On Musical Appreciation and Radiohead

The epithet of Radiohead being the pinnacle of rock and modern music is so unbearably ubiquitous amongst publications, it almost directly demands a listen. With such high expectations, could you even blame me for not getting it?

While on a periodic scouting session last year, I decided to finally check the band’s newer material  out, and gave a listen to Burn The Witch, the first single from their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016). (At that point, the only Radiohead song I enjoyed was 15 Step.) While the track was sonically pleasing, I didn’t find anything compelling musically. Sure, there was subtlety and great production, but there seemed to be a gradual buildup that led to a disappointing outcome. I recall myself thinking, “At least Perfect Life [by Steven Wilson, off Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)] had a fitting end to all the buildup.”  At that point, I had figured that the musical style of Radiohead, which was barely rock and largely slow and instrumental, wasn’t a style for me.

And fast forward to September 2017, and Burn The Witch has become an addictive track with a booming conclusion that perfectly pays off the crisp, delicate instrumentation in the first part of the song. Intrigued, I decided to give a listen to OK Computer (1997), starting not with Airbag, but with Paranoid Android, mostly because it was a lyric in Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori from Weezer‘s excellent The White Album (2016). It was slow and unforgiving. I listened to small random segments from the other songs in the album, and they all seemed so soft and slow. How on earth was this considered one of the most monumental released in the 1990s and in rock in general?

Karma Police was the track that finally hooked me in from first listen, and from that point, the rest of the album became a sudden masterpiece. Tracks like Paranoid AndroidLet Down and No Surprises, along with the aforementioned Karma Police, became songs I started to spin almost every time I listened to music that week. That was the moment where I could finally appreciate Radiohead for what it is, and, yes, In Rainbows (2007) became a masterwork shortly after, with Bodysnatchers and Videotape becoming more memorable than 15 Step ever was.

My experience with Radiohead has taught me one very important lesson: your appreciation for music can change dramatically over the course of a few years. By letting go of past prejudices against music I deemed faux-rock or pseudo-metal, I have learnt to appreciate softer, more experimental and more accessible tracks. By delving deep into Progressive Rock and Progressive Metal and realizing the essential difference between pretentious peacocking and well-intentioned complexity, I’ve learnt to appreciate subtleties and emotion more while simultaneously looking at the emotional depth, soul and feel of the music.

Some albums will always be grower albums, such as Opeth‘s Pale Communion (2015), which, in hindsight, I would consider the most musically well-crafted, and indeed my favorite, album of the year. Pale Communion excels not because of its beautiful heaviness and symphonic rawness, but rather because of well-produced, consistently captivating music layered with subtleties and providing just enough variety to make it a enjoyable and surprisingly pleasant listen. And while I originally did place Pale Communion at the number two spot in my list, I’ve returned to the record so often and with such pure, undiluted excitement each and every time that it definitely deserves the top spot, as well as a stellar 5.0/5.0 rating.

Whether the album is an instant hit or a slow-impact masterpiece, one’s appreciation of music will change over the years, and perhaps revisiting artists that one fell out of favor with, or artists that never grabbed one’s affection to begin with, can give a sense of surprising fulfilment that cannot be matched. I say this, of course, with a considerable dose of hypocrisy.



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