Radiohead are probably the most important band of the late 20th-21st century; they’re pretty much The Beatles of Generation X. One has to marvel over their intrinsic ability to stray away from the conventions of popular music by dipping their toes in the uncharted waters of archaic and lost genres and reconfiguring them into something highly stylized and original; much like The Beatles, they were deconstructing the building blocks of modern rock music and blowing the proverbial doors off the hinges of the formulaic alt-rock of the 1990’s and crappy post-grunge/pop punk of the early 2000’s.
Formed in 1985 while they were all attending school in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, vocalist and guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarist Ed O’Brien, Bassist Colin Greenwood, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, and drummer Philip Selway assumed the moniker “On a Friday” and began playing small gigs before signed by EMI in 1991; they would eventually rename themselves “Radiohead,” a reference to a Talking Heads song, one of the band’s biggest influences. And look at what came of their career: A string of albums all fantastically unique in their own way, and a perennial legacy as the greatest art rock outfit of the past 20-some-odd years.
So, here is our ranking of Radiohead’s entire discography, so far. This is going to be exciting for me, because they’re my top five favorite band of all time and having the opportunity to gush over their music in great detail is something I’ve been wanting to do on ClassicRockHistory for quite some time. I hope you all appreciate this list, and hopefully you all take the time to stop what you’re doing after you read this and find each of these albums so you, yourself, can experience Radiohead’s cosmic luminosity.
9.) Pablo Honey
There really are no bad albums in Radiohead’s catalog, so calling this a ‘Worst to Best’ list is kind of downplaying the more positive attributes of the more underwhelming efforts; this is sort of the case with 1993’s Pablo Honey. As a stand-alone rock album, it captures the ’90’s zeitgeist of morose angst that came to define the grunge rock movement, thanks to the now-annoying hit single “Creep.” Propping this noise-driven debut up against the likes of their subsequent masterpieces, however, makes this an absolute dud; but I’ve always enjoyed the album ever since I first listened to it, because it was really my introduction to Radiohead before I ventured off into their OK Computer/Kid A territory.
So I will say that Pablo Honey is a cool starting point if you’re new to the band and don’t want to immediately splash around in their more experimental music, because here they were borrowing heavily from one of their main influences, Pixies; that whole “loud-quiet” dynamic in Pixies‘ song structures is widespread in Pablo Honey. All in all, this is a good record by itself, but an abysmal one when you realize they’d go on to make their first classic just two years later.
Key tracks to listen to: “You,” “Thinking About You,” “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” “I Can’t, “Lurgee,” and “Blow Out.”
2001’s Amnesiac can be seen as a companion piece to Kid A, since they were both conceived in the same recording sessions; the band had several leftover tracks that they were going to use to turn Kid A into a double album, but instead opted to turn them into a separate full-length release which would ultimately end up being Amnesiac. It’s one hell of a great album, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of its minimalistic soundscapes and spasmodic electronics mirror that of Kid A.
The one unique aspect of the album, though, is that it took their flirtation of avant-garde jazz and expanded it even deeper than before; you can really hear it in songs like “Dollars & Cents,” “Life In a Glasshouse,” and the Charles Mingus-inspired “Pyramid Song.” This may be only number eight on the list, but Amnesiac further demonstrates that a powerhouse like Radiohead can take a bunch of oddments and forge them into a record that’s still better than some bands’ entire careers.
Key tracks to listen to: “Pyramid Song (One of the best songs they’ve ever composed.),” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out (The most conventional rock song on the album.),”Dollars & Cents,” and “Life In a Glasshouse.”
7.) The King of Limbs
This album tends to get a bad reputation in the collective circle of hardcore fans, and I honestly haven’t a clue why; it’s one of their most innovative detours into the dark and discombobulated boscage of lucid IDM, Trip Hop, and Electronic. After the recording of 2007’s In Rainbows, Radiohead decided to abandon their signature rock textures all together and go for full-blown studio experimentation, so they put down the instruments and began utilizing turntables and sampling software written by Jonny Greenwood; pretty much the entire record are songs played by the band, but looped and edited in various ways.
The King of Limbs is yet another reminder of Radiohead’s chameleonic trendsetting. They take all these disparate genre’s, especially their love for hip hop, and amalgamates these ideas into something explosive, infectiously beat-driven, and gorgeously weird. It’s really a shame that this doesn’t get higher praise.
Key tracks to listen to: “Bloom,” “Morning Mr Magpie,” “Lotus Flower,” “Codex (One of their most beautiful compositions.),” and “Give Up the Ghost.”
