It's almost an inconceivable achievement, but despite the explosion of Radiohead imitators that have sprouted up since the success of the band's back-to-back '90s masterpieces The Bends and OK Computer, Thom Yorke and company have managed to stay consistently ahead of the curve. Continually reinventing themselves, this year they have found a new way to stay innovative.
In a fairly unprecedented move, they released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, on a completely independent, download-only basis with a donation option instead of a flat price. In other words, they aren't asking for any money for the album; listeners can pay if they wish, but it's optional.
While this may be the least expensive Radiohead album you ever buy, it certainly isn't the cheapest in quality. Borrowing elements from all their past work, the band has come up with their strongest album since OK Computer. It's a harmony of that album's masterful mixing efforts - incredibly meticulous attention to detail that makes every song an unfolding, cerebral kaleidoscope - with the sleek electronica of their 2000 follow-up, Kid A.
Like most of Radiohead's work, it's not an easy listen. It demands the listener's attention and requires concentration and repeated plays. But the payoff is, once again, insurmountable.
York's singing has had criticisms in the past; admittedly, his voice often sounds frail and timorous. However, in spotted examples he has shown he can unleash a hidden beast of a voice, most notably on his fanatical screams during the bridge of Radiohead's first big hit, "Creep." That evil-twin set of pipes makes many appearances on In Rainbows, even drawing an until-now-unseen element of soul on tracks like the opener, "15 Step," and the seventh track, "Reckoner."
All of In Rainbows is lush and jam-packed with overdubs and ingenious string arrangements. This is the most emotional Radiohead album since Kid A, and some of the sweeping melodies, like the gorgeous "Nude" and "All I Need," immediately touch the listener like Kid A's gut-wrenchingly lonely "How to Disappear Completely."
Over the years, Radiohead has driven themselves farther and farther from the realm of traditional alternative rock to the point where Jonny Greenwood's guitar, which only a decade ago was blaring and boastful on the brain-scrambling "Paranoid Android," has drifted almost unrecognizably into the soup of simmering sounds York has collected, becoming just another part of a perfect sonic equilibrium.
With so much attention on the stratum of voiceless styles, it's easy to overlook the rabid reflections found in York's lyrics. Like the chilling imagery in OK Computer's "Fitter Happier," much of the wordplay on In Rainbows is conceptual; sung with York's trademark delicate tremble, lines like "I'm an animal/Trapped in your hot car/I am all the days that you choose to ignore" are icy enough to send a chill down your spine.
Radiohead is the epitome of a band that is continually ahead of its time; since The Bends, they have constantly reshaped the perception of popular music and have surfaced as one of the most important bands in recent music history.
In Rainbows has added another masterful chapter to their careers as musicians. It is gorgeous in all the ways music should be: complex and expertly crafted without the expense of appeal. Radiohead has created yet another record that will be regarded as a staple of music for years to come.