Thom Yorke, the main focus and operator of Radiohead’s mechanics, met up with guitarist Ed O’ Brien and bassist Colin Greenwood in 1985, where they would breathe life into what would soon be the band; drummer Phil Selway and Colin’s younger brother, Jonny Greenwood were the final pieces that would set everything in motion. They were formerly known as Manic Hedgehog before naming themselves after the Talking Heads song, Radiohead.
There has never been a more diverse entity than the very band who put out an album as monumentally relevant as OK Computer, but then turn around and knock the world on its axis with Kid A. With 9 incredibly textured and sonically prodigious albums to their repertoire, each of them could stand on their own without any judgments, because a band like this can pretty much get away with flirting with genres as unbalanced as jazz, classical, electronica, experimental, and ambient. So here are ten outstanding songs to sink the teeth in if one is just beginning to discover Radiohead, or if one has always wanted to get into them but just couldn’t find the right starting point.
# 10 – Life in a Glasshouse:
Rounding off the top ten spot is the final closer off of their wildly ambitious 2001 record, Amnesiac. This was the period in which Radiohead was continuing the legacy of their post-Kid A sound. They were jumping around from genre after genre here; mainly in the areas of electronica, krautrock, and jazz. This song, however, let the fans know that if Radiohead were to ever become a full-blown jazz band, then they’d make it work with no difficulties. They recruited jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and his band to perform on the song with them, where the finishing product was a socio-political protestation dangling over a New Orleans jazz funeral style.
# 9 – Blow Out
Another album closer; this time off of their misconceived debut album, Pablo Honey. The album has its fair share of heavy, riff-oriented tracks, but it also combated its rock side with just as many melodious tracks; of course, the lyrical content and theme, being the more lackadaisical attitude of the post-grunge vacuity, was omnipresent. This song is no different, but it’s the overall sound that makes it such a treat. It starts out with these fast octave chords over Thom’s unenthusiastic vocals, until eventually exploding into a fit of distorted rage. His mournful overdubs of the lyrics, all wrapped up in cotton wool…..all wrapped up in sugar-coated pills, are wonderfully grim.
# 8 – Knives Out
This hit single from the formerly mentioned album, Amnesiac, was heavily influenced by the harmony-driven technics of the highly influential English band, The Smiths; most notably the work of guitarist Johnny Marr. Ed O’ Brien even played the song for Marr, who was highly moved by it. The instrumentation of Knives Out is hauntingly dissonant, and one can definitely hear the Marr influence in the arpeggiated chord progression. The lyrics, however, descend into very dark subject matter pertaining to cannibalism……and perhaps lost love?
# 7 – The National Anthem:
Here’s our first Kid A song, and boy is it a doozy. If you thought their jazz influence on Life in a Glasshouse was polished, well, then there’s nothing that can begin to describe what’s going on here. Right off the bat, it starts with an ostinato bass riff courtesy of Thom Yorke, who was influenced by jazz bassist Charles Mingus here. Then it begins to travel in some free jazz territory; utterly mad ostentation, instrumentally speaking. As the song gets to the brass section, a tsunami of schizophrenic horns begins to howl frantically; this doesn’t stop the song from being outrageously hardcore. One could even detect a hint of King Crimson sprinkled within.
# 6 – Optimistic
Two consecutive Kid A cuts? Forget about it. This is probably the only “rock” sounding song on the whole album. A recurring croon floats over the ambient guitar layers as Thom puts to good use his signature lyrics that echo pessimism and societal dismay, but with an “optimistic” title, one could almost detect the dry irony? Who’s to know; it’s a great song, just saying.
# 5 – Electioneering:
When Radiohead put out their magnum opus, OK Computer, the world just wasn’t ready for an album that exhibited every trait of human emotion in the form of a rock opera, ranging from loneliness, anxiety, conformity, individuality, rebellion, consumerism, and the like. The album is as pertinent today as it was nineteen years ago, and this song perfectly demonstrates an angry middle finger to the political decay and mass media control of systemic propaganda and biases. Thom said he was also inspired by the “Poll Tax Riots” that occurred in London. Plus, the song is also the loudest and most crushingly aggressive on the album, so that’s why it’s also on here.
# 4 – Lurgee:
This Pablo Honey deep cut is truly a woeful cry, and that’s why it’s such an underrated gem. It advances at a taciturn pace, with a rhythm section that stands in the distance as the overall message takes center stage; a weight of emotional baggage being lifted from the shoulders. This song is for those who felt adversity in all the wrong places.
# 3 – Fake Plastic Trees
Time for some cuts from their classic album, The Bends. This was the album that cemented Radiohead’s place in the pantheon of great bands. To turn on a dime and produce an album this great after churning out a good debut is typically not in the realm of impossibility, but a lot was riding on this because many figured they would be just another one hit wonder. But back to the song. This song was released as their third single in their home country but was their first single here in the US. The song’s initial construction started out as a joke, with inspiration coming from Canary Wharlf, a business district in London that was scattered about with many artificial plants, but a Jeff Buckley concert they attended helped perfect the beauty of its quintessence. It’s one of their absolute best ballads and one of their finest moments, period.
# 2 – Let Down
This song is littered with many great attributes. It has a euphoric meadow of guitar harmonies cascading upon an electric piano, with its themes of detachment and being trapped in a never-ending cycle. This kind of conceptual derealization that juxtaposes itself with the almost lullaby-like music is what rightfully puts this song at the number two spot on our list.
# 1 – Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Our number one Radiohead song is one of their most well-known and highly lauded compositions, which is also the final track off The Bends; what a fitting song to end such an outstanding album. If Dante’s Inferno had an accompanying soundtrack, this song would surely be in the crux of it all. Thom Yorke once described it as the following:
“It is the dark tunnel without the light at the end. It represents all tragic emotion that is so hurtful that the sound of that melody is its only definition.”
He is correct. Its key, based around a droning A Minor chord, is the epitome of all hope lost; a song with no happy ending. Kind of like how the world works. But as bleak as it is, it’s still a beautiful song. And even if it doesn’t lead the listener towards resolution at the end of that dark tunnel, there’s still a faint glimmer of promise. Street Spirit (Fade Out) is preeminent Radiohead and remains not only one of their most popular songs, but one of their best.
Top 10 Radiohead Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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