That 1997 album was a bold move and paid off incredibly, but it was also the gateway to the band’s iffy experimental years. This isn’t to say that the work they’ve done since then hasn’t yielded great tunes, but the output of accessible, concise material has drastically decreased. For every “Optimistic” or “Knives Out” there was a “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, “These Are My Twisted Words”, and “Feral”. It’s become apparent that the band is now actively eschewing standard pop music structure. (Strange then, that they tried to land the opening theme to the last James Bond movie).
All that said, this list stretches across their discography. It’s not one of those heretical countdowns that ignores anything from this millennium. Nor is it sheer adulation for the band’s “brave stand” against the conventions of old. There’s a little bit of everything, including some oft-overlooked songs that merit some recognition. Alright, let us go.
10. Just (from The Bends, 1995)
- “Creep”‘s spiritual successor hit just as hard, and the band successfully made the jump to a straight alternative sound. It’s a furious victory, with the ever-climbing octave chords building up to a messy but cathartic end featuring the typically staid Thom Yorke screaming “you do it to yourself!”. Side note: Amazing that in this era of intense scrutiny and research, the music video’s mystery still hasn’t been revealed. Twenty-two years and still nobody knows what the man on the sidewalk tells everyone that makes them join him lying hopelessly on the ground.
9. Creep (from Pablo Honey, 1993)
- The band’s grunge song came at the perfect moment, just as the American movement had reached its peak but not yet begun to wane. In fact it’s hard not to imagine this as being ghostwritten by Nirvana, with its arpeggio verses and maximum-crunch choruses adorned with the same self-loathing that perpetuated itself on the Seattle band’s songs. It didn’t hurt that 1993 Thom could wail with the best of them, and the melodramatic bridge sounds not too unlike a certain bespectacled Irish frontman.
8. Optimistic (from Kid A, 2000)
- Almost certainly a remnant from the OK Computer days, the appropriately titled “Optimistic” gave those confounded by the rest of Kid A a shred of hope that Thom and pals could still assemble a coherent piece of music. One of the only songs from those recording sessions to make it to radio, it is indisputably the most listenable track on the record.
7. 2+2=5 (from Hail to the Thief, 2003)
- If there’s one element has definitively faded from the band’s music, it’s a sense of urgency. Mid-tempo seems to be about the fastest they’ll go now, and anything above 120 BPM is out of the question. The opening track on the massively underrated Hail to the Thief is undoubtedly one of the fastest, most “rock” moments the band’s ever recorded, veering into Muse-like territory towards the end. It’s easy to see how that band parlayed this sound into their own success- “angry, fast Radiohead” is a pretty great way to be.
6. There There (from Hail to the Thief, 2003)
- In_Rainbows typically gets the most praise from critics when it comes to the band’s experiments in rhythm, but this first single from HTTT has a beat just as potent as anything on that record. The song itself is a cross between “Optimistic” and “Just”, merging the former’s sonic sensibilities with the aggression of the latter. It even explodes into a vibrant coda like “Just”, though it’s Jonny Greenwood’s squalling guitar that does more of the work here.
5. Codex (from The King of Limbs, 2011)
- Radiohead aren’t exactly peddlers of sunshine, but they’re bleaker here than almost any other time (only the stark “Videotape” beats it in that respect). The warped piano sounds like it’s miles underwater, and even with all the lush electronic textures there’s a sadness inextricably imbued into the track. It’s hauntingly beautiful, particularly when the horns begin to filter in- making a good case for a Radiohead/Bon Iver or Radiohead/Sufjan Stevens collaboration.
4. Karma Police (from OK Computer, 1997)
- Though it’s instrumentally more reserved than its predecessor “Paranoid Android”, “Karma Police”‘s supremely weird lyrics and structure make it a quintessential OK Computer single. Even with it’s masterfully constructed chord progression it wouldn’t have fit onto The Bends, thanks to the siren-like keyboard (?) on the extended outro. It’s pretty hilarious that the band’s big “piano ballad” is so inherently strange.
3. Street Spirit (from The Bends, 1995)
- A herald of future gloom, “Street Spirit” is fascinating because it’s a piece of future Radiohead in the past. The shadowy, cryptic tune seems to be the result of a modern version of the band traveling back in time and recording as their old selves. It was a hint of what they would eventually become, but in a disciplined way.
2. Paranoid Android (from OK Computer, 1997)
- Almost six and a half minutes. Thom singing about “unborn chicken voices” in his head. Text-to-speech software babbling on in the background. This was the first single from OK Computer to hit the radio in 1997, a sly gambit that must have given record execs heart palpitations. Thom and the boys went through with it though, proving they had cajones of steel. Like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Band on the Run” before it, “Paranoid Android” is the rare multi-part song that nails unconventional song structure. Each segment is strong and stand on its own, not to mention as a cohesive part of a whole. It was “Just” on steroids, a muscular display of smarts and confidence.
1. Where I End and You Begin (from Hail to the Thief, 2003)
- Going through the band’s discography, it’s hard to find any other song that approaches the singular nature of “Where I End and You Begin”. Even on the stylistic hodgepodge of Hail to the Thief it was somewhat of an outlier, a full-bodied ethereal track on an otherwise drily produced record. It’s incredibly weird too, accessible and experimental at the same time. There’s very little mid-range for a large portion of the track, with Jonny Greenwood arriving late to the party but making up for it with a searing barrage of guitar towards the end of the song. It mostly sounds like Thom, drummer Ed O’ Brien and bassist Colin Greenwood alone in a recording studio with a room full of ghosts, recording the most artisanal, bass driven U2 song they could think of. And that’s a good thing.