Radiohead, 'In Rainbows'

The Clash Essential 50 counts down the greatest albums of the last five years, i.e. the lifetime of Clash.

Over the past three weeks, has featured articles focusing on every one of our selected albums, revisiting these classics for timely reappraisals.

Now we’re into the top five, with our number one album revealed on Friday, April 24. Be there, or be dead to us. Got an excuse? CLICK HERE.


- - -

Radiohead, ‘In Rainbows'
(2007; XL)

Radiohead’s Grammy-winning seventh studio album found the band at a crossroads, one that they’d visited before: one road marked the path to progressive electronica, the other epic indie anthems. Rather than race along just one, the five-piece opted to stage a sit down smack bang in the middle of the junction. The result: a fantastic fusion of their previous brilliance, and possibly the band’s greatest album yet.

Ignoring the delivery of the record for one moment – we’ll come to that, promise – the music on show throughout ‘In Rainbows’ is never short of its makers’ best work, and while certain tracks date from some years previous to the album’s 2007 release (the haunting single ‘Nude’, for example) the cohesion that binds the constituent pieces together is rock solid, the flow of the album wonderfully rich in variations on a quite singular theme. With two years’ hard work invested in it, ‘In Rainbows’ was never going to be a makeweight in the band’s catalogue; yet few could have anticipated it emerging so complete, so potentially career-defining. Keep your copy of ‘OK Computer’, granddad – this is Radiohead for the modern era.

While the band’s 1997 masterpiece is, in fairness, quite probably their most arresting listen – compared to what came before it, it was wholly unprecedented and shockingly potent in its mix of eeriness, unsettling atmospherics and ambitious, multi-faceted song structures; never has pop sounded so weird – ‘In Rainbows’ is a success because it could be seen coming. The preceding ‘Hail To The Thief’ got halfway there, all skittering beats and spectral wails, a patchwork of Radiohead’s multitude of previously explored arenas, but it’s this album that refined the roughness and bulked out the blueprint. ‘In Rainbows’ is a masterpiece for a generation blessed by one already from the very same band.

‘15 Step’ opens with furious intent, all jitterbug percussion and Thom Yorke front and centre in the mix, his peculiarly affecting tones cutting through the clutter to stab needles in your ears. But while the song sets something of a threaded tone, suggestive of what’s to follow, it far from paints a full picture – much of this album skirts its cacophonous design, dipping in and out of the clicks and bleeps, but ploughs a proverbial furrow much more in keeping with a band that can sell out five-figure-attendee shows rather than entertain a discerning basement crowd with cutting-edge electro-inflected dance patterns.

‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ and ‘Bodysnatchers’ have found their places in the band’s live set with ease, yet while both are suitable for holler-along appreciation in field or arena alike, the cerebral qualities each exudes is evidence of what continues to separate Radiohead from your more commonplace indie outfit. Those who focus on choruses to remember rather than the expression of a particular feeling, these are acts that once were considered peers but are now only ever referred to as underlings; Radiohead’s pursuit of music that finds its connection without compromise or any focused attempt at copying traits successful elsewhere is an extremely endearing element of the group’s long-lasting appeal.

Indeed, by operating at the forefront of modern rock pioneering, Radiohead have split more critical opinion than you might realise – within Clash HQ, there are dissenting voices who’d much rather have seen another act ranking this highly. But, despite personal preferences, anyone who’s spent time enough around rock music can’t ultimately criticise Radiohead’s incessant desire to shift their sound into new shapes and styles – something they achieve without ever alienating a loyal following. Yes, ‘Kid A’ turned a few off the band way back when, but hindsight shows said album to be a vital precursor for this record, its overt electro shades turned down somewhat here, but apparent nonetheless.

And the album’s impact on the industry was far greater due to its distribution – prior to a conventional store-racked release via XL, Radiohead released ‘In Rainbows’ themselves through a pay-what-you-like system which offered fans a download for, well, any amount of money they wanted to pay; also available was a deluxe ‘discbox’ set, featuring two CDs (one bonus disc of extras) and the album on double vinyl. This can cloud some critical assessments of the record, but should really now be seen as a mere footnote – yes, suddenly every band wanted to ‘do a Radiohead’, and again they’d led the field, but as time passes it’s the music that keeps you coming back to ‘In Rainbows’, not the fact you got it for fifty pence.

