Jigsaw Falling Into Place: Revisiting Radiohead's '90s Output

With deluxe reissues of Radiohead's first three albums in stores next week, PopMatters takes a look back at Pablo Honey, The Bends and Ok Computer.


Pablo Honey

Subtitle: Special Collectors Edition
Label: Capitol
First date: 1993-02-22
US Release Date: 2009-03-24
UK Release Date: 2009-03-23
Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!

Re-evaluate the songs

Double-pack with a photograph

Extra track (and a tacky badge)

-- The Smiths, "Paint a Vulgar Picture"

Whenever you ask Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien what his band's next album will sound like, his usual reply will involve some variation on the phrase "Smiths-esque guitar pop". The accuracy (or lack thereof) of O'Brien's pronouncements aside, it has always been clear that Radiohead draw a great deal of influence from the Smiths, both musically and where ethics are concerned. And while Radiohead's career trajectory has not allowed the band to avoid all contact with major labels (as was the case with the Smiths -- at least until the very end of their career), the five members of Radiohead have publicly shared Morrissey's disdain for the majors' cash grabbing ways, largely sidestepping attempts to fleece their fans and compromise their integrity for a quick buck -- or quid, as the case may be.

So it's not surprising then, that Capitol and Parlophone's attempts to squeeze every last cent out of Radiohead's back catalog have been met by much groaning from both the band and its fans. To be fair, the members of Radiohead surely knew that this would happen -- one imagines that a desire to fully control their output played a significant role in the band's decision to move away from major labels after the expiration of their contract. Still, I don't think that anyone expected that quite so many compilations and rereleases would come quite so soon. Since the band's departure from Capitol/Parlophone in 2005, we've been treated to a boxed set, a best-of album and companion DVD, deluxe reissues of thee of the band's albums and soon, vinyl editions of nearly all of the band's early singles and EPs.

Given our critical disposition, it would be easy to dismiss this deluge of plastic as unnecessary and unwarranted, especially for a band that's been in the public eye for less than two decades. Still, in a country where The Eagles' Greatest Hits stands as the best selling album of all time, one must consider that these reissues will offer some value to at least a percentage of Radiohead's fan base. After all, wouldn't we want an impressionable young music fan to discover OK Computer while perusing the impulse buy rack at the local big box retailer -- rather than, say, Nickelback's latest? And might it not be more convenient to have a littering of tracks and videos previously scattered across various albums, singles and DVDs collected all in one place?

"Anyone Can Play Guitar"

For years to come, Pablo Honey, Radiohead's debut album, will be held up as evidence that a band cannot be judged by the merits of its first album. A hodgepodge of half-baked grunge, jangle-pop and stadium-ready alternative rock, Pablo Honey is nearly indistinguishable from other early '90s college rock throwaways, save for a few hints of greatness. Opening number "You" sounds a bit like a formative template for The Bends, though Thom Yorke's wail halfway through the song veers uncomfortably close to hair metal territory. The Smiths-esque "Stop Whispering", meanwhile, showcases Yorke's pipes nicely, foreshadowing the otherworldly abilities he would later cultivate. "Thinking About You" sounds like a blueprint for numerous acoustic ballads to come. And "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and "Blow Out", with their paranoid lyrical concerns (apocalyptic collapse and alienation, respectively) and embrace of Sonic Youth-esque guitar noise, come the closest to prefiguring what Radiohead would eventually become.

Of course, one can't discuss Pablo Honey without mentioning "Creep", the song that launched the band to stardom and which, ultimately, became a source of great frustration for its author. More than a decade later, it's difficult to hear the song outside of its context -- "Creep" will likely always sound like one of the self-loathing '90s most iconic singles. Sure, the overwrought lyrics are, in hindsight, fairly gag-worthy. Yet somehow, Jonny Greenwood's pre-choral guitar chugs still cut through radio static the way that Johnny Marr's vibrato-heavy lead on "How Soon is Now?" did nearly a decade earlier. And then, of course, there's that final, soaring chorus where Yorke's voice takes flight -- a moment of true beauty in a song that chronicles ugliness. "Creep" might stand as an embarrassing entry point into the public consciousness but I submit that "Prove Yourself", with it's refrain of "I'm better off dead", is truly Pablo Honey's most cringe-worthy track. If "Creep" is now seen as a joke, then "Prove Yourself" must be the album's morbid punch line.

