To call OK Computer a great album is an understatement on par with “Jesus is a pretty popular guy.” Especially around Christmas. The album, ranked by many as the best of the distant, now seemingly archaic decade of the 1990’s, was the culmination of a band putzing around its own creative potential for a few albums, then, each member at once, pouncing on that potential, ripping it to shreds like hyenas and emerging from the fight with scratches and cuts and one of the most gorgeous, haunting and classic rock albums of all time. Is there a song in the rock’n’roll canon that’s more of a mental-musical tapeworm than “Karma Police”? Is there a guitar riff as ragged and tearing and high-beams-blinding as that of “Electioneering”? I dare you to find one. And if you did, it’d likely also be by Radiohead.
Thing is, OK Computer was almost too good, because it effectively cast Radiohead into the spotlight as “Best Band in the World,” a title that, until only recently, with SPIN Magazine’s ballsy and long overdue article busting rock myths, was even questioned. In this decade, so very nearing its close as you read this, appreciation for Radiohead has been elevated so high it can be summed up with one simple phrase: “Well, of course you do.”With four albums since OK Computer released in the past decade, Radiohead is now more an academic institution than a rock band. To appreciate the band’s music is to receive automatic admission into a circle, albeit a large one, of music fans who view Radiohead as the standard for not only quality music, but, on some level, intellectual acuity. To like, or rather to understand Radiohead is to express that your music appreciation is on a different par than, say, the casual FM radio-listener or, better yet, the passionate Nickelback fan. The credo may as well be: “I think, therefore I like Radiohead.”
Mind you, this is not to say that Radiohead’s output has been poor or lazy; indeed it’s been quite the opposite. But the point remains—just like Thom sang on OK Computer, there are “no surprises.” No matter what Radiohead put out, we’ll nod, throw heaping praise on it like we’re painting a house just by chucking buckets at a wall, and comment on how they’ve still got it.
But do they?
Hail to the Thief was fantastic, but expectedly so. Again, no surprises. In Rainbows was similarly solid, but offered little in new ground broken. Both albums were great, but we knew they would be, thereby erasing any danger, any real excitement from the once-thrilling experience of being a Radiohead fan, the pinnacle of which would be 1999-2001. And, to cite the most common argument tossed against Radiohead, what’s rock’n’roll without any danger?
The same problem faces U2, though in a wholly different arena. U2 released a string of albums in the 1980’s which were, similarly, made by a group of musically talented gents dancing around genius until they finally hit it with The Joshua Tree, which was, interestingly enough, also released towards the end of a decade. The Joshua Tree placed U2 not on Radiohead’s intellectually reliable pedestal, but on a much more accessible one—that of the great rock band for the common man. Just as many nerdling rock writers love “Where the Streets Have No Name” as FM radio hounds. In 1987, U2 effectively erased the need to advance any farther. Though they did grow and change (1991’s Achtung Baby might as well have set the bar for what would eventually be dubbed Alternative Rock), the common U2 fan cared not—U2 were brilliant, forever and always. According to mainstream media and mainstream fans, they still are—this year’s No Line on the Horizon, debatably no better than the band’s middling mid-90’s output, was hailed by Rolling Stone as the best album of 2009. On the pedestal U2 remain.
And on that pedestal is a scary place to be, at least for a fan looking so far up that the light is blinding, hoping that a once-favorite band will come down to earth and try something new, something exciting, something human. For most, U2 is too far in space to ever return—hell, the band’s 2009 tour was not only the largest-scale stage set up of all time, but said stage was specifically built to look like a rocket ship. Unaware of the irony? Doubtful. Radiohead, on the other hand, are still floating within reach, hopefully, though this humble observer believes that it’s over—the moment has passed, and Radiohead will forever remain stuck in the gelatinous pool of misplaced intellectualism.
So what’s to learn from this? One thing, mainly, and that is to tread carefully with Animal Collective. I know, pulled that one out of left field, but follow me: Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion was universally hailed as the band’s creative and commercial pinnacle, and rightfully so. The album saw a band that had released a handful of cultishly beloved albums breaking through to a new, much huger audience than ever before with its most creative and exciting work yet. OK Computer. The Joshua Tree. Is this bound to happen every 10 years?
Counting out U2 for a minute, if only for that band’s more regular-dude fanbase, the similarities between Radiohead and Animal Collective, precisely one decade apart, are spooky. Both bands are ones to ‘get.’ People ‘get’ Radiohead, they ‘understand’ Radiohead. And, sure, that makes sense—just like many a band cast aside by that same regular-dude club because said band is a little weird and dude simply listens to hear something that isn’t there, like an easy-to-catch chorus, there’s a sense of specific inclusion in being a Radiohead or Animal Collective fan. Animal Collective is now the intellectual standard to which, supposedly, independent thinking music fans are held. “I think (and dance, to some degree, probably awkwardly), therefore I like Animal Collective.” Whether that notion of ‘getting’ either band and the resulting critical, blanket acceptance has anything to do with the creative plateau seen with Radiohead is anybody’s guess, but it hasn’t yet happened with Animal Collective.
Let’s hope it doesn’t. In closing, fuck pedestals.