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The way I interacted with music has changed based on my life circumstances. When I was in high school and college and every new song felt like a world-changing event, I valued it differently than I did in, say, the 00’s when every new song felt more like a little puzzle waiting to be unlocked. This is to say I experienced artists like Madonna, REM or The Replacements in a visceral way when I was first listening to them. When I listened to artists like Fiona Apple or The Hives, I was increasingly detached from that immediate teenage shock of emotion.
Radiohead first appeared on my radar with “Creep” in 1993. I imagine that would likely be true for you as well if you were alive back then. It was my last year as a DJ at KTUH (or at all) and they had their most artistically thrilling period during my “music dark ages” (roughly 1994 through 2002), a period where I was rarely exposed to new music of any sort. I kept up with Radiohead because I caught a video of “Fake Plastic Trees” on some video show or other (I think it was called The Box) and was so blown away that I picked up The Bends (one of the last cassettes I ever purchases) and then had a similar experience when I saw the “Paranoid Android” video on MTV. Thus, Radiohead were one of the few musical acts (along with Bjork, Beck and a couple of others) that debuted in the early 90’s (well, solo Bjork) that I stuck with all these years since.
None-the-less, I don’t necessarily associate specific Radiohead songs with the passion of my youth. I mean, I love Radiohead but I’m not nostalgic or sentimental about them in the least (I’m very nostalgic about, say, New Order and The Cure). This means that I’m going to be writing differently about them than most of the previous “big name” bands that I’ve written about. I’m passionate about their music and reviewing their singles has been one of the most pleasant chapters of this project, but I don’t hear “Optimistic” and think about how it helped me work through a bad break-up, know what I’m saying?
OK, so, as always, I pulled my singles list from Wikipedia’s Radiohead discography page and from Discogs. Since there were no singles from Kid A (RIGHT?), I’ve opted to include all songs released as official singles, promo singles, promotional videos or iBlip videos. I’ve included one live song, but I’m going to be writing about the studio version of that song instead of the live single (I’d have ranked the live single in the same spot – it’s a great live performance – but I’m getting ahead of myself). This time, I’ve tried to err on the side of inclusion.
I also spent some time (for the first time) reviewing some other site’s rankings of Radiohead’s singles (Consequences of Sound, Vulture, Buzzfeed). After my initial ranking, I went to those lists and looked at places where I was way, way off from the critical consensus and then revisited songs that I’d ranked in weird places. Since this list is based on the concept of “what do I, R. Kevin, enjoy,” I rarely changed my choices but there were a couple of instances where I did hear a song in a new light and moved it up or down. Still, my number one song isn’t anybody else’s number one song. Hmm.
Thom Yorke’s lyrics are almost always worth listening to, analyzing and pouring over. I’ll not be doing that because it would triple the length of this project and I’d like to finish Radiohead sometime in early October (because the major list coming up next is a doozy).
Anyhow, my bottom 11 are definitely my bottom 11.
61. Pop Is Dead
Non-album single, 1993
Guitarist Ed O’Brian famously called this song a “hideous mistake.” Radiohead has pretty much disowned this track – it’s not available via streaming service nor has it been included in any of their hits compilations (even though it reached #42 on the UK charts). Basically, rating it last is a no-brainer. It’s not representative of their later work (it’s barely representative of their other early 90’s work), the lyrics is sort of a clichéd take down of the pop music industry and the video suggests a band that wants to be part of the very same pop world they decry (though it’s a pretty decent pop star video). Yes, you can rack up some cool meta-pop points by recording a pop song that disses pop songs (see The Smiths #6) and Radiohead later demonstrated through their art that they genuinely wanted to reject the confines of pop music, but this song is (at best) a third-rate early 90’s rock number. I’m pleased to say that everything they recorded after was better. Indeed, everything they recorded before was better too.
From the “The Daily Mail” / “Staircase” digital single, 2011
In 2011, Radiohead performed their second In The Basement performance, The King of Limbs: Live From The Basement. They released a double A-Side from that performance of “The Daily Mail” and “Staircase,” two songs that weren’t included on the studio release of King of Limbs. The song has a pretty hot krautrock style rhythm line courtesy of bass player Colin Greenwood, drummer Philip Selway and guest percussionist Clive Deamer. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just not especially memorable. Thom Yorke’s vocal line almost sounds improvised (which, if you know me, is a good thing) and his voice sounds typically excellent but he never quite finds a melodic hook. The lyrics seem uncharacteristically unfinished and, hey, the song never passed the demo stage during The King of Limbs sessions so maybe they just never finished it.
