Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #22. “This is Really Happening…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 9, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Radiohead’s excellence and stature in the rock cannon has been how little fun they’ve become to talk about. Like no other band since maybe The Beatles, serious music listeners (and by serious I guess I mean “willing to discuss it ad nauseum over the internet”) have debated the finer points of the Radiohead discography, mythos and just about everything else to do with them to the point where someone bringing them up in conversation now elicits something of a shudder. (Of course, that didn’t stop me from devoting an entire week to talking about them before the release of In Rainbows two years ago–that’s just the kind of selflessness you get here at Intensities in Ten Suburbs). Radiohead’s greatness has become ridiculously close to just being assumed at this point, and much of that has to do with Kid A–their 2000 artistic left-turn that solidified their status as the most critically beloved band of the last 20 years.

You know the deal behind Kid A already, but I’ll recap. Three years after OK Computer, the post-alt-rock classic that catapulted them into the discussion of the best bands in the world, Radiohead eschewed the guitar virtuosity that had once defined them in favor of things like drum machines, ambient synth soundscapes and just general knob-twiddling. It should have been a commercial disaster, especially with the band now shunning things like music videos and traditional promo tactics, but thanks to the band’s constantly ballooning cult and crit rep, as well as an unofficially sanctioned leak of the album online (hello 21st Century) to build the hype to a fever pitch, Kid A debuted at #1 on the US charts and had certain critics speaking in tongues. Overall reception was initially mixed–many old-school fans were thrown for a loop by the lack of rawk–but in time, just about everyone seemed to come  around to Kid A, recognizing it as the daring, cohesive and stunning masterpiece that it was, and eventually building it to the consensus Album of the Decade, a status that has yet to be convincingly unseated by anyone else.

Of course this is all about an album, and you would be within your right to mention that this is actually supposed to be a songs list. Fair enough–the main reason for the lengthy Kid A preamble is that for possibly one of the last times in rock history, you absolutely can’t talk about the songs on Kid A without talking about the album itself. In the iTunes era, it’s become rarer and rarer (and will only get moreso) for albums to feel like too much more than mere collections of songs–or maybe it’s not the albums that have changed, but just the way we listen to them, it’s hard to tell. Either way, it’s unlikely we’ll get too many albums like this again, where the flow and structure feel absolutely crucial to the maximization of each of the songs’ potential–a dying cliche, but one that rings true none here nonetheless. But all that said, there is a song on the album that continues to stand out for me, which would be an absolute stone classic even if it showed up as a Hail to the Thief b-side–“Idioteque,” possibly my favorite-ever Radiohead song, and one that perfectly exemplified just why Kid A shone so brightly.

The most tiresome debate that emerged about Kid A over the years was whether or not the album was legitimately innovative, or merely adventurous by North American Indie Rock standards. People would point out how much it borrowed from 90s IDM pioneers like Aphex Twin and Autechre, art-rock heroes like Can and Brian Eno, even old-school proggers like Pink Floyd and King Crimson. All true, yes, but this: I have never heard another song like “Idiotheque” in my life. Not that it sounds so mind-blowingly weird or new or anything–just the opposite, in fact: It sounds like a great, great, great pop song, just one built with different elements (skittering drum loop, tonal synth sample, multi-tracked vocals) than we were used to from Radiohead or any of their 90s UK peers. In a way it presaged the laptop pop movement that would simmer in the electronic underground for much of the decade, but it still sounds more muscular, more adrenalized, more sheerly undeniable than any other bleeps + hooks combinations that would follow over the course of the decade.

To me, the key was always the sample. I’ve spent some time on this blog professing my love for producers that create brilliant hooks out of obscure and/or unlikely sources, but what Radiohead pulled off with “Idioteque” puts even Just Blaze and Jay Dee to shame. Ever heard of American electronic composer Paul Lansky? Yeah, me neither. Ever listened to his twenty-minute computer-music epic “Mild und Leise“? Yeah, I doubt I ever would have quite gotten around to that one myself. Lucky for us that Radiohead did, then–they took a pattern of four chords from about the one-minute mark of the piece (which never appears again for the rest of the song, by the way) and built the “Idioteque” hook around it. It’s impossible to understate how inspired a sample choice this was–the pattern is just about everything you could want from an electronic hook, shimmering and vibrant and a little haunting. “I really like what they did with the sample,” Lansky has since proffered. “It is quite imaginative and inventive.” (No kidding).

Radiohead did the hook a tremendous favor by building such an amazing beat around it as well. It’s hard to explain just what it is about the skittering drum pattern that makes it so compelling–the way the thumping faux-bass drum juxtaposes with the crisp airiness of the faux-snare, the way it glitches and bubbles at just the right times, up to the way it reverses on itself brilliantly on the song’s bridge. It’s at once incredibly tense and thoroughly satisfying, a glorious creation that would have ensured that even as an instrumental, the song would’ve been an obvious keeper. But Thom Yorke’s vocals are still critical to the song’s success, his hand-tremblingly anxious rants in the verses (“Who’s in the bunker? Who’s in the bunker?” “Ice coming, ice age coming!” “This is really happening!”) giving way to the (defeated?) relief of the chorus (“Here I’m alive / Everything all of the time”). The way the harmonies on the vocals in the chorus reflect against the harmonies of the chords in the hook…you just don’t find musical epiphanies like that every day.

Songs like “Idioteque”, and other Kid A tracks like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “The National Anthem” introduced a generation of music fans–budding indie kids, arty metalheads, stoners-in-training–to whole new universes of possibility in music. Whether they then continued on that path into the new and unusual or decided to go back to the Shins and/or Incubus is mostly unclear (I did a little bit of both, I suppose), but that it even gave those disparate groups of listeners something weird and different and cool to rally behind is something worth celebrating. Radiohead never made an artistic deviation quite so radical again for the rest of the decade, but they kept the flame burning with a series of good to great albums, and memorably attempted a coup of the music industry by releasing 2007 album In Rainbows online for fan-optional payment, a move which may turn out to be more enduring than just about anything they did this decade musically (or just a “Man, Remember When?” laugh ten years down the line, who knows).

But I’m getting ridiculously sick of talking about Radiohead. Just go listen to the song again or something.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone
22. Radiohead – “Idioteque”

2 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #22. “This is Really Happening…””

  1. Jason said

    Wow, 2 of my favorites of the decade back to back. Looking forward to the top 21!

  2. jared (not swilley) said

    One thing I always thought was noteworthy about “Idiotheque” was that it was the one song (besides “Treefingers”, which was really just an interlude) on Kid A that no one was at all familiar with. I was a huge Radiohead fanboy at the time and I eagerly read their online recording diary every day and examined any set lists from past live shows people had posted for clues as to just what the hell was going to be on the new record. I think every song on Kid A had either been played live or was talked about and described extensively in the recording diary. “Idotheque” was the one unknown quantity, so it was easy for people who heard the leak (I didn’t have anywhere near the internet savvy or a fast enough connection at the time) to say, “Oh yeah, the song you never knew about is the best one on the album – I thought they were just lording it over everyone who hadn’t heard the album.

    What a shock to get the record and realize they were right.

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