If you happen to be a person who cares about Radiohead album anniversaries, 2020 is a very momentous year. This fall, the band’s landmark’s fourth LP, Kid A, turns 20, an occasion I decided to personally observe by writing a book called This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ And The Beginning Of The 21st Century, which is out in September. And then there’s the 25th anniversary of Radiohead’s classic second album, The Bends, which is today.
Given that I’ve spent the better part of two years thinking and writing about this band, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about Radiohead’s persona, their place in their history, and how their art has influenced and affected our world. But I’ll save all of that stuff for the book. (Which, again, is out in September, though you can pre-order now!) For now, I want to talk about the music.
Specifically, I want to broach a topic that has inspired endless debates among Radiohead fans: What are this band’s best songs? In fact, if you were to make a list of 50 Radiohead songs, ranked in order of personal preference, how would you do it?
I think we can all agree these are the correct songs, in the correct order. Everything in its right place, as it were.
50. “Codex” (2011)
On The King Of Limbs, Radiohead extended experiments that began with Kid A and Amnesiac, and continued through Thom Yorke’s 2006 debut solo LP, The Eraser. For more than a decade, the band members had worked to deconstruct the conventional sound of a rock band, and reassemble the spare parts like a DJ building a track from samples. TKOL proved this was both an interesting and somewhat haphazard idea, leading to new sonic territory that ultimately felt emotionally inert. “Codex,” however, stands out on the album as a quietly overpowering track, in part because it seems the least fussed over.
49. “Identikit” (2016)
When Radiohead convened to make A Moon Shaped Pool, they reworked material that had existed in the band’s coffers for years, even decades. The album’s closer, “True Love Waits,” is the most celebrated example of these reboots, but Radiohead also found new use for “Identikit,” which had originally surfaced during the King Of Limbs tour. The version in AMSP benefits from that album’s warmer, more organic sound, particularly when it swells during the “broken hearts make it rain” chorus.
48. “Optimistic” (2000)
Kid A was discussed for months ahead of its release as a radical, potentially alienating left-turn away from Radiohead’s established formula of grandiose, endlessly operatic guitar rock. But the album didn’t deviate completely from the band’s ’90s alt-rock sound. For those who couldn’t wrap their heads around “Idioteque” or “The National Anthem,” the reliably guitar-centric “Optimistic” was an island of familiarity amid so much change and discord. Though the lyrics are as bleak as any on Kid A: “Flies are buzzing round my head / Vultures circling the dead / Picking up every last crumb.”
47. “Knives Out” (2001)
This dusky, minor-key beauty from Amnesiac became infamous for supposedly taking 313 hours to record. On record, “Knives Out” is about as simple and straight-forward as Radiohead dared to sound in the early aughts, which only makes its tortured backstory all the more confounding. It’s tempting to regard “Knives Out” as a metaphor for Radiohead’s creative indecision during the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, a period when the band was recording piles of great songs that they were convinced were actually terrible. In terms of this particular track, Yorke later claimed that it took so long to finish “cos I hated it so much.” Yorke probably (hopefully?) has warmed to it since then.
46. “Where I End And You Begin” (2003)
When Radiohead entered the sessions for Hail To The Thief, the goal was to not do what they had done on Kid A and Amnesiac. Crucially, that meant working quickly, ultimately embracing their exciting dynamic as a live band. You can hear how these principles impacted Radiohead’s music on “Where I End And You Begin,” which resembles a straighter and less chaotic redux of “The National Anthem” from Kid A. In just a few short years, they were able to take a wiggy departure and make it sound like relatively normal, groove-heavy rock music.
45. “Bodysnatchers” (2007)
Radiohead’s ability — when they deign that it’s a worthy goal — to deliver good old-fashioned rock riffage is among their most underrated attributes. While the band drifted far from this side of their musical personality on later albums, including the mostly subdued In Rainbows, “Bodysnatchers” found them snapping back to surly guitar noise with casual, offhand brilliance. Yorke even likened this song to the mid-aughts rock revival act Wolfmother — probably with a heavy dose of irony, though the comparison isn’t that far off.
44. “Separator” (2011)
The release of a new Radiohead album is an opportunity for the band’s fanatic fanbase to analyze every stray piece of content like it’s an Orwellian British art-rock version of the Zapruder film. In the case of The King Of Limbs, one of the more notable (if also wholly wrong) conspiracy theories involved the album’s closing track, “Separator.” Some fans surmised that the song’s most prominent lyric — “If you think this is over / Then you’re wrong” — was a hint about another surprise Radiohead LP that would be released as a companion to TKOL. This was intended to explain the album’s rather paltry nine-song, 37-minute running time. Alas, the next Radiohead record wouldn’t come out for another five years. Really good song, though.
