It’s a difficult task to consistently reinvent your sound while still maintaining an unmistakable musical identity, but Radiohead has managed it throughout their illustrious and acclaimed career. After a sluggish career start as generic alt-rockers and potential one-hit wonders, Radiohead found a songwriting voice to match the tortured croon of singer Thom Yorke, overflowing with electronic bleeps and orchestral flourishes that feel equally natural in their ability to evoke a sense of mournful paranoiac dread to match whatever Yorke is singing about.
Perhaps their most audacious left turn, Kid A found the band shedding most typical rock instrumentation in favor of cold squelchy synths and electronic textures while still building upon the information age isolation that pervaded OK Computer. We’re celebrating the recent re-release of a rare B-side from that album by counting down the best Radiohead songs of all-time. They might sound different, but they all sound like Radiohead.
10. ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’
In Rainbows found Radiohead returning to the basics, shedding the electronic pretensions of their last few albums to focus on tracks that build around melodic guitar arpeggios rather than strange synthetic soundscapes. “Weird Fishes” begins with that lonely guitar, and then builds and builds into something that feels grander with every passing second before returning to its quiet start. Thanks in part to an impeccable band dynamic, songs like these don’t need anything more than the basics to transport you to another world.
The Bends was a big step forward after a generic first LP, but it wasn’t until OK Computer kicked off with the immediately identifiable guitar scrape of “Airbag” that Radiohead truly came into their own as the intelligent band every critic and listener didn’t know they’d been waiting for. Before immersing themselves more completely in electronica, the band knew how to scratch and swirl their guitar noises to create something that sounded otherworldly while still being as familiar as, say, a car crash.
The band members themselves hate this song, the one that made them famous when they had only begun to mature into the artists they’ve since become. “Creep” is uncharacteristically accessible for the band, trading in their usual opaque misery for straightforward outsider angst that still feels sincere and aching given Yorke’s vocals and the involving quiet-loud verse-chorus dynamic. It’s far from the band’s most original song, but “Creep” holds up as a moving emotional plea set to music that hasn’t been dulled by decades of radio play.
7. ‘There There’
A panic attack translated to music, “There There” manages to be both anthemic and horrifying at once, chugging along on an irresistible drum beat as Yorke taunts us with cryptic hints of doom about sirens singing you to shipwreck and warning that “just cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” Hail to the Thief‘s first single and tightest track is a Radiohead at their most moodily evocative, pulsing along with an unbearable tension that builds and finally explodes in the cacophonous final minute.
6. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’
Radiohead’s catalog is filled with haunting slow songs, but “Fake Plastic Trees” is perhaps their quintessential ballad, at least in the traditional sense. Anchored by one of Yorke’s greatest vocal performances and tender acoustic strumming, the song builds and retracts from a full-band arrangement that elevates the hollow sense of loss rather than distracting from it. This standout from The Bends shows an emotional mastery of sorrowful balladry so early in the band’s career, it’s no wonder they went on to more unconventional mood on later albums.
Another of Yorke’s greatest vocal performances, you don’t really need to understand his high wailing to hear the longing in his voice as he begs “Take me with you” again and again. Cymbal crashes and a lovely guitar riff fill out an unusual landscape of sound that only serves to show, yet again, the way Radiohead does clever things with simple building blocks. I almost don’t know what more to say about “Reckoner,” because it’s not the most unique song in the band’s catalog but instead just finds them operating on all cylinders, swirling and building upon a beautiful, evocative melody in interesting and involving ways.
4. ‘Everything in Its Right Place’
Even after the cool digital atmosphere of OK Computer, could anything prepare listeners for the bold foray into dissonant electronica Radiohead took on Kid A? “Everything in Its Right Place” is the perfect album opener, as pulsing keyboards immediately surround the listener with the album’s unmistakable dystopian atmosphere. Snippets of vocals intercut together make it sound as though someone is trying to communicate through a haze of digital manipulation and reassurances that everything is where it’s supposed to be that only becomes creepier as the song goes on.
3. ‘Paranoid Android’
Have I mentioned yet how great Radiohead is at penning a sinister acoustic riff? Because they are. “Paranoid Android” starts on that strength before going a whole bunch of other places, creating their first and greatest shape-shifting song that ripples with isolation and tension that only gets a proper release in the song’s blistering final moment, after listeners have endured a mournful reverie begging for the sky to “rain down.” Each segment is fascinating but add up to a greater whole, as the song suggests an emotional breakdown by progressing from seething resentment to sorrow to unchecked aggression.
2. ‘Kid A’
Where most reviewers might include “Idioteque,” I’m opting for another Kid A standout, the icy title track that I can only imagine was composed in freezing winter weather. The unique atmosphere of the song is so palpable it’s a marvel the band managed to distill something so unique to vinyl. Cool twinkling keyboards pile atop each other before Yorke enters with a perfectly manipulated electronic vocal quality that typifies Kid A‘s space-age melding of the human and the digital into one inseparable whole.
1. ‘Pyramid Song’
I haven’t even mentioned the way Radiohead so perfectly incorporates grand orchestration into their intimate portraits of loneliness! This haunting standout from Amnesiac, an album that split the difference between electronic and live music after the bolder Kid A, shows the band’s ability to arrange more than guitars and synths, as swelling strings sections swirl around an off-key piano riff and a compelling drumbeat. Powerful imagery about “black-eyed angels” contribute to the song’s lush dreamy quality that makes it sound as if the band are floating upwards to an uncertain afterlife.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf