A band that in essence led the evolution from grunge to the near death of guitars, Radiohead's glory is the fact that every album sounds like it's a chapter from a fictional textbook called “When the Machines Took Over.” Needless to say, that's why we love them.
For many, their albums feel definitive of a time, like when you look at your old cell phone and think, "Wow, this was the future." Radiohead's ability to morph defined and reflected the changing styles and tastes of the '90s and 2000s. Here's a list of top 10 Radiohead songs (“Creep” is definitely not on here.)
Radiohead's first studio album, Pablo Honey, was not an immediate success in the U.K., where critics dubbed it as "weak Nirvana" or bad grunge music. In a time where it was almost an insult to copy Nirvana, it's funny how Pablo Honey pulls from the very same sources: Pixies, Sonic Youth and lots of '80s fuzz.
When U.S. radio stations and MTV started putting “Creep” in heavy rotation, it was clear that Radiohead understood heavy grunge influences while still forming sweet and recognizable melodies from '80s indie. However, it's not until the last track on Pablo Honey, “Blow Out,” do we hear the future of what's to come. The track starts off almost like “Knives Out” (which wouldn't be a hit until eight years later), and then rushes into a heavy guitar transition that leads to Thom Yorke's patented 16-beat wail, followed by lots of guitar texture and a driving drum beat.
Radiohead's most recent offering, 2011's The King of Limbs, marks a return to a more experimental side of the band, which is exciting since many long-standing groups tend to fall into a typical sound. Looped drum beats, guitars, and vocals are all used on the record making rhythmically complex and syncopated sounds (which required two drummers live.)
On “Little by Little,” Radiohead manages to perform a typical Radiohead song, complete with minor, falsetto vocals from Yorke, and a straightforward arpeggiated minor riff fromJonny Greenwood. But the synchronization between the vocals and the drum beat are atypical and continue to rotate to where the song sounds like a Latin dance jam at one point, only to start the melody at another point again.
The Bends is a near-perfect post-grunge alternative album, and depending on where you stand on the electronic aspects of Radiohead, it's a favorite among fans. Crisply produced with more keyboards added in, tracks from The Bends (and a B-side) made it to '90s cult movie soundtracks including “Clueless” and “Romeo and Juliet," further cementing the band's commercial and critical success.
“Just” is a testament to that. It's the single that “Creep” wanted to be. A catchy chorus plus the chromatic climbing of the guitar juxtaposes the more laid back verse that leads into it with a vocal aggression that we don't hear much after The Bends.
By their third studio album, OK Computer, Radiohead and producer Nigel Godrich had perfected the band's lush, textured sonic landscape, filled with dreamlike never-ending echoing reverb that brings the listener in and out of consciousness. There are a few examples of this sound on OK. But "Subterranean Homesick Alien's" ¾ time signature and the track's drifting ebb and flow is what makes it a standout track.
A minimalist electronic operetta as an album, Kid A represents getting lost in the chaos of life and how there is beauty, alienation, and value in both losing yourself and finding yourself again.
In a modern world where the single is king, Kid A is one of the last excellent examples of a full album, with some of the best transitions between tracks since Pink Floyd.
In structure, “The National Anthem” is a relatively straightforward song that layers a new level of disorder over a looped, driving bassline and drum beat. The track (and most of the album) is embellished with lingering wave-like hums and whirs that sound like the mothership is about to land. The additional chaotic horn improvisation at the end makes it an updated “All You Need is Love” for the dystopian landscape where all true Radiohead fans reside.
Radiohead recorded 2001's Amnesiac during the same sessions as 2000's Kid A, and consequently, has a very similar tone. The album features lots of minimal, almost cold feeling, stark melodies juxtaposed with rigid drum-machine style beats. However, Amnesiac's last track, “Life in a Glasshouse,” is the complete opposite.
Fueled by a sloppy yet melodically beautiful jazz horn and wind improvisation, "Life in a Glasshouse" is what Radiohead would sound like if they were a Prohibition-era funeral band. The instrumentation gives a strange vermouth-kicked warmth to the track and reveals the band in a boozy, sympathetic light that doesn't always come across.
Their most political album, Hail To The Thief is in part a response to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, general fear mongering, and control. While the subject matter of the tracks addresses the conflict with those in control (“We Suck Young Blood” is not subtle), it's the accompanying music's feeling of rage, panic, and loss of control that comes across in “2+2=5”.
The best part of "2+2=5" is that the song opens the album with new subject matter while using a more classic guitar-laden Radiohead sound that's been updated with Kid A- style drum machine. At just over three minutes, it's also the best snack-size serving that Radiohead offers.
Fed up with the state of the music industry and record labels, Radiohead broke free from their label for their seventh studio album, In Rainbows. A revolutionary idea at the time in 2007, the band made In Rainbows available on a pay-what-you-want basis.
Rhythmically different from other albums, and much more focused and direct than other efforts, the influence of electronic dance is readily heard but less in the bleeps and bloops of the past and more in the drum and bass beats. “Jigsaw Falling into Place” is a great example of moving in this direction, and the song manages to blend airy haunting background vocals and strings in a tasteful way. It's dictionary-definition Radiohead.
Back in the day when albums were significant, the opening track had to be explosive; something that grabs the listener and explains what they're about to go through. It's difficult to choose between In Rainbows' “15 Step," Kid A's “Everything in its Right Place,” or Hail to the Thief's “2+2=5." But “15 step” edges them all out through its 5/4 rhythms and the natural energy, warmth, and excitement that it brings.
The “Bohemian Rhapsody” of Radiohead songs, the three-section “Paranoid Android” from OK Computer is both a great representation of a classic Radiohead song and what came after. "Paranoid Android" ushered in a new phase for what the band is now known for--slightly futuristic, distorted, dream-like visions of a world we may or may not control. It's emotional, it resonates and encapsulates how Radiohead took alternative rock from one century to the next.
Radiohead is slated to tour Europe and the U.S. in summer of 2016. Keep up with all the latest new information on Radiohead here.