No Expectations 054: Kid A
Discography Deep Dive: Radiohead. Plus, a NNAMDÏ gig recap, and newish LPs from Kacey Johansing, Ryan Davis, and Graham Hunt.
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It’s good to be back from a short break. Thanks for sticking around. Hope you had a fun holiday and that your 2024 already has good vibes. This year, nothing’s going to change at No Expectations. You’ll get a newsletter every Thursday along with the occasional bonus Taste Profile interview or paid-only blog (though, that’ll be rare since I’d rather keep everything free here). This month, I’ll have a roundup of upcoming, under-the-radar releases, a Taste Profile interview with one of my favorite songwriters, potentially a list of my favorite movies of 2023, and much more. If you’re reading this Thursday morning, I’m on a flight to Los Angeles. I’m looking forward to spending a few days there for the first time since late 2019.
In good news, I had much less subscriber churn than I planned following the first year of the newsletter. I assumed folks would unsubscribe after their initial yearly subscription renewal hit but miraculously only a tiny few did. New paid sign-ups over the holiday hiatus even tripled what I lost, which is honestly pretty incredible. Thanks for supporting my work and keeping the lights on here. If you have the means, you can upgrade to a $50 paid tier (or the exclusive $150 bubba tier) at the button below. No matter what, I’m grateful you’re here and reading this independent, anti-algorithm weekly music blog.
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Discography Deep Dive (Triple D): Radiohead
The most intense musical experience you can have is discovering your first favorite band. It’s not being a kid and liking a song you heard, buying the record, and enjoying it. What I’m talking about is more visceral and all-consuming. It’s when you hear something so interesting and good to your young ears that it practically alters your brain chemistry. It’s where just listening to your favorite tracks by that band isn’t enough. You want to devour their whole catalog, know about every b-side or live show recording, and check out the artists who influenced them. It’s when you’re moved by this music so much that you read everything you can about who made it so you can try to understand why these songs have such a profound effect on you. A band can recalibrate your tastes and change who you are.
If you’re reading this newsletter, I’m sure you relate. It’s an embarrassing time to look back on but I truly believe the feeling of being a kid and becoming obsessed with an artist’s music is a pure and important thing to nurture in adulthood. When I was 14 years old, my first favorite band was Radiohead. I heard them in 2005, which at the time, you could generously say my taste was very Guitar World Magazine (or, what’s expected of a teenage dude growing up during the aughts in Michigan). I loved bands like Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, and AC/DC but I also dug Kanye West, Eminem, and Usher (whose 8701 was surprisingly the first CD I ever bought with my own money in 2001). When you’re that young, you like what you know and you’re only just developing an understanding of how to seek out new music and formulate your tastes. I knew I liked music but I didn’t know then how much more there was to explore.
One night, I was over at my freshman-year friend James’s house where we were trading songs on our iPod Minis. (I remember him telling me at one point, “You gotta check out the video for CKY’s “96 Quite Bitter Beings” and holding up the impossibly small screen) There, he showed me “Airbag,” the opening song off Radiohead’s OK Computer, and he said it was his older brother’s favorite band. I thought it sounded great. Trying to seem cool, I said, “Wow, this kind of reminds me of U2” because the only time I had heard of Radiohead previously was when I saw them compared to that band in a magazine. Like I said: it’s embarrassing to be 14. At the end of the night, I borrowed his CDs and went home.
James had detailed instructions on How To Get Into Radiohead. “Start with OK Computer, go back in time to The Bends. Skip Pablo Honey and listen to OK Computer again. Then you’re ready for Kid A and beyond,” he said, like a Guitar Center-frequenting, ditch weed-smoking West Michigan sherpa. I did what I was told and liked everything I heard. But the moment I pressed play on Kid A was when everything clicked. The opening synth chords felt inviting and meditative yet completely alien. Thom Yorke’s swooning voice was manipulated, robotically cutting in and out. He sang about sucking on lemons and having two colors in his head. I had never heard anything like it and didn’t know that music could sound like this. Everything changed for me then, from how I interacted with music, what I valued in songs, and even what I thought was good.
