Earlier this month, I watched a familiar debate rage on social media: What is the best Radiohead album? Some said In Rainbows. Some said Kid A. Some (not many) even said The King Of Limbs. The debate rages on because Radiohead is the rare band with multiple masterpieces that appeal to different constituencies. They have put out great records in three different decades, and your personal favorite likely hinges on when you came on board as a fan.
I did not chime in on this debate. Because I am a list-making professional, and I only make lists when I am guaranteed immense riches for my services. But the question is also a bit basic, don’t you think? Amateurs worry themselves with determining which of Radiohead’s nine studio albums is the best. Professionals meanwhile also include Radiohead solo albums and side projects.
This is where things start to get really interesting. It’s one thing to pit In Rainbows vs. Kid A. But what if you also include Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood and Thom Yorke’s solo debut The Eraser? What if you make it about the entire Radiohead Cinematic Universe?
Let’s find out! Below you will find my overview of Radiohead’s career that takes into account the many Radiohead-adjacent records, including the most recent addition to the family, The Smile’s forthcoming sophomore release Wall Of Eyes, due January 26. For the sake of my sanity, I did not include EPs, live albums, remix records, or collaborative works. (Other than The Smile, of course.)
That means fans of Junun, Jonny Greenwood’s joint record with Shy Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express, might be disappointed. For the rest of you, let’s dive into this moon-shaped pool!
30. Philip Selway, Let Me Go (2017)
29. Philip Selway, Familial (2010)
28. Philip Selway, Strange Dance (2023)
27. Philip Selway, Weatherhouse (2014)
I feel bad about this. I mean no disrespect to Philip Selway or drummers or solo albums recorded by drummers. I interviewed Philip in 2023, and he was a very nice and gentle man. A very nice and very gentle gentleman, if you will. I think he might be the most laidback British rock drummer of all time. He is, I imagine, the Keith Moon of sitting serenely in a quiet garden and sipping tea.
The official topic of conversation was the No. 28 album on this list. My first question was about how Philip did not play drums on the record. I thought this was interesting because it was sort of like Thom Yorke hiring a studio singer to do his parts on a Thom Yorke album. But I mainly found it interesting because of how it related to the unofficial (i.e. much more important to me personally) conversation topic — the current state and possible future of Radiohead. Philip admitted to me that he was out of practice as a drummer. The last Radiohead tour was five years prior, and apparently he hadn’t been slamming the kit in his free time since then. This, he insisted, contributed greatly to the musical texture of Strange Dance. The drummer he hired, Italian percussionist/composer Valentina Magaletti, “breathed this whole life into the record,” he said. I think I made a sound to indicate that I found this fascinating. But in my mind I was really thinking, Philip isn’t playing drums anymore? What does this say about Radiohead’s future
I’ve thought a lot about this question in the past several years. The preponderance of circumstantial evidence suggesting the dreaded unspoken “indefinite hiatus” is too voluminous to not at least consider the possibility of a Radiohead-free world. They haven’t put out an album in eight years. And that album, A Moon Shaped Pool, sounded a lot like a swan song. And the band members are in their 50s now. And all of them with the exception of Colin Greenwood have put out solo work. And the two most famous guys in the band started a whole other band with a drummer who is not Philip Selway. (One could say that Tom Skinner also “breathed this whole new life” into The Smile.)
After a respectful number of questions about Strange Dance, I started posing more direct inquiries about Radiohead. This did not dim Philip’s nice and gentle demeanor. He must have expected it, I’m sure. The most compelling thing he said came after I more or less asked if he was sure that Radiohead was ever going to work together again. This is what he said:
With all the other projects that we do, I look at it and think that it all falls under the umbrella of Radiohead. That’s the richness of what we do. And I still very much identify as a member of Radiohead.
