Rapping up my Radiohead list with ten ridiculously good songs. Thank you for sticking around through the long break. Let me know what you think in the comments or on Facebook!
Charted song from Kid A, 2000
Radiohead released no singles from Kid A but several of the songs managed to get extensive airplay, particularly “Optimistic.” I can’t help but think that Thom Yorke (or whichever band member named this song) smirked ironically at the title. Radiohead? Releasing a song called “Optimistic?” Riiiiight. While there are some violent and ugly images in the lyrics, the chorus (“You can try the best you can/The best you can is good enough”) is genuinely optimistic (assuming it’s not intended ironically). Even when feeling impotent in the face of the compounding horrors of life, doing the best you can to muddle through it and maybe make it a little better really is good enough. Indeed, I have pretty bad depressions and sometimes just getting up and putting on pants is a feat of heroic strength for me.
Anyhow, if the success of “Creep” freaked the band out so much that they thoroughly rejected it and ultimately created OK Computer, the overwhelmingly positive reception of OK Computer messed with at least Yorke’s mind and led to the creation of Kid A. I get this idea, sort of. We have a joke among my friends that winning an award is a sign we were doing something wrong (and I just won a lifetime achievement award, so by this logic I have always been doing everything wrong). There’s this belief among many artists that popular success equates some sort of artistic moral failure. The thing is, of course, any given piece’s relative artistic success is so subjective as to be impossible to equate with any sort of true value judgement. The sales figures of OK Computer in no way suggest long-term artistic success or failure. Indeed, perhaps the positive contemporary critical response didn’t suggest anything either.
Let’s use the sculpture Fearless Girl as an example. It was commissioned by an investment management firm. Thus, without a doubt, it is corporate art in its origin. However, it has come to represent something bigger to many people than its origin. Indeed, I suspect most of the people who love it don’t know its origin at all. Similarly, OK Computer has had a profound impact on millions of people (including several bands who built their careers around Radiohead’s late 90’s sound). As an artist, I get being torn between wanting your work to be a success and wanting to stay true to my values. The danger is in mistaking this as a dichotomy. You can stay true to your values and achieve success. Just try the best you can. Its good enough.
Oh! And the song reference the piggies of the “This Little Piggy” nursery rhyme, so there’s a Pink Floyd connection.
Key Thing That I Love: The drums, the guitars, the chorus, Yorke’s falsetto.
9. House of Cards
Second Single (with “Bodysnatchers” – #39) from In Rainbows, 2007
“House of Cards” is not (to my knowledge) related to the TV series. According to the 01 10 Theory, this track corresponds to “No Surprises” (see below) on OK Computer. This song is easily my favorite on In Rainbows. The lyrics are about a man in love with a woman who is married to another man. The titular “house of cards” is her relationship. There’s a suggestion that he’s married too (he encourages her “forget about your house of cards/and I’ll do mine”). There’s a thing going on here about how easy it is to destroy a relationship – they’re fragile things. The last pair of lines (“Your ears should be burning/denial denial”) suggests that the object of Yorke’s obsession might be unaware that he feels this way and that this song is his way of hinting about it to the world – her ears should be burning because he’s talking about her right now (and perhaps he’ll deny it if she asks).
Key Thing That I Love: Jonny Greenwood’s understated guitar work here is masterful.
8. Karma Police
Second Single from OK Computer, 1997
According to the 01 10 Theory, this song corresponds to “All I Need” (#15). I am skeptical of karma because I don’t believe in the just-world hypothesis. To whit, I don’t think that the universe arcs towards justice, I don’t believe that things happen according to divine plans, I don’t believe evil people who die before their deeds catch up to them suffer for those deeds in the afterlife. I do think that things happen for reasons but, perhaps, in the same way that every rock that falls in an avalanche is falling for a reason. You know, gravity. Furthermore, the popular conception of karma is an overly simplified version of actual Hindu karma. So, I mean, there’s not even an especially firm spiritual basis for that popular conception.
That said, it’s comforting to imagine that a person’s wicked deeds (or willfully annoying behavior or whatever) will come back to bite them in the ass. Thus, even though reason suggests to me that karma doesn’t exist (and the “examples” or it we witness ignore that millions of other times that people get away with nasty stuff with no repercussions), I admit that when I get really angry about stuff, I want to turn into a karma police officer (or The Spectre) and sow just deserts on the cruel and malicious. Thus, I find the lyrics to “Karma Police” to be a pleasant bit of wish-fulfillment (combined with a subtle reminder that if karma comes to bite your enemy’s behinds its just as likely to bite your behind for your misdeeds).
