RADIOHEAD The Bends (Parlophone)

Radiohead in terrific album shock horror! Yes, like Suede and Blur before them, they’ve suddenly produced a stunning album that justifies every last column inch of hype they’ve been on the receiving end of from certain corners of the music press, who’ve staked "The Bends" out as ‘the new "Joshua Tree"’, which sounds like damning with libellous slander in my book. It’s much better than that, of course, in odorous comparison turms a collision between the grimy falsetto operatics of Suede’s "Dog Man Star" and the industrial guitar treatments of U2’s "Achtung Baby".

It’s the contrast that makes the album so great: it’s half huge stadium anthems, draped in slithery guitar abuse, and half sumptuous semi-acoustic balladry. What holds these disparate elements together is the stinging acidity of the lyrics: singer Thom Yorke can conjure up more loneliness and isolation in the chorus of the title track ("Baby’s got the bends/We don’t have any real friends/Lying in the bar with the drip feed on/Sitting with my girlfriend and waiting for something to happen") that the complete Joy Division catalogue. Maybe it’s his voice - Johnny Rotten’s sneer with the nihilism giving way to a kind of resigned hopelessness. Other highlights include the elegiac "Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was" and the monumental "Black Star", both easily capable of breaking hearts at a hundred paces. John Leckie’s (Stone Roses, Ride, Simple Minds, Pink Floyd) production is exemplary throughout, too. "When the power runs out we’ll just hum" sings Thom at one point, and when the power does run out it’s these bruised, apocalyptic songs we’ll be humming.

RADIOHEAD OK Computer (Parlophone)

Being the third British band of recent years to attain stadium status without even the merest whiff of principles being betrayed (the other two being the Manics (irrespective of their early polemics) and O@s!s), the artists formerly ‘branded’ the new U2 return with what would inevitably be one of the year’s most important releases irrespective of what it sounded like. That "OK Computer" sounds like "The Bends" interpolated out into the furthest and darkest reaches of the human (or not-so-human) imagination - the kind of territory that, of the many fine records released recently, only those by Primal Scream and Spiritualized have copies of the roadmap to - marks it down as something of a major triumph.

You may have heard the single, "Paranoid Android". It is six minutes long, It has no chorus, but at least three different tunes, huge prog guitar solos and lyrics such as "Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy" and "The yuppies networking/The vomit/The vomit/God loves his children yeah!". Despite being tarnished as the new "Bohemian Rhapsody" it is fabulous, and about as commercial as "OK Computer" dares to get.

Elsewhere, well it appears that Thom Yorke is desperately unhappy with the state of the modern world - modern life really is rubbish. The opener "Airbag" surveys the currently hip world of traffic accidents - "In a fast German car/I’m amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life" - and by the third track "Subterranean Homesick Alien" he’s hoping to be kidnapped by aliens. Then there’s "Fitter Happier", two minutes of Stephen Hawking-esque mantra that begins "Fitter happier more productive/Comfortable/Not drinking too much" and ends "A pig/In a cage/On antibiotics". "Lucky" gets revamped from the "Help" charity album, but the finest moment here (and there’s a great deal of competition) must be "Let Down", a cyclic revolving melody worthy of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman at their poppiest that could be the best hymn written since Orbital’s "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head"...until you notice that the lyrics are stuff like "Transport/Motorways & tramlines/Starting and then stopping".

Alright, it has been a very good year, and personally I think the might of the new Spiritualized album raved about below eclipses the monumental achievement of "OK Computer", but really, albums like this, which exist in a world light years away from all that is Noelrock, have you wondering about just where popular music can possibly go next.

RADIOHEAD Airbag/How Am I Driving? (Capitol)

"This mini album is aimed at the USA", states the front of the digipak for this 25 minute, seven track CD, import copies of which shifted in sufficient quantities to garner it a few weeks in the torpid Top 50. "Airbag/How Am I Driving?" contains the "OK Computer" opening track and a supporting cast of half-a-dozen new songs that sound like works-in-progress, more b-side fodder than fully realised album material. The shortcomings are most apparent in the pleasant but unspectacular instrumental "Meeting In The Aisle".