The umbrella of Radiohead. That phrase has stuck with me. What it suggests is that the members of Radiohead currently regard the Radiohead brand as a protective shield — in a financial sense, surely, but also in terms of their artistic reputations — under which they can “stay dry,” as it were, while doing whatever it is that they want. Radiohead can exist even if the people who compose Radiohead are doing things totally unrelated to Radiohead. They can be a band without being a band. You can disappear completely without seeming like it. It’s like if the Beatles had decided to not do the rooftop concert or issue a press release saying they were finished, and instead just set about making solo records while maintaining their group identity as The Beatles. How long could they have kept that up? Because the guys in Radiohead have reached their Liverpool Oratorio era. Surely in this alternate timeline where The Beatles never officially break up, they would have been compelled by the early ’90s to suck it up and at least record some Buddy Holly covers or something with producer Jeff Lynne.
But I digress. The point is that Philip Selway was implicitly arguing for the solo albums and side projects to be considered as part of Radiohead’s body of work. So that is what I am doing here.
Thank you for the idea, Philip. I have repaid you by putting your four solo albums last. Again: I feel bad about this. I’m not saying these are bad albums! Familial is sleepy and Strange Dance is stodgy, but they aren’t “bad,” exactly. I actually think Weatherhouse works as a very low-key, norm-core Radiohead record. The sort of music Thom might make if he were wearing the softest robe while laying on the softest bed after eating a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner. (I know Thom is vegetarian so imagine in this scenario that he ate a soy turkey inserted with enough tryptophan to fell a Clydesdale.) That’s the Weatherhouse vibe. It sounds like Radiohead, only without Thom Yorke’s voice and intense mania and Jonny Greenwood’s mad-scientist musical flourishes. Turns out that’s a lot to miss.
26. Jonny Greenwood, Bodysong (2003)
The cliché about solo records is that people in famous bands make them because (1) they want to open a creative avenue not presently accessible in their main group or (2) they want to make music that sounds nothing like their main group. The first one clearly applies to Selway. Here’s another cliché: The last thing a drummer says before he gets fired is, “Hey, do you guys want to play one of my songs?” I’m not saying Thom Yorke literally threatened to fire Philip Selway because Philip pulled out an acoustic guitar and started strumming “By Some Miracle.” Just that being in close proximity to a guy like Thom Yorke tends to discourage other songwriters from stepping forward.
As for Jonny Greenwood, the second cliché just as obviously applies. His solo work is the least Radiohead-like of any non-Radiohead music made by the dudes in Radiohead. And that starts with his first solo record, a soundtrack to an unorthodox British documentary about the arc of human life, which came out shortly after the Kid A/Amnesiac era and sounds like an epilogue to those records. A grab-bag of experimental sketches rooted in jazz and electronic music forms, Bodysong unfolds more like a series of intriguing ideas than coherent songs. Though Greenwood’s ingenious musicality makes even the most esoteric bits highly listenable and absorbing.
25. Jonny Greenwood, Spencer (2021)
24. Jonny Greenwood, Norwegian Wood (2010)
When I interviewed Selway, I brought up a theory about why the members of Radiohead have worked more apart than together for the past 15 years. Here is the theory: Radiohead fans are insane. The level of scrutiny applied to each record is immense, and the expectation that everything they do must be a masterpiece has to be daunting. Working separately (or in two-person clusters) immediately alleviates the pressure. Suddenly, a record can just be a record and not a potential life-changing paradigm-shifter that alters the course of music.
I have personal experience with scrutiny from Radiohead fans. Three years ago, I published a book about Kid A called This Isn’t Happening. Of all the books I have written, this one is easily the most polarizing. There are people who love this book. There are people who loathe this book. You can look me up on Reddit right now and find people who are convinced that I am the biggest moron on the planet. And you will also find people — wise, right-thinking people — who think I’m witty and insightful. This is the first fanbase I have encountered where a fan might get mad at you for not reading their academic dissertation. (This really happened to me — the fan in question subsequently wrote a mean review of my book on Amazon.)
