>We’ve come a long way through this three-week tournament I call Milam’s March Madness, a quest to determine the Best Band on the Planet. We’ve laughed (remember when I included Nickelback?), we’ve cried (remember when I included Nickelback?), we’ve debated the merits of the Decemberists, we’ve compared REM to Duke’s basketball team, and we’ve narrowed 65 bands down to the final two:
Radiohead vs. Pearl Jam.
This is an epic battle of unstoppable forces and natural rivals, a tsunami against a tornado, conservatives against liberals, Paris Hilton against dignity, my willpower against easy jokes, etc. As I write this, I wearing gloves and a mouthpiece, and being sponged off by a 200 year-old trainer named “Gus.” Because of my affection for both bands and my classification as “a raving OCD loon,” there’s only one way I can break this battle down…point by point.
Pearl Jam’s released eight records, the most recent in 2006. Radiohead’s released seven, the most recent in 2008. Both still tour regularly, both stay active between official releases with side projects and soundtrack work and benefit concerts. Both are socially and politically active. Both use their platform to test new business models in the ever-changing music industry. Both are big bands with short singers. The list goes on.
Let’s start with the records themselves, and slug through this, round by round.
Ring the damn bell!
Debut Album: Pearl Jam’s Ten vs. Radiohead’s Pablo Honey
While Pablo Honey gave Radiohead their breakout hit (“Creep”), it didn’t necessarily change the world. In fact, there was little in Pablo Honey, other than the band’s musicianship, to point to Radiohead’s future evolution. Ten, on the other hand, was the work of a complete band, a fully-formed vision and final product. It produced three of the decade’s biggest hits (“Jeremy,” “Alive,” and “Even Flow”) and, along with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, reinvented modern rock.
Edge: Pearl Jam
Second Album: Pearl Jam’s Vs. vs. Radiohead’s The Bends
For everything that Ten was, Vs. was even better, the rare sophomore outing that built on the first album’s strengths while widening the band’s scope. “Dissident,” “Animal,” and “Rearviewmirror” were grunge heavyweights in Ten‘s mold, while “Daughter” and “Indifference” broadened the musical spectrum. The Bends, on the other hand, didn’t build on its predecessor so much as tear it down and start from scratch (later, a Radiohead trademark). Somewhat buried beneath the distorted bluster of contemporary grunge, The Bends was both a record of its time and of any time, GenX themes of angst and cynicism matched with classic, consummate songcraft. I liken the Pablo Honey-The Bends jump to that of Robert Johnson: according to legend, Johnson disappeared one day and sold his soul to the devil. When he returned, he was a completely different guitar player. There was no logical explanation for the artistic leap that he made, only the supernatural fact that he had made it.
As exceptional as The Bends is, the highest points of Vs. climb just a little bit higher.
Edge: Pearl Jam, by the smallest of margins.
Third Album: Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy vs. Radiohead’s OK Computer
To put things into perspective, Vitalogy–at the time of its release–cemented Pearl Jam’s status as Best Band on Earth. Nirvana had dissipated (and begun to wind down), Soundgarden was great but not exceptional, and everyone else was pleasantly derivative. Vitalogy is a jaw-dropping record for its power and importance, especially in the colossal wake of Ten and Vs. While it has some willfully weird lows, you could make a case that its highs (“Nothingman,” “Corduroy,” and “Better Man”) are the best work Pearl Jam’s ever done. OK Computer, on the other hand, might just be the best record of the 90’s. One part past-Radiohead (standard rock arrangements), one part future-Radiohead (sonic experimentation, themes of technology and inhumanity, etc.), it was the best of both their worlds. OK Computer gracefully straddled the line between challenging and off-putting without ever crossing it, never predictable, always exciting, breathtaking in its beauty and composition, inspired, imaginative, and awesome in its achievement.
Interim: Pearl Jam’s No Code
No Code doesn’t really have a suitable point of comparison in Radiohead’s c.v., and doesn’t have a natural ally in the greater Pearl Jam catalog. In many ways, it’s the artistic afterthought to Vitalogy, created after they’d exhausted their 90’s vision but before the artistic rebirth of Yield. Contrary to Fitzgerald’s famous line that “there are no second acts in American lives,” Pearl Jam’s life does have two acts, the first ending with Vitalogy and the second beginning with Yield. No Code‘s in no man’s land, an occasionally great (“Present Tense,” “Hail, Hail”), often interesting (“Sometimes,” “Smile”), and always idiosyncratic record that sounds like a band too talented to be bad but too exhausted to be at their best.
Next Two Albums: Yield and Binaural vs. Kid A and Amnesiac
As well-documented as my love for Yield is (I recently called it the most-underrated album of the 90’s), and as consistently solid as Binaural is, there’s no realistic match in Pearl Jam’s rock catalog for the genre-transcending achievements of Kid A and Amnesiac. I don’t know that there’s a realistic match in anyone’s catalog this decade, save Outkast’s Speakerboxx/Love Below.