Key Thing That I Love: That very first moment of drum after the piano intro. I’m hooked.
Video from Kid A, 2000
There were no singles from Kid A, but I have three songs from that album in my top ten. Go figure. It pays to stretch the definition of single because who doesn’t want to listen to “Idioteque” on repeat forever? The piece started off its life as a 50 minute Jonny Greenwood soundscape built partially around a brief sample from Paul Lansky’s Mind und Leske and another from Arthur Kreiger’s “Short Piece.” Those are both interesting pieces of mid-70’s computer music and its worth checking them out even though you’ll be hard pressed to find the sample in the Lansky piece (its easier to find the sampled part in the Kreiger piece). Anyhow, if you like this song (yay!) and you hate sampling (boo!), your brain now needs to collapse into a black hole of cognitive dissonance. Sorry.
When Kid A was released, this piece sounded the furthest removed from their prior work to my ear. The lyrics are apocalyptic. The music reinforces this theme – everything you expect from Radiohead is stripped away and replaced with a tinny drum track and those electronic samples. Yorke sings about a coming head-melting disaster and subsequent ice age, imploring us to let women and children be the first into the bunkers. Essentially, there’s a sense of this being a dance song for the end of the world.
I think I mentioned before that I just played Kid A as pre-show music for my 2002 production of Hamlet. I tried to make the production cold and apocalyptic and thought this album was perfect for setting that mood as he audience was coming in.
Key Thing That I Love: I hear a sense of increasing frenzied desperation to Yorke’s singing that makes the piece all the more terrifying. Maybe that’s just in my head but its real to me.
6. Burn the Witch
First Single from A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016
Originally written during the Kid A sessions, Radiohead took about 15 years to finally hit upon and release a version of the song they liked. Built around percussive, swirling strings (arranged by Jonny Greenwood), the music suggests a kind of rising anxiety which underscores the critique of the authoritarian mindset in the lyrics. In fact, I think this is one of Yorke’s most pointed and effective political messages. We’re in some dangerous times where frightened, insular people look for scapegoats to pin their problems on. Scary times, scary times.
The video, it should note, references the 1973 movie version of Wicker Man and not the lesser (yet more meme-worthy) 2006 version.
Key Thing That I Love: The strings feel like they are falling apart by the end of the piece, rising to a horrific shriek. The lyrics are fantastic. Singing along with “Buuuuuuurn the wiii-iii-iii-iiitch” is always satisfying.
Fourth Single from The Bends, 1995
I’ve been in a “Just” mood of late. Many of Radiohead’s songs address depression or self-loathing but few are aggressive as this. While the song was ostensibly inspired by a narcissistic friend of Thom Yorke’s, it’s pretty easy to read the lyrics as self-directed (especially when you’re feeling like your mood is largely based on what’s going on inside you). Radiohead was already starting to move away from this sort of Pixies-ish rock song on The Bends but, you know, the soft-loud thing still really works for me. The video is also fantastic – a little existential horror story with no answer.
Key Thing That I Love: The great instrumental break here with the guitar solo that ascends angrily and sloppily to the heavens is boss.
4. No Surprises
Fourth Single from OK Computer, 1997
My highest ranked song from OK Computer (Whaaaaaa?) is arguably the greatest song ever written about depression – and I write that as a die-hard Cure fan so I know of what I speak. In context of the rest of the lyrics, its clear to me that Yorke’s desire for “no alarms and no surprises” is a desire to be dead (where, obviously, you would not experience alarm or surprise because you’d cease to exist). There. That’s it. When you’re depressed and are seriously considering suicide, you’re not hoping for something better. You’re hoping to just stop existing.
According to Wikipedia (and whatever source they cite), Yorke has states that the “child-like guitar” at the start of the song set the mood for all of OK Computer and was an attempt to sound a bit like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I mean, if Pet Sounds were about the creeping nightmare of the modern world instead of a celebration of love.
Key Thing That I Love: Yorke sings the pretty “Such a pretty house” with a bitter disgust. Also, the way the ending just sort of wraps up like a music box winding down. That’s what depression feels like.
“No Surprises” corresponds to “House of Cards” if you ascribe to the 01 10 Theory.
