Part of what makes Radiohead such a great rock band is how each of their works carry a separate identity from the others. Take a look at how “OK Computer,” their most critically acclaimed release, sets the basis for nearly all of modern rock - and then how the heavy emphasis on abstract structure in “Kid A” practically reestablished it. Even “The Bends” and “In Rainbows”, two albums from different eras, carry their own separate meanings and relevance. That said, I’m here to talk about why 1993’s “Pablo Honey,” their debut studio album, is my personal favorite.
This sounds like a total joke - one of my friends even sarcastically told me that “Pablo Honey” would qualify as his favorite Third Eye Blind album. However, consider that much of Radiohead’s legacy comes from their willingness to experiment with different genres. This, of course, only happens if their original source of success is any good.
“Pablo Honey” doesn’t sound like any other alternative release of the early 90s and has clear shades of several different influences in each of its songs. The intro track, “You,” has a hypnotic chorus and rhythm-changing aspects that make it sound different from several contemporary songs of that era. Meanwhile, “How Do You?” (which sounds nothing like Radiohead’s later work) is reminiscent of late 70s band The Cure. “Blow Out” also provides a jazzy contrast to the rest of the album.
This creates an effect where unlike any other Radiohead album, listeners can easily listen to and shuffle between songs without risk of feeling like they’ve missed something. This doesn’t mean that the songs in “Pablo Honey” don’t seamlessly fit together - just that you can hear the songs in any order and still enjoy the album.
That said, there are a few reasons for derision. The guitar work isn’t as memorable as the later albums, as heard in“Lurgee”, which initially starts off as promising, but ends with a way-too-long, repetitive guitar outro. I also think “Creep” lost a lot of its initial luster due to decades of oversaturation on rock radio airwaves. Moreover, some of the teenage angst on the album is a little too up front in its lyrics. For example, in “Vegetable,” singer Thom Yorke wails to audiences, “I’m not a vegetable!”
But that’s part of the beauty of listening to an album like “Pablo Honey.” It captures the very essence of adolescence and growing up. “Thinking About You,” a simple folk-like acoustic romantic ballad, might be immature, but that’s why it’s the perfect song for a high school or college crush. It may not be as mature or complex as the content on Radiohead’s later work, but it doesn’t have to be.
“Pablo Honey” is a reminder that even legendary bands like Radiohead – ones who have succeeded in both terms of creative integrity and mainstream success – had to start off in a garage somewhere without the exposure to other genres and perspectives. It’s a raw, relatable and beautifully prescient release by a band that more than exceeded expectations and grew to be one of the world’s most talented musical groups.