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“Post-Radiohead” and “Radiohead-Lite” Are Fake Plastic Cliches—Can We Move On?

October 16, 2009

Listening to David Gray’s new album Draw the Line yesterday, I happened to recall a comparison from a few years back that Gray was like “Radiohead for your mom.” I should say first that I love good jokes about “your mom,” who deserves all the insults she gets, but it’s counterproductive to bring Radiohead or David Gray into the motherslagging fun, because the mom-related comment about them is no longer relevant, if it ever was.

I tracked down the source of the jab at David Gray—a SPIN article from several years ago (can’t find a direct link, but this Creative Loafing article quotes it) that featured this list of Radiohead-based comparisons:

“Travis (Radiohead but nice), Coldplay (Radiohead but sincere), Doves (Radiohead but vaguely funky), Muse (Radiohead but not that good), David Gray (Radiohead for your mom), Clinic (Radiohead for Radiohead).”

I’ve also seen the terms “Radiohead-lite” and “post-Radiohead” thrown around over the years, especially applied to these bands and a few other English acts (Elbow, Snow Patrol, Keane) who emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To this listener and reader, the whole “like Radiohead but not as good” construct is one of the laziest critical tropes to emerge in years (right up there with “shoegaze”), and I’m here to ask one and all—can we please retire it?

I don’t listen to several of the bands frequently lumped into this meaningless category, but I’d like to briefly address three in particular and point out how and why the Radiohead comparisons are flawed at best and nonsensical at worst.

1. David Gray—David Gray’s singing sounds nothing like Thom Yorke’s voice, and his songs are generally much more straightforward and less thematically ambitious than Radiohead’s offerings. Gray had one song that was widely heard in 1999 or so (his hit “Babylon”) that was based on a jittery electronic beat—otherwise, I can think of no reason for his inclusion on any Radiohead comparison list. What I can think of, very easily, is a defense of Gray’s worth and validity as a great songwriter of this era. I’ll point to some lyrics from the title track of the recently released Draw the Line as an example:

“All this talk can hypnotize and we can ill afford

To give ourselves to sentiment when our time is oh-so-short

Names beneath the lichen on these cemetary stones

There are carnivals of silverfish waiting to dance upon our bones”

2. Muse—To be fair, this one makes slightly more sense than David Gray, if for no other reason than the similarity between the singing voices of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Muse’s Mat Bellamy. But I suspect that most folks who throw Muse into the “post-Radiohead” mix don’t actually listen to Muse and couldn’t be bothered to give them a chance. A reaction that I understand, from one limited point of view. I’ll say it flat out—Bellamy’s lyrics, by and large, are terrible. His poorly executed sentiments of “revolution” and “self-reliance” are worthy of a middle schooler’s journal, packing all the nuance and subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull. That said, I like Muse a hell of a lot, for one simple reason—they’re the best loud, stadium-ready rock band in the Western world. Those who refuse to dismiss Muse with the swift jerk of a knee already know that, and despite the Pitchfork hipsterati’s claim to the contrary, it’s more than enough justification for Muse’s relevance. “Loud-as-hell rock band” is also a territory that Radiohead hasn’t gone anywhere near in at least 12 years, and the world needs more serious, grandiose, prog-rock powerhouses, not fewer.

3. Elbow—I will say it loud and proud that I find Elbow’s 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid to be warmer, more human, more varied, and more consistently listenable than anything Radiohead has done in more than a decade. Singer Guy Garvey’s smoky, visceral voice is a tremendously expressive instrument (the frequent Peter Gabriel comparisons are apt). I would also point to the album’s tremendous lyrical wit (see “Audience with the Pope”), a trait that Garvey shares more with Morrissey or Nick Cave than any of his rather morose “post-Radiohead” contemporaries. Finally, I defy anyone to find in Radiohead’s catalog a song as genuinely happy and celebratory (and yet devoid of any trace of cloying sentimentality) as “One Day Like This.”

To conclude, I have nothing but respect for the genius of Radiohead, and OK Computer remains on my very, very short list of favorite albums of all time. Also, I should say that the criticism of some bands (though I don’t wish to name names) as being derivative of Thom Yorke & Co. is, to some degree, valid.

However, “Radiohead-lite” and “Radiohead for your mom” and “Radiohead with balls” and “Radiohead with a colostomy bag” and all the other sneering, dismissive cliches have done too many disservices to too many good bands (ones that differ radically from Radiohead and from each other) who deserve genuine consideration on their own merits. It’s time to move on.

  1. Derek permalink
    March 12, 2010 9:27 am

    As a Radiohead freak & a Muse lover…. great article. Radiohead is absolutley phenomenal in every sense but you are so right about Muse. I just saw them in Philadelphia for the Resistance Tour and they are the best live band in the world. It’s like watching a movie with LED lights… and the best part is they are a stadium band with riffs that go on for days and are loud and progressive. Amazing.

    Great article….

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