I’m merely a lowly adjunct to Radiohead’s public-facing persona, and even I find these people to be tiresome. I can’t imagine being one of the five individuals in the eye of the storm. But when I brought this up, Selway (of course) gracefully brushed it aside. “I mean, God, that’s a massive presence in your life,” he said. “One I’m quite happy to have.”
Jonny Greenwood addressed this topic from a different angle in a 2018 interview. “I’m the most impatient of everybody in Radiohead,” he told the NME. “I’ve always said I’d much rather the records were 90 percent as good, but come out twice as often, or whatever the maths works out on that.”
In other words, in Jonny’s view, making music outside of Radiohead is easier for internal reasons (related to the band’s relentless perfectionism) rather than external reasons (the nonstop chatter from batshit Radiohead fans). But I still think there’s something to working in a relatively low-stakes environment that must be refreshing for these guys. For instance, these are two perfectly good film scores for two relatively obscure and very different movies — one is a historical drama about Princess Diana, and the other is a Japanese period piece set in the 1960s.
23. Jonny Greenwood, Inherent Vice (2015)
Norwegian Wood mixes Jonny’s mesmerizing orchestrations with several tracks by Can, in case you thought Paul Thomas Anderson did that first with Inherent Vice. (Radiohead also did this in a spiritual/figurative sense on Kid A.) Anyway, this score would be higher if there were more Jonny compositions on it — as it is, it’s partly score and partly oldies soundtrack. Though I do love Jonny channeling his inner Robby Krieger (with Joanna Newsom playing The Lizard King via the voiceover) on “Spooks.”
22. Jonny Greenwood, The Master (2012)
PTA started working with Jonny after he saw Bodysong and found the movie to be “moving, scary, and hypnotic.” And that effect was created at least in part by Jonny’s moving, scary, and hypnotic music, which he brought to PTA’s next project, There Will Be Blood. (That score repurposes the Bodysong track “Convergence”; because of an Academy technicality, this prevented the score from being nominated for an Oscar.) This created the other long-standing creative partnership in Jonny’s life. Jonny himself has likened his collaboration with PTA to a band, and it has been arguably more central to his creative life in the past 17 years than Radiohead has. In Anderson, Jonny found another visionary curmudgeon whose preoccupations include the corrupting influence of capitalism, the inevitable self-destruction of human communities, and the unlikely appeal of people who feel they don’t belong here. Jonny had Kid A, and then he had Kid PTA.
But if there is an “an intense and crazy fan pressure” center outside of Radiohead, it would be the union of Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood. Every time they work together, we expect Paul to make a masterpiece and we expect Jonny to reinvent the modern film score. All of his scores for PTA films are worth hearing as stand-alone albums, though The Master feels like a transitional work situated between the innovative strangeness of There Will Be Blood and the brilliant formalism of Phantom Thread. (The exact midpoint is the mind-shredding “Baton Sparks.”) A lesser but still worthy way station between career-defining peaks, The Master is the Hail To The Thief of Jonny’s PTA scores.
21. Thom Yorke, Suspiria (2018)
An argument could be made that Jonny Greenwood has had the most notable career outside of Radiohead, given that he’s established as a genuine composer of film music as good as anyone working today. And those scores veer farthest from the Radiohead template. Jonny Greenwood has successfully reinvented himself outside of the band as an artist whose relevance in his chosen field is no longer reliant on the status afforded by being the multi-instrumentalist in the world’s most respected art-rock band.
This isn’t true for Thom Yorke. At least not when it comes to film scores. Whereas Jonny is a rock guy who is also a film score guy, Suspiria sounds like the work of a rock guy making a film score. The distinction is subtle but definitive — this album could pass for a collection of Radiohead instrumentals from the unreleased follow-up to A Moon Shaped Pool. And then there are the songs that Thom sings on, over fluttery piano chords and mournful choirs, like the saddest man at the horror show. You can forget that the guy who composed the music for The Master also played the “ka-chunk” guitar part on “Creep.” But you will never confuse the man on the Suspiria soundtrack for anyone other than Thom Yorke.
Listening to Suspiria reminds me of the soundtrack work done by Pink Floyd in the late ’60 and late ’70s for Barbet Schroeder (More, La Vallée), and not only because Yorke is working in a consciously retro milieu. Schroeder connected with Pink Floyd’s ability to evoke the menacing underbelly of the counterculture with spooky soundscapes whose simple beauty hinted at the dark, unknowable mysteries of the universe as they were perceived by the most stoned individuals in human history. Radiohead’s own preference for soundscapes over conventional songs in their post-In Rainbows era has naturally attracted contemporary filmmakers interested in conjuring similar psycho-mystical vibes. It’s the most Pink Floyd-like thing about the Gen X band most often compared to Pink Floyd.
20. EOB, Earth (2020)
I am overrating this. I know I am. If I were more objective, I would slot this record in the Selway zone. Believe me, I am self-aware about my biases. But they are still my biases. I can’t move past them. And my most blatant Radiohead bias is that I love Ed O’Brien. He’s my favorite. He’s definitely the one I would most want to hang out with. Because he seems like the best hang! And he is the glue that has kept the band together. Only Radiohead is not together at the moment, which is why Ed finally made a solo record.
The reason why Ed is so vital to Radiohead is also the central weakness of this album. In the band, he plays a complementary role. He does what is asked of him without complaint. You need some guitar? He’ll give you some guitar. You need him to not play guitar? He’ll give you no guitar. You need him to replicate Thom’s backing vocals for “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” on stage? His voice will haunt you deeply. You want to stop making albums that sound like The Bends and start making albums that sound like Aphex Twin? He might not get it right away but he’ll go along with it. You need him to simply be a super tall and very handsome man on stage? He’ll be 6-foot-5 and sport an impressive jawline. But what does the complementary role guy do when he’s the one in charge? That’s the issue that Ed never quite resolves.
On Earth, O’Brien reimagines Radiohead in the mold of an aughts-era U2 album. Many read will that as an insult, but I happen to like aughts-era U2 albums. (Like I said: Ed and I would be compatible in a hangout situation.) But there’s no question that Earth sounds like a more basic version of the mothership band. As with the Selway records, it presents Radiohead’s sonic signatures — the mix of acoustic and electric guitars, the electronic flourishes, the swelling choruses, the orchestral grandiosity — in the straightest possible fashion. And that is wholly intentional. When I interviewed O’Brien — he was also a very nice and gentle man! — he explicitly described the album as “not impressionistic” and “very direct.” And that’s what it is. So in that respect, Earth is a resounding success.
19. Jonny Greenwood, You Were Never Really Here (2018)
18. Jonny Greenwood, The Power Of The Dog (2021)
The best of his non-PTA film scores. Also, if you were to mash up these albums, it would almost sound like Radiohead. You get the wigged-out electronic stuff from You Were Never Really Here, and you get the jagged acoustic-orchestral prog stuff from The Power Of The Dog. Put it together, and you practically have Amnesiac.
17. Thom Yorke, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014)
Here begins the “grower” portion of this column. The next three albums all come from the same period, and I didn’t like any of them at first. In the early 2010s, I lost interest in new Radiohead and Radiohead-adjacent music. In my teens and twenties, Radiohead albums felt like major events. I marked my life with each new record. Pablo Honey was the definitive middle school album. The Bends was the definitive high school album. OK Computer dominated by college years. Kid A and Amnesiac marked my post-college years. A major romantic relationship ended around the time of Hail To The Thief, and a different major romantic relationship (with the woman I eventually married) blossomed around the time of In Rainbows. And then The King Of Limbs dropped, and for the first time it seemed like Radiohead transitioned to that inevitable “late” period when new albums feel significantly less urgent. And that was doubly true for the solo records and side projects. So my attention slipped. I cared less. I saw Radiohead on the King Of Limbs tour and thought it was just decent. I wrote a thinkpiece where I made fun of Thom Yorke’s ponytail. And I rolled my eyes when I read that he was now hanging out Flea. (There was also the Rolling Stone profile where Yorke was described as wearing “a bleached denim jacket with the collar popped up, a thin white T-shirt and what appear to be leather pants,” the most middle-aged rock-star attire imaginable.)
