Amphitheatre, has also earned a rep for awe-inspiring concerts. More important, the English quintet excels in all the categories: influence, innovation, listenability and live prowess. Radiohead's richly textured art-rock, specifically the sound they perfected on 1997's OK Computer, led to clones like Coldplay, while Radiohead's more electronica-leaning Kid A (2000) influenced newer bands such as Bloc Party. On the business front, Radiohead's move last year to independently release In Rainbows as a digital download for which consumers could name their own price is one of the most revolutionary events in the annals of music commerce.

Unlike the vast majority of rock bands, Radiohead has evolved, most often positively, on each of its seven albums. The Bends (1995) marked a major advancement, both by way of songwriting and production, from Pablo Honey. OK Computer arrived as an instant classic thanks to its adroit synthesis of jagged guitars and propulsive rhythms blended with ambient washes and elements of electronica. Kid A (2000) and its 2001 follow-up, Amnesiac, brought electronica to the forefront. Hail to the Thief (2003) welcomed angular guitars back into the mix, as does In Rainbows, Radiohead's most focused and rewarding album since OK Computer.

Despite a reliance on studio wizardry, Radiohead is able to brilliantly re-create its canon on stage, with Yorke's voice sounding more haunting and raw in person than on record. It's that combination of musical genius, verve and sincerity — even Yorke's weirdest warbles and the band's strangest sonic escapades sound purposeful — that makes Radiohead the most important rock band to debut in past 20 years. Not bad for an act that entered the world with a gimmicky single.

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