Radiohead’s music has historically been about feeling bad, but listening to Radiohead’s music has, on some level, usually felt good. To wail along with Thom Yorke, to nod to Phil Selway’s and Colin Greenwood’s grooves, and to hum Ed O’Brien’s and Jonny Greenwood’s guitar lines (or ondes Martenot lines, or synthesizer lines, or what have you), is to experience joy—even if that joy is minuscule in comparison to the grinding oppression, spiritual emptiness, and impending doom that Yorke likes to sing about. Radiohead fans are fans, foremost, for the thrill of catharsis.
This seeming contradiction between message and medium isn’t unique to the band. Pop music can be placed next to the momentarily reassuring human inventions—movies, monarchy, vehicular safety features—that OK Computer dramatized and sneered at. Which means, at base level, it’s a tricky format for fully expressing antisocial emotions or radical critiques. Kurt Cobain wasn’t able to mock away the ones singing all the pretty songs; Beyoncé hasn’t been able to escape bell hooks’s critique that she’s queen only of an exploitative system; Yorke and his band have remained on stage at the idioteque.
Radiohead have, again and again, addressed this tension. Listening to 1995’s The Bends today can be shocking because of the brightness of the guitar music next to some of the dourest lyrics Yorke would ever sing. Since then, they’ve moved away from rock and its ability to induce fist pumping, though the band’s crystalline songwriting has shone through every time—even through the drabbest arrangements of their career on 2011’s lukewarmly received King of Limbs. Radiohead’s brilliance has been in pushing everything about the music to as strange a place as it can go without breaking the underlying songs.