Let’s reflect for a moment on the beautiful oddity that Radiohead remains one of the biggest rock bands in the world, at a time when the very concept of “biggest rock band in the world” is often looked at as passé. If rock and roll’s moment has indeed passed, what in the name of the Beatles possesses people to follow Radiohead, of all artists, as if members of a religious cult, especially because said religious cult would not particularly worship rock and roll music as most people know it? It would be easy to ascribe the Radiohead following to their shapeshifting, and indeed there is an incredible variety of material across their nine-so-far records and various EPs, live cuts, and so forth. Yet it’s not as if A Moon Shaped Pool, their 2016 album and first in five years, is wildly unrecognizable as the same band that made The King of Limbs, which itself was not so radically different from In Rainbows, and so on, all the way back to the late ’90s (I’ll grant you that, OK, Pablo Honey sounds like a vastly different band, albeit an actually-pretty-good one; better, certainly, than the practitioners of Old Radiohead that cropped up in the early ’00s, a litany of Nerf Herders and Saves the Days to Radiohead’s Weezer).
In fact, it’s their ability to remain recognizably the Radiohead of the ’90s while going in different directions that makes them so exciting. A new Radiohead album, insular and strange and inscrutable as it can be, is still an event, the band’s mutations allowing it to survive the alt-rock boom, the rap-rock bust, the indie gold rush, the death of the album, and on and on. It was a no-brainer, then, that some of the founders, friends, and associates of SportsAlcohol.com would want to pledge our allegiance to the paranoid humanoids of Radiohead once again, through a list celebrating their best songs. Contributors were asked to send a ranked list of twenty; points were assigned accordingly.
In addition to your pals Rob, Marisa, Jesse, Sara, and special guest writer Maggie, we recruited a voting team ranging from people old enough to remember “Creep” playing on MTV to people who were born the year The Bends came out. Here are your Radiohead fans par excellence:
Darian Alexander is an attorney and Radiohead correspondent for Slate.
Emma Bennett is studying psychology and studio art at SUNY New Paltz.
Noah Casner is a drama major at New York University.
Timothy DeLizza is a lawyer, a fiction writer, and a gentleman.
A.A. Dowd is the film editor for The Onion’s A.V. Club.
Derrick Hart is an archivist and music fan.
Kate McKean is a literary agent, writer, and crafter.
Umer Piracha might love A Moon Shaped Pool more than anyone else who voted.
Ben Ross has had Radiohead blurbs locked and loaded for years.
The results heavily favored OK Computer, but well over half of Radiohead’s catalog received votes, including most of the new album. But why discuss the results when you can read a series of varied and passionate tributes to our collective favorites? Sometimes we had such varied and passionate responses that we doubled up the blurbing to get a fuller picture of this band we all love. Surprises, please:
The Top 25 Best Radiohead Songs (So Far)
25. “High and Dry”
The Bends, 1994
It’s a cliché at this point to say that this song, with its jangly guitars and recognizable verse-bridge-chorus structure, feels like the product of a completely different band. But it’s also undeniable that Radiohead rarely makes anything this straightforwardly and swooningly romantic anymore. Of course even the band’s ballads aren’t without their share of alienation; this is about how “the best thing that you ever had has gone away,” after all. And Radiohead were always convention-flouting instrumentalists, even when the music they were making had a more pop-friendly vibe; just check out the close-ups of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar technique in the You Tube link. As with many bands beloved by a certain contingent of pop culture obsessives, there can be a lot of petty arguments and elitism about the progression of its career; in some ways “High and Dry” can seem like a casualty of that since it rarely makes Radiohead’s set list these days (which for some die-hards means it’s no longer worth considering). But when Yorke hits those soaring notes of the chorus it doesn’t really matter. In those moments it does what all great songs do: transports us, if not to a better place then at least one we weren’t before. – Sara
24. “Life in a Glasshouse”
Radiohead knows their way around an album-closer like nobody’s business, and their skill in this area has only solidified since their records have gotten weirder and less guitar-centric. “Life in a Glasshouse” orients itself so far away from the guitar that it’s not even really Radiohead playing on the track; faced with their inability to play in the jazz style they were looking for, the band got the Humphrey Lyttelton Band to pinch-hit for much of the music, which is arranged in the style of a New Orleans funeral dirge. Naturally, this sounds like nothing else the band has released, even by Radiohead’s eclectic standards, but it fits in perfectly with the off-kilter energy of Amnesiac. It’s also a prime slice of Thom Yorke lyrical paranoia: “Of course I’d like to sit around and chat,” the chorus goes, “but someone’s listening in.” Underneath, brass instruments sprawl out. It’s paranoid, then, but also weirdly expansive. This is how whiny, experimental, moody, abstract, potentially humorless ol’ Radiohead makes their music so compelling, even accessible: by inviting us to share their glorious bad vibes. – Jesse
23. “Black Star”
The Bends, 1995
When we did our podcast about the best songs of the ’90s, Rob lamented that Slow Blur was overlooked. I can’t say that Slow Radiohead is as underappreciated judging by our this list, but I do believe Slow Radiohead often becomes synonymous with “Fake Plastic Trees” and that’s it. In “Black Star,” Thom Yorke’s voice sounds just as beautifully broken, the lyrics are just as heart-tugging, and, when it gets to the refrain of “this is killing me,” that’s about as vulnerable as Radiohead can get. – Marisa
22. “Pyramid Song”
I love how arrhythmic it is, I said to the guy in my senior-year student-run seminar on P.T. Barnum. We were geeking out about Radiohead. He said: The thing is, it’s not actually arrhythmic; they just make it sound arrhythmic because of the unusual rhythm they use. We were talking about the piano line for “Pyramid Song.” He was right, of course, the bastard. I don’t even know if I like any actually-arrhythmic songs and I haven’t really trusted my ability to qualify any as such since then. That’s over fifteen years of not being sure whether to call a song arrhythmic, if you’re keeping score. So it’s true: Radiohead changed my life.
“Pyramid Song” is beautiful but let me use this opportunity to talk about how fucking great Amneisac is. This is the highest-ranked Amnesiac song on this list (of two), and I nearly quit in protest when I realize nothing from this excellent 2001 record even cracked the top 20. If anything proves how difficult it is to flout record-industry standards, it’s the fact that Amnesiac was dismissed in some quarters as B-material from the Kid A sessions, mostly just because it was released less than a year after that brilliant record. But Amnesiac is brilliant, too, turning up the guitars on some tracks and going full on minimalist burbling weirdness for others. “Pyramid Song” sits in the middle (of the approaches, not the record): a haunting, not-actually-arrhythmic piano ballad, maybe the best of Radiohead’s many songs that sound like they could be sung by actual literal ghosts. – Jesse
21. “Talk Show Host”
Street Spirit B-side, 1995/William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet: Music from the Motion Picture, 1996
I can’t think about “Talk Show Host” without picturing Leonardo DiCaprio’s moody, beautiful face as he scribbles into a notebook in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The movie came out when I was fourteen, and it could not have been more squarely aimed at my exact demographic: angsty Shakespeare nerd with a heart ready to hand over to Leo. It’s the first time I remember seeing in a magazine a still from a movie a year before it came out and thinking I want to go to there. And it wasn’t even of Leo. (To the best of my memory, it was this one.)
But the song. Right. As anyone who’s seen Moulin Rouge! could tell you, Luhrmann has a strong feeling for pop music and the emotions it evokes. In “Talk Show Host,” the mournful guitar notes, left to ring in little pools of silence, perfectly capture the melancholy of early Romeo. When the song breaks into drums, you feel the chaos and wildness just under the surface breaking out, finally. This song is so depressed in such a wonderfully pleasurable way, like covering all the windows and writing fake tattoos on your arm in Sharpie and really letting yourself stew your heartbreak. It hurts but it feels good to push and prod at the wound. The song is teenage angst and yearning boiled down. Even the lyrics work with this (rare for Radiohead, when most lyrics seemed pulled randomly from the ether): “I want to be someone else or I’ll explode.” If that isn’t the perfect description of being a teenager, I don’t know what is. – Maggie
Amnesiac wasn’t the first proof that Radiohead’s leftovers were better than most bands’ main courses. The claustrophobic funk of “Talk Show Host” got there first, tucked away like it was no big deal on the single for Bends closer “Street Spirit.” Engulfed by a low heart-beat thud of bass and a lonely loop of guitar—the two taking to each other, like intergalactic whales—Yorke coos his paranoia into the void, a mess of additional sonic flourishes coming in to amplify his dread. The adversarial lyrics (“You want me? Fuckin’ come on and break the door down”) could be addressed to enemies real or imagined. Today, coupled with the early studio-as-instrument experimentation of the track, they sound like his first aggressive flirtation with the aesthetic his band would soon fall into. That new millennium sound would break down his door sooner rather than later. – A.A.D.
Kid A, 2000
Out of all the songs on Kid A “Optimistic” has a more traditional Radiohead sound. It would be easy to mistake for OK Computer, even though Kid A was released three full years later. Despite its differences from than the rest of the album, “Optimistic” still fits well, and is essential to the record’s overall success. To be completely honest, I haven’t decided what I think of the lyrics yet, but it is a more lyrically dense song than most others on Kid A, a necessity in such a blippy, glitchy landscape. Overall: 10/10, would recommend to a friend. – Emma
Kid A arrived during a peak period of tension between Christian groups and popular music, with bands like Eminem and Marilyn Manson regularly drawing Christian protesters.
This was actually the culmination of a longer trend. Overr the past 50 years or so, there’s been a growing sub-movement within Christian culture to grow skeptical of popular culture. The idea is that mainstream Western culture has long since become too corrupt and secular, necessitating a return to Christian values. A “Focus on the Family” affiliated website called Plugged In emerged out of this trend as an attempt to guide parents to “pro-social” pop culture.
Back in 2000, this led to one of the most fascinating music reviews ever: Plugged In‘s attempt to place Kid A somewhere on the spectrum of Christian-friendly versus anti-social. The reviewer’s grappling with the record seems entirely earnest – he even found the CD’s hidden booklet – and gives the lyrics closer examination than most fans. Still, you can feel him straining to shoehorn the record into a binary worldview. He notes “Morning Bell”’s line “Cut the kids in half” would be “trouble if taken literally, but it may be a cryptic reference to how divorce rips at children.” In the end, the reviewer throws up his hands and concludes the record isn’t so much anti-social as “generally neutral”, “nebulous” and “a downer.” The thing that sticks with me the most from this review is the part labeled “Pro-Social Content” (just the kind of bizarre heading Stanley Donwood would have incorporated into Radiohead album art) where they say “Optimistic” tells fans that doing their best is good enough. Now I’d listened to “Optimistic” plenty but I tend to hear music atmospherically rather than searching what singers are saying for lyrical meaning. To the extent I considered the chorus, I heard Thom reciting an aspiration cliché like those inspirational posters that sometimes loom large in workspaces. Yet, when I read Plugged In’s take, it somehow gave me permission to think of the words in an earnest and literal way. A light went on.
“You can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough” really is a freeing thought. You can’t do any better. When you care deeply about something all you can do is put your heart into it. If it fails after that, you can’t carry the weight of failure going forward. Failure was never within your ability or control to prevent. To this day, when I stress about writing/success/work product/failed relationships/doing “enough” the phrase sung by Thom still flows unbidden into my mind on a loop. – Tim
19. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place“
In Rainbows, 2007
Excellence in escalation: The repetition of the opening lines of this song sets a bar that gets completely destroyed when the chorus kicks in. Lots of phrases are repeated in this song—“just as,” “before you,” “the beat goes round and round,” “come on let it out”—and it feels like breathing in and taking a pause before it all explodes again. This song is partially about getting swept up in music, and it’s kind of a shame that Radiohead wrote it, because that means they don’t get to experience it for themselves. – Marisa
18. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”
In Rainbows, 2007
When the lifelong theologian and scholar Rumi first met his to-be-Master Shams Tabrizi 800 years ago in Konya (Turkey), and experienced an immediate conversion to madmanhood, one from the way of knowledge to the way of bewilderment, from logical understanding to the transcendent capacities of Love, I imagine Thom Yorke bearing witness (in a past life) with the utterance “I’d be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead. Your eyes, they tell me”, and carrying it through the dreams of several lifetimes to one day awaken to a masterpiece about the dying of the body and the flight of the soul, the best one on In Rainbows.
The song is personally meaningful to me because the cry of the seeker “Why should I stay here?” has been the primary motive for my most important life decisions. The stagnation of the spirit is the lowest form, akin to the rotting of the flesh “picked over by the worms, and weird fishes”. One must escape, and one must recognize the Master who offers it. “The voice when it comes” – Rumi. I enjoy listening to this song the most while driving on a freeway, which makes a lot of sense given what it means to me. When the album came out I was working 16 hour workdays in an environment incompatible with all that is true and beautiful, and as a result I thought I would die, but I survived because instead of sleeping for the 5 hours I had, I slept for 4 so I could listen to the album before bed every night, or just Weird Fishes on repeat for an hour. Therefore, I have strong feelings about the song. – Umer
The Bends, 1995
There’s a well-known, possibly apocryphal story, about Radiohead’s first hit “Creep”: Jonny Greenwood disliked the ballad so he tried to spice it up with that “chunk chunk” guitar noise in the pre-chorus. “Just” is the sound of the rest of the band going along with that idea. Lacking the introspection or longing found on other songs on The Bends, “Just” is a vicious tell-off with music that matches the mood. Their rhythm section brings an honest-to-god groove for once while Greenwood’s guitar screams and wails in a place where it feels right at home. It’s probably the hardest they ever have or ever will rock out. – Rob
16. “The National Anthem”
Kid A, 2000
A typical panic attack takes ten minutes to escalate from mild alarm to crippling anxiety before mercifully beginning to fade. “The National Anthem” gets it done in five.
It all begins, of course, with that unrelenting bass line—a brashly propulsive, barely steady four-note figure that hooks you and warns you all at once. Then come the drums, terse and insistent, as if prodding you down a darkened alley. And so you proceed, on edge. Almost immediately, ambient echoes, stammering horns, and strange electronic whistles announce themselves from every direction like a pack of poltergeists. Measure by measure, they grow louder. And then, with eerie abruptness, they recede. Enter Thom Yorke, nearly a third of the song behind him. The run-up has rendered his mostly-human voice a refreshing addition, but his words make one thing clear: Comfort’s not in the cards.
“Everyone/ Everyone is so near/ Everyone has got the fear/ It’s holding on/ It’s holding on”
The discord builds from there. About midway through, a single saxophone goes off on an oddly upbeat vamp. But what seems at first like a playful respite, repetition recasts as a rallying cry: Layer by layer, brassy bedlam emerges, each instrument shrieking its own errant tune. Yorke yells out from beneath the barrage—“It’s holding on! It’s holding on!” And really, there’s little else he can do. When hysteria hits, you brace yourself and ride it out. – Darian
OK Computer, 1997
How different were the 90’s? I first saw this video of Michael Stipe performing “Lucky” with Radiohead at The Tibetan Freedom Concert via an unmarked VHS tape that was mailed to my girlfriend at the time because she was a member of R.E.M.’s fanclub. I know very few phrases in that last sentence will be comprehensible to you non-olds reading this, but that video made me appreciate “Lucky” in a way I hadn’t before. I could see Ed O’Brien, the Marilyn Munster* of Radiohead, actually contributing to the band’s sound with that eerie strumming above the nut of his guitar. Before that, I had always thought Jonny Greenwood was the band’s resident Weird Sound guy, but I now know Ed does the same job just well when Jonny’s playing lead (or glockenspiel or vintage synthesizer that should probably be in a museum or whatever). Stipe’s delivery made me understand and appreciate the song better, almost as much as the fact that he didn’t need a lyric sheet like he often does when performing his own songs. This is the first of six OK Computer songs on this list, but (depending on how much you’re reading into these songs) it’s their best at addressing Thom Yorke’s longstanding dread of transit accidents. For those familiar with Radiohead’s oeuvre, that’s an impressive feat. – Rob
*Marilyn Munster was the member of the Munsters that was conventionally attractive, much to the horror of the rest of the family.
In Rainbows, 2007
Radiohead pulled off a hell of a trick with In Rainbows, and it wasn’t the payment model, the quick release, or any other over-think-pieced rollout detail. No, the trick in question was concealed within the album itself, like musical sleight of hand.
Back in 2001, Radiohead road-tested an unreleased song called “Reckoner,” later subtitled “(Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses).” Only a smallish collection of concertgoers and bootleg-hunting completists would hear it, but they’d all remember it well. From its rude, distorted riffs to its powerfully plosive chorus (“Reckoner! Pa-Pa-Pa!!”), “Reckoner” was an all-caps ROCKER from a band that, at least at the time, was famously bored of guitars. And truth be told, the song was… just okay. A bit basic and undercooked, especially compared to the boundary-pushing Kid A and Amnesiac material that shared its stage.
So when, in 2007, Radiohead announced In Rainbows and released the album’s tracklist, the inclusion of “Reckoner” raised a few eyebrows. Sure, the song was sort of fun, but was it special? Did it deserve a spot—one of only ten—on Radiohead’s first album in over four years? (Album sibling “Nude,” another old tune, had at least been a fan favorite.) Then again, we were getting new Radiohead music, and that was objectively awesome. Come what may.
Ten days later. The album’s just been released. It’s time to open the toys. A consensus materializes: In Rainbows is really, really good. Surprises are admittedly scant—the band has already previewed nearly all of it on tour—but one track after the next is a dynamic, fleshed-out version of its earlier self, just as hoped. The one projected curveball is “Faust Arp,” which nobody has heard before. Slotted mid-way though the album, it proves to be a dreamy, percussion-less ballad whose strings and fingerpicked guitars evoke Nick Drake at his most romantic. As the only full reveal on In Rainbows, it delivers. And when its final cello notes linger for an extra little beat, they seem like the calm before the storm: “Reckoner,” after all, is on deck.
