Radiohead emerged from the fading '90s Brit-pop invasion with a sound that was moody, melodic and explosive, with roots planted firmly in both alternative culture and the art-rock legacy of such classic rockers as Pink Floyd. With the release of 1997's OK Computer, Radiohead were among the most closely watched bands of the decade, drawing on influences as varied as Queen, R.E.M. and Miles Davis. The Oxford musicians were embraced as saviors of modern guitar rock, only to resurface in 2000 with a new sound heavy with electronics, minimal vocals and few guitars.
Singer-guitarist Thom Yorke first turned to music while growing up in Scotland and Oxford, England. Born with his left eye closed and paralyzed, Yorke endured five corrective surgeries before age six. He learned guitar while unhappy at boarding school, where he met bassist Colin Greenwood. The two formed a punk band called TNT. In 1987 they joined friends Ed O'Brien (guitar) and Phil Selway (drums) in a new band called On a Friday. Colin's younger brother, Jonny, was soon recruited on guitar. The band dissolved as members scattered to different universities. The quintet regrouped in 1991 as Radiohead, a name taken from a Talking Heads song.
Radiohead quickly built a following on the Oxford club scene, and soon drew record-company interest from London. The band signed to U.K. label Parlophone within a year, and in 1992 toured England and began recording a debut album, Pablo Honey (Number 32, 1993), released on Capitol in the U.S. That collection included "Creep" (Number 34), an intense anthem of self-loathing that blended Yorke's alternately anguished and gentle vocals ("I wish I was special... but I'm a creep") with Jonny Greenwood's raw spasms of guitar. It was a hit in both the U.S. and England, but Radiohead were labeled a one-hit wonder by critics. The band responded two years later with The Bends (Number 88), which demonstrated a growing musical scope and explored deeper levels of alienation on the songs "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry" (Number 78). Sales were significantly less than for the debut, but critics began to reassess the band.
With OK Computer (Number 21, 1997), coproduced by the band and Nigel Godrich (an engineer on The Bends), the band enjoyed wide acclaim. Though Yorke and the band denied any coherent theme to the album, various tracks — including "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android" — examined encroaching technology and millennial anxiety. OK Computer topped many of that year's critics polls and won the Best Alternative Music Grammy. Though the album enjoyed no Top 40 singles, Radiohead built a committed following through incessant touring. (The '97-'98 tour was later depicted as a dehumanizing exercise in boredom and fatigue in Meeting People Is Easy, director Grant Gee's downbeat 1999 documentary.)
The members of Radiohead continued to work and reside in Oxford. While fans waited three years for a follow-up to OK Computer, a wave of Radiohead-influenced guitar bands (Travis, Coldplay) began to enjoy chart success in England and the U.S. — which made the long-awaited release of Kid A (Number One, 2000) and the band's new electronic and ambient leanings more surprising. Recorded during sessions with Godrich, Kid A sent guitars deep into the background while exploring long instrumental passages and sometimes incoherent vocals. The album won mostly positive, if sometimes puzzled critical notices and a second Best Alternative Music Album Grammy. The band released no singles from the album and played few shows. A second album featuring some tracks from the same sessions, Amnesiac, debuted at Number Two in June 2001. Five months later, the band released its third disc in 13 months, I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, taken from four performances in Europe. Radiohead returned to the studio for 2003's Hail to the Thief, their contract-ending release for EMI in which the band reached a natural balance between its earlier guitar-based music and more recent forays into electronics. Written and recorded after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the pessimistic Orwellian nature of Radiohead's lyrics never seemed as relevant as on songs like "Go to Sleep." and "Sit Down. Stand Up." As with the previous two albums, Hail to the Thief reached Number Three on the Billboard album chart in spite of the difficult nature of the music.
Free from their obligations to a major record company after Thief, Radiohead next made a couple of history-making decisions about the distribution of their music. The band rejected Apple Inc.'s iTunes because of the powerful online music store's "unbundling" policy — selling individual songs separately from the albums. In 2007, the band announced it would digitally sell its music exclusively through the U.K.-based online music store 7digital, which allows for bundling. Then, in October, Radiohead made a momentous announcement: not only did the band have a new album ready to go, but it would sell In Rainbows on the Radiohead Website only, and fans could pay whatever price they wanted for it, including nothing. (The marketing gimmick nearly obscured the album itself, Radiohead's most accessible since OK Computer.) According to a November 2007 study released by Internet data analysts comScore, 38 percent of those who downloaded the album were willing to pay an average of $6 for the album; 62 percent chose to pay nothing for it. Radiohead denied the figures but declined to offer their own. In between the hoopla over Radiohead's industry-changing decisions, Thom Yorke quietly issued his first solo album, a characteristically dark, electronics-based outing called The Eraser that got mixed reviews, on the independent label XL Records. He made the songs available for download on iTunes.