A primer for the curious Radiohead neophyte.
Radiohead really isn’t a “greatest hits” type of band. While many musicians aim for that hit song, Radiohead seems more concerned about crafting complete albums. That said, a hits collection does exist, a way for fans of “Paranoid Android” and “Fake Plastic Trees” to get all their favorite songs in one fell swoop.
In this feature we highlight the songs that didn’t make the hits collections. If you are a fan of Radiohead, you will know all of these tracks. If are you just beginning to dabble into the world of Thom Yorke and company, we recommend you check these out. Any song that wasn’t on the hits collection was fair game. For the final few albums, only singles were off-limits. We hope you enjoy them!
This melodic and macabre almost-love song is short, sweet, tortured and doused in self-deprecation. The contemptuous lyrics (“These people aren’t your friends/ they’re paid to kiss your feet”) are completely at odds with the upbeat, acoustic strum of its music.
Most listeners don’t realize that Radiohead has three guitarists, and this deep cut allows you to hear all of them. The band never returned to this complex sound, rooted in ’90s rock. And when Thom Yorke belts, he belts! “Stop Whispering” sums up the album: musically accomplished, soulful, exposed, and not overproduced.
This dreamy track sounds like it was written by someone who’s just escaped from a mental institution. The guitars and flow evoke walking down the narrow streets of London under an eternally grey sky, dazed and confused. When the song opens up, it lifts you off your feet. The band’s guitar solos are more heart than wail, which is a good thing.
What happens when you’re kidnapped and thrown from a plane because you crossed the wrong people? “Ripcord” hints at such a volatile scenario, perhaps a veiled early attempt at political snark. Raucous, rock-tastic and thunderous, the disorienting song makes your pulse race. “We’ll drop you anywhere/ With no ripcord.” Splat!
Buried on track six of The Bends is one of the hidden gems of the band’s new, more versatile approach. One of the first times Radiohead packed so much into a single song, flowing from a soft-strummed acoustics and strings into jarring cuts of sneering distortion and explosive drumming. They were still an album away from mastering this song craft, but “Nice Dream” was a sign of promising things to come.
The Bends was a departure from Radiohead’s debut, thanks in part to Yorke finding his voice – not only a songwriter, but as a singer. Touting his best Jeff Buckley pipes, his shining moments as a vocalist come on the album’s more pared-down tracks, and perhaps none better than on this deep cut. Yorke’s swooning falsetto chorus navigates a sea of the serene and subdued while the band’s sinister music lurks just beneath the surface.
One of their most straightforward pop songs, and probably their last, this is a resounding gong in mid-’90s music, which at the time merged elements of grunge, alternative and Britpop. Its sheer execution elevates the song above all the noise of Radiohead’s surroundings. A song with this much character and catchiness as this would have been a logical single for many of their peers, but Radiohead was content to downplay it as just another feather in their cap.
I once heard a skeptic dismiss this as “Microsoft Sam with hipster propaganda typed into it.” Amusing as that is, what makes the track so effective is how it’s computerized irony gradually transforms into something sinister, first by strange piano, then by atmospheric sound effects and finally through lyrical evocations like “no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants” and the terrifying “no longer empty and frantic/ Like a cat/ Tied to a Stick/ That’s driven into/ Frozen winter shit.” With the album’s innovative songwriting, Jonny Greenwood’s guitar-work, the complex structures of “Paranoid Android” and the bold time signatures on “Let Down,” the album’s brilliant production is easy to take for granted. This track is all production, but instead of filler, it ties the album together. “Fitter Happier” justifies paranoia, using technology to create soundscapes and revealing it as such with its merciful ending.
The closest that OK Computer comes to anything conventional. But thanks to Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s electrifying guitar work and Yorke’s snarling, “I trust I can rely on your vote, this momentous track registers more as political paranoia than as a relatively simple song. Arguably the last rock song Radiohead ever recorded, it’s one of their best, a perfect musical match for its political lyrics.
Radiohead made their share of scary songs, but none feel quite so dangerous as this track, which best conveys its album’s paranoid vision. A distant snare, distorted guitars, eerie, electronic buzz and an unforgettable string arrangement support Yorke’s urges to “not cry out or hit the alarm” and “lock the kids up safe tonight.” Whatever encroaches, it seems to be both external (“I got the smell of a local man/ Who’s got the loneliest something”) and internal (“Open up your skull/ I’ll be there”), a terrifying duplicity that asks us if it’s the modern world or us that is crazy. And just try to un-hear the scream at the song’s imminent end.
It starts off uneasily, but when its lyrics turn to aliens, the alienation of its speaker becomes all too apparent. Using aliens to describe urban alienation may be too literal, but as with much of OK Computer, brilliant music makes the device integral rather than cheap or overstated. Greenwood’s guitar and the song’s electronic keyboards gives the music a spatial dimension of their own, and the tremolos that accompany Yorke’s repeated “uptight” are deeply unsettling.