A true contemporary classic, ‘In Rainbows’ is probably the most inventive record in this Essential 50, the culmination to date of a career that refuses to slip into even the slightest suggestion of predictability. Love it like you do the air in your lungs.

Radiohead – ‘Nude’

Radiohead – ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’

- - -

Elbow frontman Guy Garvey remains in awe of the Oxford pioneers...

Do you think the novelty of the distribution method overshadowed the music?
Initially, yeah. It’s funny, with a band as prolific as they are, you’re expecting miracles every time they release a record. This one took a little time to grow into everybody’s hearts because they challenge you - that’s what they do. They don’t give you what they want, they give you what you need.

Do you remember listening to it for the first time?
My first listen was after I’d downloaded it, and it was just kind of a once-through. I think I was pondering it more than I was enjoying it. It’s difficult sometimes - we were in the middle of writing something at the time. When that’s the case, I can’t listen to contemporary music without analysing it. I have to listen to old stuff - old jazz and things; stuff that’s only very loosely related to what we do. Radiohead always been a huge influence. There’s very few bands that all five of Elbow agree on, and I’d say that they are way out there in front.

The album was more of a ‘traditional’ Radiohead sound - they seemed to rein in the boundaries a bit. But is there a traditional Radiohead sound?
There is, but they’ve got better at doing it. You can hear Thom Yorke’s words properly for the first time. There’s a lot of his sweet side on this record - probably hence the title. You can tell that they’re friends, you can tell they really care for each other, you can tell that they love making music together, and the music they make is astonishing, generous and big-hearted.

What about accusations of them being self-indulgent?
Nah. It’s like, even if they were indulging themselves, that’s what they do - they make music. They’re only gonna make music that they enjoy. By that rationale then, anyone who ever makes a record is self-indulgent. It’s loving something; enjoying something.

- - -

The Clash Essential 50 so far…

50: The Killers, ‘Hot Fuss’
49: Kasabian, ‘Kasabian’
48: Deerhunter, ‘Microcastle’
47: Bat For Lashes, ‘Fur and Gold’
46: Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’
45: MGMT, ‘Oracular Spectacular’
44: Portishead, ‘Third’
43: Elbow, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
42: Amy Winehouse, ‘Back To Black’
41: Santigold, ‘Santigold’
40: Late Of The Pier, ‘Fantasy Black Channel’
39: Sigur Rós, ‘Takk…’
38: Efterklang, ‘Parades’
37: Liars, ‘Drum’s Not Dead’
36: The White Stripes, ‘Get Behind Me Satan’
35: Hot Chip, ‘The Warning’
34: Fleet Foxes, ‘Fleet Foxes’
33: Benga, ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’
32: Feist, ‘The Reminder’
31: Broadcast, ‘Tender Buttons’
30: Battles, ‘Mirrored’
29: Klaxons, ‘Myths Of The Near Future’
28: Tunng, ‘Mother’s Daughter And Other Songs’
27: The Libertines, ‘The Libertines’
26: Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’
25: Apparat, ‘Walls’
24: Burial, ‘Burial’
23: Gallows, ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’
22: Caribou, ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’
21: Broken Social Scene, ‘Broken Social Scene’
20: Sufjan Stevens, ‘Illinois’
19: Soulwax, ‘Nite Versions’
18: The Bug, ‘London Zoo’
17: Brian Wilson, ‘SMiLE’
16: Isolée, ‘We Are Monster’
15: My Morning Jacket, ‘Z’
14: Franz Ferdinand, ‘Franz Ferdinand’
13: Joanna Newsom, ‘Ys’
12: Modeselektor, ‘Hello Mom!’
11: Bloc Party, ‘Silent Alarm’
10: Animal Collective, 'Merriweather Post Pavilion'
9: J Dilla, ‘Donuts’
8: Arctic Monkeys, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’
7: M.I.A., ‘Arular’
6: LCD Soundsystem, ‘LCD Soundsystem’
5: The Knife, ‘Silent Shout’
4: TV On The Radio, ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’
3: Kings Of Leon, ‘Because Of The Times’
2: Radiohead, ‘In Rainbows’

Tell us how RIGHT we are, yeah? CLICK HERE to register and get commenting on our Clash Essential 50. If you're already part of the gang, just add your words below...


Follow Clash: