Getting into Radiohead is simple: start with their first album, Pablo Honey, and then venture farther into their discography as you intend to ratchet up the weirdness. Because Radiohead’s career arc–a simply staggering, phenomenally eclectic and critically lauded arc–is ameliorative, straight to the moon, each project more grandiose and revolutionary than the last.
But seven albums and a handful of EPs is a lot of music. And all of it is necessary to the Radiohead mythos. Yet, ten tracks can be pulled from that collection and considered the “need to know”s. Of course, almost any fan will have his or her favorite tracks–the “Subterranean Homesick Alien”s of the discography–but these are the ten biggies. They span all manner of Radiohead’s career and provide a sampling of what newbies to the Oxford, England, quintet can expect their virgin ears to hear.
But this wouldn’t be a primer without your suggestions, so leave your favorite Radiohead cuts in the comments.
“Creep” is the 1993 single that made Radiohead popular in the States, with its grungy guitars and pissy lyrics. However, it’s also the song that made lead singer Thom Yorke f*cking loathe everything about being a famous musician. The band rarely plays the song–if ever–anymore. Supposedly, Radiohead last played it at the 2009 Reading Festival when it opened their set.
2. “Fake Plastic Trees”
Look, Radiohead fans who claim that The Bends is their favorite Radiohead album probably really dig anthemic, late-1990s Brit-pop because the album overflows with it. “Fake Plastic Trees” serves as the archetype, with its soaring Yorke vocals, instrumental grandiosity and denunciation of, well, fake things like plastic surgery and Chinese rubber plants.
3. “Paranoid Android”
The schizo second track off OK Computer, “Paranoid Android” is six and a half minutes of skittering, shape-shifting madness. Listeners can also assume that “Paranoid Android” marks the point where Radiohead had consciously made the decision to ditch appealing to radio and do whatever they wanted.
4. “Karma Police”
“Karma Police” is the most un-single single of the 1990s. Sure, it sort of sounded like a conventional Brit-rock song when the opening keys hit, but here’s the thing: “Karma Police” thrives on its maudlin instrumentals and baleful lyrics, eventually disintegrating into a heap of fuzz as the song implodes. The intended effect? A sense of alienation and distance caused by technology, which sums up OK Computer‘s purported theme.
5. “Everything In Its Right Place”
If you were a music writer in 2000, you probably wrote about Kid A, Radiohead’s fourth album and some would argue its best. Chances are your piece was glowing and you started that piece by mentioning the album’s first track, “Everything In Its Right Place.” Maybe you didn’t, but you probably did because who could ignore how different and odd the track sounded, Thom’s voice barely discernible and nary a lead guitar riff present? You couldn’t. It was the most 21st-century thing about music at the start of the 21st century.
6. “How to Disappear Completely (And Never Be Found Again)”
Perhaps the most accessible track off Kid A, “How to Disappear Completely” was supposedly Thom’s rebuttal to celebrity that became the preferred terse existential chapter name for writers everywhere. Its melancholy is gorgeous in its placidity, and remains the sole moment off Kid A that could’ve appeared on an earlier Radiohead album.
7. “Pyramid Song”
Amnesiac, the kind-of side B to Kid A, contains “Pyramid Song” and, well, a lot of songs that are interesting if you’re in a sad, jaded mood–super interesting, actually (but a livelier version of “Morning Bell” than what appears on Kid A). So “Pyramid Song” serves as the album’s “single,” a distillation of the album’s opaque depths and chilly ambiance. It’s more Thom lyric-gurgling, but eh: it’s the mood that matters.
8. “There, There”
For all its dissonance and contentious weirdness, Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail To The Thief birthed a great track in “There, There,” which features pangy percussion and a throbbing bassline* that sounds like it was recorded from Colin Greenwood’s kicking an oil drum. Also, solid cover artwork and music video.
* – Well perhaps it’s the bassline? Maybe it’s just Phil Selway’s drumming. Anyways, it jams.
9. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”
Layered and resoundingly beautiful, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is one of the best tracks off 2007’s In Rainbows, deftly combining Yorke’s warble, the band’s electronic tendencies and masterful guitar.
10. “Lotus Flower”
You know, that one Radiohead song that resulted in a music video where Yorke dances all funny. But don’t forget it’s also the closest thing 2011’s The King Of Limbs had to a true single, with an understated electronic backbone keeping it somewhat lively. Thus explains Yorke’s jittering.