Since their first self deprecating scratch marks first lacerated the music press with the song Creep, it doesn’t really seem like anyone’s shut up about Radiohead since. The Oxfordshire band, specialists in doom, gloom and paranoia have become one of Britain’s most cherished artists, and probably rightly so. They’ve put out 9 albums, and have really, over and over, proven themselves to be consistently brilliant enough to warrant their legendary status. From their scratchy pseudo-grunge debut Pablo Honey to the delicately beautiful new release A Moon Shaped Pool, the band have put out a lot of great songs, and here are the ten I judge to be the best.
THE NATIONAL ANTHEM (Kid A, 2000)
6 minutes of dirty, rumbling, instantly classic bass, paranoid wailing and a horn section that could kill a man, this choice cut from Kid A was probably it’s most instantly accessible and enjoyable cut. There’s cosmic sounds and dark melodies, and whilst you’d probably shoehorn most of Radiohead’s songs into sounding ‘dystopic’, this genuinely depicts a science fiction film-style scorched earth, or urban hollow, so vividly that you can’t help but be made feel uncomfortable by it. But still, I think it’s probably the closest to an out and out punk rock song the band ever come and contains all the right ingredients to still remain a relevant picture of today’s increasingly hostile, worrying nation, I guess.
HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY (Kid A, 2000)
The other highlight from Kid A is this, a mostly acoustic song that deals with the themes of introversion and seclusion in a way that is really quite fragile, and definitely very beautiful. “Back there, that’s not me,” Yorke sings, his persona – probably semi-autobiographical – is a picture of loneliness, depression, or an out and out existential crisis. “I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” reads the chorus, and undeniably, this song is without a doubt an introspective account of someone so sad that they no longer feel human. With Radiohead, you’ve gotta embrace the beauty inherent in the mire of sadness, and in this case in particular, once you get over how bleak the song is, you can really concentrate on the beauty.
TRUE LOVE WAITS (A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016, I Might Be Wrong EP, 2001)
This is on the new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, as a fairly stripped down piano-type number. In fact it’s the closer. But I’ve loved this song a while, like many Radiohead fans, and like those, I’d say I prefer the version on the 2001 Might Be Wrong EP, which is live and acoustic. It’s another bawler, a sad’un, a raw emotional and tender song, that is notorious for the ever-so-beautiful, ever-so-self important line “I’m not living, I’m just killing time”. Thom delivers this amongst a bunch of beautiful lines in his trademark voice, and well, you’re lying if you don’t think that this is gorgeous.
THE TOURIST (OK Computer, 1997)
The slow, forlorn finish to the band’s quite often over-stated, overrated, but still fucking incredible OK Computer record is probably my favourite cut from it. It has this big wilting chord progression that sounds just like a sigh, and quite personally, this is the closest that Thom Yorke ever comes to voicing feelings and worries about the world that I just simply don’t have the lexis to do. The slow, tortured refrain of “hey, man, slow down/slow down” is a remark that deals with the intensity of busy, modern life. You know when you’re in a busy train station and there are people swarming like flies and milling like hamsters? The 21st century predicament that everyone’s always in a rush, due to the nature of how human life has panned out in the world, is what’s voiced here, and Thom Yorke sings it as though he’s a soul lonesome traveller going at his own pace. Well, that’s what I take from it, but this anxious album closer is definitely up there for me as one of Radiohead’s greatest.
JIGSAW FALLING INTO PLACE (In Rainbows, 2007)
Oh, the intensity, oh, the snarl. This is from In Rainbows, which is my favourite of the band’s albums, and starts off with this amazing acoustic guitar motif (that inspired art music giant Steve Reich on one of his latest records, making them one of few bands to do so) that spirals and descends down with rapid fury. It’s a riving, twisting, turning song, the vocals would burn through your internal organs if ingested and the guitar is stunning, and well, if you’re looking for something to soundtrack a mental breakdown or a full scale Neitchze-style descent into madness then well, look no further than this, friend.
