I’ve probably either listed your favorite Radiohead single already or placed it on this section of the list. Or maybe it wasn’t a single. Sorry. Pretty much everything from here on up could be top five on any given day. Its just I’m writing this today.
Fourth Single from In Rainbows, 2007
In Rainbows took a while to grow on me. Many of the songs lack obvious hooks or (like “Videotape”) are little musical puzzles waiting to be unlocked. It is an album that rewards multiple listens – like real listens, not just listens as background noise. I mean like putting on your headphones (your best headphones so you can get the full dynamic range) and focusing on the music. Maybe letting it wash over you at first, but then grappling with it. What do the lyrics mean? Why is the song structured the way its structured? Is the 01-10 theory correct (if it is, this song corresponds to OK Computer‘s “Climbing Up The Walls”).
“Reckoner” is sort of symbolic of the whole album for me. Worse than not liking it the first time I heard it, I didn’t even notice it on my first couple trips through the album. I thought it might be an extension of “Faust Arp.” (Genius presents a theory that the songs are lyrically connected but you’ll have to click through the annotations to read it) Eventually, however, “Reckoner” moved to the front of the pack. It’s a beautiful, hypnotic song with one of Yorke’s best falsetto vocals and, furthermore, it has a lovely, minimalist lyric that suggests releasing a loved one upon their death.
As it happens, the song was a code to another song – Thom Yorke released a song called “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses” that had originally been a different Radiohead song called “Reckoner” and the song-that-became “Reckoner” started its life as that song’s coda.
Key Thing That I Love: That spacey, beautiful breakdown during the third verse. It sounds like a hymn to me.
19. My Iron Lung
EP Pre-release from The Bends, 1994
While Radiohead was working on The Bends, they decided to put out an EP of outtakes and B-sides featuring the a song from that album. That song gave the title to the EP, My Iron Lung. It charted in the UK where EPs could, at a time, chart as singles.
“My Iron Lung” exists in a sort of rarefied space of songs about another song by the same band. In this case, “My Iron Lung” is about “Creep.” (#21) The song had become an enormous hit and, as a result, had become a bit of a burden for the band. Like an iron lung, it was sustaining their career, but also like an iron lung it was huge and clunky and maybe was going to hold them back. So many bands are destroyed by their big hit, either literally or artistically.
I purchased The Bends on cassette when it first came out on the strength of “Fake Plastic Trees” and was immediately struck by a couple of songs (this one and a few others which appear even higher on my list). “Iron Lung” quickly became my favorite song at the time even though I had no idea what it was about. You know, I had recently stopped being a DJ when this song came out and a strange thing was happening to my taste – I was moving away from a period of being prejudiced against certain artists just because they were popular and starting to try to listen to songs as individual pieces of art. As a result of this, part of my brain struggled all the time trying to figure out if I really liked a song or if I was trying to convince myself I liked it because I thought I should like it. My conclusion was that I just liked a whole lot more music than I thought I liked. Anyhow, listening to “My Iron Lung” again, I found myself asking myself if I genuinely like this song or if I’m just nostalgic about it because it evokes certain memories. Conclusion: I actually like it.
Key Thing That I Love: The opening guitar riff is straight off of a lost late 60’s Beatles album, but when it gets to the chorus it turns into a full on circus music meets the Pixies rave. After that point, the guitar gets much more aggressive in the verses. It’s not just Yorke who is resentful about “Creep.” J. Greenwood tells you exactly what he thinks with his guitar. It’s possible that they might not actually be grateful for their iron lung at all.
18. Knives Out
Third single from Amnesiac, 2001
Lyrically, “Knives Out” is about cannibalism on its surface. Yorke often writes in metaphor and he’s offered a couple of details about what he was thinking while writing these lyrics – one was about a businessman walking out on his family, another about how when you know somebody is dying you treat them differently. He’s stated (and you can see quotes in the two links at the start of this section) that he had lost a couple of people in his life around the time he was writing this song and it was, in part, a way that he was working through those losses. Ed O’Neil apparently played the song for Johnny Marr of The Smiths because, musically, it was partially inspired by that band.
Key Thing That I Love: “I waaaaaaant yoouuuuuu to knoooowwwwww” but also the guitar line feels like it spends the whole song exploring variations on itself. Well, to me it does.
Second Single from In Rainbows, 2007
This was Radiohead’s other Billboard Top 40 hit. Did you know that? Probably, you did. I didn’t know that. I’m so out of touch with these things these days. I used to keep line graphs of different songs progress as they rose up and down the charts hoping that it would give me some insight into why some songs were more popular than others. It didn’t give me much. I did learn that a song that rose really fast and vanished really fast would stick around in our collective brains very long (“All Right” by Christopher Cross rocketed up the charts initially and then vanished) while songs that lingered on the charts for weeks and weeks would be stuck in out brains for years even if they didn’t reach #1 (like “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell).