From there, I rinsed their entire output. First I went through all the studio albums, then it was the Meeting People Is Easy doc and their scores of b-sides (“Polyethylene Parts 1 and 2” and “Cuttooth” were alltimers then and still are). I read that the band read Naomi Klein’s No Logo while making Kid A so naturally I did too, which led to an early political awakening. I also read that Thom bought Warp Records’s entire back catalog before entering the studio for Kid A and Amnesiac so I listened to thirty-second snippets online and bought what I liked. I frequented their blog Dead Air Space to see if there were updates on their Hail to the Thief follow-up. It was an immersive, probably unhealthy obsession with this band that continued for years. There was the time I inexplicably gave them $25 for the pay-what-you-want In Rainbows download (plus the box set preorder with Disk 2), a trek to Lollapalooza in 2008, and countless unsolicited mix CDs to early girlfriends.
After a while, I slowly grew more fascinated with other artists: Bob Dylan, Pavement, Bjork, The Replacements, Fiona Apple, and Wilco, to name an early few. By the time the band announced 2011’s The King of Limbs, I was no longer as deep into it but still loved them. The same goes for 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool: a great album that was no longer a world-changing personal event. This is normal but every year or so, I try to dive back in and listen to their albums front-to-back to capture that spark again. I credit Radiohead for making me think more deeply about what I like and the possibilities a band can explore throughout their career. I’m grateful for that and for being able to revisit their oeuvre whenever it feels right: it’s still fresh and vital now. It’s even eerily ahead of its time. Over the holidays, I went through everything they put out multiple times: studio LPs, live albums, b-sides, compilations, etc. It ruled.
Though this Discography Deep Dive on Radiohead was planned as early as November, Twitter has been ranking and arguing about their albums for over a week now. With any roundup that ranks a band’s catalog, it says more about the person making the list than it does about the quality of the artist’s work. The fact that this week I saw all nine of their albums taking the top spot on random Twitter rankings (yes, even Pablo Honey) shows how Radiohead’s catalog is unmatched. My subjectively correct ranking is below, which of course, tells you more about my tastes as a Radiohead fan than it does about Radiohead. If you disagree with my ranking, there’s a very important reason: it’s not your list. Or, you could be wrong. If you like these Discography Deep Dives, more Triple Ds on Vampire Weekend and Sufjan Stevens are here.
9. Pablo Honey (1993)
Something had to be last. Don’t get me wrong: I love Pablo Honey. It would rank near the top of most bands’ discographies. But most bands aren’t Radiohead. My friend Chaz says it’s his favorite Radiohead LP and while I don’t believe him, I think it’s a stellar debut record with some truly great songs. When I first got into the band, they weren’t playing “Creep” live. What I knew about the band was that their career up to that point was distancing them from their biggest song. That meant I hated “Creep.” I wouldn’t even play it in Rock Band in 2007. I first gravitated toward opener “You,” which is one of the most fun-to-play riffs in Radiohead’s catalog. “Blow Out,” “Stop Whispering,” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” are also highlights but there’s a reason Thom Yorke told Mojo in 1997: “Pablo Honey was like a demo: ‘Three weeks, don’t worry about it, no-one will hear it, it’s our first album’ ...and then so many people bought it. We were still forming and didn’t have any idea what we were doing.”
Also: It’s funny to remember that Radiohead has always had a pretty contentious relationship with the U.K. press. Early on in their career, they experienced more success in foreign markets like the U.S. than in their home country. “Creep,” weirdly enough, first blew up in Israel, which started a worldwide ripple effect.
