Top 100 Artists of the Decade: #2 Radiohead


The Top 100 Artists of the Decade list will be posted over the course of 100 days. On September 23rd, we will post one artist and continue every day until we unveil our #1 artist of the decade!

Please read our introduction to learn about our nominating and ordering process.

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#2 Radiohead

If you step back and consider the big picture, Radiohead aren't all that important. Anyone can go his or her whole life without having heard of the legendary English quintet and it probably wouldn't matter that much. But for anyone who listens to and is interested in contemporary rock/pop music and its greatest practitioners, it's hard to overstate their significance.

Radiohead exists in a strange place that very few other artists reside. Revered by critics, adored by fans, and envied by peers, they've managed to become simultaneously inscrutable and immensely popular - at this point, saying you like Radiohead is like saying you like sandwiches. Belief in the band’s greatness is implied as a fact that surpasses subjectivity, because no one would take your opinions seriously if you denied it. But what's astonishing is they didn't become unanimously liked by catering to the lowest common denominator. They’ve never made a record with sweeping sentiments or grand gestures, they don’t seem to possess any pop sensibilities, and have even been self-consciously difficult at points in their career. Yet they headline festivals and sell out arenas around the world. The band's restless creativity constantly pushes them forward and being innovative is like second nature to them, but every Radiohead release has found their audience keeping pace with what they were doing. Radiohead are always ahead of the curve but will never be ahead of their time because we will always be right there with them, willing to go wherever they take us.

It's a credit to the group's musicality that they can be so diverse and experimental yet retain their unique personality. Go ahead and try to describe a standard Radiohead song. Are there electronic beats or malevolent guitar shrieks? Will your description include a haunting falsetto or an anguished wail? Or will it have all of the above? The only time I find myself saying "oh that's typical Radiohead" is when I'm listening to another band imitating them. I don't know what Radiohead’s "sound" is, but I know that no one else can approximate it. Because no matter how many musical bases they've covered, the songs remain the same: cerebral, affecting, and with that extra spark that sets it apart. Each member of the band brings something essential to the table, contributing to that spark: Thom Yorke's vocals are beautiful and searching, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien are incredible guitarists and sound manipulators, Colin Greenwood's bass playing is subtle yet so imaginative, and Phil Selway's impeccable precision on the drums is matched only by his versatility. When the individual parts are this good, that makes the whole that much better. Their music doesn't make you tap your toes as much as it becomes a part of your psyche; the effects last much longer than the songs themselves. This type of intense listening experience is usually a personal one limited to a close-knit community, but the group has translated their singular sound into a shared experience.

Fourteen years into their career, Radiohead have surpassed their idols and influences to become an entity themselves. Over the course of seven albums, the band has never slipped into self-parody or rehashed past glories, of which there are many. It would have been so easy for them to coast on the arena rock cachet they were riding high on after their first three albums, but they weren't afraid to throw it all away to make the music they wanted, granting them more esteem and acclaim than ever. Because even though we can go on about their complexity and ingenuity, Radiohead’s diverse army of fans and admirers point out that they’ve also become something else: transcendent. And that might be cliché, but anything important ultimately is, right?

- Kevin Na

Check back tomorrow for the next artist! To see the full list of the Top 100 Artists of the Decade, click here.

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