So “Nude” (which, according to the 01-10 theory, corresponds to “Subterranean Homesick Alien”) was Radiohead’s “most successful single on the Billboard Top 100 chart since ‘Creep.'” That link describes how there is a strong suspicion that part of the reason this song charted was because Radiohead held a fan-remix competition for this song and the downloads of the individual stems for the competition may have contributed to its placement. Who knows?
Radiohead will sometimes work on a song for years before releasing it. “Nude” was, in fact, first recorded during the “OK Computer” sessions but the band didn’t manage to create a version they liked until Colin Greenwood created the bassline that’s on this version. The bassline was worth waiting for.
Key Thing That I Love: As we get higher up this list, Thom Yorke’s vocals figure more and more prominently into why I like any given songs. I spent a good 18 months singing falsetto for a jingju production in the early 90’s and consider myself to be a bit of a connoisseur of that style of singing. Yorke’s falsetto is gorgeous. Also, Colin Greenwood’s bassline really is all that. If your headphones or speakers lack decent low-end, you’re not getting the full effect of the song.
16. High and Dry
First Single (and Double A-Side with “Planet Telex” – #35) from The Bends, 1995
“High and Dry” is another Radiohead song that Thom Yorke hates. He thinks it’s “very bad.” Radiohead described it as a Rod Stewart song. One of my favorite 80’s bands – ABC – sort of proved this point with their cover of the song in 2015. It’s a glorious piece of overproduced pop (and yet it’s somehow understated for ABC). Radiohead last played this song live in 1998 but other bands continue to play it.
Anyhow, artists don’t always know how their songs are going to be received by the wide world. “High and Dry” remains one of Radiohead’s best-loved songs for, perhaps, many of the reasons the band dislikes it. Its straightforward both musically and lyrically (Yorke, according to Consequence of Sound, dislikes it in part or its “apparent lack of lyrically meaning”) and that often connects with people. The void filled by what Yorke perceives as an absence of meaning is filled in by even casual listeners (and rabid Radiohead fans are, of course, practiced experts at filling in meaning that may or may not be there). I’ve always heard the song as being about how you can be all bluster and bravado on the outside but feel empty on the inside, especially in social settings. Maybe its not that Radiohead gets me but that I sometimes find myself in their songs.
Key Thing That I Love: The sad, lonely little “best thing that you ever had” bridge. When I’m in the right frame of mind, it’s heartbreaking.
15. All I Need
Fifth Singles from In Rainbows, 2007
According to the 01 10 theory, “All I Need” corresponds to both “Let Down” (which would play first) and “Karma Police (which plays after). When you make your 01 10 playlist, these are the three songs you’ll listen to over and over again back to back because they really do sound great together.
Rolling Stone described “All I Need” as Yorke’s most direct love song. Lyrically, perhaps – the metaphors are fairly clear. Musically, however, there’s something else going on here that I think makes it considerably more complex. Jonny Greenwood’s arrangement suggests that the obsession in the lyrics is being held back by a damn that’s about to burst even as the singer tries to keep it under control. Those little orchestral blips and wooshes are the hints that burst forth at the end and makes Yorke’s final sung “All I need” sound like it’s getting swept away in a torrent of passion. We can only suppress our strongest feelings for so long, perhaps.
Key Thing That I Love: There’s a lot to love here – the deep bass keyboard sounds, the lyrics, the slight echo on Yorke’s vocal on the chorus, the little hidden gems of sound scattered in the background (and eventually foreground) throughout the song. I think my favorite thing is the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink crescendo.
14. Lotus Flower
Charted song from The King of Limbs, 2011
This song’s video (which features Thom Yorke’s much-memed dance moves) is arguably better known than the song (because many of the aforementioned memes strip out the song). More than any other song on this list, I’ve grappled with “Lotus Flower.” It was in the high 20’s for a long time but it didn’t feel right there. The longer I worked on the list and the more I listened to everything, the higher I ranked this song. I don’t actually remember how any of the other folks who’ve ranked this song feel about it, but I think it’s among their finest pieces ever. Given a few more weeks, I might even consider it top three.
The song is really pretty incredibly complex. Every instrument fades in and out at some point in the song, even the bass/drum combo that underpins everything. There’s a ton of Ed O’Brien color on this song (well, I assume its Ed O’Brien color – it could very well be Jonny Greenwood color) as little bleps and pooks poke up to highlight different moments of the piece. This is another song that reward careful listening and relistening. I’m not sure its one that is as much fun if you’re just playing it while chopping broccoli. Well, I mean, it isn’t as fun for me when I’m doing something else and, in fact, as it pulls me in I tend to stop doing whatever else I’m doing.