59. Push Pulk/Spinning Plates
Music Video Release for both songs from Amnesiac, 2001
The title of the first of these songs always makes me think of the B Kliban cartoon “Hardw.” Anyhow, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Door” and “Like Spinning Plates” are two songs from Amnesiac that were released together in video form, so I’m treating them as one single here. I was surprised and pleased when Radiohead released Amnesiac so soon after Kid A. It was only years later that I learned that it was recorded literally at the same time as Kid A. Aurally, this makes sense – the albums obviously come from the same sonic place. The thing is, Kid A has a sort of overall superior flow to it – it works best as a whole. The tracks on Amnesiac are generally quite excellent but they don’t sound “of a piece” in the same way as the Kid A tracks. Anyhow, I find both of these tracks to be beautiful, kind of relaxing and utterly forgettable. Compelling digital video though.
58. Motion Picture Soundtrack
iBlip from Kid-A, 2000
There’s a lot of love for this song out there (Consequence of Sound ranks it at #11, Vulture puts it at #29, Buzzfeed puts it at #15) but when I put out a call on Facebook this week asking my friends to persuade me to rank this song higher, nobody stepped forward. I don’t get the love for the song. I do get the love for the lyrics on the other hand, which are minimalist and profoundly sad. I also very much enjoy this song in context of the whole album. In fact, no matter how high I’ve rated a song from Kid A, be assured I like the song even more in context of the whole album. There’s a reason they didn’t release singles.
Yes, no singles, but they did release “iBlips” for a number of songs. 2000 was close to the dawn of online video work so Radiohead was breaking new ground by making a few Internet-only videos to promote the album. The video for this song is an especially lovely digital video that brings the cover of Kid A to life.
57. The Butcher
From the “Supercollider” / “The Butcher” Record Store Day Single, 2011
Record Store Day is a day in April aimed at celebrating independent record stores. As part of this day, many musicians release special singles or records as a way to entice customers into those stores. I have probably not been in a record store for a decade but even taking that into account, I’ve probably spent more time in my life in record stores than any other specialty shop (even comic book stores, though it would be a close thing). I’m super nostalgic about record stores, but I still don’t go to them – at least in part because out here in Hawaii, I don’t really run into anything I might buy anymore that I can’t get for less online. Also, ordering it online means not having to, you know, see people. “Supercollider” and “The Butcher” were Radiohead’s 2011 double a-side contribution to this annual event.
“The Butcher” was recorded during the King of Limbs sessions and the cover to the single uses art reminiscent of that album. It’s another Krautrock influenced track with a throbbing, skittering drum part, an understated bass line and some occasional other blossoms of sound. I enjoy Thom Yorke’s “ah-aaah” backing vocals and the lyric is interesting, but I can’t escape the feeling that I’m listening to an unfinished song. It sounds a bit like an outtake from an early 80’s pre-goth synth rock album – like Ministry right before they became Ministry for real.
56. Harry Patch (In Memory Of)
Non-album digital single, 2009
I’ve clustered a whole bunch of their releases from between the release of In Rainbows and the release of King of Limbs all together here near the end. Most of those tracks are outtakes from The King of Limbs sessions but this track was specifically made and released to memorialize Harry Patch, who lived to be the final World War 1 combat soldier. The lyrics are, in part, taken from Patch’s own words. Johnny Greenwood composed the music and arranged the strings and Thom Yorke, of course, sings. I believe they’re the only two members of the band represented on this track. Patch’s family approved of the song and the proceeds went to The Royal British Legion. I spend more time thinking about World War 1 – particularly its absurdity – than any other major battle. Generals and soldiers who really had no idea about how their new technology had altered warfare trying to fight a war as if with older technology. Whole villages and towns losing all of their young men because they were allowed to join the same battalions. Soldiers on opposing sides who sometimes seemed to genuinely have no animosity towards each other fighting wars for toppling monarchies. I wonder often these days if we’re not in a similar time where technology is demanding that the world change and we’re going to be unable to change with it until its destroyed us and toppled the 20th century regimes.
Radiohead’s song is lovely and poignant and its heart and message are spot on. It’s just that the melody doesn’t stick with me (sometimes certain string figures do).
