Think about Britpop, that mid-1990s cultural flashpoint and back-to-basics rock sound that impacted the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. What comes to mind? Oasis, of course. Blur, “Song 2.” Suede. The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” The Union Jack. Kangol bucket hats, Fred Perry polo shirts, hooded rain jackets and Clarks footwear. Jarvis Cocker. Manchester City football jerseys. Lager, cocaine. General debauchery and hooliganism. And, above all, that attitude.
None of which really applies to Radiohead, the brainy Oxford, England band that broke out on the strength of their grungy debut single, 1992’s “Creep.” These high-art bookworms were decidedly not Britpop, but with their second album, 1995’s The Bends, now celebrating its 25th birthday, the five-piece delivered one of the genre’s artier, most celebrated releases.
Strip away all the cultural ephemera, and The Bends meets the criteria. Because without the chest-thumping, Britpop is, essentially, British rock music that’s singer-songwriter-y, guitar-centric and focused on the melodies. Select artists would later challenge that mold — Blur and Elastica, among them — but in early ’95, as Oasis reigned supreme, the Britpop sound was a fairly specific idea. And The Bends mastered it.
Fittingly, The Bends was produced by John Leckie, who over his impressive career has worked on albums from Paul McCartney to New Order, and became a Britpop go-to producer, working on LPs from the Stone Roses, Ride, The Verve, Elastica and Spiritualized. The Bends also featured engineer Nigel Godrich, who has gone on to produce every one of Radiohead’s releases (and play on Yorke’s solo LPs and tours).
It’s like Radiohead showed up for the Britpop football scrimmage, scored 12 goals, then walked off the pitch for a career in an entirely different sport, in a league in which they compete almost exclusively with themselves.
Upon its release, The Bends reached No. 4 on the UK Albums Chart, but didn’t do as well stateside, only hitting No. 88 on the Billboard 200 in 1996 but going on to sell 1.6 million albums in the U.S. per Nielsen Music/MRC Data. It’s become a fan-favorite and a revered entry in the “Britpop” annals that, somewhat notoriously, influenced a generation of bands like Coldplay, Travis and Keane — which makes ranking its tracks a bit difficult. But here we go.
While the Britpop lads sang about living forever and girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls, who do boys like they’re girls, who do girls like they’re boys, singer Thom Yorke shuddered from the world, perhaps overwhelmed by his mortality. “Now I can’t climb the stairs / Pieces missing everywhere,” he sings. R.E.M.-like feedback (think “Crush With Eyeliner”) meets a blast of guitar that’s again ratcheted up, as Yorke laments a physical breakdown: “Prozac painkillers / When you’ve got to feel it in your bones / When you’ve got to feel it in your bones / I used to fly like Peter Pan.” “Cigarettes and Alcohol” this ain’t.
It’s a frazzled rocker more akin to their Pablo Honey work — an acoustic intro explodes into a careening, triple-time guitar solo — that comes with a message of self-sabotage: “You do it to yourself, you do/ And that’s what really hurts / Is you do it to yourself, just you / You and no-one else / You do it to yourself.” Still, there’s memorable chord changes and melodies that bring the spastic collection of guitar sounds back to earth.
10. “My Iron Lung”
Another signature riff from guitarist Jonny Greenwood, winding and menacing like he’s summoning a poisonous snake from a basket and trying not to get bitten. Then it drops into a pulsing gallop from one of the all-time great combos, drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood (Jonny’s older brother), as Yorke’s high-pitched falsetto regales an iron lung, the device used to help Polio survivors breathe. “My brain says I’m receiving pain/ A lack of oxygen from my life support / My iron lung/ We’re too young to fall asleep / Too cynical to speak / We are losing it, can’t you tell?” After an explosion of spiky guitar solos, it closes with a single, twisted-metal guitar squeal like a hard punctuation mark.
9. “Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was”
Another truly beautiful acoustic gem that’s moody, comforting and scary, all at the same time. Yorke is again lamenting his mortality: “Limb by limb and tooth by tooth/ Tearing up inside of me.” The somber acoustic guitar, vocals, and shape-shifting ethereal effects lift to a bright and twinkling guitar line from Greenwood. Suddenly, the mood is optimistic. “Every day every hour / I wish that I was bullet prrrroooooooooffffffff.”
