The Recording Academy gives out Grammy Awards for great music, not great ideas. But it's impossible to think about Album of the Year nominee
Just like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band broke the mold 40 years ago by exploding the boundaries of what popular music could encompass, Radiohead shattered expectations with their seventh album by advancing the radical notion that some fans will gladly pay for music they've already gotten for free.
The English group has blazed a singular path for more than a decade by making albums that challenge, entertain and confound even as they melt in more and more experimental sounds and textures on top of singer Thom Yorke's frequently claustrophobic, inscrutable lyrics. But, working again with longtime collaborator/producer Nigel Godrich, Radiohead toiled for more than two years on the songs that would make up In Rainbows, often expressing the frustration of the deliberate process on their Dead Air Space blog, but giving few clues as to what sounds they were cooking up or when they would unleash them.
Free from their album deal with EMI, the group had the luxury of time — but that soon turned into a creative noose as sessions stagnated and Radiohead took to the road in the summer of 2006 to air the music out in small theaters and at big festivals like Bonnaroo.
By the fall of 2006, they were back on the horse and, in early 2007, it seemed as if they were finally rounding the corner. And then a long silence was followed by the 18 words that changed the game, perhaps forever: "Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days," guitarist Jonny Greenwood announced on Dead Air Space on October 1, 2007. "We've called it In Rainbows." Ten days?
Rather than wait around as their album was inevitably leaked, Radiohead rushed it out onto the Internet 10 days later, as promised, and, in what the New York Times called the "most audacious experiment in years," they offered the 10 tracks DRM-free with just a tiny transaction fee and a name-your-own-price scale. Numbers were hard to come by, but the experiment appeared to be a fantastic success, as Radiohead's brash move remained headline news well past the day they released the physical version two months later.
By most accounts, the experiment worked financially as well, resulting in the band's best sales figures in years — and reportedly hefty profits — when the box set and CD version were later released.
Those two years of angst resulted in some of the most enticing songs the group had produced in years, from the ethereal warm electronic blanket of "House of Cards" to the slow-pulse, fuzzed bass trip-hop of "All I Need," the pastoral acoustic scramble of "Faust Arp" and the chilly, twisty jazz of "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." Even amid the sometimes ominous-sounding tracks, there is a warmth in the spare music and (slightly) more approachable vulnerability in singer Yorke's spooky falsetto that gave In Rainbows an ever-so-thin bridge back from the rock/electronic hinterlands the group had been perched on since their landmark 1997 album, OK Computer.
In an October 2007 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, guitarist Greenwood said the band partly released In Rainbows the way they did to "get it out quickly, so everyone would hear it at the same time, and partly because it was an experiment that felt worth trying, really." As for the variable pricing, he said it was a "fun" experiment to make fans stop for a moment to ponder what music is really worth.
As for the music itself, Greenwood said the idea was to get back to the more studied experimentation on the band's fourth album, 2000's Kid A. "In that we were spending longer experimenting and trying stuff out — it wasn't so much of a performance-based thing, like Hail to the Thief," he said. "Other than that, it's the usual thing of turning up with these songs and the pressure is, 'Don't f--- it up, don't record them badly, don't do bad arrangements of them, and do them justice.' "
Those efforts were rewarded with the group's third Album of the Year nomination, as well as a pair for "House of Cards" and four other nominations related to the album. But, despite the group's career-long march to keep evolving their sound, not everyone is counting on them to win big Sunday night. "I think if it turns out to be an unimaginative year, Radiohead will do really well," said New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica. "It's a totally fine album. You might have some industry people resenting them for their unconventional distribution method — then you might have some who are more progressive, who want to support that. But generally speaking, a vote for Radiohead, right now, is a vote for the status quo. It's not 1995 — like, Radiohead is very much a part of the firmament. You might as well be voting for R.E.M."
Whether or not he was impressed with the album, Caramanica couldn't deny that he became part of the now-legendary story it told. "I did not buy that record," he said. "I have that record, but I did not buy that record."
So, as always, Radiohead did it their way, surrendering not an inch to the pressures of a floundering music industry and tossing a puzzling wrench into the works with a brave experiment that just might light the path to music's future.
Will Lil Wayne grab all the gramophones? Is Katy Perry going to tell her girl rivals to kiss off? Can Coldplay march off with a win? MTV News is all over the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, so stay tuned for interviews, analysis and more before, during and after the big night, Sunday, February 8.