8. The King of Limbs (2011)
Bob Dylan is an alltimer artist but when he’s making an album, he’ll often scrap the best working song from the tracklist at the last minute. Read any Dylan biography and you’ll hear tales about how “Series of Dreams” didn’t make the cut on Oh Mercy to name just one example. The King of Limbs is the most Dylanesque Radiohead LP in the sense that both “The Daily Mail” and “Staircase” somehow didn’t end up on the final sequencing. Hearing those b-sides live, either in person or on Live From the Basement, made The King of Limbs pop for me—even though these tracks weren’t even on it. Still, this is a great album: the cool kids’ pick for Best Radiohead LP. But while individual songs really shine, there’s something about the sequencing that doesn’t quite work for me. I have a track order in my head that basically flips Side A for Side B, kicking off with “Lotus Flower.” Around 2018, I thought it was top three but on this relisten, it’s not quite there for me anymore.
Also: I caught Radiohead in 2012 on The King of Limbs tour at the Tinley Park Amphitheater. It’s a miserable place to see a show but I ended up witnessing the live debut of future A Moon Shaped Pool cut “Ful Stop.” I remember being stressed about a college relationship ending at the time but I did grab Ghareeb Nawaz before the drive to the burbs so it couldn’t have been all bad.
7. A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
This is Radiohead’s prettiest record. A ton of my friends seem to think this is the band’s swan song because it’s been eight years and the band has no announced plans for a follow-up. Sure, Thom and Jonny seem to be more concerned with The Smile but I don’t buy that it’s over. At the end of an essential 2000 New York Times Magazine profile, Radiohead’s members predicted what would be the end of the band: “I think it will be our personal lives someday that get us drifting away from each other, not aesthetic disagreements," Colin Greenwood said. "I think we'll know the moment when it really comes, as opposed to all the moments when it almost really comes," said Ed O'Brien. Thom Yorke said: "I think we will exhaust all the ideas the band has. And then we'll exhaust the band." To me, this doesn’t feel like any of these things happened beyond the former: the members are in their fifties and everyone seems to pursuing other artistic projects or domestic life. If it is their last effort, it’s a stunning one: “The Numbers” is an unbelievable tune, and the same goes for “Daydreaming,” which Thom Yorke said was the North Star track during their studio sessions. A personal favorite is “Present Tense,” which was in constant rotation for me in 2009 when Thom Yorke debuted it at Latitude Fest that year.
Also: In 2016, I covered Lollapalooza for the fourth straight year (I was in my early twenties—I couldn’t do it again) and saw Radiohead return to Grant Park for another headlining set eight years after the best show I’d ever seen them play. According to my review, I didn’t have many complaints: “I can't say enough good things about the setlist. From closing with oldies like "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" and "Karma Police" to rare performances of "Let Down" and "Pyramid Song," it was perfect.” Sure man…neither of those songs is particularly rare though (maybe I was talking about that specific tour). Strangely enough, I remember Lolla ‘08, which actually was perfect, much more clearly.
Also Also: To date, it is still incredibly funny that James Bond producers went with a Sam Smith song over both “Spectre,” written around the making of A Moon Shaped Pool, and The Bends-era rarity “Man of War.”
6. Hail to the Thief (2003)
It’s weird ranking the album with my alltimer song by the band sixth. But when it comes to the evergreen activity of Ranking Radiohead LPs, you’re going to have to make tough choices. In my opinion, “There There” is the band’s greatest tune and the one track I’ll be bummed if they don’t play live (I’m batting 1.000 but they do play it a lot). While Hail to the Thief is billed as Radiohead’s most overtly political record thanks to its title, its Iraq War-coinciding release date, and opener “2 + 2 = 5,” it’s really par for the course in Radiohead’s catalog: evocative, murky lyrics about generalized anxiety and global disarray turned inward. Throughout their career, the band took their time in the studio with marathon sessions that sometimes ended up taking years to culminate. With HTTF, they knocked out these songs in a matter of weeks, which makes it one of their breeziest listens. “Myxomatosis,” “Go to Sleep,” and closer “A Wolf at the Door” are also standouts.
Also: At 14, when I first got into Radiohead, I loved Hail to the Thief and especially adored its album art. Around that time, I played in short-lived, unremarkable bands that never got past the “play in your friend’s basement” stage. When it came to naming the band, I got vetoed in favor of some twee bullshit but I really wanted it to be called “Beef Turn Mail” or “Fear Center” in homage to HTTF.