8. “(Nice Dream)”
And it truly is just that: a delicate reverie with a melody so gorgeous you’ll hit the snooze (or replay) button over and over and over. It’s thematically on par for The Bends: a simple acoustic melody explodes in shimmering guitar lines, which go quiet and lie in wait for their next opportunity to shine front and center. It’s definitely one of the songs that inspired the likes of Coldplay, Travis and others. The Bends: Often imitated, never duplicated.
7. “The Bends”
Of all 12 songs on The Bends, this one is where the band really plays and wins at Britpop’s own rules. They go full anthemic from the gate, with sky-high guitar and “Ohhhhhh / Wahhh / Oh / Ohhhhssss.” This settles into the kind of acoustic songwriting that Noel Gallagher would envy. Snappy and smart, yet nuanced and emotional, with a blowout ending. “I wanna live, breath, I wanna be part of the human race /Where do we go from here? / The words are coming out all weird, where are you now? / When I need you.”
6. “Planet Telex”
Radiohead have a thing for widescreen, theme-setting openers. “Planet Telex,” like “Airbag” from their 1997 follow-up and bona fide masterpiece OK Computer, is sweeping and otherworldly, with big riffs and eerie keys. Speaking of keys: this opener really introduces one of the album’s stars, the organ, which adds mood across the LP. The interlocking guitar, drum roll and floating keys make for some trippy, deep space sounds, before the guitar comes in like an after burner.
5. “High and Dry”
It’s easily pigeonholed as a fame and drug ballad: “Kill yourself for recognition / Kill yourself to never ever stop / You broke another mirror / You’re turning into something you are not,” Yorke sings. But this tender and poetic tune — one of the album’s few that doesn’t explode in electric guitar fireworks — comes with tender delivery and vivid imagery: “Flying off a motorcycle watching all the ground beneath you dry…” It’s another strummer that fueled a generation of open mic nights. You have at least three friends who know how to play this on guitar.
4. “Fake Plastic Trees”
The album’s acoustic centerpiece heartbreaker. Released as the third UK single and first in the U.S., the tune was originally more akin to Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” guitarist Ed O’Brien told Blender. “It was so pompous and bombastic.” The end result has just the right amount of for-the-rafters drama, but it all rests on Yorke’s general exhaustion, which is palpable. “And it wears me out/ It wears me out / It wears me out / It wears me out.” The organ melody descends as Yorke seemingly musters the energy for one more verse.
3. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”
Hear that? It’s your neighbor learning the fingering to this classic electric guitar riff from Greenwood, who, with Yorke, forms a partnership to rival Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards. Lyrically, Yorke’s continued paranoia abounds: “Rows of houses, all bearing down on me/ I can feel their blue hands touching me / All these things into position / All these things we’ll one day swallow whole.” The song enters a daze, with breathe-in/breathe-out/fade-in/fade-out “ahhhh ahhhhh ahhhhhhs.” But Yorke closes with a bit of advice to those of us living in this cold, mechanized world: “Immerse yourself in love.”
This starburst of stadium sized guitar rock opens with a squall of feedback before falling into a simple, climbing riff from Greenwood. Then it goes “boom!”: “Sometimes you sulk, sometimes you burn /God rest your soul,” Yorke wails. Rarely played live by the band, it’s perhaps the most underrated track on the album — but its combo of anthemic Britpop basics and artsy prog-rock is unrivaled. And, of course, it closes with one of the strongest Greenwood riffs on the album, a real eruption of electric guitar. Remember, this is the phase in which Greenwood discovered his trademark Fender Telecaster and wore that arm brace to enable his galactic playing.
1. “Black Star”
It’s the first Radiohead tune ever produced by Nigel Godrich, who, up to that point, had been the band’s recording engineer. So, this song has kicked off one of the richest artistic partnerships in music. “Black Star,” like “The Bends,” is the band showing the Britpop crowd how it’s really done. It’s perhaps the most focused, clear songwriting on the album; it’s about the lows of a long-distance relationship, suffering under the strain of the space in between (and the satellites that connect, but don’t quite connect, them): “I get on the train and I just stand about now that I don’t think of you / I keep falling over I keep passing out when I see a face like you / What am I coming to? / I’m gonna melt down/ Blame it on the black star / Blame it on the falling sky / Blame it on the satellite that beams me home.” This song was first considered only as a B-side, but when producer Leckie was out for the day, Godrich made sure everything was in its right place — and that this became the best track on The Bends.