Capitol Records are in the doghouse, as far as Radiohead fans are concerned. In late 2007, the behemoth label happily rode the wave of publicity provided by their former band’s daring marketing scheme for In Rainbows (Matthew Fiander’s PopMatters review). While Radiohead were happily giving away their brilliant new album for free (or for a donation of any amount; the price was “up to you”), Capitol was capitalizing on the buzz by disgorging the group’s entire back catalog in one handy box set. Cleverly titled Radiohead, the package offered no new material, no remastering, and little incentive to pay the $89.98 suggested retail. Radiohead is a band that people freakin’ love, and such shoddy, profit-mongering treatment wasn’t viewed kindly by fans, the media, or the Oxford quintet themselves. That box set was just another prime example of why major labels are loathed and informed listeners distrust them.
Half a year later, and the giant corporation has returned with another re-packaging of Radiohead material. Even on the announcement of The Best Of, people were crying foul. A big deal was made of the fact that the band didn’t authorize the compilation or have anything to do with the track selection. While that’s true, this is also business as usual in the music industry. Sure, we’re talking about a business that cares mostly about money and little for its artists, so its “as usual” approach isn’t admirable, but it’s also no great secret. When a successful artist leaves a major label, you can almost guarantee that a sampling of that act’s best-known wares will surface within a year’s time. It’s pretty unlikely that the artist will be invited over for tea and tracklist suggestions, either.
Given all of that, Radiohead: The Best Of actually shows affection for the band. It would have been very easy for Capitol to just slap together a single-disc collection of the group’s singles, running them in chronological order, and call it a day. Instead, the label offers multiple formats for multiple tastes: one CD, two CDs, four LPs, and a 23-piece shellac 78-RPM folio (this last option is beyond limited, so don’t even try to hunt it down, you crazy Victrolaphiles!). The cynical-minded among you will say that the label is merely hedging its bets and hoping to appeal to every kind of Radiohead fan.
This might be true, but whoever oversaw this project did a darn good job with the track selection and running order. The single-CD version of The Best Of is packed with 17 classic cuts, beginning with “Just”. One of four singles from The Bends, it performed no better on the UK charts than any of its comrades and wasn’t even as popular in the US as “Fake Plastic Trees” or “High and Dry” (both of which are present and accounted for, so stop squirming). Nonetheless, “Just” makes for a killer entrée into the world of Radiohead. It’s not as complicated as their later material, but it’s starting to head that direction, while still providing the rip-roaring guitar punch of “Creep”, the song that brought Radiohead into our lives (and track four on disc one). The frenetic ending of “Just” segues perfectly into the “boop, boop, boop, boop” intro of the majestic “Paranoid Android”, the group’s three-part epic suite of prog-leaning, alt-rocking anomie. Opting to follow with “Karma Police”, another OK Computer track, leaves us a little mired in a 1997 vibe, but it feels weird complaining about getting too much of a masterpiece. The compilers return to the well again quickly, hitting “No Surprises” right after “Creep”. You wouldn’t think the transition would work, but it’s easy to forget the quiet resignation that pervades the coda in “Creep.”
Radiohead - Just
It isn’t until track eight that The Best Of ventures into Radiohead’s 2000s material, and even then it’s with Hail to the Thief‘s more straightforward “There There”. From that point on, disc one concentrates more on the trio of 21st century Radiohead studio LPs that preceded In Rainbows, while returning to The Bends for occasional injections of Britpop-era rock. Where team Capitol really nails it is with the three tracks that close the single-disc version of The Best Of. The lovely and haunting, piano-driven “Pyramid Song” steps aside gracefully for “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and its sadly beautiful guitar arpeggios. “Everything in Its Right Place” then makes its bid for the perfect ending to an album, having already established itself as the perfect beginning to 2000’s chilly and wondrous Kid A.
While it’s difficult for me to comprehend not needing to own every individual Radiohead album, I’ll concede that even the one-CD version of The Best Of is a pretty satisfying sampler for the casual Radiohead fan. Then again, if you truly intend to dedicate only one jewel case to the band, why not double your pleasure with the two-disc edition of Best Of? Though a little skimpier (13 songs in just under an hour), “Airbag”, “Let Down”, and “I Might Be Wrong” were all Billboard Modern Rock hits, and Pablo Honey‘s “Anyone Can Play Guitar” deservedly went Top 40 in the UK. Casually slapped on toward the end of disc two, it’s paired with album mate “You”, but both of these early efforts are at least as good as most of the Britpop of 1993, even if they don’t hold up in terms of artistry. Further, no Radiohead compilation should be attempted without including “Talk Show Host”, the best damn B-side the band ever made, and a live staple for years. The sequencing gets wonky at the very end, with “Anyone Can Play Guitar” crashing right into the nearly diaphanous “How to Disappear Completely”, which leads a bit awkwardly into closing track “True Love Waits”, a live song from 2001’s I Might Be Wrong that’s performed solo by Thom Yorke and his acoustic guitar.
Radiohead - Anyone Can Play Guitar
It’s as if the compilers put together an ideal playlist, only to realize they still had a few tracks they felt necessary to include, but had no real place for. Anyone who’s tried to cobble together a mix that fairly represents all stages of the band’s career have likely run into this same problem (I know I have). Radiohead’s trajectory was sure and swift, as they quickly transformed themselves from Britpop bit players into genre-busting artists of worldwide renown. Better known for their albums than their singles, their oeuvre isn’t well suited for dissecting, shuffling, and reassembling. Those who put together Radiohead’s The Best Of handled this daunting task well. All of disc one and the first nine tracks of disc two represent the best the band offered during its run of seven albums for Capitol Records. Don’t hate the label for milking the cash cow this one last time. Somebody there still loves Radiohead, and The Best Of shows it.