Of course, what emerges from the silence is not at all the “Reckoner” we’ve known. It’s hard to say what it is, actually, other than sublime: The opening nest of percussion welcomes and jars you all at once, like a party already in progress. Cymbals, snares, and tambourines each tap out a different patter—but by some strange rhythmic logic, they perfectly braid together. Soon, a bass and guitar start carving out the simplest contours of a chord progression: Elliptical and elegant, it repeats just enough times to sink in. Once it has, Thom Yorke finally appears, his falsetto rising and falling like rows of waves: “Reckoner/ You can’t take it with you/ Dancing for your pleasure// You are not to blame for/ Bittersweet distractors/ Dare not speak its name/ Dedicated to all human beings.” With each evocative line, the momentum builds. … And then, suddenly, the bottom drops out, halting everything in its tracks. So begins the stunning, climactic bridge. It starts off gently, with some hums and strums to set the tone. Yorke then turns in a lyric that stands as one of his more tender, poetic, and open-ended: “Because we separate/ Like ripples on blank shore.” His words hang in the air, and the strings begin to swell. A choir of harmonies then appears in the background. The voices are gorgeous—but what is it they’re saying? Something wordless? Something intentionally indecipherable? Listen again, and closely: “In rain… / In rain… / In rainbows/ In rainbows.” Hiding in plain sight. – Darian
13. “Everything In Its Right Place”
Kid A, 2000
On October 2, 2000, my friend Margaret and I went to the local record store near our college in Richmond, Indiana. We listened to Kid A in silence on the way back to campus, then when we reached the campus, we remained in the car until the album ended. Then we listened to it again. This was not the kind of thing we did typically.
Now, a lot of changes were happening in how humans related to technology in this period. There was a marked difference between the dial-up internet connection most of us were limited to pre-college and the high speed LAN lines the college provided, such that we could experience things. But things were still buggy. Computers (particularly those lime-colored iMacs) would freeze on a dime. Printers occasionally spewed out strange looking pages of found art featuring heavy use of wingdings. Emails would inexplicably go into a purgatory and pop out in a friend’s inbox a month later.
Radiohead itself was one of the first to realize and explore the boundaries of this shift with a generously filled website where you could watch Kid A “blips” that involved a monster walking along a snowy backdrop, a stick figure walking away from a murdered second figure, or soaring over mountains. The Stanley Donwood artwork we’d seen before was coming to life for a few seconds downloaded slowly in a way that could rival anticipation of any of the other things college students might download.
November 8, 2000, America woke up sucking on a lemon. Hung over on politics, it realized that it had failed to select its next president. Nobody knew what this meant or how this might be decided. We were all uneasy and suddenly familiar with how voting machines in southern Florida operated. We’d watch endless rooms full of people looking at ballots, riveted. All election season, CNN.com was taking off and playing with online talking heads and its own primitive live streaming video. Just hours into the uncertainty, there remained a thirst for news but there was no news left, just a totally new medium of dead air space to fill. I clicked on a CNN.com talking head video and it popped up in a new window on my mac. The talking heads started speaking but Kid A (a constant in my computer CD tray) also started playing “Everything in the Right Place.”
My computer played both at once but otherwise froze. At first I went to restart, but then realized the tired, droning voices of the anchors, the electronic opening beats, the meaningless use of floating buzzwords, surrealism of Radiohead lyrics, even the hum of the overheated computer straining to do two tasks at once while otherwise frozen so perfectly captured the zeitgeist that one could only lean back and listen through to the end of the album. – Tim
It’s a testament to the inherent drama in many Radiohead songs that simply using a Radiohead song in a trailer can make the film in question seem fascinating. This is my experience with “Everything In Its Right Place” and the Roland Emmerich Shakespeare-isn’t-Shakespeare film Anonymous. This. Trailer. Has. Everything. Dramatic fires! A pretentious framing device! Sex! A possible beheading! A queen looking haughty/aroused/angered! There’s no way the movie is as good as this trailer. Not that I would know. It’s one of my favorite trailers of all time (“We’ve all been played”!!!!!!) but I never actually saw the movie. Why would I want to ruin it? – Maggie
12. “True Love Waits”
A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016
I was shocked when I saw “True Love Waits” listed as the closing track for Radiohead’s newest album, as I’m sure many fans were. The acoustic version was the only reason I bought I Might Be Wrong back in 2001 when I was otherwise mostly unfamiliar with the band (somewhat embarrassing context: I first became aware of them because of the Clueless soundtrack when, like Cher, I dismissed them as boring but in my defense I was 9 at the time). I can’t even remember how I first heard “True Love Waits” but it doesn’t matter; at this point it feels like it’s always been with me, a song of pure naked vulnerability toward a lover at a time when that was a feeling I’d imagined rather than known. But even after growing up with the song I was unprepared for the flood of emotion I would feel when the final track of A Moon Shaped Pool, cued up. It’s much slower and starker, little more than Yorke’s plaintive croon hovering over two pianos, one plinking, the other lethargic, all swirling together into something that feels one part lullaby, one part lament: “Just don’t leave,” he repeats throughout and where once it felt like the fervent cry of a young man, it now sounds hesitant, almost resigned, as if sung to someone who’s already gone. Radiohead has never been a band that courted biographical interpretations of their lyrics and of course these words were written well before Yorke’s split from his long-time partner last year. But one has to wonder if that in part inspired him to finally make a definitive recording of it. Others have theorized that this is the band’s way of bidding us goodbye. I’m not much for such conspiracies, especially since no one really retires these days. But if it is the last we hear from Yorke & co. there’s an elegant simplicity to their final gift to us. The band has earned our trust; we’ll wait forever if we have to. – Sara
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, 2001
This is Thom Yorke’s voice at its best, most Thom Yorke-est. It is why you like Thom Yorke, if you like Thom Yorke (enter same argument for Dylan, Waits, L. Cohen, R. Wainwright, and if you’re me, Joanna Newsom). Plaintive, open, a little whiny, sincere, on the edge of falsetto. Pared down in this live version to just him and guitar, it makes me sad there’s no more MTV Unplugged and makes me hit repeat. This is not, however, an Atoms for Peace-type Thom Yorke song, but very much a Radiohead song, with lyrics like: “I’m not living, I’m just killing time/ Your tiny hands, your crazy-kitten smile.” I, too, can live on your lollipops and crisps, Thom. – Kate
11. “There There”
Hail to the Thief, 2003
This is one of those Radiohead songs that sounds sort of standard-issue on first listen, or at least it did to me, back when it was the first single from Hail to Thief, which I bought at midnight, by the way, at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square; were we ever so young, etc. It sounds menacing; yep, there’s that familiar Thom Yorke wail; he’s singing about sirens singing you to shipwreck; uh-huh, that all sounds about right. “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” – hey, that could be political commentary! Yep, all the Radiohead stuff is in its right place here.
But, hold up: This song fucking destroys. Surprisingly, for a band that supposedly abandoned its rawk roots several albums before this one, what rings clearest is the guitar. At least, I think it’s the guitar. It might actually be a keyboard or synth that kicks in around the 3:15 mark, adding some extra texture to the melodic drive. But that’s definitely guitar work that really kicks in (is this what they used to call a “solo”?!) right before the four-minute mark, chiming and stuttering and layering. Then the final refrain emerges: “We are accidents, waiting to happen.” Or more accurately: “We are accidents, [awesome DUN DUN DUN DUN guitar part], waiting to happen.” At this point, the song is careening, and nothing sounds more true. – Jesse
In Rainbows, 2007
So, I first heard “Nude” back in 2003 while living in Dublin, jobless and with dwindling savings. I was living in the cheapest hostel I could find. The kind where you slept in dorm-style rooms with snoring day laborers rather than tourists, and everything would be all damp from the constant rain because the room itself was somewhat porous.
Anyway, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. A brief stint apprenticing under an Irish storyteller having come to an end, I guess I had a romantic idea I’d bartend or do something under the books. Instead, I learned that getting people to employ you is very, very difficult even before they realize you don’t have work papers. So I spent a lot of my time during the day walking, reading and writing while listening to music.
I mostly wrote in a coffee shop called the Winding Stair Café along the River Liffey that used to (and presumably still does) have pages of books all over its wall. On my way there I stopped into a record shop. I wanted a record to listen to while I wrote, didn’t have a ton of money at the time and they were selling a Radiohead Live in Spain bootleg for something like fifty euros, which was a ton of money to me at the time because, you know, jobless. The record store owner was old school and let me listen and confirm it was legitimately them and filled with unreleased material.
I went to the café immediately after, and immediately fell in love with this song (then called “Big Ideas”). There was escapism to it, putting those headphones on in the cafe. The first lines “Don’t get any big ideas” felt like they applied to my job situation and really the scent of college idealism that still reeked on my clothes getting washed out. At the same time, there was a raw empathy to the warmth of Thom’s voice – a lullaby quality. Life was going to be tough, sitting with headphones, short fifty euros, surrounded by book pages at the top of a winding staircase, and with a blank page under your hand. – Tim
9. “Karma Police”
OK Computer, 1997
OK Computer was the first Radiohead album that I sat down and listened to all the way through. As lame/cliche as this sounds, I will remember it forever. Given how much I loved this one, you would think I would have immediately listened to more of their albums but my awkward ninth-grade self was perfectly content with the 12 songs, unaware how much I was really missing out. But I didn’t care because “Karma Police” existed and what more could I need in life?
The song itself is pretty standard in terms of its musical complexity but one of my favorite moments is when the key changes, along with the overall tone and mood of the song, around 2:32. Before the key change, the song has a sarcastic tone, asking the karma police to arrest people. This was actually a joke between the band: Whenever someone was being an asshole, another member would say they were going to call the karma police on them. At the beginning of the song, it’s showing the narrator’s intolerance towards other people and how they believe karma will come back to smite the people that they do not like. At the end when the key signature changes it seems to be a realization that it’s extremely easy to get caught up in criticizing others.