55. These Are My Twisted Words
Non-album digital single, 2009
Krautrock is a term used to describe a certain brand of experimental German rock characterized by a steady, bass-heavy 4/4 beat called motorik. Arguably the best known band from this genre is Can who influenced many 80’s and 90’s rock bands. Anyhow, “These Are My Twisted Words” is another song from the 2009-2011 period that seems to find some inspiration in that German rock genre. I also hear some early Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd in the guitar explorations. Thom Yorke sings a haunting (and somewhat detached sounding) vocal line. Interesting stuff but still not enough to really stick in my head for any length of time (the common theme for this last chunk of songs)
54. Palo Alto
Music Video Release of “No Surprises” B-Side, 1999
I could only find the video on DailyMotion. “Palo Alto” is included on my list because – even though it was a b-side – a video was made for it. Every time I am about to really like this song, I hear something that makes me not like it (I’m nitpicking, but currently its the way Yorke sings the word “con-cen-trate”). This song is oft cited as a fan favorite. I wonder sometimes if my obscure favorites from some of my favorite bands (R.E.M. #1) are, in part, songs I love because I feel like they’re the little room in which I can be alone with my favorite musician. My whole life I’ve identified myself as a person who doesn’t have favorites because I think there’s an absurd futility in ranking sensory experiences. Indeed, if I were to redo this project from the beginning, odds are good some of the lists would be shockingly different (I’d likely rank Madonna’s “Cherish” higher than #84 due to peer pressure). Anyhow, call me in four months and see if “Palo Alto” hasn’t slid up into the top 30. Or slid down to 60. WHO CAN SAY?
53. Thinking About You
Philippines promo single from Pablo Honey, 1993
“Thinking About You” was allegedly released as a single in the Philippines. I write “allegedly” because I’ve become skeptical about Discogs lately. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I feel like some of the singles they advertise weren’t legit singles. Like, they weren’t even legit bootlegs. “Thinking About You” is from Pablo Honey (that’s my MS Paint version of the Pablo Honey cover at the top of this list), Radiohead’s first album. They were still finding their identity on this record (I have a friend who believes they didn’t find their identity until Kid A, but I think they were well on their way by “Fake Plastic Trees” and even kind of taking steps in that direction with “Creep”). This song is an atypical (for them) acoustic guitar driven piece. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was by just about any other 1993 alternative rock band. Not a bad song, just not an especially great song.
52. Go To Sleep. (Little Man being Erased.)
From 2003’s Hail to the Thief, Second Single
The first song on this list from Hail to the Thief, the album that came after Kid A and Amnesiac. I decided – without any rationale or evidence – that Radiohead had gone downhill since Amnesiac and I wasn’t going to buy the album. Part of this, I think, was due to the “Hey, R. Kevin, you will like this thing” effect. To whit, when people tell me I’m going to like something, my brain decides immediately I will not. My brain is almost always wrong. Anyhow, my friend Nicole knew I was a Radiohead fan and burned a copy of this CD for me and I eventually bought a copy because it turns out I really rather like the album. I was a little shocked, however, to discover that “Go To Sleep” was released as a single because I think its one of the record’s weaker tracks. It feels like it’s just starting to really cook and then it stops. I wonder if there’s like a nine minute version of this song that blows the roof of any joint it happens to be in. It sounds like a great 70’s folk rock song (maybe especially live) but, yeah, a little undercooked.
From the “Supercollider” / “The Butcher” Record Store Day Single, 2011
This is the first song on this list that I really truly like. If every song from here on out is potentially my favorite Radiohead song, this is my least favorite favorite Radiohead song. “Supercollider” is the wall between the mediocre and the good on my list. It’s another Krautrock influenced tune. I absolutely love the endless repetitive drum and keyboard (?) lines that the rest of the song is built upon. Yorke sings a restrained vocal line that really simmers on the “I put the shadows back into the boxes” chorus. I’d initially ranked this song a lot higher but I’ve moved it down to this spot because I recognize some of what I’m responding to is what I think the song could be and not what the song actually is. In my head, Yorke his higher highs on this track, particularly at the end. I wish you could hear what I hear in my head because its fantastic. The 2008 live version comes close to capturing what I hear so imagine Yorke’s vocal there with the studio instrumentation.
Coming Soon: Will I avoid serious controversy for the bottom 21? I doubt it.