There are those who say that Radiohead was the last of the great rock bands before the internet crushed the record industry and popular music fragmented into a proliferation of microgenres. Maybe it’s fair to say some of those people have been humming Radiohead songs since the band’s debut, Pablo Honey, in 1992.
And maybe rock isn’t a thing of the past, it’s just evolved, thanks in no small part to Radiohead, who also helped usher in the very streaming and downloading revolution that killed the rock star system. They did so with several groundbreaking experimental albums that seemed to uncannily coincide with major shifts in digital technology.
Now you can stream all of those albums on YouTube, from Pablo Honey to 2016’s Moon Shaped Pool. Revisit not only the songs on their debut besides “Creep” but the albums that devastated, then reshaped, the industry, and irrevocably changed the sound of popular music.
Go back to 1997, after Windows 95 had put millions more people behind a PC, and hear Radiohead deconstruct the sound of massive guitar rock and reassemble it into a Futurist machine called OK Computer. Other bands were forced to reevaluate their whole approach. The industry held on to the old ways for a few more years, but Radiohead needed to change as well.
“There were other guitar bands out there trying to do similar things,” said bassist Colin Greenwood. “We had to move on.” Thom Yorke believed rock had “run its course.” Then came the devastating dual attack of Napster and Kid A, The sharing service sent labels into a panic. By the time of the album’s release in 2000, it had been illegally downloaded over a million times.
Not only did Kid A “kick off the streaming revolution,” as Steven Hyden writes at Grantland, but young internet-savvy indie artists just beginning to put their own compositions online looked to the record’s warped, glitchy dread for inspiration, spinning its electronic experimentation into webs of loosely-related genre hybrids.
As Yorke had predicted, Napster encouraged “enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do.” The industry began to collapse. File sharing may have been utopian for listeners, but it was potentially ruinous for artists. 2007’s In Rainbows showed a way forward.
Released on a pay-what-you-want model, with a “digital tip jar,” the release was met with bemusement and contempt. (The Manic Street Preacher’s Nicky Wire wrote that it “demeans music.”) Two years later, the jury was still out on the “Radiohead experiment.”
Yet it wouldn’t be long before both musicians and small labels started selling music through Bandcamp, which debuted in 2008 with a similar business model, combating piracy with a kind of online honor system that lets fans determine their own sliding scale. (The “digital tip jar” has become a standard feature of all online promotion.)
Radiohead’s release strategies have allowed them to keep surprising fans with rarities, like the single “Ill Wind” at the top, and Scotch Mist, a 2007 film in which they played songs from In Rainbows for a New Year’s Eve webcast (see “Weird Fishes/Arpeggio” further up). All of these are free to stream, in addition to their nine studio albums and re-releases like OKNOTOK, a remastered OK Computer.
They may be following industry trends this time, especially the Billboard move to include YouTube video plays in its official rankings. But in its scope, this offering is uniquely generous, and allows a generation too young to remember “Creep,” Windows 95, and the shock generated by Kid A to discover the band’s evolution and take it in even more radical directions.