What the world really needs is one more Radiohead piece, right? The planet continues to spin at its orbiting best, but what would really hit the spot for earthlings at this very moment is one more person’s opinions about why Radiohead are great, and all the ways their music touches so many people. After all, the upsetting shortage of Radiohead fans out there with few opinions is palpable, and forgetting the band’s music begins to get altogether too easy. So, after long last and massive popular requests, we give you a top ten list sure to touch upon every person’s viewpoints and feelings regarding why Radiohead are so amazing, and maybe even discuss this little-known album celebrating it’s 20th birthday this year…oh, shit, sorry…disregard everything I just said — I was thinking of Hanson.
So yeah, we all understand why Radiohead is good by now. They’re one of those once-in-a-lifetime happenstances where a band can create really life-shifting music while pushing the boundaries of creativity while still enjoying a modicum of popular success without losing an ounce of credibility. This fact alone puts them in a rarified air which warrants a deep respect across the board. In the early days, Radiohead scrambled to find an identity, naming themselves after a Talking Heads song, and evolving their sound to unrecognizable pitches. As someone who was there watching it happen from the get-go, I don’t think anyone foresaw what was coming.
I first saw Radiohead live on the Pablo Honey tour, and I can confirm that myself, along with about 50 other slightly bored listeners that night, had no idea what this band was trying to accomplish, nor did we have much interest. The performance was sloppy, the members were moody, and the sound akin to a rickety boombox with a bad cone blaring through an overly mic’ed up sound system. No one had any reason to be inspired other than fumbling through their pockets digging for ear plugs.
Then the second album came, then the massive thud of the third. No one can deny the staying power of the band during their first five years of existence, but perhaps most impressive is their tendency to shift focus and leave listeners confused as to their intention. When “Kid A” dropped, people didn’t like it. Everyone wanted “Computer Part Deux”, and the band wisely side-stepped those expectations, giving birth to a group of experimental gents as we know them today. I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: “OK Computer” is not Radiohead’s best album despite millions of people trying to prove that it is. It’s nothing more than a logical progression in their evolution, an act they continue to hone and perfect to this very day. The album serves as a fine reference point to where they were then, so we can have more context in the now.
It’s hard for me to listen to a Radiohead album from start to finish. I see this band as a continuing art piece, demanding listeners displace themselves from one song to the next, creating an ultimate playlist that mingles all of the most glorious moments from the group’s 26 year history. Radiohead, most importantly, is an honest band, not caring about the current trends and hash tags in favor of just doing what they do. The press, particularly with “OK Computer”, have created a talking point that the band were never interested in creating, likening the album to the event of the century, or quite simply, the greatest album ever made. The truth is, we like Radiohead because they don’t give a single fuck about any of that nonsense; they just want to make a cool album while continuing to challenge themselves. And so they do.
Here’s my ultimate Radiohead playlist, and no, you won’t be seeing “Creep” on it, so get that out of your heads right now:
The few years following “OK Computer” continued to see the meteoric shift in popularity for the band, and listeners fidgeted in anticipation to see what they came up with next. Radiohead made the best possible decision in incorporating their love of groups like Autechre with “Kid A”, and “E.I.I.R.P.” made it relatively clear that the shift between “The Bends” to “O.K.C.” wasn’t something they were intent in just leaving to the ether. “Kid A” was purposefully devoid of many melodies or sing alongs, and celebrated wading through some of the high electronic water marks of the 90s, such as “Tri Repetae” and “I Care Because You Do”. Aphex and Autechre were probably blissfully uncaring of whether or not Radiohead liked them or not, but the influence was clearly taking shape. This track was a rather excellent way for the band to show they were prepared to create an antithesis to the already-getting-stale anthemic electronic rock that worked so well on their previous album.
A weird bastard of a song, this. For all the nuanced moodiness the band concocts on a regular basis, this song really hits some dark places. Yorke mumbles “jump off the end into a clear lake, no one around…” while a steady ambient piano pulse provides the only stability to an otherwise rickety and vulnerable ship. It’s one of those songs that very much encapsulates Radiohead while serving to be one of their more challenging songs to grasp. Radiohead’s finest moments tend to lurk on the b-sides, hidden from the niceties and forgiveness of melodically palatable platitudes. “Codex” proves to have enough layered nuance that you won’t mind returning to it over and over again.