43. “House Of Cards” (2007)
“Sexy” is not a word that is commonly associated with Radiohead. If anything, people associate this music with the pain and frustration of not having sex. However, the central appeal of one of Radiohead’s most popular albums, In Rainbows, is how romantic it sounds. (Yorke later described In Rainbows as his version of “seduction songs.”) “House Of Cards” might very well be the LP’s top bedroom jam. Over a low-key yet alluringly slinky groove, Yorke drops some of his overt pick-up lines — “I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover” — while also obliquely referencing an Ice Storm-like “key” party. Kids, don’t bother knocking if you hear this song coming from the other side of your parents’ door.
42. “Talk Show Host” (1996)
An unsung pitstop between The Bends and OK Computer — essentially the period when Radiohead went from a cult-y British band to the great post-Nirvana rock group of the ’90s — is the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. “Talk Show Host,” originally a B-side to “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” became a breakout hit from the movie after it was given a funky remix by Nellee Hooper. By “breakout hit” I mean it became a staple of mixtapes and local alt-rock radio stations, which along with the MTV hits from The Bends helped to set the stage for the massive breakthrough of OK Computer the following year.
41. “Videotape” (2007)
The ominous closer from In Rainbows is Radiohead’s version of a Black Mirror episode, with Yorke describing “the most perfect day I’ve ever seen” in anticipation of one day being dead and gone, as “Mephistopheles is just beneath.” While the album version conveys a convincing level of melancholic doom, it can’t quite touch the performance of “Videotape” from one year prior to the release of In Rainbows at Bonnaroo, in which you can hear Yorke literally howl his way toward oblivion.
40. “Daydreaming” (2016)
While The King Of Limbs is Radiohead’s chilliest LP, the followup release A Moon Shaped Pool in many ways stands as the most vulnerable music the band has committed to tape. One of the album’s trademark singles, “Daydreaming” feels marked by Yorke’s separation from his long-time partner Rachel Owen, who died six months after AMSP‘s release. Over a circular piano figure that evokes the rawness of an early ’70s Neil Young ballad as reconfigured by Steve Reich, Yorke softly intones his despair: “And it’s too late / The damage is done.”
39. “Myxomatosis” (2003)
As much as Radiohead resisted the retro narratives of early-aughts rock, there were elements of Hail To The Thief that smacked of the sort of “we can still rawk, man!” legacy-tending moves that aging bands frequently make during their “mid” periods. After all, the album opens with the sound of a guitar plugging into an amp, the signature move of a “we can still rawk, man!” album. Perhaps Radiohead felt a little vulnerable after the mini-backlash that Kid A inspired. (The Radiohead toilet paper at the 1:10-mark of this Kid Rock video is Exhibit A of said backlash.) Whatever it was, “Myxomatosis” is the closest that Radiohead has come to sounding like Black Sabbath, which is reason alone for it to warrant inclusion here.
38. “Go To Sleep” (2003)
Speaking of classic rock, “Go To Sleep” finds them nodding in the direction of Houses Of The Holy-era Led Zeppelin, with the song’s majestic acoustic strum evoking “Over The Hills And Far Away.” While Radiohead rarely works in this mode, they are clearly adept at getting the Led out.
37. “You And Whose Army?” (2001)
This track has a classic “whisper to a scream” structure, opening on Yorke’s drowsy mumble — recorded with an ancient vocal echo intended to evoke doo-wop groups of the 1930s and ’40s — before building to a dirge-y, taunting climax. When Radiohead debuted it on tour in 2000, Yorke would sometimes dedicate the song to one of its inspirations, then-UK prime minister Tony Blair. By the time their tour ended shortly after 9/11, Yorke was wearily shouting out the Bush administration, hoping the American president wouldn’t start World War III.
36. “Fog” (2001)
In 2003, Yorke declared that the version of the beloved B-side “Fog” “wasn’t very good” before performing a revamped, piano-based take. While the updated version of “Fog” is quite good and very pretty, it doesn’t actually improve on the band version of the song originally released on the “Knives Out” single. Perhaps Yorke objected to the murky, imprecise sonics of the band recording, but that’s what precisely gives the song its “foggy” charm as an exquisite mood piece.
