To me, these two bands, have been two of the best still making music. If you include bands not making music anymore, The Beatles. I even have a little trouble writing about them because their music effects me way down deep. My DNA dances when I listen to these two bands. I can tell you exactly when they both solidified themselves as my faves. It was summer, 1997, New Adventures in Hi-Fi had been out for a few months. The song "New Test Leper" had entrenched itself in my chest with its brilliant lyrics, humble vocals, and Peter Buck's light acoustic guitar jangled in my head as I laid flat on my back in the middle of my tatami-matted living room breathing deep after a bicycle ride through Osaka-Jo Koen in Osaka, Japan. This album told me REM was my band and I loved them all for it.
Prior I was probably still way into U2... but Bono was starting to get caught up in the rock star persona that he claimed was a creation and it had been 10 years since Joshua Tree (still one of the greatest albums ever made) and while Zooropa and Pop had a couple good songs each, they weren't the all killa, no filla albums that I judge bands by. If they can consistently put out music that is just groundbreaking and amazing... well you get it.
Then Radiohead comes out with OK, Computer. I felt like I didn't know what an album was until I heard this. Now instead of flat on my back, I was in the fetal position sucking my thumb...
Okay, so these two bands have been battling for my affection for the past... well, however many years that is (I can never do math in my head). They didn't even realize it. And as hard core an REM fan I am, I have to say that Radiohead was just slamming my head with great album after great, groundbreaking album during this time. REM had okay albums, with some stand out songs, but really, their most amazing music was on the other side of New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
So today, both bands have new albums out (Radiohead's King of Limbs) or about to be out (REM's Collapse into Now, which is streaming on NPR if you want to listen). And while REM continues its okay-album-some-good-songs thing it has going on, for the first time I feel Radiohead kind of fell into that category as well. Again, there are some great songs on King of Limbs, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like I can skip a few. "Feral" simply does nothing for me AND seems like a remake or sister song to "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" from Amnesiac. It worked in the context of that album, but "Feral" kind of pulls me out of King of Limbs... But REM doesn't avoid cannibalizing themselves either. "Uberlin" just feels like a faster version of "Drive" from Automatic for the People.
It makes me think that these bands are either a) drying up creatively, and I don't want to believe that happens so forget that, or b) getting lazy/bored with making music? I definitely think artists have times where they are very prolific and times when their inspiration is more spread out. I think music artists feel pressure to but stuff out regularly, so they start to push out crap. That's why artist's first albums are awesome (usually), because they've had time to write and choose so that first one is just all good songs. Then they suffer from the sophomore slump because someone is pressuring them to put out more albums quickly. Some bands can handle this. I always thought Smashing Pumpkins put good albums (and some double albums) out quickly. Of course now... well I think Billy Corgan went crazy or something.
I felt Radiohead was above this though. I felt that they were putting albums out when they were ready to. I never minded waiting for them because their music was so awesome. So when this one kind of dropped out of the blue I was, of course, excited. But now there is a piece of me that wishes they waited until it was all good. I'm hoping the rumors that this is only half of the album are true and more will be released when the physical cds and records come out, but I'm also a little wary.
I am an uber-fan of both of these bands which means I will buy anything they put out at this point. There are only a few bands that hold that status with me. Flaming Lips (yay, Wayne Coyne), XTC (if they ever release anything again), The Shins, Beulah (come on, get back together), Imperial Teen (doubt there is much more from them if anything), Pavement (weren't they going to do another album with that reunion?), The Pixies (though I don't see it happening) and Paul Simon (though I think he's done too).
Hopefully there will be new bands to add to that list. Some I like so far are Girls, Frightened Rabbit, Freelance Whales, Avi Buffalo, Broken Bells (though that's kind of cheating), Local Natives, The Low Anthem, Tokyo Police Club, maybe some others, but we'll have to wait and see.
So, have my heros fallen? Maybe just a notch. I still love them and always will. And really, thinking about the amount of amazingness that these two groups of guys has put out over the years just makes me happy. So while I can't figure out a way to get one of the really good songs from the REM album up here, here's one from Radiohead that kicks my butt, Codex: