High & Dry: My Top 5 Radiohead LPs

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“Hey, here’s the new Radiohead album”, a friend offered few months ago. I put it on, listened. So this is how they sound now. Interesting, I thought. But theirs is not the kind of music that I need. At least for now. Some people find meaning in lyrics that reflects the despairing things happening around the world. I already had enough of that—not from music, but from other things.

I need music to unwind, to unplugged myself from the system—by plugging in to another. I listen to songs that could remind me of things that “brighten up the corners“, not songs that reminds me of the opposite.

What is this called? Neo-classical-rock? Wikipedia says it’s considered art-rock. Art-rock, but not as in Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness‘ prog-meets-jazz-meets-metal-meets-grunge art-rock. It’s just old Radiohead cut in half, then half of them replaced with strings, orchestrations and whatever. Which can also be said of their other albums starting with Hail to the Thief. Hail to the Thief is half electronic, half guitars; In Rainbows is half made with laptop, half made with live musical instrument; TKOL is half old Radiohead, half beats.

And no, I’m not trashing their newer albums in favor of the old ones. Unlike with Foo Fighters, I just cannot dismiss the last three albums just because I didn’t like them. Radiohead is one of my favorite bands too, and “interesting” is probably the worst I could say of their last two or three releases. And this isn’t rare—that I like OK Computer but not In Rainbows or The King Of Limbs. Some people I know started liking the band with In Rainbows and finds anything before it inaccessible. Some even went as far as saying that Pablo Honey is the only decent Radiohead album, that all the rest reeks of arena-rock grandiosity.

So how would I rank all of Radiohead’s LP’s? Which one’s the best? I can’t rank all of them. I haven’t “really” listened to their last two albums. But from those that I have listened to, I’d pick my top five. Here it is.

OK Computer
1997. We were so into rock music. And boy bands. Green Day, Blur, The Smashing Pumpkins, our semi-charmed kind of life. Radiohead’s OK Computer descended upon us in the form of a cassette. And a news article on a broadsheet proclaiming “Radiohead returns to save the universe” on its headline. The tape was passed from one to another, never returned to its original owner. I spent a week playing it in the old radio cassette player. I never heard anything like it before or since (until Hail to the Thief). Then it disappeared. Like a dream. Never saw that tape again. Never knew who it ended up with. But the music haunted me in my wakeful dreams.

The Bends
“High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” are my most favorite Radiohead songs. They’re the equivalent of “In My Life” and “Here, There, and Everywhere” by the Beatles. To me, at least. They were my favorites even before OK Computer; even before I recognized that the song played in Romeo+Juliet’s closing credits was “Exit Music (For A Film)”. This album also got them riffs (i.e., Just, The Bends), more than Jonny Greenwood’s chugging guitars right before the chorus of “Creep” (the part which Parokya Ni Edgar replaces with “coughs” in the parody “Trip”).

Hail to the Thief
2005. This is the very first Radiohead album I owned. And this is the album that introduced me to Radiohead’s electronic-rock. It’s the post-90s album of theirs I found easiest to like. And it sounds like a direct follow-up to both OK Computer and Kid A / Amnesiac. This would be the last time a Radiohead album would grab me right on the first track. It leaves a lasting impression too: of dread, hopelessness and gloom, a wolf at the door. It’s probably the last true physical rock record I bought before the internet totally took over the musical industry, or whatever’s left of it.

Kid A / Amnesiac
This would make five a six. Whether they should be counted separately or… Yeah, I’m just lazy, that is. But yeah, they’re twin albums, a year apart. Just like The Strokes’ Is This It? and Room for Squares, just like tide/edit’s Lighfoot and Foreign Languages. It’s electronic-rock, like Radiohead trying to be DJ Shadow or Aphex Twins. Kid A plays like one big song, without much peaks and troughs—it’s very consistent. Amnesiac is a little less. But with the highlights (Pyramid Song, Knives Out, You and Whose Army?, I Might be Wrong) reaching higher highs than those in the first.

