In 1993, Amid an avalanche of post-Nirvana alt-crunch, a mumbly minor-key dirge called ”Creep” lurched its way into the public consciousness. The song (not to be confused with the other song that year called ”Creep,” by ersatz San Diego grunge gods Stone Temple Pilots) was the American calling card of a wan English fivesome named after a semi-obscure Talking Heads album track. There’s little on Radiohead’s debut, Pablo Honey (first released in the U.K. 20 years ago this week), that signaled the arrival of a group that would become the most influential band of the 21st century. The critical and commercial success of albums like 1997’s OK Computer and 2000’s Kid A may have retroactively made it sound better, but most of Pablo isn’t very good; the production is flat, the songwriting pedestrian.
It’s the post–OK Computer Radiohead that we’ve anointed and worshipped as alt idols — the band that turned rock music into a deconstructionist art project. Ironically, that only made them bigger: Peaking just as the Internet was emerging as the universal tool for exchanging ideas about music (and later, for music itself), Radiohead became the centerpiece of most every turn-of-the-20th-century conversation about the future of rock. And for once, that chatter translated into real-world success: Today, the band fills stadiums and steadily sells albums, providing a platform for various extracurricular activities, including frontman Thom Yorke’s solo and side projects (see review, page 65) and guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s scores for award-winning films (The Master, There Will Be Blood).
By normalizing art rock for the masses, they also inspired — willingly or not — a new generation of multiplatinum followers. Both Coldplay and Muse began as Radiohead clones but eventually branched out into their own expansive soundscapes and narrative experiments. And without Radiohead’s ”deconstruct first, ask questions later” attitude, the rise of such acts as Arcade Fire and man/machine hybridist M83 would have been far less likely.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Radiohead have stayed consistently relevant for two decades, even as their choices have become more esoteric. They shocked the music world when they announced 2007’s In Rainbows and then promptly sold it as a pay-what-you-like download. Their ever-inscrutable lyrics are dissected ad nauseam. (For all their heavy ideas, they’ve also delivered brilliant, if accidental, moments of levity — see the glut of memes devoted to Yorke’s spastic dance in 2011’s ”Lotus Flower” video.) Pearl Jam may have had the biggest-selling rock album of 1993, but their fans now are largely the same ones who’ve always loved them. Neither PJ’s Vs. nor Pablo Honey has aged particularly well, but the difference is that Radiohead continue to mine new ears — inspiring constant reexamination of their back catalog and fully inhabiting the idea that challenging work can also function as major pop music. Not bad for a bunch of creeps.