3. How to Disappear Completely
Live Video (not that one – I think this is the live one) from Kid A, 2000
I am so happy this was released as a live video. Indeed, I’m so happy that I decided to take this chance to write about the original album version of the song, which is the best track on Kid A and one of the greatest pieces Radiohead ever created. Indeed, I can’t find the quote, but I’m almost certain Thom Yorke cited this song as among his favorite tracks. The title was suggested by something Michael Stipe of REM said to Yorke – Yorke, at a low point, called Stipe and expressed that he couldn’t cope with life and Stipe replied “Pull the shutters down and keep saying, ‘I’m not here, this is not happening.'” The song was also inspired by a dream Yorke had about wandering around as a ghost in a city. Don’t we all feel like that sometime? Like we’re just floating around our city or town disconnected from the reality of life? No? Just Yorke and me?
Anyhow, Radiohead often creates a sense of cinematic drama in their songs. Everything sounds a little distant and dream-like at the beginning with those sharp Doppler effect-like keyboard (string?) stings floating to the surface every now and then. The band has recorded a number of songs that successfully capture a dream aesthetic but I think this is their best.
The top three here were the top three the whole way through this process even as other song cycled through the rest of the top five, top ten, etc.
Key Thing That I Love: This is hand’s down Yorke’s finest vocal performance on any Radiohead song. The “ah-ahhhhh” that mimic the string (keyboard?) stings eventually are a high point.
2. Fake Plastic Trees
First Single from The Bends, 1995
I loved “Creep” (#21) back in the day but I’d been doing college radio for about eight years and was used to bands releasing a great song and then vanishing back into obscurity. It was always a bit of a surprise when a band demonstrated any serious staying power. I had needle-dropped my way through the rest of Pablo Honey and wasn’t especially impressed. Sure, they were fine, but grunge was on the rise and at last the music I’d been championing for years (if not the specific bands) were breaking left and right. Yes, this had slowed down a bit by 1995 and some of the “punk” acts that were breaking sounded suspiciously like they’d been put together by a record company AR man, but I’d already started forgetting about Radiohead.
One day, I’m watching some sort of non-MTV video channel (something called The Box) and suddenly there. is. this. song. I managed to miss completely who had performed it but I was immediately drawn to the remarkable vocal performance. The ending where he turns from the plaintive cry of the third verse to the pained warble of the final chorus? I mean, that is some amazing stuff. And the way the music carries him there and then drops him off with just his acoustic guitar to wrap up the song? Seriously. So good. I ended up watching The Box for like three days waiting to catch the song again and ultimately, of course, learned it was Radiohead, decided there must really be something to the band, and went out and purchased The Bends. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Key Thing That I Love: This is Yorke’s second finest vocal performance (see #3) but it’s really fine. The thing that makes me love this song is how the whole band contributes to that remarkable crescendo. The song is a rock song in spirit that isn’t actually a rock song.
1. There There
First Single from Hail to the Thief, 2003
I have to confess, I have no idea if this is a controversial choice or not. Reviewing other lists of “best Radiohead songs,” there’s not a clear contender for best song or even best ten songs. I think Radiohead might not have a universal best song – like everybody finds the Radiohead song that is right for them. Or the song finds them. Who can say?
In the legends of Radiohead recording sessions, you know a song is something special if the story includes a line like “after recording the song Thom Yorke wept.” This one did make him cry (so did “Fake Plastic Trees”). “There There” is another song that Yorke identified as the band’s best work and it did, indeed, take a ton of work to reach a version that made them happy. This one is a controlled slow-burner that gets better with repeat listens. Guitar solos often sound forced to me but by the time Jonny Greenwood launches into his on this song it is completely deserved.
I didn’t know this was my favorite Radiohead song. I’ve described my working method before, but essentially I listen to all of the singles I’m working with chronologically and then do a rough ranking and then shuffle them around. I didn’t so much place this one at the top as I placed everything else beneath it. It was like what they say about sculptors finding the statue within the stone. When I finished my first draft of the list and this was at top, I thought “Oh, that’s interesting, but of course.” Even when I was listening to some of the most remarkable songs every recorded, I kept thinking “I’m so excited that ‘There There’ is still coming up.” So, yeah, this song selected me.
I’m also thrilled that this song being at number one justifies using my MS Paint version of the Hail to the Thief album cover because holy cats that took me forever to make and I’m proud of it.
Key Thing That I Love: The line “we are accidents waiting to happen” might be the most adroit summary of humanity in a rock song ever penned. I can’t get the guitar line out of my head. The drum and bass work is perfect.
Coming Soon: Kevin Rowland and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Throwing Muses and (gulp) David Bowie. Probably in that order.