6.) The Bends
Now that’s we’ve reached this portion of our list, this is where we begin discussing the following six albums which are undoubtedly their masterpieces; all perfect in their own way, but at the end of the day, some are just a little bit better than others. And if there’s one thing that can be acknowledged, it’s that 1995’s The Bends, their sophomore effort, is not only one of the defining albums of ‘90’s, but it single-handedly cemented their legacy as one of the soon-to-be greatest artists of their time; wiping the slate clean of being just another footnote in the endless cesspool of grunge and Nirvana wannabes that was starting to contaminate the airwaves of that era.
So, why is an album like The Bends so amazing? Well, because it marked the first stage in their creative vicissitude; their mélange of noise pop, indie rock, and dulcet balladry has now been fine-tuned into something more cohesive yet highly elaborate, with Thom Yorke’s lyrics becoming more cryptic and socially conscious now. You’ve got your abrasive rockers like the spacey opener “Planet Telex,” the title track, “Bones,” “Just,” “My Iron Lung,” “Black Star,” and “Sulk,” but then you’ve got your sweetly “High and Dry,” soul-crushing “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was,” as well as the bleak and foreboding closer “Street Spirit (Fade Out).
Just because this holds sixth place on this list doesn’t make it any less of a classic than it already is; it’s the perfect starting point for anybody just discovering Radiohead, and it’s one of my all-time favorites.
Key tracks to listen to: “Planet Telex,” “The Bends,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Bones,” “Just,” “(Nice Dream),” “My Iron Lung,” “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was,” and “Sulk.”
5.) Hail to the Thief
I had to go back and listen to Hail to the Thief to gather up my final opinion of it, since I’ve never really listened to it as religiously as I do these other ones; I’m so glad I did, because it really holds up well 17 years later. The band took the boundary-pushing experimentation of Kid A and the art rock prescience of OK Computer, and finally found a middle ground between the two; their 2003 album is like an electronic rock fiend’s wet dream.
But they weren’t just making the necessary adjustments to their homogenization of synthesizers, drum machines, sampling, jazzy piano, strings, and cutting-edge rock. This was also their first politically charged album in a way. Thom Yorke didn’t like what was going on in the world during the 2000 election of President George W. Bush, so he wrote the lyrics for Hail to the Thief, and even used Orwellian themes and phrases inspired by the novel 1984, to evoke the fear and paranoia of what it would be like living in a society dictated by fascism and the suppression of truth…but honestly, it just seemed like Yorke was predicting the Trump era more than anything; even the title “Hail to the Thief” was inspired by the anti-Bush slogan that was being chanted at the time.
Every facet of Radiohead’s distinct style is on full display here; they took all those avant-rock abnormalities that was beginning to polarize listeners, and they baked it into something easy to digest on this record.
Key tracks to listen to: the Orwellian “2+2=5,” “Sit Down. Stand Up.,” “Sail to the Moon,” “Go to Sleep,” “We Suck Young Blood,” the Siouxsie & the Banshees and Can-inspired “There There,” “A Punchup at a Wedding,” “Myxomatosis,” and “A Wolf at the Door.”
4.) A Moon Shaped Pool
Sometimes lauding a newer album isn’t always a good thing; when all of that hype overrides, and eventually diminishes, the quality of the music, you tend to turn the music into something a lot bigger than it really is…just look towards Oasis’ Be Here Now as an example where overrating an album upon its initial release . But 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool is not that kind of record; this was a rare example where the hype was, in fact, REAL. I always try not to let my fanaticism get in the way of properly critiquing an album, but I just can’t shower this one with enough praise: this is the best album of 2016, and pretty much one of the best albums of the past decade.
This is, bar none, Radiohead’s most beautiful record, instrumentally speaking, because they took elements of chamber, choral, folk, and ambient music, and they made it the focal point of each track; whereas the more rock-oriented textures linger in the distance, inhabiting the space of their lugubrious surroundings. Aside from the usual topics of climate change, groupthink, anti-right wing politics, and totalitarianism, Thom Yorke based most of the lyrical themes of A Moon Shaped Pool involving love and regret around the separation from his wife of 25 years, Rachel Owen, who sadly passed away from cancer shortly after it came out; just listen to the ambient heartache of “Daydreaming,” or the incredibly moving “True Love Waits,” and you’ll be the first to witness a guy like Yorke at his most raw and poignant.
For a band who were renowned for their cold and disconnected music and lyrics, A Moon Shape Pool buried those misconceptions with its warmth and orchestral splendor that could also be tear-inducing.
Key tracks to listen to: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, Desert Island Disk, Ful Stop (A great krautrock-inspired song.), Glass Eyes (This has some of the most gorgeous strings they’ve ever recorded.), Identikit (Jonny Greenwood plays one of the most soulful guitar solos of all time here.), The Numbers (The strings in this song are very Serge Gainsbourg-esque.), and True Love Waits (Seriously, this is one of their best songs; very emotional.).