The songs proper are far more interesting. If, like me, you had the nagging suspicion that, fabulous though "OK Computer" undoubtedly is, it skates a little too close to the conventional rock forms we know and love to be truly revolutionary rather than evolutionary, you’ll cherish "Airbag/How Am I Driving?" as a pointer to the territory Radiohead are hopefully heading for next time round. "A Reminder" is a deranged, mumbling waltz littered with found sounds that seem to have been taped at a German railway station, while "Melatonin" has Thom crooning over banks of celestial keyboards and a complex jazz drum loop.

"Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)" is the crowning glory here, a sort of new-prog-lite mutation that begins as a folky, Fairport-y acoustic guitar number, before going supernova a la "Paranoid Android" but weirder, all uncoiling melody, gasping mellotrons and choirboy harmonies, Thom yelling consumer nightmare stuff like "Plastic plant, middle class, polyethylene/Decaffinate, I let it keep all surfaces clean"

A final word on the splendour of the packaging - almost worth the price of the CD on its own - which takes the form of a bizarre questionnaire, interspersed with graphs, short stories and a lengthy quote from Noam Chomsky’s "The Chomsky Reader", all of which is best summed up by the question on the back cover: "Why visit when you can go for a stroll in the sunshine instead?".

RADIOHEAD Kid A (Parlophone)

That pesky difficult fourth album: I'm writing this a few weeks shy of the end of year toplists that break out like a rash over the music press in late December, so I have no idea whether my comments will be rendered irrelevant by widespread table-topping critical acclaim, but I have a sneaky feeling "Kid A" won't be sweeping the board like "OK Computer" before it. Which isn't to say it's a bad album, but rather that the Radiohead-deification that has seen the band regularly sharing out the higher positions in all-time greatest album polls over the past few years with The Beatles just has to stop now, it must. Because whilst The Beatles managed to fashion some of the most daring, inventive and experimental music of the 20th century and sell it to millions under the guise of popular entertainment, Radiohead's idea of head-meddling is to bundle up a succession of other people's ideas and hand them on in the hope that their target audience haven't yet found them for themselves.

Wow, sweeping accusation, but one that I feel the emotional paucity of "Kid A" fully justifies. Yes, it sounds like a bold u-turn away from the pre-millennium tension angst-rock dead end of "OK Computer", chiefly because Thom Yorke's empty, drained lyrics make only a few guest appearances here. Unpick the fragmentary electronica that forms the backbone of "Kid A", however, and it seems rather more like a succession of borrowed moments, implemented in a rather less fluid manner than they would be by their originators. The title track and "Idioteque", both ranking amidst the album's finer things, burble like prime Aphex Twin, but seem stiff and mechanical compared to the work of Richard D James - in essence, they sound like a rock band attempting to play ambient techno, which is essentially exactly what they are. "The National Anthem" seems to have established itself as something of a popular favourite in lieu of any genuine singles here, with its combination of repetitive bassline and blaring, discordant brass ending: imagine my surprise when, trundling to work one day listening to a compilation of various b-sides and album offcuts, I came across a version of Wire's "Former Airline" (it's one of the extra tracks on the "Chairs Missing" CD) notable for its, er, repetitive bassline and, uh, blaring, discordant brass ending. Hmmm. Take "Treefingers" or the untitled closing instrumental, which seem to be exercises in bad Eno ambience. And at its most conventional - "Optimistic" or "In Limbo", for example - "Kid A" sounds like a second-rate Radiohead, a band impersonating their illustrious past.

Even in its packaging and presentation, "Kid A" appears to be attempting to reduce itself. The vinyl version arrives as a double 10" set, something of a novelty format which doesn't do wonders for the sound quality either, which varies and wobbles over the course of the four sides - and the final few minutes of music are puzzlingly located after the run-out groove on side four, requiring the kind of deft fingerwork to access them that, frankly, their quality doesn't deserve. The credits will tell you rather more about the samples and fonts used in the album's creation than the songs themselves, and without any lyrics to consult you have to use other forms of interpolation to attempt to establish a message from the medium, for example the dedication "To Leo" (the Leo in question apparently being Leo Blair) and the booklet of anti-government propaganda allegedly hidden within the jewel box of early CD pressings. (A friend's copy, bought on day of release, didn't contain one, so don't hold your breath as you snap fingernails attempting to disassemble the cover of yours).

