Radiohead, who incidentally took their name from a Talking Heads song, emerged in the ‘90s as a flip side to the hedonistic wave of partying Britpop bands (Oasis, Blur) that were running the charts. A five-piece of immense individual talents, the band mixes guitar rock, electronica and orchestral sounds with haunting atmospherics and experimentation to create their own unique sound.
Since 1993’s debut ‘Pablo Honey’, they have evolved from a loud-quiet-loud guitar outfit inspired by grunge and heavy rock, into an experimental, expansive unit that constantly probes in search of another musical gear. It was their third release (1997’s ‘OK Computer’ ) that raised them above their ordinary peers, combining Yorke’s falsetto-led vocal range with Johnny Greenwood’s abrasive, unique guitar style and programmed noises, helping them find a sound that was unmistakably theirs.
Here are 12 standout picks from their eclectic back catalog.
12. There, There
By the time 2003’s ‘Hail to the Thief’ was released, the band had conquered the world. If ‘OK Computer’ had taken guitar music to a new plane, its follow-up ‘Kid A’ was on an altogether different planet. When their sixth album was due, Radiohead were ready to slow down their digital evolution and revert back to some old sounds. ‘There, There’ captures this tentative period perfectly. The lyrics “just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there” find Yorke in an apprehensive mood, as his jangly guitar hook snakes around Phil Selway’s rolling tom-tom intro. The plodding percussion carries this tense song until it finally breaks into a rock-steady jam. The hypnotic drums are often beefed-up live, with Ed O’Brien and Johnny Greenwood playing along to Selway’s beat.
11. Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Thom Yorke has called ‘Street Spirit’ the band’s “purest, saddest song”, and it’s easy to see why. Built around an arpeggio guitar part that moves through minor chords (written by Thom but laid down by Ed), musically it’s somber and somewhat eerie sounding. The lyrics have a desperation to them as Yorke describes “rows of houses all bearing down on me”, and there’s a haunted quality to his falsetto refrain of “fade out.” It’s a track the band have performed acoustically, as the power of Yorke’s is enough to carry this one. The moody, black-and-white video that accompanies the song helped now revered director Jonathon Glazer find his feet.
Music videos can add another layer to the overall feel of a song, and there aren’t many that achieve it better than ‘Daydreaming’. By 2016’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, Radiohead were masters of their craft, so it’s easy to see why they chose another auteur, film director (and friend of Greenwood) Paul Thomas Anderson, to make a searching, visual delight to accompany such a beautiful song. Originally conceived by the band during a session without their singer, Yorke described it as a “breakthrough” that helped shape the overall sound of the record. It opens with a warped, slowed-down tape sound that melts into a minimalist piano ballad, with gentle strings shimmering throughout.
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9. Fake Plastic Trees
‘Fake Plastic Trees’ allegedly takes its name from Canary Wharf, and the many fake trees it contained when the dockland was repurposed in the ‘90s. The third single from ‘The Bends’ was also inspired by what Thom Yorke calls a “breakdown of sorts”, as he tried to lay down “whatever was going on in my head at the time”. The result is a largely acoustic song that touches on themes of materialism and wanting to be someone else. It’s another song that showcases Yorke’s vocal range, as again his voice bursts into life as the song takes off. Recording it proved troublesome, so the band took a break to watch Jeff Buckley who was in town at the time. Yorke has since said seeing Buckley gave him the confidence to sing ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ in his falsetto style.
Another effort from ‘The Bends’, Yorke has described ‘Just’ as a competition to get “as many chords as possible into a song”. The song indeed features an impressive amount of guitar work, ranging from crunching power chords to playful strummed sections that could easily sit among some of John Frusciante’s finest. Despite the varied sections, ‘Just’ was recorded live in the studio and overdubs were skipped, which is testament to the band’s ability to simply play. It was largely written by Johnny Greenwood, and he credit’s Manchester rockers Magazine for the sound he was trying to achieve. Another Radiohead song that includes an iconic music video, featuring a man who decides to lie on the floor, to the bafflement of people passing by.
