It would sound absurd to call platinum-selling, arena-filling, most-critically-beloved-band-in-the-world Radiohead an underground act. But on the other hand, they don't operate or sound anything like a mainstream, best-selling rock band (even the ones that have gotten popular aping mid-90s Radiohead): You'll hardly ever hear them on the radio or see them on TV; their idea of promoting an album is mentioning it on a blog ten days before it comes out; and they've built their reputation on some of the strangest, most original music of the past two decades.
Thus, Radiohead's continuing status as the biggest cool band on the planet has relied largely on simply releasing one excellent album after another, as well as on an obsessive, millions-strong following that knows the lyrics to every obscure unreleased track and Danish import better than most people know their own families. Consequently, Radiohead fandom probably seems exhaustive and borderline creepy to the uninitiated, people who've never considered getting the crying Amnesiac guy tattooed on their neck.
The past decade has only exacerbated this state of affairs. Radiohead have become even more dominant, their music more ambitious, and they even cracked into the general news cycle by virtue of the strange and controversial distribution scheme for their most recent album. How did it all happen?
In terms of pure creative ambition, Radiohead began this decade at a dizzying peak. 2000's Kid A is, flat out, the weirdest, most original album to ever debut at No. 1. It's a measure of the band's status that they achieved this feat without promoting the album through advance singles or widespread radio play, but even if they wanted to, it's not clear what would have been fit for general airplay. The album's most straightforward track, ""Optimistic,"" is only nominally a rock song and its best, ""Idioteque,"" is a chilling, minimalistic perversion of dance music. If you'd never heard the album, the range and number of influences ascribed to Kid A would suggest an incomprehensible clusterfuck—how does something sound like Can, Miles Davis, Blackalicious and Krzysztof Penderecki? But Radiohead used their eclectic tastes to create something just the opposite, a coherent, utterly unique record that sounds like an album and not just a collection of individual tracks.
Compared to Kid A, 2001's Amnesiac does sound a bit more like a collection of songs. Some skew more toward usual instruments than anything on Kid A, such as ""I Might Be Wrong"" and ""Knives Out,"" both of which became singles. Others cut the other direction into full-on electronic experimentation: ""Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors"" is still puzzling after hundreds of listens. Among Amnesiac's varied contents are some of the band's very best tracks, the slow, dirge-like ""Pyramid Song"" and ""Life in a Glass House,"" which proves you can be British and still write New Orleans-style jazz.
2003's Hail to the Thief veers back toward guitar rock without closely recalling any previous Radiohead album, and although the record as a whole hasn't aged as well as other releases, it suffers more from the long shadow of its predecessors than its songs. ""There There"" in particular is a bit of psychedelic genius.
The band spent much of the next four years working on solo projects. They periodically dropped hints about their album online and previewed new material live, but 2007's In Rainbows, when it came, was a huge surprise, both because of its abrupt announcement (""Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days... We've called it In Rainbows"") and also its unusual ""Pay what you want to"" distribution scheme.
As for the music, In Rainbows is the band's most personal, human-sounding album since The Bends. Radiohead wasn't straining the bounds of modern music but rather creating lovely, arresting songs. ""Nude"" makes gorgeous, inventive use of strings; ""All I Need"" attracts and repels with a distant piano and vocals that sound like they're breathing down your neck; ""House of Cards"" might be the band's first real love song in about 12 years. Altogether, the album proved Radiohead could write spectacular songs without having to make a cosmic statement.
Scores of popular bands have based their careers on small pieces of Radiohead's 1990s albums, as any Radiohead diehard will inform you if they catch you listening to Coldplay. But over the past decade, the band has gone through so many trend-defying transformations that the prospect of ""ripping off Radiohead"" has become virtually impossible. Whether the band's next album ventures into disco or Scandinavian black metal, there's a 100-percent chance that it will sound distinctly like a Radiohead album, and a near certainty that it will be very, very good.