This is where Radiohead and I part ways, I thought.
That’s what I thought then. I have since come around on those early 2010s albums, starting with Thom’s second solo record. Though he did himself no favors with the blah album title (these boxes are modern, and they are from tomorrow) or the release strategy (via a paid-for-BitTorrent bundle, which played to the worst stereotypes about Radiohead fans being tech-obsessed poindexters). At the time I dismissed it as a lesser (and more boring) version of The Eraser. But now I praise it as a lesser (but still quite good!) version of The Eraser.
16. Radiohead, The King Of Limbs (2011)
Let’s return for a moment to the Radiohead book I wrote. One thing that people who hate the book always complain about is that I refer to The King Of Limbs as the worst Radiohead album. Even people who love the book complain about this to me. It is, by far, the comment I hear the most whenever my Radiohead book comes up. And whenever it comes up, I give the same two-part response.
1) Worst in this instance is not synonymous with bad or even I don’t like this. If you are going to talk about any band’s catalog in a manner that places their albums in sequential order based on personal preference, you will start with best and end with worst. It’s just how gravity works. But not every band’s worst is the same. The worst Radiohead album is not comparable to the worst album by Five Finger Death Punch. The worst Radiohead album is better than the worst album by Five Finger Death Punch, and also better than the best album by Five Finger Death Punch. The worst Radiohead album is still pretty damn good.
2) I am generalizing, but what I have found to be generally true is that the people who most appreciate The King Of Limbs also were between the ages of 16 and 23 when it came out. Which means that The King Of Limbs was an important event for them in a way it was not for me. (I was 33 when TKOL dropped.) For a certain generation, The King Of Limbs is “their” Radiohead record. This also explains why, in recent years, it’s become popular to proclaim that In Rainbows is Radiohead’s best record. Radiohead is a multi-generational rock band, and the portion of the audience made up of millennial fans has come to outnumber their Generation X backers (i.e. the ones who came of age during the epochal The Bends/OK Computer/Kid A run). Radiohead’s peak has changed because the curators have also changed. (I’ll have more to say on this later in the column, obviously.)
I get why the people who love The King Of Limbs passionately insist that it doesn’t belong in the bottom quadrant of Radiohead records. I recognize the generational factors that inform my view of the album. I do not think that my opinion is more valid than anyone else’s. I am, however, the one making this list. So, The King Of Limbs goes at No. 16.
15. Atoms For Peace, Amok (2013)
No one is more surprised than I am to see Atoms For Peace ranked above The King Of Limbs. But over time, Amok has come to sound to my ears as a superior version of the Radiohead album that immediately precedes it. Like he did with TKOL, Yorke set out with Amok to make an album “where you [aren’t] quite sure where the human starts and the machine ends.” Only on Amok it sounds like this effect is created by a band whereas The King Of Limbs actively deconstructs the sound Radiohead achieves when the guys are playing together in a room. Amok picks up where Radiohead left off on the King Of Limbs tour, when they flirted with becoming a jam band by hiring a second drummer and putting an emphasis on danceable grooves over more typical guitar-band dynamics. “Sounds kind of like Phish” was not a vibe I was ready to embrace in 2013, but these days my body particles are more geared for peace.
