I’m a little surprised that this Radiohead list hasn’t generated more controversy (for those of you just joining us, most of my readers tend to respond at my Facebook page in the comments after I first share the link, but please feel free to respond on, you know, below). My theory is that most of you agree my position that pretty much everything after the early 50’s on the list is outstanding.
As we get closer to my top 10, I am thinking there will be more heated disagreement. Or maybe starting in this section. Who can say?
30. 2 + 2 = 5
Third Single from Hail to the Thief, 2003
It’s almost quaint now how upset many of us were when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the electoral college and the election. I mean, at this moment in time, a significant majority of Americans think that we’re living under just about the worst president ever but, in 2003, we were mostly thinking “wow, it can’t get any more awful and corrupt than under Bush! And yet people seem to love him because of this Iraq war nightmare. Thank goodness he’ll be voted out of office in 2004.” Hahahahaha the author laughs bitterly pondering the nightmare that is the current tax bill and the stolen supreme court justice. No one can save us, not even Radiohead. This is fine.
The “2 + 2 = 5” business is, of course, a reference to the novel 1984. Forcing people to agree that 2 and 2 is 5 and not 4 (through fear of torture) is part of how the government exacts control of the population in that novel. Here we are in 2017 with rulers who want us to reject research, science and evidence in favor of “I do what I want.” As, I promised I’d avoid politics this weekend, but Thom Yorke also hadn’t planned on writing about politics when he was writing Hail to the Thief but it just poured out. This song is one of my favorite pieces of political art ever created. Its angry, pointed and musically outstanding, from that great Ed O’Brien atmospheric pops at the beginning (O’Brien specializes in atmosphere – you can hear his scratchy guitar noises in the background during that first verse while Greenwood’s guitar pattern is more in the foreground) to the spectacular rant of an ending.
Key Thing That I Love: The “you have no been paying attention” refrain followed immediately by the even better “I try to sing along but the music’s all wrong” extended final verse. So angry, so good.
Belgian promo single from The Bends, 1995
As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I love big, dumb songs. Radiohead is not known for creating songs in this particular oeuvre (“Pop is Dead” aside, which is mostly dumb and not especially big). Thom Yorke was 27 and writing a song with lyrics about feeling physically old. Mostly, it seems to be an excuse to bash the guitars loudly and sing “When you’ve got to feel it in your bones” over and over again. It’s a little smarter than most songs that I rank as big and dumb, but I love it in all its big and less intelligent than is typical for Radiohead glory. For reasons I can’t explain, I convinced myself that this was from In Rainbows for the last year or two and, of course, it’s not. It wouldn’t have fit on that album at all and, besides, whenever it plays I see the cover of The Bends. I blame faulty wire in my brain and age.
Key Thing That I Love: I mean, imagine Thom Yorke in a Bowie wig and glitter singing this and it’s like glam rock for the 90’s. Who doesn’t love glam rock? Certainly everyone I like and respect does.
28. Pyramid Song
First single from Amnesiac, 2001
Many of us were really surprised when Amnesiac came out so quickly after Kid A. I, for one, did not know at the time that the two records were recorded more or less at the same time. Since the band took a sonic leap between The Bends and OK Computer and another between OK Computer and Kid A, I admit I was a little disappointed at the time that Amnesiac sounded so much like Kid A. The I learned the truth and was like “Oh, ok.” Its a lovely album and I think it’s a better record than, say, Pablo Honey, but I also find that I listen to it less than the others.
THAT SAID, Pyramid Song is pretty amazing, especially as you begin to realize the connection the lyrics have to the title. The Genius link I just shared has some information that explains this.
Key Thing That I Love: Phil Selway’s drums start around the 2 minute mark and once they kick in, I kind of can’t listen to anything else. He lives somewhere between keeping the rhythm and coloring outside the lines any way he wants on this song. Really, so good. When Bowie released Blackstar, my first thought before looking at the credits was that he’d asked Selway to drum.
Video from OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017, 2017
Radiohead’s most recent video, which it makes it their most recent release as of this list. “Lift” has a complicated history – they played it live a bunch in the mid-1990’s, tried to record it for OK Computer, didn’t like it that 1997 recording on this year’s OKNOTOK re-release of that classic album. I think “Lift” is like a photo in an album of a path not taken – like Radiohead could have chosen to go down that path and transform into a certain kind of mega-rock band. They let Coldplay take that path instead (I believe Chris Martin sends Radiohead a card every year thanking them for his career, and I kind of dig Coldplay). Anyhow, lift is a tremendous pop song that would have maybe been a tremendous hit in 1997.
Key Thing That I Love: Ed O’Brien’s backing vocals yelling “lift” or perhaps “Ed.” Also, when the song shifts into low gear for the last thirty seconds turning an uplifting tune into something a little more downbeat.
26. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Video from In Rainbows, 2008
The word “arpeggi” is the plural of “arpeggio,” which is “a chord broken into a sequence of notes.” You can hear a whole bunch of arpeggio on this song. In fact, you can’t possibly miss them unless you turn the volume to “silent.” Naming this song “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” would, thus, be akin to naming an earlier song “Videotape/Syncopation.” I’ll point out that R.E.M.’s “E Bow The Letter” (#14) follows a similar naming convention.
I first heard this song shortly before the album came out because a friend of mine who is really the Radiohead superfan shared a live performance link of the song with me (this one at the Ether Festival in 2005, I think). It sounded pretty different before it went into studio, but the plethora of arpeggio were still the song’s primary feature. I really like saying the word “arpeggio.” If you’re following the 01/10 theory about In Rainbows and OK Computer, this song corresponds to “Exit Music (For a Film).”