THE BENDS (The Bends, 1995)
OK, this one’s like, a Radiohead song, but one that is fun. Like, you could probably get this on guitar hero, in an ideal world. It revolves around this monstrous riff, and then these guitar thrashes that keep escalating the song to tempestuous highs. I don’t really know, this is just an out and out rock song, and it’s got so many brilliant guitar bits that will most certainly blow you away if you’re a first time listener. And well, I keep bringing up Thom Yorke’s vocals, but they’re pretty damn brilliant, especially here. They start off with a bit of a snarl, but by the time he reaches the bit of the song where the verse kicks back with “where do we go from here?” his vocals sound so acidic, so penetrating and so grating that you can’t help but be extremely moved by the way in which he sings.
LOZENGE OF LOVE (My Iron Lung, 1994)
Here’s another Bends-era track, that has a kind of air of Rubber Soul about it, whilst maintaining that kinda forlorn ditty that Radiohead master ever so well. It’s my favourite rarity from around that period of their artistic history, and Yorke’s vocals are just long, searching wails that fill the space really quite beautifully. It has the same self deprecating air that lots of songs by the band have, and well, I just really appreciate how beautiful it is as a little nugget from their discography.
MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK (Kid A, 2000)
Slow and sprawling into the distance, Motion Picture Soundtrack is the closer to Kid A and really, it’s one of the most beautiful moments. It just has this organ sound – which I think is probably a church organ – that drones, as Yorke’s vocals push it up and up and up in intensity until this beautiful synthy harpy type instrument pulls the song up into heavenly ascent at the end. It’s a whirring, beautiful, abstract close to the album that was the most important in the career of one of the greatest bands of the nineties and the noughties. It’s a heavenly song with so much inherent beauty that you just, just, just, really need a moment to recover after it’s over. Deep breath. OK, on with the list.
NO SURPRISES (OK Computer, 1997)
Of the big Radiohead songs, you know, the ones that made it into the top ten or wherever, or even that everyone knows, this is the most beautiful and my favourite. It balances, juxtaposes even, these little bell sounds with the passive pessimism of Yorke’s lyrics, which incidentally are some of my favourites of his. It’s got the air of someone that’s given up, someone that has lost all faith in their normal, boring life with 2.8 children. I guess the meaning is very easy to grasp, and it’s anti-consumerism for dummies, but it’s put across so perfectly that you can’t help but adore it as a work of art. “A heart that’s filled up like a landfill/a job that slowly kills you/bruises that won’t heal” are the opening lines, and well, have you ever heard the futility of life summed up so perfectly? Well, maybe only when Yorke wheezes “such a pretty house, and such a pretty garden” three minutes later, but oh god, this is a classic and for all the right reasons.
FAKE PLASTIC TREES (The Bends, 1995)
I wanna close this list up with the song of Radiohead’s that’s been my favourite the longest. I don’t know, maybe it’s not my favourite anymore, but I think this is one of their many mostly-acoustic numbers that is the most beautiful (oh god, this band have made me use that word a lot, and I’m not even a passionate fan). Thematically it’s the same as lots of songs. Tiredness. Pessimism. Worry about the depthlessness of our existence on the loneliest planet in the solar system. Subtle strings and keys give it this really beautiful, ambient feel underneath the vocals and well, the lyrics just so perfectly articulate the whole postmodern concern with life’s depthlessness. “She looks like the real thing/she tastes like the real thing/my fake plastic love” Yorke sings, and well, it’s a gorgeous articulation of his No Logo anti-consumerist message, as the tone is tinged with sarcasm and irony, and the beauty of this song is really very subtle on the whole. That’s it, really, it's so very subtle. Subtly beautiful.
That’s just Radiohead really, subtle, subtly beautiful. For me, they really aren’t the most exciting band in the world, but their music is alive with lots and lots of beauty. These are ten of a pretty countless amount of genuinely stunning material, and well, everything from Creep to Ful Stop is pretty damn essential listening. I don’t think Radiohead are the greatest band of all time, or anything like that, but you’d be a fool to deny that they’re a bunch prolific with gorgeous, gorgeous songs at their disposal.
(written by cal cashin)