14. Thom Yorke, Anima (2019)
Remain In Light is one of Thom Yorke’s favorite albums, and Amok is the closest he’s come to approximating that record’s ecstatic Side 1. Most of his solo work hews closer to that record’s downbeat and spooky Side 2, with Anima venturing the farthest in that direction. I find it to be an almost unbearably sad record about loss and growing older, and when it hits — I’m thinking about “Dawn Chorus,” probably my favorite Radiohead-related song of the 2010s — it’s some of the most powerful music of the post-In Rainbows years.
13. The Smile, Wall Of Eyes (2024)
Thom and Jonny’s forthcoming sophomore effort isn’t as groovy as the first. On A Light For Attracting Attention, they strutted like a British art-rock redux of Booker T. And The MG’s, with Thom and Jonny clearly vibing on Tom Skinner’s relentless syncopations. Wall Of Eyes is rockier and, well, more Radiohead-esque. The eight-minute “Bending Hectic” is their most twist-turn-y epic since “Paranoid Android,” while tracks like “Read The Room” and “Friend Of A Friend” could pass for OK Computer B-sides. Above all, Wall Of Eyes is an album designed for luxuriating in the plush velvet that is Thom Yorke’s remarkably well-preserved voice and Jonny Greenwood’s elastic guitar playing. I listened to it on a recent frigid Saturday morning while drinking coffee, and it felt cozier than The Holdovers. I understand “Cozy” might not seem like a positive adjective in the context of a Radiohead-adjacent record, but the warmth of Wall Of Eyes hits like an invigorating balm given how chilly it has been under the Radiohead umbrella for much of the 15-plus years.
12. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
Along with Anima, this is some of the saddest music under the Radiohead umbrella. Which is saying a lot! The bar for sadness is awfully high for this band! (Whereas the bar for “wackiness” or “ska-inspired” is terribly low.) Yorke’s ex-wife died of cancer not long after it came out, and that context naturally informs how the album is perceived, particularly since it ends with a studio recording of the beloved heartbreaker “True Love Waits.” But Nigel Godrich’s father also passed during the record. And there was the death of drum technician Scott Johnson in a horrific stage collapse before a show on The King Of Limbs tour. Death pervades this album. It’s a heavy listen. And yet there’s also a lightness to Pool, like it’s slowly drifting into the ether as you’re listening to it.
11. The Smile, A Light For Attracting Attention (2022)
A common view of A Moon Shaped Pool is that it’s also a record about the end of Radiohead. By all accounts it was difficult to make, given the amount of tragedy in the band’s camp at the time. But also because all Radiohead albums are difficult to make. Going back to at least Kid A, the repetitive narrative for every Radiohead album has been We can’t be satisfied with sounding like Radiohead, so we will torture ourselves for months until we finally come to our senses. Whereas every other band on the planet would be thrilled to make a Radiohead album, the one band best equipped to make a Radiohead album has resisted the option of sounding like themselves.
What’s unclear is where this resistance comes from. Because one might assume that it would derive from the singer-songwriter and his main musical lieutenant. But Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have complained the loudest over how slowly Radiohead works. And as The Smile, they have already put out as many albums in three years as Radiohead has in 13. It’s a strange development and I don’t really understand it. Is Colin Greenwood the secret dictator of Radiohead? Does Philip Selway somehow turn into an exacting task master behind the scenes?
I go back to Jonny’s “90 percent as good” quote that I mentioned earlier. The Smile is 90 percent as good as Radiohead, but they feel slightly more satisfying at this point because whatever baggage prevents these guys from making music in Radiohead efficiently goes away under a different moniker and backed with a different drummer.
I can’t explain this. But I know that it is true.
10. Radiohead, Pablo Honey (1993)
The Radiohead album that people who are not me most often classify as their worst. I can’t do that. Because I got in with Radiohead on the ground floor. I was a 15-year-old kid who saw the video for “Creep” on MTV and immediately connected with it because that song was made for 15-year-old kids. And then I bought the CD and loved it immediately. I loved it because it was loud and dumb with loud spiky guitars and dumb wailing vocals. I loved it because it was perfect 15-year-old kid music.