But, after spending 600 words being nothing but negative, I have to admit that I like "Kid A": it's a good album, although it might not be exactly what you've come to expect and respect from the marque. If you love them for Thom Yorke's apocalyptic lyrical traumas, the crunching guitar work or the razor-sharp melodies look away now, because none of the above are present in any great quantity. And personally if I fancy a slab of ambient electronica I'll put on "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" or "Discreet Music" ahead of this - just because a complaint rock band have suddenly embraced the kind of leftfield theorising that others have lived by for decades doesn't necessarily mean their music should be judged apart from the competition. Nevertheless, "Kid A" is a brave step somewhere - forwards, backwards or sideways its probably too soon to tell - and will hopefully throw their pale-faced imitators off their scent once again (unless Travis go drill 'n' bass on their next album, or Muse suddenly discover the delights of Krautrock). And I'd certainly take it in preference to "Pablo Honey". But if you're familiar with the source material, or hear echoes of all this supposed innovation elsewhere, you might not find yourself completely bowled over.

RADIOHEAD Amnesiac (Parlophone)

Having broken the camel's back of reasonable expectation last time around, Kid B could have aimed itself just about anywhere and befuddled, puzzled and delighted its audience in roughly equal measures. As it is, "Amnesiac" seems to play the same territory but subtly differently: the burbling, Warp-style electronica that distanced "Kid A" from the remainder of Radiohead's illustrious back catalogue slightly returns here on the suffocating road rage of opening track "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box", with its haunting, end-of-tether refrain "I'm a reasonable man/Get off my case". It's also evident on "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors", less a song in the conventional sense (whatever that means these days, Radiohead having done more than most to trash the accepted definition) than Thom Yorke's Kraftwerk robot clone reciting a list of different kinds of doors.

Elsewhere "Amnesiac" spins itself out into a new, minor key acoustic world of threat and foreboding. "You And Whose Army?" is not a political song in exactly the same way that the sleevenotes on the back cover of Steely Dan's "Can't Buy A Thrill" reassured the listener that "Kings" was 'not a political song'…it's all in the way that Yorke spits out the word 'cronies'. "Knives Out" arrives as a surprisingly muted offering, despite having been cited as one of the highlights of last year's tent tour and a surprising omission from "Kid A". The single "Pyramid Song" is a hypnotic, Eastern-influenced anti-anthem, arguably closer to Thom Yorke's Unkle collaboration "Rabbit In Your Headlights" than anything else in the Radiohead canon. "Morning Bell/Amnesiac" is a new version of the "Kid A" song with minor lyrical revisions and "Life In A Glasshouse" sees the album shudder to a close with delightfully discordant brass led by Humphrey Lyttleton.

So, "Amnesiac" is marginally more of a 'song' album than "Kid A", even though some of those songs are disappointingly restrained and pedestrian by the standards established by the band, even recently - "I Might Be Wrong" seems to circle endlessly and aimlessly without ever going in for the kill. There's more acoustica this time around, some songs even teetering on the verge of folk. In retrospect its appearance vindicates Radiohead's decision to concentrate the more experimental material on the first volume. Had they been issued in reverse order it might have been tempting to dismiss "Kid A" as the bored tinkerings of a band with too much studio time and a woeful lack of self-discipline: as it is, both albums have been evaluated in the most favourable climate such difficult music as this could hope to expect.

Incidentally, on vinyl "Amnesiac" again arrives as a double 10", thankfully without the grosser pressing problems that plagued its predecessor. The packaging is as immaculate as we've come to expect from the marque, laden with bizarre illustrations and cryptic slogans, although still sadly no printed lyrics.

RADIOHEAD I Might Be Wrong Live Recordings (Parlophone)

Radiohead's second long-player of 2001 is, as its extended title suggests, a mini album of live performances taped at shows in Oxford, Berlin, Oslo and Vaison La Romaine. Seven of the eight tracks are reworkings of "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" material, the balance being the previously unrecorded song "True Love Waits".

