Following the release of Pablo Honey, Radiohead would digress from its alternative rock influences toward more expansive and experimental works. The album received a generally favourable critical reaction, but was criticised for its derivative sound and inclusion of underdeveloped songs, and has been in a negative light in comparison to the band's subsequent albums. It has, nonetheless, been cited by listeners and critics as one of the best debut albums of recent years.
After a long dormancy while the members attended university, the band On a Friday reconvened in the early 1990s, becoming fixtures on the local Oxford scene with a series of demo recordings and well attended live gigs, finally signing with EMI/Parlophone and changing their name to Radiohead. The band's first official release, the Drill EP, was produced by their managers Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge, and sold poorly. For their debut album the band sought the production skills of Massachusetts-based Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, responsible for Dinosaur Jr. and Buffalo Tom albums of which they were fans.
"Creep" was Radiohead's first hit. This sample features Jonny Greenwood's guitar distortion before the chorus. According to legend, the effects were an attempt to sabotage a song Greenwood initially disliked.
Several months in advance of the album, the band came out with their debut single "Creep". According to bassist Colin Greenwood, "Creep" had been written by singer/rhythm guitarist Thom Yorke sometime in the late 1980s, while he was at Exeter University, and was shared with other members of the band, who were mostly very enthusiastic, citing the song as a reason to continue making music together. However, it was not included on any of their early '90s demo tapes and had not been a part of their live set. At the time, "Inside My Head" (which would later be released as a b-side to "Creep") was considered a good candidate for the band's lead single.
Sometime in 1992 the band began an impromptu performance of "Creep" at a recording session, referring to it as their "Scott Walker song" because it reminded them of one of their musical idols. Rumour states that Jonny Greenwood's famous guitar crunches in the chorus were supposedly an attempt to ruin a song he did not like. But "Jonny played the piano at the end of the song and it was gorgeous," stated producer Paul Kolderie (though the piano was mixed in at the wrong time, the band decided to keep the take complete with mistake, not for the last time). "Everyone who heard 'Creep' just started going insane. So that's what got us the job doing the album." As soon as their managers and producers realised the song was an original (not a Walker cover), other plans were put on the back burner, to the band's surprise, and "Creep" was released as a limited single to the public in late 1992. However, the single initially went nowhere. It was even blacklisted from BBC Radio 1 for being too depressing. In the meantime the bulk of the album was recorded, in autumn 1992. Recording sessions were completed very quickly, as the band had been playing many of these songs for years. However, what ended up on Pablo Honey represents only a fraction of their On a Friday-era recorded material, with very little overlap with earlier demos. The album was once described by a Radiohead member as 'Our greatest hits as an unsigned band', with smooth sonic textures, anthemic vocals and walls of guitar noise. "Prove Yourself", which had led off Drill, reappears however in a different recording, as do "You" and "Thinking About You" in reworked versions.
In the heavy alternative musical climate of 1993, Pablo Honey did not receive particular attention. Several critics, however, were enthusiastic about the band's forthcoming debut release. NME referred to the band as "one of rock's brightest hopes." In the United States, their debut single, "Creep", prompted industry observers and fans to draw parallels between Radiohead and Nirvana, with some even touting Radiohead as the "British Nirvana".Pablo Honey would not garner the widespread acclaim of Radiohead's subsequent releases, but received a generally favourable critical reaction. NME awarded the album 7/10, foreshadowing the band's future success by describing it as "one of those flawed but satisfying debuts that suggests Radiohead's talents will really blossom later on." The magazine heavily criticised the track "How Do You?", writing that it "breaks the momentum of Pablo Honey horribly, throwing all of Radiohead's tortured sensitivity out of the window and leaving them sounding like beer-gutted losers from the class of '76".Q magazine, who also drew comparisons with Nirvana, awarded the album 3 out of 5 stars, equating to a "good" album, and wrote, "British teenagerhood has never been grumpier... the best bits rival Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr. and even the mighty Sugar."Record Collector also awarded the album 3 out of 5 stars, describing it as a "promising debut record", and commending its lead single, "It contains their 'biggest' single in 'Creep.' A 12-bar blues jam with added crunch." A consistent theme in British reviews was that the album's first half (where its three singles are placed), with the exception of "How Do You?", outweighed that of the second half, which often descended into banal post-grunge stylings.