Key Thing That I Love: Both instances of the refrain and chorus are irresistible to my ear. Yorke’s melody and delivery just hook me in. I ain’t telling you no lie.
UK Promo Single from A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016
Occasionally, Thom Yorke finds a phrase he likes and sings it like a dozen times. He does this on my top ranked song, he does it on this one. In fact, he has the back-up vocals pick up that phrase on this song, too. There’s a sense of order forming out of chaos on this one – the start of the song sounds like a low-key jam that turns into the first verse that turns into a tightly structured refrain. Jonny Greenwood performs a continuous jazz-like exploration on this piece that culminates in one of his finest solos.
Key Thing That I Love: “Broken hearts…. make it rain…”
12. Paranoid Android
First Single from OK Computer, 1997
You can read all about the background and the lyrical meaning of “Paranoid Android” elsewhere. I just want to self indulgently muse on the piece without delving into any of that, but if you dig this song, those links are worth a few minutes of your time.
In 1997, when the video for “Paranoid Android” was released (because video was how I was receiving most new music during those dark post-college DJ, pre-Internet music years), I was blown away. My friend thoughts were “Radiohead is our generation’s Pink Floyd” and also “this song is like our generation’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.'” I was wrong on both accounts. I would have been more accurate to have thought about George Martin’s pastiche of Beatles songs on Side-B of Abbey Road. The only thing that the song really has in common with “Bohemian Rhapsody” is that it a suite of tunes. Indeed, it makes as much sense to compare it to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or any given lump of tracks on a 70’s King Crimson album. Yes, similar arrangement technique, but in a different musical style. Similarly, Radiohead does enjoy a good jam, an oblique lyric and has an excellent sense of how to employ color in their songs like Pink Floyd, but the members of Radiohead are more music nerds than rock gods.
We try to understand the new by comparing it to things we’re familiar with and in 1997, “Paranoid Android” (and by extension OK Computer) was something new. We’d seen the explosion and implosion of grunge and Limp Bizkit style frat bro rock/rap was about to become the new mainstream thing. The late 90’s were a bleak time, man. Then here is Radiohead with this strange six-minute long, three or four-part song that sounds a little bit like liturgical music (the “rain down” section) and has lyrics that reference “unborn chicken voices” and that resolves into a guitar rave-up punctuated with electric blips and wahs. What the hell is this? Oh, Pink Floyd. Or maybe Queen. I understand that. That’s a window into the song. Plus the video is wack in the best way.
If “Fake Plastic Trees” made me think “oh, this band is more than just their hit song,” then “Paranoid Android” is what made me sit up and go “OK, Radiohead are seriously a thing to be taken seriously – add them to the greatest bands list.” I think many people reacted in the same way. It might not be their very best song (and, according to the members of the band, they were sort of just having a laugh with this song) but its one of their most important and I never, ever miss a chance to listen to it. I listened to it twice while writing this.
Key Thing That I Love: Well, in addition to loving the titular reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy‘s Marvin the Paranoid Android, the part I look forward to the most is that “Rain down” section through the rave-up which ends the song. It’s a great sing-a-long/rock-out sequence.
11. Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Fourth Single from The Bends, 1995
In the top ten, I have two songs from The Bends, three songs from Kid A, one song from A Moon Shaped Pool, two songs from OK Computer, one song from Hail to the Thief and one song from In Rainbows. I had no idea how much I loved The Bends until I started working on this list. I think I assumed that most of the songs from that album would be in the middle 20 or so of this list, but the more I listened to the whole Radiohead catalog, the more some of the songs from that album moved to the front.
Thom Yorke has apparently said that “Street Spirit” is Radiohead’s “purest song… it wrote itself.” He’s also called it “the dark tunnel without the light at the end.” Musically, they cite R.E.M. as a major influence on this tune (you can hear a little bit of the style of Automatic for the People or perhaps New Adventures in Hi Fi in the arrangement if you listen for it). It was the final song on “The Bends” and is a lyrically bleak ending for a lyrically bleak album.
The thing is, it doesn’t feel bleak – yes, the song is about fading out (of life to death) but there’s a promise of something immense in the music. Maybe its the keyboard work that kicks in on the second chorus or the slight intensification of everything for the “whoa whoa” bridge, but by the time the drums come back in leading into the third chorus, I’m feeling like the soul of the person who’s died is going somewhere. They’re gone, but there’s eternal life (or something) to come – and Yorke seems to confirm this by singing “Immerse your soul in love” twice as the song ends.
Key Thing That I Love: I really love Jonny Greenwood’s guitar arpeggios on this track. And, with apologies to Thom Yorke, I love how hopeful this song makes me feel during bleak times.
Coming Soon: I’m not sure my favorite Radiohead single is anyone else’s favorite single. I hope you’ll let me know.