Covered In Folk: Radiohead

For Radiohead, as with so many bands formed in high school, it is the team that matters first and foremost, in no small part because of the tight and adept skills each band member has developed throughout their co-evolution and ongoing collaboration. Guitarist and composer Ed O’Brien is celebrated for his distinctive use of effects pedals, and for the harmonies he brings to help create and sustain Radiohead’s rich, layered sound; the versatility of drummer Phil Selway has been a key component of their evolution as a modern band, especially as they have moved on to adopt unusual rhythms and time signatures.

Bassist Colin Greenwood may have picked up the bass out of necessity, in order to find a place in the band’s original formation, but his steady hand and multi-instrumental talents have served the band well as foundation as they have built their reputation and their canon. And composer, keyboardist, and guitarist Jonny Greenwood, whose older brother Colin was a classmate of the other four original members, is often cited as one of the best aggressively-styled stage and studio guitarists of the modern era, but he has also been a key player in developing the electronic sound which represents Radiohead’s second stage; his composition skills are evident in the five film soundtracks he has scored since 2003, and in his role as composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra.

But despite the prowess and relevance of these others, there is ample reason to find lead singer and centerpiece Thom Yorke so often placed at the forefront of any exploration of what makes Radiohead tick so efficiently, and so well. Like so many of us, the English singer-songwriter was saved from a tormented childhood by music, finding refuge in the tiny practice rooms of his all-boys school after his congenitally paralyzed eye, and the drooped eyelid above it which resulted from a botched surgery in his elementary years, made him the easy target of bullies. But his talent, and that of his school bandmates, was no fluke: though Yorke has gone on record as being frustrated by his naturally beautiful voice, with its soaring tenor vibratos and tight control, the emotional contrast he creates by adopting other vocal styles, and by putting that beauty up against the often painful and acidic topics the band chooses to take on, has continued to carry them to broader fame, even as their works grow more abstract, more electronic, and more diverse.

To study Radiohead, then, is to take on the evolution of both a sound and a sentiment, one which is constantly pushing the envelope of art in the 21st century. Today, the band is known for a certain post-modern experimental approach to music, and to the industry of making it, but it wasn’t always so: their first few albums were downright melodic, with the radio-ready grunge pop of early hit Creep turning to alienated art-rock for 1997 release OK Computer, and it is perhaps unsurprising to find so many of those songs covered in folk and acoustic style. When, at the turn of the century, the band’s arrangements and sonic settings began to turn away from simple beauty to a collage approach to sound, with broader genre elements such as layered synth chords and beats and string and horn components appropriated from the alternative and underground scenes, and composition focused on environment over verse-chorus-verse, some long-time fans who had grouped the band in with other similar-sounding elements of their catalog threw their hands up in disgust and walked away, but many fans stayed on, captivated by the complexities of production and performance, their own tastes maturing with the band.

A Grammy win for Best Alternative Album in 2001 spread the word farther, to those who loved the “new” sound, even as some mainstream critics labeled 2000 album Kid A and its same-session follow-up Amnesiac a “commercial suicide note”, accusing the band of being “intentionally difficult”. And though it is rarer to find acoustic takes on such experimental anti-folk fare, the coverage continued, as new artists came along to test the continued viability of modern folk even as their versions and revisionings stripped away the electronic atmospheres, proving that Yorke, the Greenwoods, and their compatriots are still quite the singer-songwriters.

This week, as Radiohead’s lead guitarist, vocalist, and composer turns 44, we pay tribute to the band and its influence, and to Yorke’s inimitable voice, through the vast and varied interpretations of others. Unusually for us, we’ve arranged this gigantic set of favorite covers sequentially by original album – the better to explore the way in which Radiohead’s songbook has evolved, from the lyrically introspective and melodic to the avant-garde.

As you listen, note the way earlier covers (and cover artists) trend towards the more melodic, with both coverage and traditional poprock song structure growing less common as the catalog turns towards Radiohead’s later, more challenging works. (Indeed, even a year and a half after the release of their most recent work, 2011′s The King Of Limbs, I have yet to find any favorite covers from that album’s short and often psychedelic songbook, though the avid fan is welcome to head over to YouTube for numerous covers of lead single Lotus Flower.)

But listen, too, as the carefully winnowed set we have selected for our journey yaws wide through the voices and hands of the diversity that is folk, with paired and triplicate covers a study in contrast wherever possible. And remember that even here, our 50 delights are but the tip of an iceberg, with glacial runoffs that range from fast to slow, and thin to deep: from intimate, melodic Americana and coffeehouse folk to neo-traditional and experimental newgrass, hard-edged folk rock, soaring and often challenging indiefolk, and more.

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