35. “15 Step” (2007)
My favorite trivia tidbit about the opening track from In Rainbows is that the handclap rhythm is inspired by Peaches’ outré-pop hit “F*ck The Pain Away.” This is only slightly weirder than the fact that Radiohead performed “15 Step” at the 2009 Grammys, which is otherwise the last place you would expect to see Thom Yorke. Good performance though, thanks in part to the presence of the USC Marching Band, who made their most high-profile rock cameo since recording “Tusk” with Fleetwood Mac 30 years earlier.
34. “How To Disappear Completely” (2000)
Jonny Greenwood started dabbling with string arrangements on Radiohead records in 1995 with “Fake Plastic Trees” from The Bends. But his talent for working with orchestras started to really blossom during the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, when he had the opportunity to record string parts with the Orchestra of St. John’s inside the ancient 12th century church Dorchester Abbey, located not far from Radiohead’s studio. Inspired primarily by the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki, Greenwood created a disorienting swirl that took Yorke’s pensive song about tour anxiety to a whole other level of psychic terror, foreshadowing his eventual work as Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to film composer.
33. “Thinking About You” (1993)
Along with “Talk Show Host,” this was a mid-’90s mixtape classic, especially for lovelorn teens trying to communicate the depth of their feelings to other, more desirable teens. The brisk, folky strum of this Pablo Honey deep cut points to the electro-acoustic balladry that Radiohead would subsequently perfect on The Bends and OK Computer. (The version on Pablo Honey itself is a much improved redux of a faster, rockier take that appeared on an early Radiohead EP.) While the song has its clumsy, mawkish moments — “But I’m playing with myself / What do you care when the other men are far, far better?” — the guileless naiveté of “Thinking About You” remains highly affecting.
32. “The National Anthem” (2000)
The studio version from Kid A slaps, but the definitive performance might very well be from Saturday Night Live two weeks after the album’s release. During the band’s summer European tour in 2000, they were careful to always surround the most potentially off-putting new songs with fan favorites from the first three albums. But by the time they showed up on the premier showcase for live music on network television, Radiohead apparently had gained enough confidence to put their most provocative new music front and center. For “The National Anthem,” that included making a horn section sound like a ska band being crushed in a trash compactor while Yorke tried to shake off invisible bees.
31. “Planet Telex” (1995)
When it comes to opening an album, Radiohead tends to prefer songs that are rhythmically off-kilter, producing a punch-drunk feeling in the listener akin to being smacked in the head with a paranoid android’s severed arm. They first introduced this idea on “Planet Telex” from The Bends, which at the time sounded like an overt warning to anyone who loved “Creep” that the new Radiohead album was going to be much weirder and more sinister. (Also, the excellent rhythm section work by Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood is leagues beyond the playing on Pablo Honey.) In retrospect, it feels like a rough draft for “Airbag,” the similarly woozy lead-off for OK Computer. However, in the very competitive realm of Radiohead opening tracks — shout-out to “You” from Pablo Honey, an honorable mention for this list — “Planet Telex” ranks among the very best.
30. “My Iron Lung” (1994)
The crucial pivot point between Pablo Honey and The Bends, “My Iron Lung” originally was released as the title track of a standalone EP between those albums. (Stans will lament that “The Trickster” and “Permanent Daylight” didn’t make this list.) While the song peaks with the same grunge-y guitar noise that made “Creep” a hit — the fact that it was recorded live at a London club gig gives it an added dose of energy — this is clearly a move to go “beyond” pop music and toward something less accessible, thornier, and altogether artier. In the lyrics, Yorke goes meta, “teenage angst has paid off well / now I’m bored and old”-style: “This is our new song / same as the old one / a total waste of time.”
29. “High And Dry” (1995)
In a 2007 Pitchfork interview, Yorke slagged this hit power ballad from The Bends as a “very bad” song that he was pressured into releasing. (That “High And Dry” became a model for bands like Coldplay, Travis, and the other Radiohead imitators of the late ’90s and early aughts must’ve especially rankled him.) However, as a person who was 17 when The Bends was released, “High And Dry” will always have a precious place in my heart as an essential “wallowing over heartbreak” song. I can’t begin to tabulate the amount of time I wasted pining for beautiful classmates like [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and [REDACTED] while listening to Thom whine that he would kill himself for recognition.
28. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (1993)
The performance above is culled from Radiohead’s infamous MTV Beach House performance, in which Thom Yorke almost died because he dove into a swimming pool while wearing Dr. Martens during the climactic moment of their most rock rock song ever, “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” (Ironically — or perhaps just weirdly — Jeff Buckley died under similar circumstances in 1997, drowning in the Mississippi River while wearing heavy boots. Buckley, of course, was a crucial influence on Yorke at around this time. In conclusion, Jeff died so Thom could live.) Yorke’s exhortation that he “wanna be, wanna be, wanna be Jim Morrison” could be read as irony, but Radiohead has never been an ironic band. I prefer to read this song as a prequel to Oasis’ “Rock N’ Roll Star” — an aspirational mood-board that soon became true.
27. “True Love Waits” (Belgium ’95 version)
It’s become trendy for Radiohead fans to pick “True Love Waits” as their favorite track, given how long it existed as a relatively obscure fan favorite. Think of the fans as Ahab and “TLW” as Moby Dick — this song has long existed as an elusive ideal that’s just out of reach. The version released on the EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings is nice, though Nigel Godrich subsequently dismissed it as a “shitty live version.” The dramatically revamped take released as a ghostly coda on A Moon Shaped Pool is also quite beautiful, though it also doesn’t quite hit the mark. The best version of “True Love Waits” — perhaps ever, though we’ll see if Radiohead is further inclined to tinker with it — was performed all the way back in 1995, when the band premiered the song at a show in Belgium. This is the take distinguished by the incredible sci-fi synth line that squiggles over Yorke’s plaintive guitar like the UFOs skirting Devils Tower in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
26. “Cuttooth” (2001)
Based on which fan sites you frequent, it appears that this song came fairly close to appearing on Kid A or Amnesiac, before being relegated to B-side status on the ridiculously loaded “Knives Out” single. (The aforementioned “Fog” also surfaced there, as did another top-flight B-side, “Worrywort.”) Maybe this song was just too … grand to make it on those albums? While it starts off in familiar Kid A/Amnesiac territory — lots of murk, with a pronounced krautrock influence — it eventually builds up a thrilling head of steam that makes it one of the most exciting and propulsive tracks of the era.
25. “Blow Out” (1993)
Pablo Honey frequently is dismissed as an also-ran in Radiohead’s discography, but there’s plenty of gold on the band’s debut. One of the best and most unsung cuts is this appropriately titled guitar meltdown, which suggests that Radiohead could’ve pursued a promising path as Sonic Youth-style noise-pop enthusiasts had their creative impulses not guided them elsewhere. Thankfully, the band themselves appear to appreciate this song, given that they revived it after a long absence on their 2018 tour.
24. “2+2=5” (2003)
It became rock critic law around the time of OK Computer to affix “Orwellian” to any piece of writing about Radiohead. (This is the second appearance of “Orwellian” in this article.) Apparently the band internalized this, because they decided to just flat-out reference George Orwell themselves on the feisty lead-off track from Hail To The Thief. As we’ve already discussed, opening a record with the sound of a guitar plugging into an amp is sort of rock cliché that Radiohead typically avoids like Chris Martin at an awards show. But here, it actually works, especially coming after the numbness of the Kid A/Amnesiac era. On “2+2=5,” Yorke sounds like a man who has been free-basing caffeine and CNN coverage of the Iraq War for several months, and is finally ready to explode.
23. “I Might Be Wrong” (2001)
Yorke was apparently inspired to write “I Might Be Wrong” one day when he was taking a walk and became convinced that there was someone — perhaps a ghost? — in his house. For most of us, this would be reason to call the police and find a new realtor. But for Yorke, this became yet another metaphor for his dissociative mental state in the wake of OK Computer‘s massive success and his subsequent creative stasis. “I Might Be Wrong” is ultimately about coming out of pervasive paranoia: “I used to think / There was no future left at all,” Yorke sings. “Let’s go down the waterfall / Have ourselves a good time / It’s nothing at all.”
22. “Morning Bell” (2000)
Jonny Greenwood’s aversion to playing guitar during the Kid A sessions came to a head on this song. He was more interested in playing a myriad of other instruments, including the plush Fender Rhodes lick that is the focal point of “Morning Bell.” Yorke said later that he begged Greenwood to also put down a guitar track, and Jonny obliged by conjuring some truly evil vamping as the song’s serene groove collapses in on itself.