Basically, this song is pretty great and it makes me want to lay back and look at the stars while someone is driving me around. Weird, because the music video also has to do with driving around at night, but my car rides don’t typically end with fire. – Emma
8. “How to Disappear Completely”
Kid A, 2000
Kid A is haunted by mysterious sightings of a falling third. This is the melodic interval that recalls the ringing of a doorbell, the signal of the closing subway doors, or an exasperated sigh of “oh, well.” Whether major or minor, the falling third plays a pivotal role in almost every song, and accounts for many of the album’s most iconic moments: the fuzz bass line that is the backbone of “The National Anthem”, the moaning synth chords in “Idiotheque,” the big instrumental hook in “Optimistic.” In “How to Disappear Completely” it descends from A to F#, played by e-bowed guitar and ondes Martenot in unison. It arcs above the composition like a shiny silver airplane, leaving a contrail of reverb. It’s flying over a proxy war in which an ugly groan of atonal strings represents the anguish of reality, and Thom Yorke’s waltzing guitar flies the flag for denial and disassociation. He croons, “I go where I please/I walk through walls,” while chaos swirls around him. The song is two songs played incongruously at once, and its effect is disquieting and rapturous. But what is the answer to the mystery of the third? Is it the last gasp of disillusionment? Or is it a warning, or a wake up call to come back to the real world; an actual morning bell? Or something else? Or absolutely nothing? – Ben
7. “Let Down”
OK Computer, 1997
I graduated from high school in 1997, but I didn’t come to OK Computer until later, and I consider it one of the biggest musical mistakes of my life. OK Computer is one of my desert island albums; I listen to it all the way through weekly. Picking my favorite song here was easy, though –”Let Down” is this album’s bell-toned, chimey, melodic heartcenter. It’s got classic Radiohead casual depression (“let down and hanging around”) and defeatism (“crushed like a bug in the ground”), an early-Radiohead catchy chorus, and a soaring coda. What else could I want? You told me “one day I’m gonna grow wings” in 1997, Thom Yorke, it just took me a while to find it. – Kate
6. “15 Step”
In Rainbows, 2007
There are two types of Radiohead fans. There are the ones who like the rock albums best, namely The Bends and OK Computer, and there are those who favor the glitchier/more electronic albums, Kid A and Amnesiac. In Rainbows is both, and “15 Step” is both at the same time. Everyone can agree! The Kid A kids can groove to the scratchy beginning, while the indie fans can get into it when the guitar kicks in after Yorke sings, “You reel me out and then you cut the string.” And, if you’re a lyrics person, I happen to think that Radiohead is outstanding when it comes to repurposing phrases that people repeat until they’re almost meaningless, in this case “won’t take my eyes off the ball again” and “you used to be alright.” I read a post on a different blog where someone wrote that they couldn’t leave a party at my college alma mater without having heard this song, and it was one of the only times in my life that I felt bad I’d already graduated. – Marisa
5. “Exit Music (For a Film)”
OK Computer, 1997
I mostly want to speak here in praise of Stanley Donwood, Radiohead’s resident artist. I can’t think of an artist whose style has been so consistently affiliated with a musical act.
Donwood’s style is distinct and consistent. Everything feels bathed in fluorescent light, this kind of thing. Technology detaches us and the absurdity of our advanced life, making it into an extreme version of Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad. The humans are represented by small and anonymous stick figures. There is an absence of nature and a sense of technology suffocating the viewer.
The art mirrors the music easily, often pulling stray lyrics and placing them alongside Esperanto or 1984 references. On the back of OK Computer’s booklet there is a note that says “2=1 We Hope That You Choke”. It’s startling, both naked on the back of the album, out of context, and in the song which vaguely tracks the plot of Romeo and Juliet. – Tim
4. “Fake Plastic Trees”
The Bends, 1995
Maybe Nick Hornby was on to something. Far as it may have missed the mark, the novelist’s widely mocked pan of Kid A in the pages of The New Yorker at least functioned as a stealth eulogy: To welcome the new Radiohead—racing into its mature period, dragging legions of fans into the great sonic unknown—we had to say goodbye to the old Radiohead. A fair trade, perhaps, but “Fake Plastic Trees” is the best, saddest reminder of what was lost when the world’s best arena-rock outfit decided they were meant for something weirder. More emotionally direct than anything Thom Yorke has written or composed since, this Bends ballad lays strings, keyboards, and an inevitable blast of chills-inducing guitar over the prettiest acoustic melody in the band’s playbook. It’s all in service of an enigmatic lament for the real, but if Yorke’s foliage and romance is synthetic, his feeling sure aren’t: The frontman is said to have bawled after performing the song for the first time—and “Fake Plastic Trees,” a skyscraper of heartbreak, is probably the Radiohead song most capable of getting a whole stadium of lighter-raisers to do the same. Good luck getting the same sensation from the ghosts in the machine they’d soon become. – A.A.D.
Kid A, 2000
An apocalypse you can dance to, from the cheeky portmanteau of its title down to its sputtering electric spine built from a 70’s computer music sample. Tucked amongst the other glitchy rock songs of Kid A, it has a primitive, eerily contained sound but live versions, especially the one available on I Might Be Wrong, feel positively beastly, Yorke’s falsetto buoyed by fans screaming along to lyrics both helpless and full of ominous portent. We’ve always been paranoid, scared for the future, but now more than ever the chorus of “Here I’m allowed everything all at a time” feels like a chilling distillation of what it means to be alive today. “We’re not scaremongering/This is really happening” could easily double as a Fox News sound bite and an accurate reaction to the 2016 election circus (not to mention a sly rebuttal to the most famous line in “How to Disappear Completely.”) Radiohead was always ahead of their time but here their prescience is downright diabolical. It’s my all-time favorite of theirs but I’m not sure I’ll be able to listen to it after this year. – Sara
2. “No Surprises”
OK Computer, 1997
For a band with a history of songs that demand to be listened to on headphones, is “No Surprises” Radiohead’s ultimate headphone jam? This song is number two on our list (and I voted for it at number one), so I’m going to say yes. Maybe more importantly, this is the band’s most insightful condemnation of western living. They have used their bully pulpit over the years to rail against consumerism, corporate greed, environmental devastation, and military adventurism (not just in their music, but in their business and touring practices as well). “No Surprises” takes these concepts and makes them personal. While the lyrics have often been assumed to be the narrator’s suicide note, I think it’s a fairly sympathetic look at how a person can passively contribute to the horrors of the world around them simply by living a mundane life. Because this is their “final fit, [their] final bellyache”, doesn’t that just mean that they’re done complaining? They’ve simply accepted the grievances of the first verse (“A heart that’s full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you/Bruises that won’t heal”) as the way things are. If I’m being completely honest, this is an interpretation that has recently come to me in middle age (and I’ve been listening to OK Computer since it came out when I was in high school). I could very directly tie this all to America’s current political landscape, but I won’t. You’re welcome.
Describing the lyrics without hearing the song makes it sounds like fodder for an 80’s thrash metal band, but “No Surprises” practically sounds like a lullaby. The glockenspiel and gently strummed acoustic guitar has always enveloped me like a warm blanket, but as I get older I’m pretty sure that’s the sleepy comfort you feel right before you freeze to death. – Rob
1. “Paranoid Android”
OK Computer, 1997
This song has the coolest fucking riff. It goes like this: bear-banna-na-now-DOWNG-banana-bing-bong! It’s definitely the coolest part of the song. It sneaks up on you like a sneaky-ass snake because it starts on acoustic guitar, and you’re like “That’s pretty cool, but how can it be that cool? It’s on acoustic guitar.” But then Thom is like YOU DON’T REMEMBER YOU DON’T REMEMBER! And Johnny’s like BRAWR with the distortion and you’re like, oh shit I think something cool is going to happen. And it’s a bit like that older song they do when Johnny goes CHUG-UG when shit gets cool. But anyway this riff’s got the two coolest intervals in ascending order of coolness: the minor third, because minor is cooler than major, and the tritone, or diminished fifth, or flat fifth, or augmented fourth, or THE DEVIL’S INTERVAL because it was too evil for Jesus Music of Ancient Europe Times and it needed to be invented by Black Sabbath for use in riffs. Even after you listen to the Raaaaaaain Dowwwwwn and it makes you sad and cry and think about your job and people who you love but don’t love you, and you think about the GDP and environment and H&M, it’s time for the riff again. You will now bang your head and forget about all the existential things. Yeah. – Ben
There are very few 90’s bands that I listened to during that decade that still make it into my regular rotation. By which I mean that I was mostly too young to discover life-changing artists like Radiohead when they were actually changing lives. So I have very little concept of what it must have been like for fans to hear the first single from OK Computer at the time. Even now there’s something slightly hostile about it: a six and a half minute epic of three stitched together sections, a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of sludgy prog-rock and stuttery electronica, all building to that insane guitar solo ending that’s like a hard drive melting down. Yorke was inspired in part to write it after a very bad experience in an L.A. bar but for a song originally constructed as a joke it has quite the punch line, becoming the sort of critically revered classic that also makes a stadium sell-out career. When I think of the songs that made me fall in love with Radiohead this admittedly isn’t one of them. And yet in many ways it’s their quintessential song and I treasure it now for what it isn’t: there’s absolutely no interest in coddling listeners or adhering to trends. It’s challenging but exhilarating, deliberately grandiose but inviting. I wouldn’t necessarily put it on at any given time and yet I’m always happy to hear it. That’s perhaps what I love most about Radiohead. They have an enigmatic aura that can make them seem intimidating, as if a dark mood is required for them to truly be enjoyed. But as soon as their music’s on, enveloping you in a way that’s generous even when it’s distant, you wonder why you ever listen to anything else. – Sara