Answer: RadioheadPublished by Jeff Becker
The case for Radiohead as the most important rock band since the Beatles (and no we don’t work for Pitchfork).
A tough one indeed. Labeling one band as the most important band since the Beatles should also imply they are the greatest band since the Beatles. We’re discussing impact on our music culture, the quality of their catalog, their reputation with their peers and their influence for the upcoming generation. Record sales make it cloudy and are not a factor. If they were you’d include artists like Britney Spears into the discussion. No thank you. The honorable mention list has many admirable entries, but none that match what Radiohead brings to the table. Even if you don’t like all of Radiohead’s music, you cannot easily deny their greatness. If you don’t like Dylan and Springsteen that’s fine, but you would never deny them their greatness and rightful place in the Hall of Fame and consideration as the best ever. Your personal taste should have minimal bearing. This is not a good decision to make with a hangover. Be clear headed.
Not Dylan? Not the Stones?? Not U2? Eh?
It’s hard to compare the impact across generations. How do we argue that Radiohead is more influential and has a greater catalog than say Bob Dylan? Or the Rolling Stones? We can’t. What we do know is that Dylan wasn’t even the greatest force of his generation, so how could he be the single greatest entity since the Beatles? He isn’t and wasn’t. What band has gone through more incarnations than U2? U2 emerged as post-punk indie in the early 80’s, then found their commercial success and American flair on the Joshua Tree. They proceed to do a forward somersault and drop one of the greatest albums of the last 30 years with Achtung Baby and its electric and eclectic mix of prog-rock danceable funk pop. While U2’s influence is monumental, their catalog has taken a soft nosedive since the early 90’s. They release great records that unfortunately do nothing.
After nearly two decades they remain the most relevant band alive because of the remarkably innovative body of work they have created. It’s the way they make music. The way they deliver their music. The way they change their music. In Rainbows, their 2009 gem of an album was released 20+ years into their existence yet it’s one of the most hip record of the past 5 years with just the right amount of glue to make it stick for years to come. No other band on the list of contenders can do that – not after 20 years in existence. Other bands deserve strong consideration on the topic: the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, U2, R.E.M., Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin. But let’s stick with Radiohead. They are the most influential band since the Beatles with a reputation that is cemented near the top. Their musical styling influences nearly every reputable sect of the music-listening public.
How many bands wish they were like Radiohead?
No one can replicate them, and everyone wants to be like them. That’s a potent comination. Radiohead’s catalog has very few warts. So let’s imagine you don’t like Pablo Honey, Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief – which are very arguably their three worst albums. That’s fine, but Radiohead’s worst album is more daring and innovative than nearly anything U2, Springsteen or R.E.M. have released in the last 20 years, and you can go back 35 years to find the last relevant Rolling Stones album. Radiohead is like the Energizer bunny of fucking rock. They start off by delivering the alt-rock sing-along ‘Creep’ (not one of their best songs) and you assume they are one-hit wonders of the grunge period. But no, they deliver The Bends and blow your ears off. And now you think you got them pegged. But you don’t. They follow that up with the greatest 1-2 punch (since the Beatles of course) with OK Computer and Kid A. Those two masterpieces changed every fundamental concept we thought Radiohead were. Radiohead went in a different musical direction and one that was equally riveting. It challenged us as listeners and made us realize that more people than just Kurt Cobain could open up our imagination.
What Radiohead has become is the rock band that every other cool band wants to be (unless your name was Jack White who was doing just fine with the White Stripes). Every fan anticipated the next Radiohead album more than any other. Every rock critic jumped on board and foamed at the mouth with superlatives. In Rainbows, with its “pay us what it’s worth to you” model was not only unorthodox, but nearly revolutionary. What’s this? The greatest band alive releasing a fantastic new album on the internet for any price the consumer wishes to pay? The anticipation of new Radiohead material has been supplemented with abrupt new releases in our lap out of nearly nowhere, as with The King of Limbs. No pre-marketing, no advance singles. Just greatness in our laps. Radiohead do things differently than everyone else and they just do it better. They do it without being dickheads. They are hip but not assholes. They are likable but not prissy. They don’t whine, they don’t cry, and they don’t write sing-a-longs for 15 year old girls. They do their thing the way other bands can only dream of.
U2, the Rolling Stones or Nirvana. But let’s explain quickly whey they each aren’t the top. U2’s aforementioned run of relevancy ended after about 12 years and they’ve been around for over 32 years now. Just can’t do it. They release a new album every four years and while they are intensely talented they live under the shadow of their string of early albums concluding with Achtung Baby. Nirvana? Yes, they could have been the best but that option ended prematurely. Cobain’s writing skills certainly made it a possibility. But you don’t make the top of the list on potential and one classic album. The Rolling Stones? During their best years they were only the 2nd best band alive. It’s hard for you to be the MVP when you’re only the 2nd best player on your team. Tremendously influential the Stones were but blame it on John and Paul. The Beatles were just too good for their time. They crushed everyone, Stones included.
20 Years from now…
Which bands do we think will emerge as one of the greatest ever as we look backwards 20 years from now? The White Stripes perhaps? Doubtful, but this would be an odd choice and a sexy one. They had the balls, the style, the solid string of albums but not an influence like Radiohead. They barely tapped into pop culture. They broke down a wall, but not multiple walls. They called it quits after a decade while still in their prime, just like the Beatles. That leaves them somewhat iconic. Other ideas? Wilco? The Smiths? Prince? Springsteen? All of them are very doubtful but each of them could make a solid case – not as the greatest band since the Beatles, but at least into the conversation of some of the greatest bands ever. The list starts getting long and diluted at this point as you can see. For the sake of finality, here’s the list in order of the most important bands following behind the Beatles:
- The Rolling Stones
- Pink Floyd
- Bob Dylan
- Led Zeppelin