Few bands inspire the kind of critical and commercial success enjoyed—and often bemoaned—by Radiohead. The UK-based group formed in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in 1985, with Thom Yorke (vocals, guitars, piano), Jonny Greenwood (guitars, keyboards, everything else under the sun), Ed O’Brien (guitars, vocals), Colin Greenwood (bass, synthesizers), and Phil Selway (drums, percussion). The band caught its first break in 1992 with the release of “Creep”, the first single from its debut record, Pablo Honey (1993). The Bends (1995) brought them greater fame and inspired a legion of imitators. Even with that great record, no one saw OK Computer (1997) coming: an ambitious, eclectic, and impassioned album, it topped most of those recent Best Records of the ‘90s lists and became an instant classic. How to follow up? How about by jettisoning your guitars for synthesizers and drum machines, forcing your bandmates to play new instruments, and essentially eschewing everything that made your last album such a hit? That’s what Radiohead did with Kid A (2000), and the results were just as—if not more—exciting than those of OK Computer, with those two albums sitting side-by-side in the list of modern classics. Amnesiac, largely recorded during the Kid A sessions, followed in 2001. The group released the dense, electronic-tinged Hail to the Thief in 2003 and the more organic, rock-oriented In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-will digital download (and, eventually, a physical record) in 2007.
The recent surprise release of Radiohead’s eighth studio LP, The King of Limbs, brought the spotlight back to the band, generating an amount of excitement and universal anticipation that no other contemporary act could create. It’s still difficult where to place The King of Limbs within Radiohead’s superlative catalog, but what better way to investigate than by revisiting the band’s other material? Below, you’ll find a definitive and mathematically inviolable list of Radiohead’s Best 15 songs.
Well, you will find a list, anyway (and, if you’re interested, click through here to see numbers 20-16). Read through and then, if you like, post your own list in the comments section. Whatever you do, listen to this band’s records again, with fresh ears. But we didn’t need to tell you to do that.
An elegy, “Exit Music (For a Film)” mourns the loss of ambivalence: its narrator has finally cracked under pressure. Yorke’s lyrics don’t name the specifics of those pressures, but they don’t need to do so. The important thing is his character’s acknowledgement of the end game. He’s been beaten down, but at least he’s feeling something—when Yorke sings “We hope / That you choke” at the track’s closing, there’s some righteousness in that despair.
“Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is the sound of a band revitalized. After the dense (and, some might say, overstuffed) Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows seems downright liquid, running with the energy and abandonment of a crystal-clear river. Yorke begs a lover to just relax, to “come on and let it out” before it’s too late. Typically charged material for him, but the music itself sounds free from gravity, liberated. When Yorke kicks his vocals into high gear at the track’s midpoint, it’s one of the most thrilling—and least self-conscious—moments in Radiohead’s catalog.
“Just ‘cause you feel it / Doesn’t mean it’s there” are words of comfort, in Thom Yorke’s worldview. In “There There”, Yorke takes a walk in a surrealistic landscape of shadowy threats and menacing outlines. But, as he reminds his listener, the danger might be all in your head. A tremendous live staple, “There There” often opens with the band’s rhythm section splitting a three-part tribal rhythm on the drums, which speaks to the song’s beating heart. Something of a red herring on Hail to the Thief, “There There” is one of Radiohead’s most straightforward rock songs in its post-Bends years. By all means, turn it up to 11.
“All I Need” and “Reckoner” represent the chillier side of In Rainbows. Downcast and downtempo, they nonetheless retain the groove of the record’s head-bobbing rhythms. “All I Need” builds to a showstopping, ethereal climax, while “Reckoner” lets Thom Yorke step into his R&B-crooner shoes. Both tracks positively drip with desire, keeping them full of life even as their pristine compositions try to play coy.
Eat your heart out, Sting. “Climbing Up the Walls” is, plainly, terrifying. Yorke puts us squarely in the mind of a stalker, who promises, “Anywhere you turn / I’ll be there / Open up your skull / I’ll be there.” His primal scream at the song’s climax could peel the paint from his victim’s bedroom walls. Don’t stand so close to me, guy.
// Notes from the Road
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