5. Amnesiac (2001)
In Alex Ross’s excellent New Yorker profile on the band documenting the rollout for Amnesiac, he mentions a semi-tense interview with MTV News where the Q&A gets momentarily derailed when the reporter refers to this LP as “outtakes” from the Kid A sessions. That faux pas was met with a swift “Try again!” from the usually timid drummer Phil Selway. This is a moment where I have to side with the band over the writer: Amnesiac is almost perfect. Just because it was recorded alongside and released after their masterpiece Kid A does not affect its quality. By my count, there are at least four of Radiohead’s best tunes on here: “Pyramid Song,” “You and Whose Army?,” “Knives Out,” and “Life In a Glasshouse.” I’ve noticed this record get a lot of deserved buzz on Twitter and several mutuals claim this to be their top pick. I would’ve agreed in my teens but I’m not sure I can say this is S-tier Radiohead with “Hunting Bears” and a lesser “Morning Bell.”
Also: No, seriously. What’s up with all the Amnesiac love online lately? It’s great of course but I feel like I woke up and all of a sudden this LP was retconned as the consensus dark horse pick.
Also Also: When I was a teen, I loved John Frusciante’s solo music much more than the Red Hot Chili Peppers (that’s still the case) but his cover of “You and Whose Army?” is great if you ignore the poor mid-aughts YouTube quality.
4. OK Computer (1997)
Alright, I know what you’re thinking: it’s either some variation of “What the fuck, man?” or if I’m lucky, “Someone’s brave enough to say it.” OK Computer is Radiohead’s Sgt. Peppers and the Lonely Hearts Club Band: the consensus best album pick for years until writer at Rolling Stone decided that both Revolver and Abbey Road were better. Radiohead’s third album’s status near the pinnacle of the rock critic canon is more than deserved: it’s the LP that changed everything for the band and there’s not a dud on it (no, “The Tourist” is good. Shut up). These songs that Thom Yorke wrote about his crippling tour burnout (“I was basically catatonic,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “The claustrophobia—just having no sense of reality at all.”) feel prescient enough to be interpreted as warnings of technological anxiety and consumerist collapse. Before I heard Kid A, my first favorite Radiohead song was “Electioneering.” It’s a killer tune but now it doesn’t even crack my OK Computer top eight. It’s hard to top “Paranoid Android” and “Let Down.”
Also: Growing up I was a sicko about collecting Radiohead b-sides. There are some great ones from this era which are now conveniently compiled on their reissue OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017. My favorites are “Polyethylene Parts 1 and 2,” “Lull” and “Pearly.”
3. The Bends (1995)
Before I went into this discography deep dive, I had a premature mental ranking placing The Bends toward the bottom. I thought, “It’s a great rock record but Radiohead got more interesting as they went along.” Out of every Radiohead LP I revisited, nothing climbed quite as high or felt so surprisingly fresh as The Bends. I even got a little emotional hearing “Fake Plastic Trees,” which hasn’t happened since I was a teenager. I could write a hot take about how The Bends is actually the most important Radiohead LP because it allowed them to transcend “Creep” and earn the confidence to take an even bigger leap on future studio albums but really this is a list that reflects one dude’s personal tastes at a particular moment. Right now, The Bends is top-three.
Also: It’s funny to remember that “High & Dry” was prominently featured in the 2007 “Oh No, This Didn’t Age Well” comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
Also Also: Is “Talk Show Host” the best Radiohead b-side? I think it is.
2. Kid A (2000)
In my opinion, Kid A is the correct pick as The Best Radiohead LP. It’s their biggest leap and the most influential record in their catalog. It’s a capital-I Important album and still feels ahead of its time. It might be boring to say so but it’s still a good take. When I first heard it, the 10 songs (well, 11 if you count the hidden track) blew my mind in such a way that could only happen to a teenager. Even now, I’m floored and wholly transported whenever I spin it. I don’t know what more can be said about it other than that it totally altered my relationship with music. I would have never considered this career had the first notes of “Everything In Its Right Place” not hit me at such an open and curious time. “In Limbo” is the song that’s grown on me the most in the past 19 years.
