Radiohead – [Album + DVD]

Tuesday, 03 June 2008

Radiohead fans are a peculiar bunch.

They’ll slog through the muck and the mire to watch the band perform outdoors in a deluge and they’ll pay full price for the band’s latest album when they could get it free. But if online message boards are to be believed, they will not condone any attempt to collect the band’s top hits onto a single album. Several hundred people, in fact, have signed an online petition titled “We Don’t Need Radiohead Greatest Hits Album.” Their efforts, however, have been in vain. This week, the cleverly named Radiohead: The Best Of lands on store shelves, likely to be purchased even by many of those who would rather it not exist.

Sure, there will always be purists that believe a band can only be experienced through its original albums, but Radiohead seems to have a disproportionately large number of such fans. And they may be onto something. Each Radiohead album is a unique entity with a character and life its own, and a casual listen to a handful of songs just won’t cut it. The band’s music, therefore, is anathema to the very nature of greatest hits albums, and The Best Of inadvertently hammers that point home. By packaging 17 of Radiohead’s most radio-friendly songs (and another 13 on the 2-disc special edition), EMI Group, the band’s former label, has managed to make one of the most interesting, innovative and distinctive bands in the world sound almost, well, generic.

The problems begin with the song selection, where, other than the B-side “Talk Show Host” on the optional second disc, there really are no surprises. As expected, “Creep,” “Karma Police” and “Pyramid Song” are all there, along with about half of The Bends. There are no risks, which certainly won’t sit well with fans that have come to expect music that will challenge them. Indeed, the studio albums are given greater texture by the atmospheric, bizarre and often beautiful aural soundscapes that sometimes get lost among the more conventional “hits.” But then, “Climbing Up the Walls,” “Treefingers” and “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,” as great as they might be, aren’t exactly the kinds of songs that belong on a greatest hits disc.

The album also suffers from the absence of songs from In Rainbows. EMI could not include them since it did not release the album, which is a shame for The Best Of because In Rainbows is one of the band’s best and most polished albums to date. Instead, the label picks and chooses from the other albums, somehow giving as much representation to Pablo Honey (three songs) as to Hail to the Thief.

One of the highlights of this release, though, is the DVD compilation of 21 music videos and live performances. Many of the videos, no doubt, are already familiar to the Internet-savvy fans, but nine of the tracks are being released on DVD for the first time. And while it doesn’t include the wonderful video for UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” this is still a satisfyingly complete collection of videos spanning most of the band’s career.

It should come as no surprise that the band had nothing to do with any of The Best Of. After completing Hail to the Thief in 2003, the band had fulfilled its obligations to EMI and Radiohead set out on its own to self-release their next album, In Rainbows, as a digital download (the album was subsequently released through independent labels XL Recordings and TBD Records). After being spurned by the band, EMI did not hesitate to use its back catalogue in this shameless money-grab, though in the label’s defense, it’s having its own troubles. As online music sales surge, traditional CD sales are falling dramatically, hurting major record companies like EMI. The label has started merging its divisions and will cut about one-third of its workforce to counter the revenue losses. Still, this latest album isn’t sitting well with the band. In a recent interview on a Canadian radio station, guitarist Ed O’Brien said the band “obviously” won’t be doing any promotion of the album. Lead singer Thom Yorke, meanwhile, called the album “a wasted opportunity” and said in an interview with The Word magazine, “If we’d been behind it, and we wanted to do it, then it might have been good.” And Yorke mused, “We haven’t really had any hits, so what exactly is the purpose?”

I suppose the greatest hits album may appeal to non-listeners who have heard that they should be listening to Radiohead and don’t know where to begin. But there’s something very unseemly about that. Instead, go pick up any studio album since The Bends (except maybe for Amnesiac). You’ll be much better off.

Radiohead: The Best Of is available now on EMI.

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Related Articles: Radiohead – In Rainbows – [Album Review]

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