In case it wasn't already clear, Radiohead are my favorite band. From the overly-maligned Pablo Honey to the band's most recent output The King of Limbs, I love it all. Today marks twenty years since the 1995 release of The Bends, Radiohead's first truly Radiohead-y album, the record that began to display their brilliance and which proved that the band's legacy wouldn't be limited to "Creep." The Bends does this by abandoning the grunge approach of their debut for a more agitated and unusual brand of guitar rock. While I still consider OK Computer to be my favorite Radiohead album, I find myself listening to The Bends more often than any other selection from the group's discography. The more straightforward nature of the songs, which still maintain a pop quality to them despite their weirdness, combined with a generally happier tone ("Street Spirit" notwithstanding) make it the perfect combination of Radiohead's eccentricities and listen-ability.
The two best examples of Radiohead's pop side on The Bends are, fittingly, the album's two biggest hits - "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees." Both lean on acoustic guitar riffs before exploding into something greater, and both show off Thom Yorke's impressive singing ability. "High and Dry," later revealed to be unliked by Radiohead themselves, centers around a simple two-phrase chorus that works its way into your brain immediately, and boasts a guitar solo that pops out of your speakers every time. "Fake Plastic Trees" focuses on Yorke's vocals and acoustic guitar and a lonely Hammond organ (played by guitarist Jonny Greenwood) for the first half of the track. Once Yorke snarls "it wears him," the song erupts for a few brief yet soaring moments, before dying back down, leaving Yorke to wish he "could be who you wanted."
But where The Bends thrives where Pablo Honey came up short is that this record is incredibly diverse, and not directly derivative of any one genre or band. It's hard to believe album opener "Planet Telex" and closer "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" were written by the same artist, let alone included on the same album. The former is a distorted mess of guitars and drums, in the best way possible. "Street Spirit" is a beautifully morose labyrinth of "cracked eggs, dead birds" and death's "beady eyes," telling a tale of absolute despair only Thom Yorke knows how to deliver. In between the album's bookends, "My Iron Lung" features two separate beserk guitar freak=outs, "Sulk" is a subtly harrowing song about the Hungerford massacre, and "Just" showcases Radiohead at their most strum-happy.
While not as paranoid as OK Computer or Hail to the Thief, jarring as Kid A or Amnesiac, or jaw-droppingly gorgeous as In Rainbows, The Bends remains probably the greatest guitar-rock record of the period between Kurt Cobain's death (and grunge's along with it) and OK Computer's tech-rock revolution. Each and every song is vintage Radiohead, and the album as a whole serves as the perfect bridge between the quintet's grunge phase and their highly-celebrated era of oddity. It may not be the most complex output of Radiohead's career, but it just may be the easiest to just pick up and listen to.
Key tracks: "The Bends," "Fake Plastic Trees," "Just," "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"