As with the other two records discussed here, the "Special Collectors Edition" of Pablo Honey pairs the original album with a bonus CD containing B-sides, demos and BBC sessions, as well as a DVD that collects live performances, music videos and television appearances. Pablo Honey, as it stands, is not a very enjoyable album, so it's not surprising that the various bits and pieces of audio and video from that era are equally disappointing. Still, what the bonus discs lack in quality, they more than make up for in quantity and despite the odds, there are indeed a few gems to be found.

Disc two leads off with the Drill EP, the band's first official release. Long out of print, Drill is now highly sought after by collectors (though not for its musical value, I would imagine). Four of the tracks on Drill would later reappear on Pablo Honey and are listed here as demos, though "Stupid Car" (notably the first song to address Yorke's preoccupation with and general distrust of vehicular transport) never resurfaced. Logic suggests that the song was reborn as the superior "Killer Cars", which appears here as a live cut, one of the many B-sides to "Creep". "Coke Babies", a B-side to "Anyone Can Play Guitar", is notable for its atmospheric opening and squall of shoegazey guitar noise. And "Pop is Dead", an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek personification of pop music, stands as perhaps the funniest song in a largely humorless catalog. I dare you not to simultaneously laugh and wince when Yorke sneers, "Oh no, pop is dead, long live pop/One final line of coke to jack him off ".

Surprisingly, the two best cuts on the second disc turn out to be alternate, acoustic takes. The acoustic versions of both "Creep" and "Banana Co." are things of beauty, largely due to their lush, gorgeous guitar arrangements. "Creep" is especially notable, as its final chorus finds Yorke pushing his voice to its very limits, lending the tune a far more satisfying, cathartic feel. It's the sort of vocal performance that would make even Jeff Buckley -- one of Yorke's vocal idols -- stand up and take notice.

On the audiovisual side of things, Pablo Honey is equally overstuffed, though no better for it. All four music videos from the album are collected here, though they also appeared on last year's The Best Of DVD compilation. Be sure to note the head banging grunge kids and moshpit in "Creep" (not to mention Phil Selway's ridiculous hat), a wealth of cheesy, surreal imagery parading as profound in "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and -- what else? -- a zombie Thom Yorke being carried about in a casket in "Pop is Dead".

By way of contrast, the band's "Top of the Pops" performance of "Creep" from 1993 is fairly mundane, at least as far as "Top of the Pops" performances go. The band would revisit the show three more times during their career, consistently failing to subvert the program's silly format by taking the piss out of it (as Nirvana and Belle & Sebastian, among others, did).

Finally, the bonus DVD makes the interesting choice of splitting the band's Live at the Astoria DVD into two parts, collecting the Pablo Honey cuts here and placing the songs that would appear on The Bends on that album's bonus DVD. This footage provides an interesting document of what Radiohead were like as a live act in 1995: tight, focused and workmanlike, much as they are today.

More than 15 years after its initial release, Pablo Honey feels like little more than a curiosity -- a voyeuristic look at the awkward first steps of a band that would eventually come to both define and outgrow the alternative rock movement. While it's hard to recommend the album on its own merits, the folks at Capitol/Parlophone have done a commendable job, expanding the album with a wealth of bonus material, to the point that it's difficult to pinpoint anything that may have been left out. The Special Collector's Edition of Pablo Honey might not be the most compelling item musically but at the very least, hardcore Radiohead fans will find that it's a great historical document, not to mention, good for a laugh or two. And honestly, what more can you expect from a record named after a Jerky Boys quote?

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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