Pablo Honey
1998. Pablo Honey, or the tape I borrowed from someone who also borrowed it from someone and never returned. I wanted to listen to The Bends, while “No Surprises” haunted my dreams. But there I was, stuck with the album that houses that well-worn hit “Creep”. It has a few hidden gems (Prove Yourself, I Can’t). Then I remember Rico Blanco, in the middle of one of their songs, singing a few lines from “Stop Whispering” (And the thin man said I don’t wanna hear your voice) in one Rivermaya gig in Saguijo. And it was such a spiritual experience, being one of the few souls in that specific moment, who knew the words he’s singing and from what song they’re taken.

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Picture of the floppy from feelnumb.com.

Your Universe (Rico Blanco, 2008)

AlbumArt_YUBefore we were re-introduced to the now solo Rico Blanco, the story went like this: the then-Rivermaya frontman went MIA; his former band, reduced to a trio, released the brilliant Bagong Liwanag, then staged an overblown TV search for a frontman, a new member. Meanwhile, some speculated Rico Blanco formed a new band and he’s called it Blanco.

Then came the signal fire: the five-minute plus “Yugto”, an anthemic folk-rocker replete with strings, tribal beats and horns; chorus that echoes Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad’s “Lumiyab Ka” and bridge that alludes to the Battle of Jericho. In short, it’s big, gigantic. A song one could easily put alongside the Eraserheads’ “Ang Huling El Bimbo”, “Center Of the Sun” from Wolfgang’s Acoustica, and Rivermaya’s “Alab Ng Puso” from Live & Acoustic or their live rendition of “You’ll Be Safe Here”, at the 2006 MTV Asia Awards in Thailand. We’re talking about epic numbers here.

After the ballsy first single, comes Your Universe, Rico Blanco’s first solo album. Contrary to what some fans have expected (myself included), Your Universe isn’t Magkabilaan with electric guitars, or something along the lines of Rivermaya’s punchier, darker oeuvre. Rivermaya’s version of “Ilog” and “Padayon” could have been the perfect jumping-off point for Blanco to get on full folk-rock mode; instead, the other nine songs in the album has Blanco exploring different avenues, revisiting past excursions while also charting new territories.

Your Universe marks a new chapter for Rico Blanco, but it also signifies the end, the closing of another. It neatly sums up Blanco’s past works, as both singer and main songwriter of Rivermaya, while also introducing his first solo output.

“Your Universe”, the second single, is like a 180-degree turn from the first. It’s a comely ballad that favors acoustic guitars and string orchestration over drums and distortion, and reveals Blanco’s singer-songwriter side (think about Aqualung circa Strange and Beautiful). “Your Universe”, together with “Restless” and “Start Again”, sound like the logical progression from “Balisong” and “Sunday Driving” (off Between the Stars and Waves) and hint at what the next Rivermaya songs might be like, had Blanco stayed with the band. “Say Forever”, on the other hand, was probably written after Blanco revisited the ’80s, for his last outing with Rivermaya; only this time, it’s more “Tupperware Party” than Joey Ayala. The cheesy keyboard lines, the angular guitars, the dance-y beats, and the friggin’ saxophone(!) at the break will get you all New Wave-y all over again.

While generally considered as a collaborative effort, with Blanco enlisting a number of well-known musicians and friends (Nathan Azarcon, Buddy Zabala, Sago‘s Pards Tupaz, among others), the songs on Your Universe range from something as grand as “Yugto”, the song with the most number of guest musicians, to something as minimal as “Para Di Ka Mawala”. In between, we got “Ayuz”, another full band set-up, highlighted by a festive horn section and a music video featuring Rico Blanco doing his best Fred Astaire impressions. There’s also “Antukin”, in which Blanco played all instruments, including drums. Aside from doing a terrific job behind the skins, there’s also a splendid piano solo, which he probably threw in just for fun—a playful throwback to his earlier days with Rivermaya. (The Southeast Asia version of the album available on Spotify features a different mix of “Antukin”, in which the said piano part is replaced by a guitar solo.)