21. “Exit Music (For a Film)” (1997)
What’s notable about this OK Computer highlight is how many film and TV soundtrack supervisors have taken the title literally. For anyone trying to create a feeling of dystopian dread, “Exit Music (For a Film)” has become a popular go-to choice, notably showing up on Black Mirror and Westworld. On the album, “Exit Music” stands apart immediately for the low rumble of Yorke’s acoustic guitar at the start, which sounds like a Johnny Cash prison ballad being beamed from Mars. The rest of the song is about trying to leave this planet before “all hell breaks loose.” The vengeful taunt that closes “Exit Music” — “we hope that you choke” — suggests that our heroes might have escaped, a rare happy ending in Radiohead-world.
20. “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” (1998)
It’s a toss-up between “Cuttooth” and this incredible OK Computer-era cast-off for the title of best Radiohead B-side. I’ll give the edge to “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2),” because this is the song that makes me want to set my car on fire and drive it over a cliff. Presumably, “Part 1” is the soft Thom-centric intro, while “Part 2” is simply some of the greatest straight-up, stomping, swaggering, and all-around splendid rock ‘n’ roll that Radiohead has ever committed to tape
19. “In Limbo” (2000)
This wobbly, woozy gem from Kid A sounds like nothing else in Radiohead’s catalogue. Everything in this song is out of sync — the guitars, the rhythm section, and the vocals all appear to be moving at different speeds. (It’s no wonder “In Limbo” proved to be challenge to play live when Radiohead introduced it on the 2000 summer tour.) The song’s roots go all the way back to the start of the Kid A sessions in early 1999 in Paris, when it was known as “Lost At Sea,” an all-too-on-the-nose signifier of Radiohead’s headspace. The power of “In Limbo” is that they were able to master such a tricky sound while signifying the sensation of being at your wits’ end.
18. “Dollars & Cents” (2001)
There’s a latent jamband gene in Radiohead that has occasionally been used against them by skeptics. In 2009, Spin declared that Radiohead had devolved into “an exceptionally well-dressed jam band” that “you can’t even dance to.” And that was before Radiohead started touring with two drummers in the ’10s. What’s always left unexplained is why being likened to a jamband is bad. It’s true that during the sessions that produced Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead would jam in the studio in order to assemble the most promising bits into songs, a practice that was directly inspired by the German band Can. A notable example of a song coming out of this method is the glowering, atmospheric “Dollars & Cents,” which was culled from a vibe-y 11-minute studio jam into one of the most unusual, and cinematic, tracks in the band’s canon.
17. “Reckoner” (2007)
When Radiohead debuted “Reckoner” in 2001, it was an entirely different song from the serene track that appeared on In Rainbows. That “Reckoner” was a fire-spitting, surly beast eventually released many years later as a solo Thom Yorke track called “Pulled Apart By Horses.” The other “Reckoner” was initially conceived as a spacey coda to the other “Reckoner,” though it evolved into its own song, spotlighting Yorke’s peerless falsetto.
16. “Just” (1995)
Jonny Greenwood is beloved for his many talents and attributes — his brilliance as a composer, his mastery of the ondes Martenot, his fabulous cheekbones. But lest we forget, he is also a kick-ass guitar player, and “Just” is a premier showcase for some of his finest shredding.
15. “Karma Police” (1997)
The catchiest and loveliest ballad about totalitarianism by a British rock band since The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” This also inspired one of the greatest Radiohead videos of all-time, directed by future Under The Skin helmer Jonathan Glazer. (He also directed the visually stunning clip for “Street Spirit (Fade Out).”) Yorke later expressed his affinity for the “Karma Police” video, saying he loved making it because he was drunk during the shoot. This, apparently, is what you must do in order to lose yourself for a minute there.
14. “Lucky” (1997)
Is this the greatest love song in the Radiohead canon? If the answer is “yes,” it might be damning “Lucky” with faint praise, given the relative lack of full-on love songs in the catalogue. This is, in fact, one of the great love songs by anybody during the alt-rock era, imbued with the melodramatic romanticism that’s an essential part of so many Radiohead classics, no matter how much critics (or even the band members themselves) might want to pretend that this band is too cerebral for their own good. Not only does Yorke sell lines like “Kill me again with love / It’s gonna be a glorious day,” he has enough conviction to make you feel as though you’re standing on the edge of the cliff with him.
