One of the great albums in alternative rock, The Bends was Radiohead’s artistic breakthrough, and even though they have since pushed their sound way beyond the guitar rock they present here, I still consider The Bends to be their best work. The Bends was released in the twilight of grunge; by 1995 the best alternative music was coming from Britain, not America, and it was in the form of sunny Britpop. The overcast gloom of Nirvana and Alice in Chains gave way to the much brighter and more cheerful Blur and Oasis. Radiohead, having scored a (regrettably) career-defining radio hit with “Creep” from their first album Pablo Honey in 1993, was never a grunge or a Britpop act. And to be completely honest, I think avoiding both camps has helped preserve their longevity considerably, although I doubt anyone was thinking about any of that at the time.
They avoided being pigeonholed as early as 1995, and though they have become known for being unconventional both in terms of their music (e.g., Kid A‘s electronica experimentation) and their business practices (e.g., their “pay what you want” asking price for In Rainbows), The Bends is a fairly conventional record. The songwriting, however, is a marked improvement on their mostly mediocre debut from two years earlier, and frankly the giant leap forward they make on The Bends is nothing short of extraordinary. Moreover, the songs swim in oceans of fascinating textures, dark atmospherics and wavy walls of distortion. It’s heart-on-your-sleeve songwriting channeled through restraint and release, angst and calm, dark and light.
After The Bends we started to see Radiohead self-consciously retreat behind electronics and studio trickery more and more, and while that turned out to be what they needed to do to express themselves creatively, it meant for a less interesting listening experience. Not that OK Computer and Kid A aren’t great, but I feel like with The Bends the band is fully exposed. Even though guitar effects are almost constantly skittering about, everything feels very grounded thanks to the straightforward song structure and the use of traditional instruments. As a result, The Bends is something of an alt-rock blueprint, while their subsequent albums have all been experiments of some kind.
I suppose it would be impossible to go any farther without mentioning John Leckie, best known as the producer of the Stone Roses’ 1989 self-titled debut, which is credited with catalyzing the Britpop movement. It’s curious that he pops up as producer again here, but his presence is clearly felt, as the pop sensibility present in songs like “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” is just amazing. Oasis, the most popular Britpop band, had that incredible pop sensibility, as well, but their records sound pretty terrible quality-wise. (They’re extremely loud, with considerable dynamic range compression, and are frequently ridiculed by audiophiles.) The Bends certainly has some noisy sections (“My Iron Lung”), and while the mastering isn’t perfect (it’s louder than the average ’95 CD), it’s really well produced and dynamic.
After Radiohead and EMI had a falling out while negotiating their recording contract, a Radiohead compilation album called Radiohead: The Best Of was released in 2008 without the band’s permission or input. (When you’re signed to a label they own your work — forever, unless they decide to sell the rights to your catalog — and can do whatever they want with it.) Spanning their first five albums, The Best Of contains a staggering six tracks from The Bends. Considering their first album had just one worthy single and their music became too obtuse for radio or video airplay after The Bends, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. Even so, the compilation is a shameless grab for cash by their former label.
If you’re looking to listen to a compilation to sample Radiohead’s impressive catalog — this is the fifth album of theirs to appear on my list, so it just occurred to me that you may be interested in doing just that — don’t bother. If you only have the time for one, start with The Bends and move forward through their discography from there.