Also: Kid A also inspired two of the most “Wait, really?” covers in history that aren’t bad: John Mayer’s acoustic take on the title track and Hanson (yes, that Hanson) doing an earnest and faithful rendition of “Optimistic.”
1. In Rainbows (2007)
I don’t need to look up the stats: This is my most-played album of all time even though I’ve probably only spun it once or twice a year since 2012. It’s the Radiohead LP that came out at the peak of my fandom, the first effort I bought on release day, and the one they were supporting when I first saw them live at Lollapalooza ‘08. Sure, your favorite Radiohead album is probably whatever Radiohead album came out when you were 16 years old, which explains why Gen X loves OK Computer and why young millennials / Gen Z cuspers really dig The King of Limbs. More than that, this LP feels like the purest amalgamation of everything Radiohead excels at: turbocharged rockers (“Bodysnatchers,”) rhythmically dense and knotty experiments (“15 Step,” “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”), and gorgeous, emotional setpieces (“Videotape,” “Reckoner”). It’s accessible without being slight and adventurous while being consistently mesmerizing. It might not be the biggest leap or the most important album of their career, but it’s the most endlessly listenable.
Also: In February 2020, I flew to Toronto to visit friends. Two of those buds, Blake Murphy and Jake Goldsbie, host a phenomenal music podcast called Columbia House Party and I got to guest on their episode about In Rainbows. You can listen to that here.
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What I listened to:
Gig report: NNAMDÏ at the Empty Bottle (12/31/23)
A friend recently asked me who I think is Chicago’s most talented musician and while that’s a knotty question with a ton of different answers, NNAMDÏ is top of mind. He’s a phenomenal songwriter, a virtuosic drummer, and a shredder on guitar. His singing voice is dynamic, and he’s a dexterous, personality-filled rapper. He’s a pro-sideman but a generational frontman and bandleader. He can oscillate between indie rock, math rock, jazz, rap, and electronic music with ease and his 2022 effort Please Have a Seat is a future classic. In 2020, I wrote a longform piece about why his music is so groundbreaking and essential and to date, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. He’s a Chicago musical legend and one of the nicest folks I’ve ever interviewed.
I was lucky enough to hit the second night of his two-show New Year’s residency at the Empty Bottle. (Shoutout Friend of the Substack Eshanthika for buying a boatload of tickets for the buds before it sold out). It was a total blast: NNAMDÏ ripped through the hits and featured a bunch of crowdpleasing covers including Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” (with Hurray For the Riff Raff), Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade,” and Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” with Sen Morimoto and Kaina. Perfect night. If you miss him live when he plays your town, you’re depriving yourself of joy.
Kacey Johansing, Year Away
I don’t know how Year Away slipped under my radar in 2023 but since I posted my list in December it’s been in constant rotation. Johansing is a Los Angeles-based songwriter who writes sturdy and timeless piano-driven folk-rock songs. You can pick out references to Carole King, Burt Bacharach, and Joni Mitchell but it never feels like retro kitsch. The compositions here are uniformly lush and uncluttered, letting these gorgeous songs speak for themselves. A perfect Sunday morning LP. “Valley Green” and “Watch It Like a Show” are especially excellent and will undoubtedly soundtrack part of this weekend’s LA trip.
Ryan Davis and the Roadhouse Band, Dancing on the Edge
Some albums make you feel like you’re sitting at a barstool chatting with a wise, weathered, and funny stranger. This is what I call Conversation Rock. Bill Callahan and David Berman are the godfathers of this made-up genre while recent LPs from Friendship, Slaughter Beach, Dog, and Sluice are leading the charge. It’s where the arrangements are homespun and ramshackle but the lyrics are wry, direct, and unafraid to get dark and deep. Dancing on the Edge, the new LP from Jeffersonville, Indiana’s Ryan Davis is totally in this wheelhouse. While Davis once fronted the Chicago/Louisville country-punk outfit State Champion, here, he allows his weary, bass-heavy voice and cosmic barfly lyrics to be centered. Even at just seven songs, it’s a double LP that stretches out to nearly an hour with songs like the masterful “Flashes of Orange” almost hitting the ten-minute mark. Dancing on the Edge never wastes a second with vividly rendered lyrical odysseys about finding heaven, waking up from dreams of the open road, and “playing ‘got your nose’ with the face of death.” Joan Shelley and Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin lead a lineup of marquee collaborators.
