[1 June 2011]
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.
What else sounds like “Pyramid Song”? Not even the rest of Amnesiac manages to create an atmosphere so otherworldly. Jonny Greenwood’s orchestration singles him out as a visionary and makes perfect sense of his later forays into film scoring. The song swims along, asking you to keep up with its stoned rhythm, the musical equivalent of the sudden jerk given by your neck when you fall asleep sitting up. Yorke conjures visions of the afterlife, culling from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology, but it all boils down to a beautiful mixture, as comforting and immersive as a solitary swim on a humid afternoon.
Though Thom Yorke claims “Fake Plastic Trees” was—depending on how you read his remarks—the product of either a joke or moment of tossed-off stream-of-consciousness, it’s hard not to feel moved by his soaring vocals and the track’s fragile melody, even after all the musical imitators have been laid to rest. It’s a pop ballad in the best sense, vulnerable and, after all of Yorke’s initial hedging, heartfelt. Lighters in the air.
It does have to be here. And it does deserve to be here. One of the few grunge-tinted hits from the ‘90s that sounds fresh two decades later, “Creep” will still be playing in karaoke bars long after our great-great-grandchildren and their flying cars have graduated from space college. Yorke’s masterful vocal release in the bridge, that signature guitar crunch (you know which one), all that teenage angst condensed into four minutes—timeless, is the word.
When played in sequence with OK Computer, “Everything in Its Right Place” signals immediately just how drastically Kid A’s sound breaks from that of Radiohead’s first magnum opus. Eerie, cyclical, mechanized—the band wanted to distance itself from its analog, rock foundations, and here it announces the results of its efforts loudly and clearly. However, the song also pulses with emotion; processed voices flit above and below Yorke’s vocal track, but the strength of his voice and the resonance of its passion make it clear that, yes, Kid A was made by humans for humans.
The logical fulfillment of the path laid by The Bends, “Karma Police” takes the foundation of standard pop-rock torchbearers—acoustic guitar and piano—that Radiohead used so well on that record and crafts them into something at once familiar to their fans and exquisite on an entirely different level. The band would eschew singles entirely with the release of its next album, but “Karma Police” was bound to be an alternative radio staple. Masterfully paced, the track takes its time to fully unfold. By the time Yorke sings his heart out—“For a minute there / I lost myself”—your pulse will be racing.
The first track laid down in the OK Computer sessions, “No Surprises” set the bar sky high for what had to follow. The song’s fragility and understated instrumentation belie the despair at its core. If OK Computer depicts modern alienation more evocatively than most albums, “No Surprises” gets at it even more vividly than most of the tracks surrounding it on that record. The simple, sing-song melody—gently played on acoustic guitar and glockenspiel—reflects the stripped-bare emotional state of the song’s narrator, who just wants to stay with his ephemeral vision of “Such a pretty house / And such a pretty garden.” We don’t get the sense that things will quite work out that way, and the song proves all the more devastating for refusing to explode.
Possibly the most ambitious track in Radiohead’s discography, “Paranoid Android” segues from segment to segment in its multi-suite structure without losing a droplet of steam. Its tongue-in-cheek lyrics offer the best opportunity for a laugh in the whole catalog, too, with Yorke famously decrying a “kicking squealing Gucci little piggy”. Famously inspired by the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, the track demanded a huge degree of technical ingenuity on the part of its songwriters, and Radiohead does its forebears proud with the results. “Paranoid Android” weds so many disparate tones, feelings, and ideas into one crystallized composition that you’d be hard-pressed to count. Good thing you’ll be too blown away to mind.
If “Kid A” is the soundtrack for a different world, people should be lining up for the next shuttle out. The song is a paradox: it exudes a singular human warmth while also sounding brilliantly alien. Yorke’s filtered vocals make his lyrics almost unintelligible, an extraterrestrial tongue. The track’s buoyant spirit needs no translation. It’s a song about an exit, and it is seemingly impossible to resist wanting to go wherever it may take you.
“Let down and hanging around / Crushed like a bug in the ground.” The chorus of “Let Down” is all about defeat, but the music here is anything but. Majestic, cathartic, full to the tipping point with yearning, “Let Down” leaves its listeners as breathless as Thom Yorke must have been after the song’s breathtaking final crescendo. Simply but ingeniously mixed, those final moments have Yorke singing call-and-response harmonies and counterpoints on separate left and right channels. More plainly put, he and his band floor it in that final minute-and-a-half. The effect is as euphoric as a shot of pure dopamine.
The musical incantation of pure dread. The seamless fusion of hip-shaking rhythm and heart-swelling desperation. The artistic zenith of Radiohead’s efforts to embrace electronic music while also remaining as immediate and emotionally gripping as the classic guitar bands it grew up with. “Idioteque” is all of these things, but above all the song is one of the most affecting pieces of music in… well, all of pop songwriting. And it is a pop song, crafted from an indestructible melody and irresistible groove. More than that, it’s a work of genius, the kind that grabs at your heart, head, and hips all at once and refuses to let go once it connects. And connect it will, indelibly.