None of the adjectives I used in the previous sentence would apply to Radiohead by the end of the ’90s. But just because Radiohead was retconned as esoteric music for intellectuals does not mean that their past as a loud and dumb alt-rock band did not happen. It did happen, and it’s a crucial part of their history. On Pablo Honey, Thom Yorke screams about wanting to be Jim Morrison and he’s not being ironic. (Well, maybe he’s 15 percent ironic.) Even if this is the version of Radiohead that all subsequent versions of Radiohead reacted against, I don’t think that it invalidates what initially drew listeners to them. If you can appreciate Pablo Honey, you will understand that Radiohead’s superpower isn’t thinking better than other bands. Their superpower is feeling harder and deeper. Their music is artful, yes, but Radiohead play arenas because they are super duper emo. They appeal to the mind but they speak to the heart. And on Pablo Honey, they wail directly into your aortic valve.
9. Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood (2007)
8. Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread (2017)
How do I justify putting two Jonny Greenwood film scores in the Top 10? Because There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread are the OK Computer and Kid A of Jonny Greenwood film scores. They represent his greatest solo work, and they are among the best film scores by anyone in the modern era. Of all the Radiohead-adjacent albums, they feel the most consequential. More than anything, they are what put Jonny on the map as an all-time film composer. And they also function as satisfying stand-alone albums.
My favorite Jonny film score keeps changing but right now here’s my verdict: There Will Be Blood is the more bracing, knock-you-over-the-head-with-a-bowling-pin listen, but over time I’ve come to love Phantom Thread just a little bit more. It is the most flat-out beautiful music Jonny has ever made, fully deserving of the sumptuous treatment he gives it. The achievement here really can’t be overstated: Before Jonny Greenwood, a British rock musician working with a symphony orchestra was a Spinal Tap joke. It was a sign of extreme pretension reserved for the shame-free denizens of Emerson Lake And Palmer. Jonny changed that. This is his genius.
7. Thom Yorke, The Eraser (2006)
The highest-ranking solo record, though it does feel partly like a Radiohead album. Thom assembled The Eraser from the spare parts of unused Radiohead instrumentals laid down in the early aughts — you can hear Jonny’s reconfigured piano chords on the title track, a rhythm track recorded by Ed and Philip on “Black Swan,” and a revamped sample of Hail To The Thief‘s “The Gloaming” in the murk of “And It Rained All Night.” Thom fished these parts and others from his laptop and finished up The Eraser as Radiohead endured yet another difficult album gestation, this time for In Rainbows. The final result sounds like a more direct and less misanthropic sequel to Kid A, in which Yorke takes his late ’90s fascination with Warp Records to its logical extreme. While not technically a group effort, The Eraser does belong in Radiohead’s creative arc because it extends from their most creative period and points toward a future in which Radiohead music is more plentiful outside the band than within.
6. Radiohead, Hail To The Thief (2003)
The best tracks — “There, There,” “Where I End And You Begin,” “2+2=5,” “Go To Sleep” — are as good as anything in the Top 5. And I love that the “live in the studio” looseness of HTTT makes it an anomaly in Radiohead’s catalogue. I think it’s absolutely one of the Top 5 best albums of 2003. But we are now entering the part of this column where we are comparing masterpieces against masterpieces. And I am forced to become what I have feared and mocked — the highly critical Radiohead fan. I have lived long enough to become the villain. Therefore, I am forced to concede with a heavy heart that this album is a little too padded with filler to qualify for one of the most prestigious rings of honor in music, the Radiohead Top 5.
A Special Note Before We Enter The Radiohead Top 5
Let’s remember that no matter what ends up at No. 1, we’re all winners. Also, remember that time when Thom Yorke jumped in the pool at the MTV Beach House and almost drowned? In that horrible timeline where Thom doesn’t make it out of the MTV Beach House pool, none of the following albums exist. Keep that in mind and try to be grateful that we don’t live in that timeline.