With images of police in riot gear, schizophrenia and car crashes that recall Italian Futurism, the listener may need a break, and on this track, Yorke urges, “Hey man, slow down.” It’s a desperate plea to escape the contemporary hustle and bustle that makes OK Computer seem so prescient. Thankfully the plea is heard, considered and obeyed, with dialoguing guitars eventually dropping out so the song can come to a steady, quiet finale, a much-needed respite from the frightful visions of modernity that permeate one of the defining albums of our time..
Cleverly disguised as a bit of experimentation, the title track from Radiohead’s groundbreaking 2000 album is the perfect example of its tumultuous shift. Yorke’s voice is fed through so many effects it’s rendered something different and alien. But the song is never off-putting. It’s a warm, electronic embrace, comfort before the approaching storm.
At times this track seems like a bone thrown to fans disappointed that the band stopped playing guitars. But even for a guitar song, it stands apart from their previous work, less rocking than building and radiating tension. Its palatable sense of dread colors the rest of the album, and sticks with the listener for a long time.
After the manic, electronic swirl of “Idiotheque” comes this slow burn. Yorke’s voice conveys fear and despair, and it takes time for this tension to be released. When it does, it initially seems triumphant before descending into more sputtering disarray. The album’s stylistic height and emotional nadir.
After the album’s chaos and destruction, there is only serenity. It’s only fair that Radiohead end their darkest album and their most dramatic stylistic shift with a comforting hand on the shoulder, a reminder that the end isn’t really the end. As Yorke ends the album with, “I will see you in the next life,” he makes death seem peaceful instead of frightening.
Radiohead has a knack for album openers that brilliantly set the tone for the rest of the album. “Everything in its Right Place” might be their quintessential lead-off, but this provides an equally eerie and phenomenal introduction to Amnesiac. The hollow echo of processed bells that start it hint at the watery doom that dominates the album, and the jarring detour into spliced keyboards was only the first event in a series of disturbing electronic spasms.
It may not be the definitive post-apocalyptic Radiohead song (there are far too many in their discography), but this monolithic, singular track stands apart from the rest of Amnesiac and nearly everything else in their catalogue. The unease starts early thanks to that warped, looping, backwards madness that constitutes its main “melody,” but it festers and grows, and before you know it, the sound consumes you as Yorke drifts away living in cloud cuckoo land” and watches “our bodies floating down the muddy river.” Radiohead envisions the world “like spinning plates,” a moment away from shattering.
Who knew paranoia could be so jazzy? Radiohead grabbed The Humphrey Lyttelton Band to help them give this track an unhinged swing nearly as mad as Yorke’s delivery, as he chronicles a quick spiral into pure insanity. “Once again, we are hungry for a lynching,” he sings like the Stepford Wives have replaced his closest friends. “There’s someone listening…” he mutters with a shiver as The Humphrey Lyttelton Band closes the procession out with a gorgeous and unnerving wall of sound.
Arguments that Kid A is superior to Amnesiac may stem in part from the relative restraint of the latter. Even its most rapturous climaxes on “Pyramid Song” and “You and Whose Army?” rely on tension shackling down the sound. This track is an oddity even among its brethren, but it’s the album’s emotional core. Terrifyingly minimal, with the Greenwoods’ guitar and bass duo the only thing heard outside of moaning distortion that grabs you like a tornado. A 21st century version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” this is the sound of sheer isolation in its starkest terms.
Hail to the Thief
On the album’s closing track, Yorke spits lyrics with the hurried incoherence of a drunken man pondering his life at last call. What does the song mean? What did the post-9/11 world in which the album was conceived mean? Fear. Confusion. Discomfort. Keep it moving, and eventually this too shall pass.
My favorite song on the album, this ambling, piano-driven track may best express Yorke’s disillusionment with the Iraq War and the Bush administration. Yorke’s metaphor describes the profound difficulty of comprehending war. The story and wordplay work independent of metaphor, as Yorke lingers on the phrase “hypocrite opportunist” as a nod to Bush.
I wouldn’t be shocked to learn the U.S. Government used this track to interrogate prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The spinning, electronic repetition and refrain of “I don’t know why I feel so tongue-tied” played at ear-splitting decibels would cause anyone to beg for mercy. Even at a normal a normal volume, Yorke and company create a sense of unease and dread that feels like the sonic equivalent of the fatal disease in rabbits the title describes.
This has the unfortunate position of coming immediately before “There There,” but it’s as nervy and paranoid as the rest of the album. A rare case of the music being better without Yorke, the track closes with 45 seconds of pinging electronic beats that are a worthy lead-up to its more celebrated successor.
This song about the connective tissue of a romantic relationship is also a showcase for the band’s relationships, each member offering up their best stroke like a relay team. Phil Selway’s smooth drumming is the uptempo engine that propels the tune along, Yorke’s chunky lead guitar is a jolt of adrenaline and Jonny Greenwood’s keys blanket the track like a thick fog.
The album’s shortest and most quiet number may be its loudest act of protest, based on a First Gulf War bombing in which the U.S. military killed hundreds of civilians. Yorke takes on the role of a father determined to protect his children, providing insight into the thinking of our supposed enemies. His focus on “little babies eyes” as the song reaches its close forces the listener to consider the consequences of U.S. foreign policy.