‘OK Computer’ led the band’s sound away from the sometimes limiting confines of guitar rock and allowed for experimentation within their songs. It was their breakthrough album, hailed across the board and no doubt tough to follow. Instead of trying to chase their previous successes, the band doubled down and leaned heavily into their need to try something else. ‘Idioteque’ contains several new directions for Radiohead. The song was borne from a 50 minute improvisation on Johnny Greenwood’s modular synthesizer that Yorke was able to find something in. What was finally laid down is a rare danceable number for the band, especially during extended live versions. Yorke has said the song is one of their happiest, but the lyrics are a stream of consciousness about impending Ice Ages and underground bunkers.
6. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Radiohead’s disdain for the music industry and the processes involved with it were long established before 2007’s ‘In Rainbows’ emerged. After their contract with EMI ended, the band were free to do as they pleased, and it yielded one of their most loved records. Yorke said he wanted the album to be concise: a 45 minute long record that reflects “what moves us”. Concise is exactly what ‘Weird Fishes’ is. One of the album’s tightest tracks, it’s held together by Selway’s snare-driven beat, Colin Greenwood’s rhythmic bass lick, and dueling plucked guitar riffs. ‘Weird Fishes’ is all about building layers, as Yorke sings about things that lurk at the bottom of our subconscious.
5. High and Dry
Our countdown from five begins with one of Thom Yorke’s earliest songs. Originally penned when he was a student at Exeter university, ‘High and Dry’ was originally a love song that morphed into a worried lament about the pitfalls of success, taking swipes at machismo along the way. The lyrics “flying on your motorcycle, watching all the ground beneath you drop” is a reference to ‘70s daredevil Evil Knieval, and a nod to the lengths people go to for fame. Yorke has dismissed ‘High and Dry’ as being a “very bad” song, possibly owing to its clean sound and commercial appeal.
4. Paranoid Android
‘Paranoid Android’ has been compared to both The Beatles ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ because of the song’s structure, which does seem like a collection of parts put together to form a whole. Though the title references a character from the sci-fi classic ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ the song’s world-weary traveler is, in fact, Yorke once again, and this schizophrenic musical odyssey came about after a particularly awful night out in LA. The lyrics, such as “kicking and squealing Gucci little piggy”, combine with others about “the yuppies networking” to form a chaotic, aggressive rocker. It finally relents into a slow tempo section, and the singalong section of “rain down on me from a great height” is a staple of the band’s live shows.
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3. Karma Police
Our top three picks begin with another song from ‘OK Computer’, and once again features a Jonathan Glazer video. This time he took inspiration from David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, filming Yorke from the back of a Chrysler as he chases another man. The title comes from something the band would say to each other about “karma police” catching up with them if they’d misbehaved. One of Radiohead’s most direct songs, Yorke’s acoustic guitar aligns gloriously with Johnny Greenwood’s piano. The final refrain of “for a minute there I lose myself” dials up the reverb on Yorke’s vocals, and the song fades into a noise section that was the first taste of the direction they were heading towards for Kid A.
2. No Surprises
Taking second place on our list is ‘No Surprises’, one of the band’s most accessible songs that Colin Greenwood has described as “stadium-friendly”. It’s a slow-tempo, largely acoustic number that doesn’t break into any heavier sections, instead relying on its catchy pop melody throughout. It begins with a playful, lullaby-like guitar riff accompanied by Johnny Greenwood’s gentle glockenspiel taps, a juxtaposition to Yorke’s morose lyrics about “a heart that’s full up like a landfill” and “a job that slowly kills you”. The band have said they were trying to make a song that sounds like Louis Arsmtrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’; ‘No Surprises’ is the ‘OK Computer’ bizarro world version of it.
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Topping our list is Radiohead’s most well known and played song, ‘Creep’. Yorke wrote the song before the band were formed, and the angst of his formative years is plain to see. It eventually became a worldwide sensation, drawing comparisons to Beck and Nirvana. Johnny Greenwood has said his jagged guitar blasts were an attempt to disrupt a song he considered “too wimpy”. The band have a love-relationship with ‘Creep’ (that they’ve even referred to as ‘Crap’ because of how overplayed it was), but it’s found its way back into live sets in recent years. Whether the band likes it or not, it’s a catchy, crunchy guitar anthem for anyone who feels unlucky in love.