5. Radiohead, In Rainbows (2007)
Great album? Absolutely. Classic? Uh-huh. The best Radiohead album? Pump the brakes, millennials. Look, I’m technically an xennial, so I get where the In Rainbows people are coming from. In Rainbows caps Radiohead’s golden era. You can listen to it 57 times in a row without getting sick of it. The pay-what-you-want release model was the last good moment in music retail on the internet. It’s the album that ensured that Radiohead would not go down in history as a “’90s band” but as a group that put out beloved musical watersheds in multiple decades. It’s also the Radiohead LP that sounds best coming out of laptop speakers, because it’s a laidback “vibes” record in the manner of so much popular music in the 21st century. Whereas the more bombastic ’90s records might hit contemporary ears as “a little much.”
I get all that. I love In Rainbows. But it doesn’t murder me quite as hard as the next four records. For me, “a little much” is just the right amount of Radiohead.
4. Radiohead, Amnesiac (2001)
I put this at No. 4 because that is the minimum-level rank required by law for any album that includes “Pyramid Song.” Also, anyone who thinks Radiohead lacks a sense of humor does not appreciate the comedy of spending 313 hours on a song as breezy and simple as “Knives Out.”
3. Radiohead, The Bends (1995)
Speaking of albums that are “a little much,” this is my all-time “romantically traumatized teenager wallowing” record. I once walked home from school in the rain while listening to “High And Dry” on repeat on my Discman. (This was partly by design and partly because the disc kept skipping — the Discman was not an OK computer.) At the risk of making myself sound like one of the unexceptional and out-of-focus characters lurking behind James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek, I will never tire of this record’s relentless melodrama and overwhelming self-pity, no matter if Thom has publicly disavowed “High And Dry.” This is Radiohead in peak “feeling harder and deeper” mode. Yes, it’s embarrassing in places but feeling embarrassed by feelings you had 30 years ago while listening to an album you still love is one of life’s greatest and most profound pleasures. I can’t thank you enough for this, The Bends.
2. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
Over the years it has unfairly earned a reputation for being the “eat your vegetables” Radiohead record. And maybe that’s because those of us who were young at the time that Kid A came out and had our minds blown won’t shut up about it. Praise an album enough and it starts to discourage younger audiences from finding their own space for discovery. And I have, unfortunately, contributed to this. So I’m going to shut my mouth and simply suggest that you watch this video and try to imagine anyone doing what they’re doing on national television in 2024.
1. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997)
It blew my head off 27 years ago. For at least two years afterward, I wanted every new album I heard to sound like it. I still think that it’s better than every record that has come out since — not Radiohead record, I mean record by anybody. I could write a 6,000-word column ranking all of the “Oh Shit, My Arms And Legs Feel Like They’re Glowing!” moments just from this album.
Actually, that’s a good idea. Here are the Top 5 “Oh Shit, My Arms And Legs Feel Like They’re Glowing!” moments from OK Computer:
5. The “such a pretty house, such a pret-taaaay garrrrrden” part from “No Surprises.”
4. When the rhythm section temporarily drops out at the 1:24-mark of “Airbag”
3. When the rhythm section comes in at the 2:48-mark of “Exit Music (For A Film).”
2. The “that’s it, sir, you’re leaving” part at the end of “Paranoid Android”
1. The final 88 seconds of “Let Down.”
I could go on. But this is the record. I wasn’t there when Pet Sounds came out, but I did buy OK Computer in 1997 at a MediaPlay store. I missed the initial run of The Dark Side Of The Moon, but I did watch my stoned friend Marc cry to “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” On this point, I can’t argue. OK Computer isn’t just a record. It is my musical Pearl Harbor. It wrecked me, it changed me, it is a landmark in my past. You couldn’t lodge it out of my heart with a surgeon’s scalpel.