Edge: Radiohead, by a margin (I’m indicating a substantial distance with my boxing gloves)
Next Album: Pearl Jam’s Riot Act vs. Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief
Maybe the truest measure of a band’s greatness is not the quality of their best record, but their worst. By that rule, Pearl Jam is one of our greatest bands. Riot Act is, without question, PJ’s weakest record, and is nonetheless impressive and occasionally outstanding (“All or None,” “I Am Mine”). Hail to the Thief is a suitable point of comparison, similarly topical and uneven. There’s no denying Riot Act‘s brightest moments, but its lowest moments (“Green Disease,” “Cropduster”) are worse than those on Hail (“The Gloaming,” etc.), because they’re failed songs rather than negligible interludes.
Most Recent Album: Pearl Jam’s Pearl Jam vs. Radiohead’s In Rainbows
A great matchup of Radiohead’s continued weirdness and Pearl Jam’s back-to-basics rock. Radiohead’s experimentation at its best, I think, trumps Pearl Jam’s standardized pop-rock at its best, but (flying in the face of ubernerds everywhere, now…) In Rainbows isn’t Radiohead at their best. To be sure, it’s far from their worst. Still, I think Pearl Jam is better for what it tries to achieve–a convincing and exuberant return to form–than In Rainbows.
Edge: Pearl Jam
First, a few points of reference:
Pearl Jam – “Alive” in 1992
Pearl Jam – “Hail, Hail” in 1996
Pearl Jam – “Given to Fly” in 2000
Pearl Jam – “World Wide Suicide” in 2006
Radiohead – “Creep” in 1994
Radiohead – “Airbag” in 1997
Radiohead – “Idioteque” in 2006
Radiohead – “Pyramid Song” in 2006
I’ll make a disclaimer and say that, if you want to fight me on this, fine. They’re two of the best live bands on the planet and have been since they started. Both are as sharp and as vibrant as ever. Both are unpredictable, but while Pearl Jam’s is due to exuberance, Radiohead’s is due to weirdness. That said, a Radiohead show might not be what you bargained for. Pearl Jam excels at understanding the audience’s expectations and exceeding them, but never ignoring them.
Edge: Pearl Jam
If each band is to be judged by the worst of their derivatives, both would fail this test. The fact is, most bands cited as “influenced” by another typically have nothing in common with that original band. The point of comparison is usually something as superficial–and easy–as a vocal tick, like Creed’s throaty howl (derivative of Vedder) or Coldplay’s falsetto (derivative of Yorke).
In reality, Pearl Jam and Radiohead’s greatest influence has been bringing bright fringe bands closer to the mainstream. My Morning Jacket, for example, has gleaned the best from both bands (Pearl Jam’s ear for anthemic pop, Radiohead’s gift for fan-friendly innovation). Others as many and varied as Kings of Leon and Sigur Ros have carved out their own corner under the greater prop tent of Pearl Jam and Radiohead. Ultimately, I would guess that Radiohead’s most innovative work will continue to influence not only this generation of artists, but innumerable future generations, regardless of genre or direction.
Because both bands are politically active and undertake such endeavors with a modicum of taste and discretion, I’ll call it a draw. I’m not going to quantify who-raised-how-much-money-for-what and select a “saving the world” winner.
Perhaps more interestingly, both have used their platforms to try new business models in the flagging music industry. In 2000 and 2001, Pearl Jam began selling a high-quality, low-priced bootleg from every live show, setting a new standard for live recording and blazing a trail for accessibility well before YouTube and Myspace. Radiohead broke new ground by asking fans to pay “whatever they want” for In Rainbows. When fans worldwide responded with record-breaking sales, it forced the industry to rethink their current business model and all presumptions about the music-stealing public.
Again, I can’t really put a value on that. But Radiohead has been the most awesome most recently:
–Outselling everyone by giving their album away.
–Working Coldplay like a speedbag at the Grammy’s.
–For no discernable reason–other than they can and they felt like it–telling Miley Cyrus to get bent.
Ladies and gentlemen, while Abdul crunches the numbers, I’d like to say that it’s been a blast, and thanks for everyone either commenting or writing me to add to the discussion. Remember, this is only a reflection of the Best Band is right now; the list could be totally different this time next year. That said….
Congratulations, boys! Tell them what they win, Doug!
–A year’s supply of calculators! (One)
–A trip for two to Iceland!
–Oatmeal Cream Pies!
–Three-hundred passive-aggressive congratulatory voicemails from Bono!
–A head of lettuce!
–A copy of Radiohead’s latest album, In Rainbows!
And, last but not least, the Milam March Madness 2009 Championship Trophy, which may-or-may-not feature a plastic soccer player atop a base with “Green Machines 1991” engraved on the side! You can’t drink out of it, but you sure as heck can drink the glory in!
And I’m spent,
P.S. Songs for April will be up on Friday!