Firstly, a note about the production: despite its provenance, "I Might Be Wrong Live Recordings" has my vote as the most sonically delicious album of the year, narrowly pipping the new Leonard Cohen album to the post on the grounds that the latter was constructed under ideal conditions. Parlophone have cut the vinyl version at a surprisingly low level considering the album's lack of length (a smidge over 40 minutes), a practice normally associated with the need to cram too much music onto a side (something the last two Manic Street Preachers albums, for example, are guilty of) that links arm in arm (pun unintended) with chip-ship levels of surface noise. Fortunately, a millpond-smooth pressing ensures that the latter potential disadvantage doesn't occur here, although you'll need to crank the volume up to avoid the sensation that you're sitting at the back of (or even outside) the stadium.

And it would be a shame to miss a show as consistently thrilling as this, because "I Might Be Wrong Live Recordings" is utterly fabulous, the recent Radiohead material you've already been puzzled by given very big teeth indeed. "The National Anthem" opens proceedings from within a maelstrom of samples - I noted foghorns, foreign radio broadcasts, snatches of strings and Dixieland jazz - and a rhythmic coughing fit by Thom Yorke, but most of the songs presented here have been stripped down for live performance. "Like Spinning Plates" has practically been reinvented compared to the fussier "Amnesiac" version, with frontwards verses now travelling in the same direction as the choruses and a haunting, Nymanesque piano melody where previously lay a synthesised confusion of an almost-tune. The delicious electric piano figure of "Morning Bell" winds around some jazz-precise drum shuffles, and distant points along the album's duration mark the return of the long-dormant, crackling Radiohead electric guitar attack. There's a euphoric moment when the trebly drum-programming that announces "Idioteque" is recognised by the crowd, who are treated to an astonishing version that breaks down into volcanic white noise where most bands would settle for the structural cop-out of a middle eight (and I still can't decide whether the shadow that haunts Yorke's vocals during this song is the appreciative accompaniment of a few thousand voices or just more electronic fog and trickery). Newbie "True Love Waits" is well worth waiting for: a gorgeous acoustic guitar ballad, it's the simplest thing they've attempted in years. In fact, the only old-fashioned moment on the album is the incongruous football chanting that precedes the wibbly headrush of "Everything In Its Right Place".

And the plaudits just keep on coming. Best live album of the year? Finer than the Daft Punk and Weller outings, it just has to be. Best Radiohead album of the year? "Amnesiac" good, "I Must Be Wrong Live Recordings" much better, even. It’s as if "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" represented the necessary process of experimentation, discovery and familiarisation that has resulted, finally, in this ultimate exposition of Radiohead's 'difficult period': the studio albums are required listening to fully appreciate the daring progress made here. Possibly unexpectedly, "I Might Be Wrong Live Recording" delivers more sustained musical pleasure than any Radiohead album since "OK Computer".

RADIOHEAD Hail To The Thief (Parlophone)

hailtothethief.jpg (43399 bytes)Having fashioned six albums and a live setette in little over a decade, Radiohead seem to have conclusively shucked their old reputation as inveterate studio tinkerers, locking themselves away for years at a time in their efforts to bewilder their fanbase. "Hail To The Thief", that number six, is probably their least stratified release since the planet-straddling "OK Computer", drawing equally on the no guitars/guitars concepts that powered "Kid A" and "Amnesiac". And perhaps it's a measure of the band's seismic impact on the thinking person's end of popular music in general that, during the first few listens at least, "Hail To The Thief" sounds almost raggedly conventional.

Persistence and inquisitive ears pay dividends though, naturally. Analyse "2 + 2 = 5" and you might notice how the song slips between time signatures as crooked as the bad math of its title, the old "Paranoid Android" trick, admittedly, but here deployed so subtly you hardly notice. "Sit Down Stand Up" follows with some burbling laptronica, simmering, like much of the album, in a blanket of articulate yet opaque rage…it's almost impossible to pinpoint the object of Thom Yorke's wrath, although it's probably a reasonably safe assumption that neither Tony nor Dubya would be on his dinner party guestlist. And maybe at around this point you begin to notice that random words and phrases from the lyrics have seeped into the landfill of Stanley Donwood's cover art.