3.) In Rainbows
If I was compiling this list based off my own personal feelings pertaining to each of these works, 2007’s In Rainbows would probably be number two on here; this is one that reveals something new to you after each listen. It is their only album where they took their signature experimentation and reshaped it into a colorful palette of art pop grooves, cascading strings among an aurora borealis of arpeggiated progressions, and the mercuriality of their artsy alt-rock tastefulness.
The most unique thing about In Rainbows, aside from being one of the best albums of the last twenty years, is that it was self-released through an online pricing strategy known as “pay what you want,” which allowed buyers to pay as much as they wanted for the music; that meant that you could buy the album for 10 dollars, 3 cents, or even for free. This was the first time a major act implemented this method, and it sparked some debate in the industry as to how an artist could distribute their music to the public.
But all that aside, there hasn’t been an album in their discography as well-grounded and as a human as this one; usually their biggest work is disconnected and frigid, but In Rainbows makes you feel like you can really relate to the music on a personal level.
Key tracks to listen to: 15 Steps, Bodysnatchers, Nude (One of their best.), Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (One of their most ethereal.), All I Need (This is one of their most soul-crushing songs, with one hell of a crescendo at the end.), Reckoner, House of Cards (One of their absolute best.), Jigsaw Falling into Place, and Videotape (This one is simply phenomenal.).
2.) Kid A
This is quite a conundrum. How do you pit OK Computer and Kid A against one another? It is basically like trying to compare Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, or Revolver and Sgt. Peppers. I’ve thought long and hard on how to properly rank these two, because so many people call OK Computer their magnum opus, while others say the same about Kid A . But since I’ve listened to both a thousand times, I’ve come to the conclusion that, while Kid A is incredibly revolutionary and a monumental achievement in how a band could completely abandon their roots and deconstruct the very foundation of rock music, all of that just wouldn’t possible without the existence of OK Computer.
What can you really say about Kid A ? This was the point in Radiohead’s career where they were tired of being a rock band, and especially loathsome of all of the carbon copy rip-offs they inadvertently spawned (*cough* Muse *cough* Coldplay), so they became inspired by the krautrock of Can, the jazz of Charles Mingus, Alice Coltrane, and Miles Davis, the IDM of Aphex Twin and Autechre, and Talking Heads’ 1980 classic, Remain in Light; creating a postmodern masterpiece that was the very dichotomy of everything we had been hearing from modern bands of that time.
You’ve got your electronic minimalism in the incredible opener, “Everything in its Right Place,” “Morning Bell,” as well as the title track. Then there’s the Mingus-esque avant-garde jazz of “National Anthem,” with an iconic bassline played by Yorke. Then there’s the Krzysztof Penderecki-inspired strings of the dissonant and utterly dissociative “How to Disappear Completely.” But then you also have your ambient soundscapes of “Treefingers,” your conventional art rock of “Optimistic,” post-rock leanings of “In Limbo,” the glacial IDM of “Idioteque,” and the enchanting “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” with its floating harp that sounds like it could fit right in Disney’s Fantasia.
With all its earth-shattering infamy, Kid A is a once-in-a-lifetime music experience that will continue to confound and inspire future musicians who also want to knock down the building blocks of what rock and roll is meant to sound like, and reconstruct it into their own beautiful monstrosity.
Key tracks to listen to: ALL OF THEM.
1.) OK Computer
Here we are, people; the number one spot. One of my top ten favorite albums, and one of the very best of all time; that me seem like I’m being biased by labeling OK Computer as their best…but I’m not…because it really it is their best, and millions will say the same thing. I mean, there’s a reason why this album was preserved by the National Recording Registry as being “culturally, historically, or asthetically significant.” Like every defining album(s) of the preceding era’s, this one, which came out in 1997, no less, proliferated with the kind of singular originality that ushered in a new movement of British rock acts trying desperately to harbor Radiohead’s atmospheric art rock style…but ultimately failing.
With its conceptual themes of consumerism, alienation, emotional disconnection, and political and societal decay, OK Computer pretty much prophesied what life would be like for us in the 21st century; our unhealthy reliance on modern technology also being another potent theme of the album…which has pretty much taken on a life of its own in this day and age. So in that regard, Thom Yorke and Radiohead are the Nostradamus of our time.
I was close to putting Kid A at the number one spot, but at the end of the day, OK Computer is in a pantheon all by itself. That album pretty much opened up a new chapter in music history; not since The Beatles has there ever been a band to sow the seeds of popular music, watch it grow, and then set fire to it.
And I’d like to personally thank my mother for playing plenty of Radiohead for me while I was in her womb.
Key tracks to listen to: THE ENTIRE ALBUM.