If there are any weak points here, that would Blanco’s forays into electronic rock. “Outta This” and closer “Metropolis”, aren’t in any way bad, but would probably sound better in a more coherent-sounding record than here.

While his former record label put out a number of best-of compilations from Rivermaya over the years (Rivermaya: Greatest Hits (2006), Silver Series (2008), 18 Greatest Hits (2010))—an increasingly redundant way of re-introducing the band to old and younger audiences—Rico Blanco had another thing in mind. With Your Universe, what he offers is a mix-tape, a compilation of his best and latest, not necessarily hits. It is like a “greatest hits”—only there’s not a single old song in it.

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Live gig photo from roxnebres.deviantart.com.

Have you ever wished you were a 90’s kid? FYI, the 2000’s was awesome too!

Note: This was originally written in September 2016, around the time everyone was going crazy over a TV ad featuring the Eraserheads.

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“We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever.”

                                                             – Lariat (Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, 2014)

Everyone wants to be a 90’s kid these days. Everyone wants to relive those times when “Pare Ko” hits the top of the charts; when “Alapaap”, “Banal Na Aso” and “Laklak” almost got banned; when Rivermaya premiered their music video for “Elesi”; and when the boys of Parokya Ni Edgar debuted on national TV, wearing skirts and dusters. Nostalgia moves in mysterious ways. There’s probably another Eraserheads reunion brewing around the corner (or maybe that’s just how a certain Telco giant wants us to think and feel). There’s also this rumor spreading around of the band re-recording Ultraelectromagneticpop. But the Eraserheads and their fans aren’t alone on the reunion bandwagon. Four out of five members of Rivermaya’s 1994 lineup had a one-night reunion last January. For some, it was a night to remember, with or without Bamboo; for the others, their wish remains the same – the reunion of the “original” Rivermaya.

We’re halfway past the 2010’s already. It makes me wonder. Are we gonna be nostalgic soon for the previous decade, as we were for the 90’s ten years ago? In case you forgot, Ultraelectromagneticjam came out in 2005, a few days before the 10th year anniversary of Cutterpillow. And if you want to gauge how nostalgic we were back then, just think about this – Ultraelectromagneticjam was a tribute album for a band that disbanded merely three years prior. Yeah, that’s how badly we missed the Eraserheads, specifically the Eraserheads of early-to-mid 90’s (the Eraserheads of late 90’s to early 2000’s? Not much, I guess).

How about the 2000’s? Doesn’t anyone want to go back to the early to mid-2000s? Are we not going to see our collective nostalgia snowball into a Sugarfree reunion? Or at least make the members of Orange & Lemons play together again? Would there be online petitions for the members of Bamboo and Rivermaya circa 2004, to double-bill one big concert?

Honestly, that would be awesome.

There’s no denying that the 90’s was great for local music, but I’m afraid that we’re very much inclined to overlook a lot of things – bands, music, albums – that came out after the 90’s. As far as I’m concerned, the 2000’s was just as good, if not better.

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Here’s a list of notable/favorite albums from the previous decade. And they are just as good and as interesting as the best albums from the 90’s. I think Peryodiko’s self-titled debut, which was produced by Robin Rivera (Eraserheads, Dong Abay, Sugarfree), is an underrated gem. Ditto with Archipelago’s one and only CD. Among the albums listed below, those from Ciudad, The Purplechickens and Narda are probably the hardest ones to find – which is quite sad because those are among the finest indie records from the last decade. If you don’t like MYMP because of their sappy acoustic covers, you’d be surprised that their debut album, has nine originals and only two covers (The Police’s “Every Little Thing” and Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain”). And Juana’s only album, which sounds very 90’s (think of Prettier Than Pink, only better) is actually fine.

