‘I’m a Creep!’ Ask anyone what three word phrase describes Radiohead and they will most likely return this classic lyric from debut album, Pablo Honey. The album came at the peak of Grunge’s hold on the British music scene, just before Britpop’s rise would wash away the influence of Cobain’s teen spirit from the UK’s top bands. Their lead single, ‘Creep,’ is a classic in the Radiohead oeuvre and a fan favourite as much as a perfect starting point for those new to Radiohead. It is simple, but simplicity is something often lacking from Radiohead. Enjoy it while you can!
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Peaking at number four in the UK charts, 1995 album The Bends, catapulted Radiohead into the mainstream. Their influences — particularly U2 and the stadium rock of the 80s — still came through in the almighty choruses and guitar solos, but the quieter moments took the band to an entirely new and spiritual level. ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out),’ the last song on the album, was the emotional zenith, offering a tease of the transcendental that the band would subsequently achieve on Ok Computer. After the angst and anger of the album as a whole, ‘Street Spirit’ washed us clean of our collective trauma, ready in wait for the game changing follow-up in which Thom Yorke and co. would redefine rock. But, in the meantime, The Bends is sustained quality and if you make it to ‘Street Spirit’, you have truly heard an encapsulating critique of 1990s society.
Radiohead has never sought simplicity. A song in three parts is made for an orchestra. But ‘Paranoid Android’ is exactly that. While the lyrics ‘Come on and rain down on me’ might not seem like rewriting the song book (we all like a rant against the weather in the UK), the song is the centrepiece of an album that took the band to a whole new political dimension. Those ‘unborn chicken voices in our heads’ and the noise that ‘buzzes like a fridge’ anticipated the restlessness and constant distraction that haunts us today. While other songs were more overtly political (‘No Surprises’ cries, ‘Bring down the government!’), the political protest is very much implicit on ‘Paranoid Android,’ allowing the quality of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar to shine. Effortless genius in the shape of a great bowl cut.
The three year wait for Kid A invited much speculation, but no one could have anticipated such a seismic shift in sound that would once again redefine ‘indie’ for a generation (and grab these Abingdon alt rockers a U.S. number one hit). Foregoing the guitar, the bedrock of their early success, Yorke and co. turned to the synth with established producer Nigel Godrich. The angst and anger was still there, but the landscape was transformed into an icy cold detachment that resonated with the turn of a millennia feel that haunted all. Radiohead realised disillusionment in musical perfection. Underscored by this sensational song, is the fact that it somehow couples complete and abject hopelessness with a beat you can dance to. This is Radiohead to a tee. Apocalyptic dance, call it ‘Idioteque.’ Proof that even the depressive can dance. And dance they do.
‘Catch the mouse, squash his head.’ They might not sound the most gentle of lyrics, but, ironically, ‘Knives Out’ is a softer moment on the often unappealing sonic experiment that is Amnesiac. A truly brilliant Radiohead song is one that could fit on any of their albums. ‘Knives Out’ is just that. The acoustic brilliance and soaring qualities make the song a great single that could slot straight into The Bends or even In Rainbows. The fact that it, alongside the whole of Amnesiac, was produced in the recording sessions for Kid A, showcases the depth of quality and selectiveness of a band who know what fits where. And so, ’Knives Out’ slots straight into our top songs.
It seems a little obvious to ascribe the rise of Math rock in the mid and late 2000s with bands like Foals and Everything Everything, to a single song. But to select one, it would probably be this equation of a song. For anyone who has ever struggled with mathematics, this represents Radiohead at their most confusing. While the album once more returns to the political (Iraq War), ‘2+2=5’ appeals to anyone. Not only is it the most frantic of the songs on this list — the chorus is a simple scream of ‘PAYIN’ ATTENTION’ — it deals with our most pressing concerns, namely the weather. Ever stared out of the window dreaming of the summer sun. Sadly, even ‘January has April showers’ in a sorry inversion of the climate that just adds to our despair. Thanks, Thom.
If ‘2+2=5’ was Radiohead at their most frantic, then ‘Reckoner’ is their most cathartic, transcendental beauty. Nothing grabs you quite like the musical complexity and simple agony of Yorke’s pained, yet life-affirming vocals. He has come to wash away our sins, ‘you are not to blame for all your problems’ and finding it in his heart to be ‘dedicated to all human beings.’ They are vapid prayers echoing into the void of the world. But the lines are beautiful testaments to his songwriting ability. Meanwhile, the percussion section comes to the fore in a great display of instrumental dexterity and flawless timing. For Radiohead, underplaying is very much against type, but here they just let the music speak for itself. The fact that the single was released on a pay-what-you-want basis seems to support their confidence in the quality of their art.
‘Lotus Flower’ provides probably the best tease for the new material omitting from the Radiohead recording studios in the next weeks and months. Their movement into post-apocalyptic dance that started with Kid A’s ‘Idioteque’ reached new heights on the energetic shuffle of ‘Lotus Flower.’ It is perhaps not Radiohead’s most lyrical or heartfelt song, feeling more like a vehicle for Yorke’s spasmodic dance moves (see video), but it is still a serious single that demands a listen (or several). 2011’s King of Limbs was a sonic explosion, but lacked the cohesion and soul of the earlier Radiohead releases. Here’s hoping they can marry the two once again this year, as the world awaits another totem of alt-rock to add to the Radiohead canon.