"Sail To The Moon" goes woozy, wistful and comparatively acoustic, warm, lapping waves of guitar and piano building into the kind of impenetrable melancholia that might recall R.E.M. circa "Wendell Gee". And so it goes, alternating between material lazily characterised as "Kid A"-like - the bleepy electronica of "Backdrifts", the way the album's originally posited title track "The Gloaming" draws a rhythm from apparently random glitches and static- and that which more obviously recalls the guitars-to-arms clarion call of "Amnesiac" - "Go To Sleep", and the single "There There", which I have read described as Neil Youngesque - if so, it's the swampy, turbulent Neil Young of "Tonight's The Night" that it evokes.

And sometimes - and this is usually where the album reveals its true glories - they fuse these extremes together seamlessly: on the bleak, hunted paranoia of "Where I End And You Begin" the interplay between Colin Greenwood's bass and Phil Selway's clattering percussion teeters on the edge of the kind of awkward funk that Talking Heads used to do so well. And other times Radiohead are busily inventing some kind of totally new music altogether, witness the slow handclap funeral dirge that is "We Suck Young Blood": it's almost a disappointment when it breaks into a thrashy, conventional mid-section, almost as if the band lack total courage in their artistic direction.

The looming, yet still vaguely funky, threat of "A Punchup At A Wedding" heralds the album's closing purple patch. "Myxomatosis" is my favourite of the fourteen songs here, all blistering, scorched, distorted electronics forcing out an itchy, pulsating, aggravated melody. Lyrically it seems to be a huge, all-encompassing disease allegory, be it sexual, mental, contamination in the food chain or the media. The dense babble of passive-aggressive vigilantism "A Wolf At The Door" closes proceedings, a whimper on first acquaintance that soon grows like topsy.

There's so much to digest here that, if not an album that initially bowls the listener over, "Hail To The Thief" is almost certainly one that you won’t give up on quickly. Maybe I'd have to return to "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" to be sure, but there's nothing here to contradict the early impression that it's one of the three best albums Radiohead have yet made.

RADIOHEAD In Rainbows (XL Recordings)

The first thing that clubs this listener around the head about “In Rainbows” is that it sounds phenomenal, both sonically and musically. I haven’t heard it on CD, or the 45 rpm pressing included in the limited edition internet-only Discbox, but even the pay-what-thou-wilt medium-res download sounds mighty fine, and the 33 rpm commercial vinyl version is a delight, especially the pixelated, coruscating chirrups that open “15 Step”. Musically, this is honed, polished, sharp, sparse and to the point, without a gram of excess. Here comes the but, though: I also find “In Rainbows” to be just a bit soulless compared with, say, “The Bends”, “OK Computer” or, what’s in my opinion Radiohead’s hidden masterpiece, “Hail To The Thief”. The personal and political directness that gave Thom Yorke’s desperate utterances a sense of universality on those albums seems to have been replaced by a kind of abstract wordplay that sounds impressive, erudite and important whilst not saying a great deal. Perhaps some might find these amorphous lyrics, which each listener can mould to their own preferred interpretation, a strength of the album, but to me it leaves the end product without a beating heart.

None of this detracts from the fact that, as sonic architects, Radiohead pretty much represent the current state of the art, reinforced by practically every track on here. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is all glistening, cascading Steve Reich-ian guitar lines, “Faust Arp” breaks out some chiming acoustic guitars and a string section. The rhythmic clatter of “Reckoner” is reminiscent of Talk Talk circa “Laughing Stock” squeezed through a sequencer, and on “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” they imbue a superficially conventional tune with skin-prickling creepiness. “Videotape” creates a sinister, flickering CCTV stasis from its four-note piano patterns, and “Nude” is all dreamy thought-police paranoia. Also, at ten tracks and 42 minutes in its store-bought form, “In Rainbows” is Radiohead’s most concise studio set since their debut, “Pablo Honey”, a refreshing reversal in the dying days of the more-is-more age.