The Over/Under: Radiohead

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Corey duBrowa once wrote a 1,700-word review of Hail To The Thief for the Seattle Weekly, ushering in a wave of fan mail that read like sour times at the Target returns counter. Which evidently hasn’t disqualified him from issuing the following list of the five most overrated and underrated songs in Radiohead’s lengthy, critically drooled-upon catalog.

:: The Five Most Overrated Radiohead Songs
1. “Creep” (1993)
The one Radiohead song everybody knows and a staple of MTV’s early-’90s rotation (so ubiquitous that it prompted Beavis and Butt-head to offer up their own special brand of couchside analysis: “He’d better start rocking soon, or I’ll give him something to cry about!”). Pablo Honey‘s wanna-be masterpiece of self-loathing is totally of and for the era from which it came: the same school of angst music that Clueless heroine Cher Horowitz once dismissively labeled “complaint rock.” That said, His Royal Badness, Prince, delivered a killer cover of the song to cap off last year’s Coachella festival, which makes me believe that Radiohead’s version suffers more from affected, sneering put-ons and weak performance than from substandard songwriting.

2. “Electioneering” (1997)
I’ll be the first to go along with the prevailing critical meme that OK Computer is one of the finest albums in modern rock and easily one of the top 25 ever released. (Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list has it sitting at 162, but what the hell do those fuddy-duds know about music, anyway? Pitchfork rated it the top release of the ‘90s, which is decidedly more like it.) But for as much as I’ve professed undying fealty to this record, I’ve never understood the discordant, descending-chord pigpile that is “Electioneering,” its place in the album’s running order or its inclusion on the record at all considering some of the terrific outtakes that emerged from those sessions. Hitting “skip” to “Climbing Up The Walls” always makes me inexplicably happy, which is weird, considering how creeped-out that song is.

3. The entirety of Hail To The Thief, except “I Will,” which is borderline genius-lessons stuff (2003)
My favorite bit from the Seattle Weekly review-cum-novella mentioned above is this summary of the album’s various flaws, which apply to pretty much every other song in its 14-track, pretentious alternatively titled running order: “This is a band caught dawdling in the fierce tailwinds of a continental drift. How else to explain a song as lovely as ‘Sail To The Moon,’ a piano ballad that would easily qualify as one of the most stunning things the group has ever recorded, if it hadn’t already done the same damn thing two years ago with Amnesiac’s ‘Pyramid Song’? Even if you tried to build a case that [Thom Yorke’s] stringing along a narrative intended to thread multiple works together—and frankly, you can’t—it just sounds lyrically lazy (if nevertheless beautiful to behold, at first listen).” So it is overstating things, huh? OK. Then let’s instead just pick on Yorke’s solotronic joint The Eraser.

“2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)” from Hail To The Thief:

4. “Life In A Glasshouse” (2001)
Just going on a hunch here, but I’m guessing that Amnesiac producer Nigel Godrich indulged in a bit of Method Acting stage-direction meant to inspire Radiohead during a particularly “down” moment in the studio: “Fellows, listen. On this take, I want you to play ‘Glasshouse’ as if Woody Allen got drunk, fell down a flight of stairs, plucked the clarinet out of his arse, then staggered over to the bandstand and attempted to play a new Radiohead song.” Uh, OK. Maybe the take after that can sound like “Mia Farrow chasing Woody down the street with a chainsaw, seeking revenge.” Or are they saving that one for the “guitar rock” album?

5. “High And Dry” (1995)
This track from The Bends had a lot to recommend it at first listen: classic chord structures, Yorke’s plaintive high-register vocals, a love-entangled lyric wrapped around the axle of a counting-it-down-to-zero love affair, a spy-themed video with a surprise car-bomb ending. Enigmatic, catchy and, ultimately (after a couple hundred times’ worth of hearing it), kinda slight. Radiohead would go on to do far better work (even on the same album; “Fake Plastic Trees” certainly fits this same mold, yet it clears a much higher quality bar), but for early fans, this song’s lovelorn mystique came to characterize Radiohead’s thinking-man’s-rock reputation. But hearing it today, you realize there isn’t as much to it as you originally thought. And they nicked the song’s title from Def Leppard (which had written about being both high and dry on a Saturday night in Sheffield more than a decade previously) or the Stones (who had done exactly the same thing, via a London filter, back in the mid-’60s).

:: The Five Most Underrated Radiohead Songs
1. “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” (1995)

You’d be hard-pressed to think of a band that has as much high-quality outtake/b-side material at its disposal as Radiohead. (Case in point: 2001’s Amnesiac is an entire official release of songs recorded during the Kid A sessions that were eventually deemed “good” enough for mass consumption.) This song comes from a 1994 EP (My Iron Lung) that may as well be a “lost” Radiohead album, given that it contains eight tracks (seven of which are unavailable anywhere else) of such consistently high quality that they certainly give those included on The Bends a run for their money. “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” is anything but: a morose, layered ballad feting Yorke’s existential sadness for what seems like the umpteenth time. “A beautiful girl can turn your world into dust,” he sings, “I stood in front of her face when the first bullet was shot.” It’s perhaps the single finest thing Radiohead has recorded that didn’t merit an “official” release.

2. “Blow Out” (1993)
From its krautrockin’ beat to its squalling guitars (check Jonny Greenwood’s ectoplasmic six-string feedback tantrum at about the three-minute mark) to its subterranean-homesick paranoid-android lyrical bent (“Everything I touch/All wrapped up in cotton wool/All wrapped up in sugar-coated pills/Turns to stone”), Pablo Honey‘s “Blow Out” neatly prefigures the latter-day alienation and experimentation of OK Computer and beyond.

3. The entirety of Kid A, except “The National Anthem,” which is basically a big, lame blurt (2000)
For anyone who lived through the trauma and aftermath of September 11 at close range, this is the record that most closely approximates the free-falling terror, fear and isolation of that event in musical terms. “Everything In Its Right Place,” “How To Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic” (along with its ice-cold instrumental prelude, “Treefingers”) are psychologically imbalanced mini-symphonies that may spell out Yorke’s very particular form of antisocial adaptive behavior but ultimately form the backbone of the soundtrack for the new apocalypse. (P.S.: Kid A also makes perfectly appropriate background music for watching CNBC chart the downdraft of the post-modern economy. I’m just sayin’.)

“In Limbo” from Kid A:

4. “Lozenge Of Love” (1995)
Another one from the jaw-dropping My Iron Lung EP. (Normally, I would say stop what you’re doing right now and go to eBay or Amazon or wherever and just buy the damn thing, as it’s as essential a part of this band’s catalog as anything you already have on a closet shelf or hard drive. But the EP will be included on the expanded reissue of The Bends next month, so I guess you can pick it up that way.) The fingerpicked, acoustic “Lozenge Of Love” is like finding a long-lost Nick Drake track. Make that a really good long-lost Nick Drake track.

5. “Meeting In The Aisle” (1997)
This glistening, shining instrumental comes from the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP (a six-track grabbag of OK Computer outtakes) and serves as one of the band’s earliest attempts at Eno-like ambient-noise sculpture, only with real melodies, beats and identifiable song structures. There are other tracks on this EP that make it well worth the price of admission—spaced-out travelogue “A Reminder” and epic “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” both come to mind—but “Meeting In The Aisle” is the one that sold me then, and keeps me hanging on now.

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