Stateside, several music publications gave the album positive reviews. Rolling Stone wrote in its year-end review, "What elevates them to fab charm is not only the feedback and strumming fury of their guitarwork and the dynamism of their whisper-to-a-scream song structures, which recall the Who by way of the early Jam, but the way their solid melodies and sing-along choruses resonate pop appeal."Billboard said of the album, "This U.K. quintet is primed to blast onto the American scene with initial modern rock track "Creep," a tense, guitar-dominated number that appears in unexpurgated form on this debut album. Certain tracks here may remind listeners of U2 (thanks largely to Thom E. Yorke's vocal mannerisms and overall guitar texturing), but lyrics have enough bite to make it on their own. "Ripcord," "I Can't," and "Blow Out" all contain excitement enough to heat up at target radio markets."Entertainment Weekly gave the album a "B" rating, opining that it "mates Smiths-type self-consciousness with dramatic U2-like vocals and guitar, with Cure-style heavy but crunchy pop." Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic also drew comparisons with U2, writing, "Radiohead's debut album, Pablo Honey, is a promising collection that blends U2's anthemic rock with long, atmospheric instrumental passages and an enthralling triple-guitar attack that is alternately gentle and bracingly noisy. The group has difficulty writing a set of songs that are as compelling as their sound, but when they do hit the mark – such as on "Anyone Can Play Guitar," "Blow Out," and the self-loathing breakthrough single "Creep" – the band achieves a rare power that is both visceral and intelligent." Erlewine named singles "Creep" and "Stop Whispering", along with acoustic ballad "Thinking About You", as the best tracks on the album. Mario Mundoz of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "This English quintet's debut doesn't really deliver anything you haven't heard before, steering too close to Smiths-like melodies and trying ever so hard to be depressed in the way the Cure popularized. Occasionally, though, it does offer clever lyrics and good hooks."Robert Christgau did not recommend the album, but named "Creep" as a "choice cut".
Although the release of Pablo Honey was not met with the critical fervour of later Radiohead albums, it has received praise in retrospective press coverage. Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has expressed the opinion that the album has been somewhat underrated since release.NME placed the album 35th of the 50 albums to appear in the magazine's end-of-year list for 1993, describing it as "a throwback to a homegrown tradition of great guitar-band albums." In 1998, Q magazine readers voted Pablo Honey the 61st greatest album of all time. A Virgin poll saw Pablo Honey voted 100th in the all-time top 1000 albums. In 2004, Q included "Lurgee" and "Blow Out" a list of twenty essential, lesser-known Radiohead songs as part of their "1010 Songs You Must Own". In 2006, Classic Rock recognised the importance of Pablo Honey's contribution to popular music in the 1990s by including the album in their "200 Greatest Albums of the 90's" (also featured in sister publication, Metal Hammer) as one of the 20 greatest albums of 1993. In a 2008 review, the BBC described the album as Radiohead's "exploration of suburban, adolescent self-awareness", concluding, "It all resulted in a stunning blend that combined the best aspects of prog rock (challenging lyrics, deft chord changes, novelty time signatures and so forth) with the plaintiveness of bedsit singer song-writing and the sound of expensive equipment thrashed at by experts. Though later albums were better received, this remains one of rock's most impressive debuts." The same year, Blender placed the album 82nd in a feature entitled "100 Albums You Must Own", writing, "Self hate couldn't have found a better British exemplification with this band's debut single, which hit the world as part of an album that constructed walls of crunchy guitar tones amidst the dark lyrical content." British music critic, Louis Pattison, in a review for Amazon, said of the album, "Pablo Honey... is much more than filler. "Anyone Can Play Guitar" is certainly as good as "Creep"; swathed in walls of feedback, it races blindly into an apocalyptic chorus, frontman Thom Yorke singing "As the world turns and as London burns, I'll be standing on the beach with my guitar." Certainly, indie-rock seldom got better than this"; in 2009, Amazon editors ranked Pablo Honey 26th in their "The 100 Greatest Debut Albums of All Time".IGN Music, in a 2010 article, ranked the often-maligned Pablo Honey as the 5th best of Radiohead's seven studio albums, writing, "Is it a classic? Yes. But when you consider that Radiohead would become one of the most innovative bands of the decade, Pablo Honey feels somewhat conventional. That doesn't make it any less awesome, however." Over time, the band began to drop many of the songs on the album from live setlists. However, since the turn of the millennium, "You", "Creep", "Lurgee" and "Blow Out" have all received live airings.