Yes – Thom Yorke’s made-for-gifs dancing might resemble a man coming up on a massive pinger whilst simultaneously trying to punch the demons out of himself. Yes – the quintet might have released a seasonal merch line of Christmas cards this year. Yes – if you listen to any of their 21st century output, you’re just as likely to be greeted by experimental, glitching electronics as mere moody navel-gazing. Yet, as sure as Tier 4 follows Tier 3 (and then back to 2, and then lockdown, and then… well, you get the point), Radiohead will forever be associated with inward-looking headphone moments – the kind of emotional rite-of-passage band to hold dear during times of despair.
And so it should come as little shock that, despite having not released a studio album since 2016’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, in 2020, Radiohead have been everywhere.
Back in March, when the full hellscape of the year was yet to truly unfold, James Blake gave us an Instagram Live version of ‘No Surprises’. In August, during the promo for solo LP ‘Petals for Armor’, Hayley Williams served up a tender acoustic take on ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. When she wasn’t busy popping up on Gucci ads, meanwhile, artist of the moment Arlo Parks basically spent 2020 as a one-woman Radiohead tribute act, tackling ‘Creep’ on her own, and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ (again) alongside Phoebe Bridgers.
Across the past nine months, everyone from Marika Hackman (‘You Never Wash Up After Yourself’) to Rosie Carney (‘The Bends’), Lianne La Havas (‘Weird Fishes’) to Jon Hopkins (who recently had a stab at Yorke’s solo ‘Dawn Chorus’) have been at it. Why? “It felt pertinent because of the time we’re in. Lyrically it fits [“I must get out once in a while/ Everything is starting to die”],” Marika explained of her choice in our November cover interview. And whilst there’s no one-size-fits all artist to soundtrack a calendar period as turbulent, emotionally disorientating and really bloody miserable (interspersed with moments of surprising, momentary joy) as this one… well, don’t those adjectives remind you of someone?
One look at the artists topping The Forty-Five’s (and a whole heap of other publications’) end of year lists will show that, between the pop behemoths ruling the roost, many of the people who’ve really shone in 2020 have been the more cerebral ones: the artists made for listlessly walking around parks, overthinking everything. The aforementioned Phoebe and Arlo; Taylor Swift’s unexpected veer into indie territory; Laura Marling, Porridge Radio, Moses Sumney, Soccer Mommy… all very different, but all artists that beg you to make a personal connection rather than just sticking them on the car stereo with your mates.
And Radiohead, of course, are the ultimate band that demand those same intimate, personal connections; even when they’re headlining Glastonbury, much of their set is like watching 100,000 people have their own separate moments, together. So in a year that’s been wholly composed of a strange kind of unity through separation, of looking in, seeking comfort, steeling yourself, finding musical solace or even just indulging in some nostalgia, of course Radiohead are the band so many have turned to. No surprises there, after all.