This was the “holy shit” moment for a generation of unbridled enthusiasm. Radiohead transformed from the whiny emo band who gave us “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees” into an electronic Pink Floyd for the 90s generation. Comparisons were also made to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the time, and they weren’t entirely unfounded as the twists and turns of “P.A.” wound around sophisticated song writing and even more complex production methods. This was Radiohead’s DJ Shadow period, where they unabashedly named-checked MoWax as direct sources of inspiration. On the surface it might sound like an unforgiving nightmare collision of indie and trip hop, but what transpired was an entirely new vibe that Radiohead owned.
7. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
The energy levels reached on this gem of a track are rare, even for Radiohead’s standards. As lost in electronics as the band can sometimes get, “Weird Fishes” tests the endurance of what a solid and tight-knit experience Radiohead can be. I’m a sucker for songs that build, and this track explores how those peaks can be reached without diluting the sound and delivery. Drum beats get met with guitar chords which are massaged by vocals, and before you know it the song bleeds with a wall of sound and unrelenting forward momentum. Honesty is always more important than melody, and Radiohead get as raw as they can here.
Sort of a spiritual brother to “Weird Fishes” with its drive and feel, this song never found its way onto a proper album. It sort of makes sense as the emotion of this song is hard to connect to any other songs in their repertoire. The stammering drums mixed with the spooky synth line make this piece one of the most stunning tracks in the bands catalog, but sticking out more than anything is Yorke’s painful howl of a vocal performance. You can’t help but feel some pain emanating from his vocal chords, and all of the elements compliment a song that only gets more intriguing with each listen.
5. How To Disappear Completely
This is yet another slow grind mood piece, beginning its life in a burbling synth pool, giving rise to a slithering beast claiming he’s “not here”. This is another one of those classic builders, wedged in an album of mostly experimental (by their standards) jams intent on breaking out of a mold they inadvertently found themselves encapsulated in. This song does reek a little bit of wrangling their tried and true old school fans back from the electronic depths of credibility, however, it has stood as a fine example of bridging old sounds with the new.
Let’s honor the b-sides, shall we? This is another song without a proper album as a home, but no less brilliant because of it. Released at the tail end of the “The Bends” promotion juggernaut, this song was a sly statement into their forthcoming sound, and more than any other track they’ve done, nodded to the popularity of “Endtroducing…”. With the emulated hip hop beats, funky bass line, and swirling synths, they were busy shifting up their approach, and providing a glimpse into their defining sound that we know and recognize today.
3. Street Spirit (Fade Out)
This is arguably the first time we heard the modern Radiohead. It’s important to remember that no one expected anything of note after “Pablo Honey” other than a collection of tracks trying to emulate the catchiness “Creep” had. When “The Bends” dropped, people expected a lazy sophomore effort, trailing off into uninspired indie lame-ness. That’s certainly not what transpired with the group’s second album, and they ended the experience by letting us know they had a hell of a lot more tricks up their sleeve. “The Bends” certainly had its fair share of indie rock predictability, but as an album, it was a great shift, and “Street Spirit” was carefully placed at the end, leaving us extremely curious to hear more.
2. The Tourist
If ever a song sparkled, it would be “The Tourist”. To cap off an album of potential top 10 singles is not an easy feat, yet somehow this track wraps up one of the most popular albums of all time rather effortlessly. The mood is perfect, the performance is flawless, the writing is top notch, the production is seamless, and the delivery is impeccable. Rather than write off an album brimming with kinetic energy by cramming a throwaway track at the end, they choose to up their game and make a song appropriately transcendent to counter what came before it. Probably too complex to ever be a single, but undoubtedly one of the most fully realized moments of greatness to ever grace pop music.
1. Pyramid Song
The greatest songs cannot be described, they must only be heard. I can explain this track until the end of time, but it will do little justice to what your ears will experience. “Pyramid Song” somehow stands alone as the quintessential Radiohead track, acting as the most accurate billboard to the band’s massive success. Everything we love about Radiohead is all here: darkness, playfulness, despair, sexiness, hopefulness, hopelessness, love, hate, confusion, and clarity. Like all the best art, “Pyramid Song” makes you feel like you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, and leaves wide open that sense of wonder we all have about music.