There are so many glimpses of hell in Radiohead’s music that it’s easy to forget there are occasional shimmers of light between the street spirits and paranoid androids. Despite background darkness, this is a breathtakingly hopeful track. “Weird Fishes,” with the intertwining guitar triumvirate of Jonny, O’Brien and Yorke, is absolutely mesmerizing, as Yorke sings about a siren he’d be “crazy not to follow.” It builds quietly but finally bursts at the seams, with O’Brien’s mournful cries, Yorke’s “everybody leaves if they get the chance/ and this is my chance” and the dissolving guitars all melting into one. “Arpeggi” lets the darkness rush in, but Yorke delivers a simple message of renewal: “I hit the bottom and escape.”
The Faustian bargain is a delightfully dark parable that plenty of artists have retold, post-MTV mutations often taking the form of cautionary tales about a meteoritic rise to fame and its quick and inevitable fall. Yorke has produced plenty of fame addled rants all the way back to the title track from The Bends, but “Faust Arp” streaks to the heart of the matter, not just in paranoia from paparazzi but in a true loss of humanity through avarice. Yorke’s nursery rhyme-like delivery makes lines like “watch me fall like dominoes” all the more chilling. This is a morsel-sized song stuffed to the edges with vivid imagery and even more striking composition, with dangling string work fluttering in between pleasant yet foreboding guitar. In years’ worth of terrifying songs, this may take the cake thanks to the serial killer smile it wears to cover all the madness.
Radiohead really has no right to be this funky. This ode to conniving music industry types has Yorke singing in a fragile falsetto, and strolls around in an odd 5/4 time signature. But it still makes you want to get down, thanks to the brilliant combo of Phil Selway’s glitchy drum work and the downright groovy bass of Colin Greenwood. This is one of the few songs where the rest of the band simply sits back and let the rhythm section deliver the song to its glorious pay off.
In Rainbows held some of Radiohead’s maximal moments: the rapturous climax of “All I Need,” the post-punk freak out of “Bodysnatchers” and the swirling doom of “Jigsaw Falling into Place” all found their centers by pushing volume to its upper boundaries. But they closed the curtain with one of the simplest and, as it turned out, one of the album’s most eviscerating, potent songs. The entire piano part could be played with your elbows, but it gently pillows Yorke’s visions of “the pearly gates.” It grows ever so slightly with twitchy, backward drums shivering into existence as the song shudders its way to heaven.
The King of Limbs
On this perfect opener to one of their more understated albums, the band reconciles their frenetic tendencies, manifested in skittering drums, against an almost downtempo backdrop that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Sounding like a mash of disparate ideas, it’s a fascinating synthesis of the mechanical and organic. While the drums never stray from their arrhythmic figure, they gradually dissolve into a sea of synths, reverbed horns and Yorke’s languid, mellifluous vocals. One of Radiohead’s most beautiful songs of the new century.
With this modified motorik funk, Radiohead briefly leaves behind the more somnambulant elements of The King Of Limbs for a strutting, brisk pace. Skeletal in structure, with twinned guitars in serpentine staccato union over a throbbing bass line, this is the album’s most immediately accessible song. With its conventional structure, discernible lyrics and recognizable melody, it’s as close as Radiohead dare get to pop formula, teasing what could be by holding back just enough of the song’s more accessible elements to remain left of center.
The album track most indebted to ‘90s Radiohead, this could have been an OK Computer B-side if not for the bubbling electronics and preprogramed tribal drums that dominate. Gradually settling into reverb-heavy piano and backwards guitar, it’s a mirror image of the bombastic approach of their anthemic early material. Here they explore nuance instead of histrionics and blazing emotionality.
Haunting and lovely, this sparse piano ballad is a showcase for the band’s minimalist restraint. Instead of relying on layers of electronics, the song rests on Yorke’s vulnerable vocals. Plaintive piano and gorgeous string and horn arrangements take the song to its subdued conclusion. Now seasoned veterans, the band relies more on space and silence for maximum impact, which serves them well on their most subdued album.
Even among their challenging recent albums, The King Of Limbs seems utterly disinterested in singles, or in pop music at all. Playing like a loose collection of untethered ideas, gauzy hints of melody shroud the barest of musical bones. This track fully embodies this concept, so light and ethereal it threatens to float away. With the welcome return of an acoustic guitar, the track acknowledges their roots while facing forward. With its hypnotic, gentle repetition, “Give Up The Ghost,” like the rest of the album, embraces an after hours approach ideal for late-night listening.
Like much of the album, this functions on the scantest of sonic premises. Amidst swirling atmospherics, stuttering, almost funky drums and Colin Greenwood’s unassuming bass work, Yorke gently unleashes his voice, exploring the softer, meditative nuances of his upper register. The combination is so hypnotic that the track’s five-minute duration feels half that length. Yorke’s lyrics have become increasingly utilitarian, conduits for melodic explorations in which his voice is as much an instrument as the machines whirring around him. Only when he calls out, “wake me up” in the song’ s closing moments does everything snap back into focus. Breaking the spell, this repeated phrase helps ease the listener back to reality.