Key Thing That I Love: The guitar interplay of J. Greenwood and O’Brien again. Really glorious on each and every arpeggio.
25. Let Down
Charted song from OK Computer, 1997
“Let Down” was apparently written around the idea that Generation X has a sort of skepticism to emotion. I’ll buy that – indeed, the point is the same emotions we feel when we experience something real were being used to sell stuff. You can’t trust your emotions. They are, after all, just chemical reactions. Playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht would agree that emotion can distract you from what’s actual going on. The song has these great little Johnny Greenwood guitar flourishes that sound a little like they’re from a 60’s rock song to my ear. The whole piece transports me to a kind of waking dream state when I listen to it – like it makes my daily commute feel so crushingly fake. I suppose it is. Isn’t that amazing?
According to the 01/10 theory, this song corresponds to “All I Need.”
Key Thing That I Love: That bit where everything seems to be happening at exactly the same time and then it resolves into a clean chorus.
24. 15 Step
Video from In Rainbows, 2008
The opening track on In Rainbows, corresponding to “Airbag” according to the 01/10 theory. The title is a reference to how many stairs one had to climb to get to the top of the gallows. The song apparently has to do with love and betrayal, equating the gallows experience to the love experience. For the first few years after I first heard it, I assumed it was about how we are trapped in our day-to-day lives doing stuff we don’t like and realizing we’re going to die. I felt this way at least in part because of an experience I had that led me to think that dying doing at work was maybe the worst way to die. It could, of course, also be tied in with the whole mid-life crisis idea. Yorke and the lads are close to the same age as I am and I’ve almost always felt like their songs speak to where I am at the time those songs are released.
Key Thing That I Love: When the guitar kicks in after the opening choruses. Sign me up for a full course of that, please. Also, the terrific rhythm track.
French single from OK Computer, 1997
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that “Lucky” was a French single because I love the song and didn’t think I might actually get a chance to listen to it several dozen times during this project. But it was a French single! And I got to listen to it several dozen times during this project! So I certainly can’t say 2017 has been all bad. Far from the world where we Generation Xers are suspicious of emotion (as per Radiohead on “Let Down”) is a world where we’re willing to give ourselves over completely to the melodrama of a great song. Was it because our parents raised us on the Springsteen-meets-musical-theatre sounds of Meatloaf? Or the faux-opera of Queen? I don’t know, but when a band goes full on with the sweeping vistas and lyrics like “pull me out of the plane crash/pull me out of the lake,” I’m there like Tom Joad at a fight so hungry people can eat. Just, I mean, just listen to it.
“Lucky” corresponds to “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” according to the 01/10 theory.
Key Thing That I Love: Holy cats, the chorus just force me to sing along and groove no matter what I’m doing.
22. The National Anthem
Belgian promo single from Kid A, 2000
So when I directed Hamlet (#12) for the first time, Kid A had just come out and something about it felt cold, beautiful and apocalyptic to me. I played the album as the pre-show music and was secretly overjoyed when the house had to hold and I could listen to a little more of it before the show started. I’m still blown away by pretty much everything about the album in toto. Apparently, “The National Anthem,” with its amazing jazz horn jam session, was polarizing to critics. In this instance, I’m a critic, and I am polarized. I love this song from the moment the bass line (written by Yorke when he was 16) kicks in to the last dying squall of the final horn. Johnny Greenwood plays an ondes Martenot on this track, which might be the singularly most Radiohead thing that Radiohead ever did.
Key Thing That I Love: What, besides the ondes Martenot? I have to admit, its difficult to single one thing out on this song. I think I love the overall thrust of the piece in its entirety.
First Single from Pablo Honey, 1992
“Creep” has its fans and “Creep” has its haters. Radiohead fall in the latter group. Much of their subsequent career happened in response to how much they grew to hate “Creep.” In fact, it is considered something of a big deal when they play it live (for example, here in 2016 in Paris). I mean, they’ve still played it 386 times in concert, but it’s just not one that they’re particularly fond of. I suppose we all get sick of a song that we have to hear a million times and it must be exponentially worse to be sick of that song and still have to perform it well (or risk disappointing some of the more casual fans).
I played this song when I was a DJ at KTUH and loved it then. I did suspect, at the time, that Radiohead was going to be one of those bands that vanished almost immediately and the lack of a second single from Pablo Honey that I liked as much as the first sort of confirmed that for me. Then, of course, their first single for The Bends came out and I was all like “Oh Hell Yes This Band Is For Real.”
“Creep” is – and I think I’m being as objective as I can when I write this – a great song. I don’t think its their finest hour, but its a great example of many of the skills they’d hone over their career. The Pixies-ish soft/loud thing, Thom Yorke’s power and melodramatic delivery, outstanding musicianship, and an ear for remarkable hooks. I still like singing along with it and have many a time blown my voice out trying to wail along with Thom towards the end. You have too. It brings back fond memories of being a heartsick, recently dumped grad student in the early 90’s. Fond.
Key Thing That I Love: The sheer nostalgia of it first and foremost, which is a cop-out. Stripping that away, I think this is still one of Thom Yorke’s great vocals. It’s hard to argue with “run Run RUN RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN.”
Coming Soon: There are still twenty songs that I think are even better. And I’ve lived with this playlist for a couple of months now so you know I’m serious.