13. “The Bends” (1995)
Long before millennials realized that boomers were the worst, Radiohead were taking the piss out of the sixties generation for Gen-X kids. “I wish it was the sixties / I wish I could be happy / I wish something would happen” is one of Yorke’s most quotable lines, and it captures an extremely ’90s sentiment of both resenting nostalgia and feeling like you’ve missed out. Of course, these feelings are still relatable when you hear “The Bends” now. It doesn’t hurt that Radiohead rocks as hard here as they ever have — while the ballads from The Bends era helped to inform the sound of Britpop in the latter half of the decade, the teetering-on-the-brink-of-chaos rockers are what give the album its still potent serrated edge.
12. “Airbag” (1997)
If I had to pick my favorite moment in any Radiohead song, it would have to be the stretch in “Airbag” from 1:22 to 1:32, when the beat drops out and the guitars and cellos hang suspended in space for what feels like an eternity. It’s as close as any rock band has come to capturing the splendor of the “Blue Danube” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which heavy machinery becomes weightless and moves with the deftness of ballet dancers. “Airbag” has a similar “how in the hell are they doing this?” quality when you hear it for the first time — there’s a constant fear that all of the musical elements are going to end up colliding and drifting off into nothingness, and yet when it’s all over it feels effortlessly graceful.
11. “No Surprises” (1997)
Radiohead have long regarded Talking Heads as one of their role models, starting with taking their name from a True Stories soundtrack deep cut. The child-like lyrical perspective of David Byrne directly informs the gorgeous “No Surprises,” which resembles two of the greatest Talking Heads ballads, “Heaven” and “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).” Like those songs, “No Surprises” glorifies a banal, boring life in the face of all the scourges of the world. While Yorke offhandedly calls for revolution (“Bring down the government”) he’s ultimately held in thrall of a pretty house with a pretty garden. Musically, “No Surprises” is as gentle as a lullaby, with an easygoing, nursery rhyme vibe that was captured on the very first take. (Though, in typical Radiohead fashion, they recorded it many more times before going back and settling on the original version.)
10. “Fake Plastic Trees” (1995)
“It annoys me how pretty my voice is,” Thom Yorke once complained to the New York Times. For much of his career, Yorke has actively tried to hide that he has the greatest voice of any rock singer of the past 30 years. But in the mid-’90s, he approached Freddie Mercury-levels of virtuosity, particularly on the most unabashedly “big” ballad from The Bends, “Fake Plastic Trees.” On this song, Yorke knows that he can give you the chills by hitting a really high note as the song explodes to “November Rain”-size scale. (Go to the 2:30 mark and try not to get goosebumps for the millionth time in your life.) And instead of burying his vox in layers of digitized detritus, he just goes for it, like Celine Dion on the deck of the Titanic. Thom might be a difficult genius, but he’s also a brilliant diva, and “Fake Plastic Trees” is his “My Heart Will Go On.”
9. “Idioteque” (2000)
Radiohead’s 2000 SNL appearance is one of the all-time great TV live music performances, in part, for how it divided people into “delighted” and “confounded” camps. As weird as “The National Anthem” was earlier in the show, “Idioteque” truly seemed like a provocation on the part of the would-be biggest band in the world. What in the hell was Jonny playing anyway? Was he actually a telephone operator from 1961? Was Thom Yorke having a seizure? Isn’t the final 90 or so seconds of this just freeform noise? A lot of people hated this in 2000 — more than most will admit now two decades later — but if you were on Radiohead’s side, listening to “Idioteque” felt like nothing less than the dawn of a new age.
8. “Pyramid Song” (2001)
This stunning epic is one of the greatest songs to come out of their intense wilderness period during the making of Kid A and Amnesiac. It’s certainly one of their best performances, evincing a relaxed, Zen-like subtlety and that would’ve been unthinkable just five years earlier. (Special recognition must be paid to Phil Selway’s masterful, career-best drumming.) It’s so good that it’s somewhat surprising that it didn’t make the cut for Kid A, though the song’s swinging, widescreen sound feels at odds with the claustrophobic insularity the band sought for that album.
7. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (2007)
A running thread in Radiohead’s creative life is their curious lack of confidence. Nearly every album is marked by stories of songs being reworked constantly as the band members struggle to overcome hangups about their own artistic value. Often, after months of indecision, they end up returning to a sound that draws on their intuitive interplay as long-time collaborators and life-long friends. For In Rainbows, an album whose organic naturalism belies one of the most difficult berthing stories in Radiohead history, the band tortured themselves for two years in order to finally achieve a “live in the moment” mentality signified by the hypnotic “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” one of their most magnificent (and meditative) tracks.