Graham Hunt, Try Not To Laugh
Wisconsin power pop mainstay Graham Hunt released his latest LP Try Not To Laugh right at the buzzer in mid-December. While it’s less explosive than the all-out rock of 2022’s If You Knew Would You Believe It?, the hooks here feel effortless and lived-in especially on upbeat offerings like “How Is That Different?” and single “Emergency Contact,” where he sings, “There’s an old man blasting slow jams at the stop sign/ As you catch me up on your life since your dog died.” Hunt’s clearly a student of ‘90s rock and he channels the pop effervescence of that decade’s best singles throughout the tracklist. I’ve been a fan ever since I saw him open up for Dazy at Sleeping Village last year and I’m stoked to see him headline the same venue this month.
What I watched:
I’ve been debating whether or not to post my favorite 2023 films in the newsletter. I worry I’m too late in making yet another Best Of roundup and that few readers are here for movie takes. According to my Letterboxd log, I’ve only seen 30 films that came out last year, which frankly isn’t enough for a comprehensive list. Some of the movies I haven’t watched yet like Fallen Leaves, Poor Things, Monster, and The Zone of Interest seem up my alley enough that I should probably hold off until I catch up. That said, I really enjoyed Maestro but I don’t see it making a future top 10. Think of it as an emotional biopic of Leonard Bernstein (like Pablo Larrain’s Diana film Spencer) that hones in on the private moments of a legendary figure rather than explaining their work and career milestones. Bradley Cooper is excellent and you can see how losing to Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 made him lose his mind enough to go all-in with this role. This isn’t a spoiler but there’s a Snoopy cameo in this film that might be my favorite scene of the year.
What I read:
This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's "Kid A" and the Beginning of the 21st Century by Steven Hyden
Finally getting around to Steven Hyden’s enthralling This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's "Kid A" and the Beginning of the 21st Century is what made me decide to dive back into the band’s catalog for the newsletter. (I swear it wasn’t the incessant Twitter discourse this week—I had this Discography Deep Dive planned for weeks!). Though This Isn’t Happening is a quick read, it’s a comprehensive take on the making of Kid A, its release, and its continued relevance as well as an overview of the band’s winding, unpredictable career. I may disagree with him that The King of Limbs is the worst Radiohead LP but it’s essential reading for any fan.
You're with Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music by Bruce Adams
I adored Bruce Adams’ You’re With Stupid. It’s a fascinating history of Chicago’s music community in the ‘90s and early 2000s, as well as an exhaustive biography of the scrappy, adventurous record label kranky that he cofounded with Joel Leoschke. As a fan of its catalog and as a writer who’s reported on this city’s arts community for a decade, I wish I had this book when I was starting out. Being born in 1991 much of the book’s events were well before my time but it was thrilling to see the personal connections and Chicago’s rich collaborative landscape laid out so expertly and thoughtfully. When you have a city like Chicago, you’ll see new generations try similar experiments, congregate in the same bars, and gleefully jump between genres, moods, and projects to make important, underappreciated art. You probably already know kranky through its work with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Deerhunter, Tim Hecker, and Low, but the whole catalog is worth exploring.
The No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar
Friday, Jan. 5: Spun Out, Caroline Campbell at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Saturday, Jan. 6: Troigo, Courtesy, Options at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Wednesday, Jan. 10: Half Gringa, Lucky Cloud at Schubas. Tickets.
Wednesday, Jan. 10: Plaid, Whitney Johnson, Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
No Expectations is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.