A is for Alternative: Free (Rivermaya); Tuloy Ang Ligaya (Rivermaya); Live & Acoustic (Rivermaya); Bagong Liwanag (Rivermaya); Behold! Rejoice! Surfernando is Here Nah (Markus Highway); Travel Advisory (Archipelago); Peryodiko (Peryodiko); The Noontime Show (Itchyworms); Sa Wakas (Sugarfree); Flipino (Dong Abay); Beautiful Machines (Pupil); Wildlife (Pupil); Buddha’s Pest (The Mongols); Thanks to the Moon’s Gravitational Pull (Sandwich); Contra Tiempo (Sandwich); Bigotilyo (Parokya Ni Edgar); Your Universe (Rico Blanco)

Indie Darlings: Hello! How Are You, Mico the Happy Bear? (Ciudad); Is That Ciudad? Yes Son It’s Me (Ciudad); Formika (Narda); Discotillion (Narda); A Postcard From (Narda); Swerte (Narda); Rhomboids (Monsterbot); Here’s Plan B (The Purplechickens)

Jazz Folk & Funk: Urban Gulaman (Radioactive Sago Project); Rippingyarns (Cynthia Alexander); The Powder Room Stories (Skarlet); Is Love (Out Of Body Special)

Pop Princesses: Misbehavior (Juana); Suntok Sa Buwan (Session Road); Kitchie Nadal (Kitchie Nadal); Soulful Acoustic (MYMP); Todo Combo (Moonstar88)

Punk Post-Punk New Wave: Flowerfish (Sheila & The Insects); Guerrila Ballroom (Agaw Agimat); Bitch for Change (Reklamo); Nut House (Hilera); Strike Whilst The Iron Is Hot (Orange and Lemons)

(Photo of Narda’s Salaguinto’t Salagubang EP by Rain Contreras.)

Dating Gawi (Rico Blanco, 2015)

IMG_20160521_221232This isn’t just fantasy superband come true. This is the superband that supersedes all other superbands in recent memory – Bamboo, Franco, Audioslave, Atoms for Peace, and even the Oktaves. I mean, c’mon, this is Rivermaya’s main man and one-half of the Eraserheads – two godhead bands from the 90’s – in one album.

Okay, maybe not really a superband, but Rico Blanco’s third studio output, is a superb band album. An album that thrives on Menshevist approach and recalls updates the sounds from Blanco’s former band (i.e., Trip, Free, Tuloy Ang Ligaya) and the more straightforward side of Your Universe (i.e., Antukin, Ayuz). Blanco will never make another It’s Not Easy Being Green or Free, but what we have here, is almost as good as those. Much like Joss Whedon’s superhero ensemble few years back, this one benefits from its bandleader/captain’s singular vision, the bang-up production, each member’s contribution and whatever is the equivalent of a well-balanced script. This is the sound of four distinct personalities contrasting and complementing each other; four guys hammering it on, delivering the goods.

Side A opens with “Parang Wala Na”, an upbeat new wave-y number about the slow death of a relationship, slows down a bit on “Sorry Naman”, then closes with “Videoke Queen” – the splendid first single about videoke singing that’s also perfect for, uhm, videoke singing. (The last time Rico Blanco went meta, he name-checks Odelay in a song that’s apparently inspired by Beck.) Side B continues the fading romance on “Wag Mong Aminin”, then fastforwards to the aftermath on “Umuwi Ka Na”, in which the beautiful arpeggiated guitars remind me of Radiohead, circa In Rainbows. Then, Blanco and Co. get all cranked up, distortion and all on the final track, where Blanco shares one painful truth about love – Hindi mo kayang umibig/ kung ayaw mong masaktan/ mag-chess ka na lang.

All in all, this is Rico Blanco and Co. bringing back the old and familiar – the alternative pop the Eraserheads and Rivermaya pioneered in the 90’s – with a new spin. It’s all killers, no fillers – an album for the Spotify generation, full of radio friendly unit shifters. One of the best from last year.