6. “Creep” (1993)
If not for “Creep,” we would not be here recounting Radiohead’s long and brilliant career in list form. While hard-core fans naturally have gravitated to other tracks that are more skillfully conceived, written, and performed, this is the only undeniable standard in Radiohead’s catalogue. Which is to say, if your normie friends know anything about this band, it’s probably related to how Thom Yorke doesn’t belong here. Actually, they might not even know it as a Radiohead song, as “Creep” has had its own busy life outside the band, venturing to places Radiohead wouldn’t dare visit, like American Idol and Glee. Korn has covered “Creep,” as have Blues Traveler and Tears For Fears. Prince played it at Coachella before Radiohead did. The whole point of Radiohead’s stubbornly, thrillingly independent career is that they don’t belong to anyone. But “Creep” is the property of us all.
5. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (1995)
Radiohead fans can wage a battle royale over the best Radiohead album openers, but there should be no debate over which song is the greatest Radiohead album closer. (I will not be addressing partisans of “The Tourist” or “Videotape” at this time.)
4. “There There” (2003)
You know how I said that part in “Airbag” is my favorite moment in any Radiohead song? Actually, that “Airbag” part is tied with everything that happens in “There There” from 3:16 on, as Yorke bellows like a man performing an exorcism over a motorik beat freshly doused in gasoline. Until recently I didn’t know what Yorke was actually singing here, but apparently it is, “Why so green and lonely?” Is this a stealth Kermit The Frog reference sneakily placed in the middle of a tremendously ominous song? Until Thom says otherwise, let’s assume it is.
3. “Let Down” (1997)
A lot of dumb things have been written about Radiohead, but most of those things are exactly the same. You know the story: Radiohead is a painfully self-serious and esoteric band “who dicks around with a bunch of computer wires and passes it off as a concept album.” That sort of nonsense. The truth is that the most beloved Radiohead music is painfully earnest and emotional, almost embarrassingly so. I’ve made more than one reference in this list to adolescent mixtapes. Radiohead has so many perfect mixtape jams, the sorts of songs that you play for another person in order to express the fullest extent of your stupid, humiliating feelings about what it means to be alive. The greatest Radiohead tunes are emotionally risky, in other words, though when the risk pays off it can feel like seeing God. (You see how mortifying that last sentence was?) Anyway, “Let Down” is precisely this kind of song. Can you really accuse Thom Yorke of being a pretentious dweeb when he sings lines like “One day, I am gonna grow wings” and then he actually grows wings and takes you off into the sky with him?
2. “Paranoid Android” (1997)
In 1997, when the weirdness of indie-cred politics still reigned, referring to “Paranoid Android” as the Gen-X “Bohemian Rhapsody” was considered an insult. In 2020, it feels both like a high compliment and an extremely accurate designation. The studio version is Radiohead at their most awe-inspiring — this remains one of the small handful of songs that I can remember hearing for the first time — though it’s worth digging around the internet for the live versions they played in 1996 while opening for Alanis Morissette, back when the song had an extended, extremely proggy organ solo. Hearing “Paranoid Android” in that context drives home just how incredible it was for Radiohead to attempt a song like this, given how easily it could have blown up in their faces. But like Queen, Radiohead had the talent to match their audacity.
1. “Everything In Its Right Place” (2000)
What is it about this song? It doesn’t even seem like an actual song upon first listen. None of the words are decipherable except for the ones that don’t make any sense: “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon.” Huh? The other words are garbled by an audio effects unit called a Kaoss Pad, which was new technology in 1999 when the song was recorded. But what sticks with you is the sound of a Prophet 5 synthesizer, which plays a riff that is … scary? But also … funky? And maybe even a little … sexy? When Radiohead hit upon that sound, they knew “Everything In Its Right Place” would be the first track on their new LP, Kid A, and also define the mood and feel they would be chasing for the rest of those sessions and, possibly, their career. But how do you chase … this? “Everything In Its Right Place” manages to capture a range of sounds and emotions in a completely mysterious and unknowable manner. You can break it down but you’ll lose the magic. You can appreciate the magic but you won’t have a clue how it’s being achieved. When Radiohead plays this song live now, it is received like a classic-rock anthem. But it is defiantly not that. It is its own weird thing. Whatever it is, it belongs only to this band.