Coming to prominence near the end of the Britpop era, Radiohead distinguished themselves as an alternative rock band with ambition. Initially, that ambition drove the group to craft literate, lushly orchestrated songs that set them apart from the rest of the modern rock scene. As the their career evolved, Radiohead pushed the definition of what can be considered rock music to its limits and eventually left the genre, and the music industry itself, behind.
While the band had been moving in a more esoteric direction for years, most prominently on 1997’s OK Computer, but it was still surprising when the band effectively sold their guitars and bought some turntables for 2000's Kid A. The band kept the surprises coming with 2007’s In Rainbows, a live instrument focused album which the band released through their website on a pay-what-you-want model. The record defined industry expectations by becoming a huge success and the group followed up with 2011’s sample-heavy The King of Limbs. In its 30 years as a band, Radiohead has toppled more than one orthodoxy and their drive to push things forward seems undiminished. This is a subjective list of Radiohead’s 10 best songs, in no particular order.
Radiohead’s breakthrough song is one of the weirder tracks to ever break into the mainstream. Tracing a drunken man’s sloppy attempts to get the attention of a woman he fancies, “Creep” paints a pretty disgusting picture and its churning instrumentation only adds to the queasiness. Still, Tom Yorke’s pained yelp combined with Johnny Greenwood’s driving guitar makes the song an enjoyable wallow in filth.
For obviously reasons, “Just” is a Radiohead song that’s been overshadowed by its unsettling Jamie Thraves directed music video. That’s somewhat unfortunately as the song is a beautifully written and composed mediation of modern alienation before such the subject was run into the ground in 2000s.
While not as spaced out and complex as their later work would become, the sprawling “Paranoid Android” was a clear sign that Radiohead was becoming bored with the directness and monotony of alternative rock. With its three distinct movements and a barrage of lyrics that touch on mental illness, capitalist overindulgence and the pain of the human condition, it’s obvious that the band was interested in more than just beating U2's sales figures.
The chorus free, stridently anti-capitalist “Karma Police” should have been a hit. It has the odd time signature and sneer of a major label middle figure record, but inexplicable, the song became one of the group’s biggest hits. That’s the way of things for Radiohead, they spit in the face of conventional wisdom and end up getting rewarded for it.
The first several times someone listens to “Idioteque,” they probably don’t realize it’s an apocalyptic warning about the dangers of global warming and nuclear proliferation. That’s because the song is the most irresistibly danceable tracks in Radiohead’s oeuvre. This is party music for the end of the world.
The seven minute “Motion Picture Soundtrack” finishes off the band’s fourth LP, Kid A, and its maybe the strangest track on an album full of strange tracks. It’s a sweeping epic about suicide that’s undeniably optimistic – especially compared to “Optimistic” – and nearly wordless. If the band had broken up after the making of Kid A, this song would have been a fitting final statement.
There are two versions of “Morning Bell.” Both were recorded during the Kid A sessions and while the original mix of the song is a fine song filled out by one of Philip Selway’s more memorably drum fills, the mournful, orchestral version found on the band’s fifth album Amnesic is the superior of the two.
Like “Paranoid Android,” “Life in a Glasshouse” is song with more than one movement; it starts off bleakly sparse before turning into a bluesy number with that’s filled out by Yorke’s vocal, some minimal high hat and a wailing trumpet. The song ramps up in intensity and for a few brief seconds, sounds like a second line for the entire world.
The ominous and nihilistic “Talk Show Host” is probably the closest Radiohead ever came to making a swaggering rap song. Seriously, set aside Yorke’s atonal singing and the song’s trip-hop flavored guitars and you end up with a track that sounds like it belongs on a West Coast gangster rap compilation.
Despite his lively dancing in the group’s music videos and live performances, Thom Yorke seems to be a pretty self-serious guy who does a lot of thinking about war, death and insanity. So it should not come as a surprise that when a man with that kind of disposition writes a song that deals nakedly and explicitly with suicide and depression, it would be the kind of song that can ruin your day before it even reaches a chorus.
Tickets for Radiohead’s latest tour can be purchased here.