Radiohead in 10 Songs

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The post Radiohead in 10 Songs appeared first on Consequence.

This article was originally published in 2016, but we’re dusting it off for Thom Yorke’s birthday on October 7th.

Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

For some of us, it takes a while to get into Radiohead, if we ever get into them at all. That’s because it’s easy to categorize their music as serious, self-important, and depressing — and it is, sometimes. But to dismiss it entirely would be to miss out on sci-fi landscapes, wild experimentation, hook-filled grunge, and even some dance beats here and there. And that’s what this list is about.

Like all of our In 10 Songs features, these aren’t necessarily the 10 best Radiohead songs, but the ones we feel best represent the many sides of the band while also unveiling their sometimes hidden accessibility. If you can get into at least one tune, chances are you’ll find a whole lot more of them to like throughout their discography. And if you can get behind all 10, you just might be a convert.

But that’s just our opinion. If you feel we totally missed the boat, leave your 10 favorite gateway songs in the comments section below. As any fan can attest, one of the best things about listening to Radiohead is disagreeing about Radiohead.

Dan Caffrey

“UNBORN CHICKEN VOICES IN MY HEAD” (Science-fiction short story)

“Paranoid Android” from OK Computer (1997)

Although science fiction probably gets attached to Radiohead more than they deserve credit for — only OK Computer and Kid A are especially beholden to the genre — there’s no denying it’s been an influence on numerous songs of theirs. But never ones to merely emulate (except for maybe on Pablo Honey), the band doesn’t just recreate the stories of writers like Isaac Asimov and Jack Finney. Rather, they pull ideas from these authors to create their own stories, and no musical tale feels more uneasy in its dystopia than “Paranoid Android.”

Borrowing its title from the name of an A.I. being in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (voiced by the late Alan Rickman in the 2005 film adaptation), the song was inspired by a coke-induced confrontation Thom Yorke saw at a bar in Los Angeles. Yorke and the rest of the band escalate the erratic behavior he witnessed by giving the song three different states of mind.

Between his nervous falsetto, Ed O’Brien’s sludgy chanting, and Jonny Greenwood’s guitar freak-out, “Paranoid Android” panics and sparks like a malfunctioning cyborg, or, if we’re going off of the lyrical inspiration, a malfunctioning, cokehead. In Yorke’s world, those two things are one and the same, and that’s why the song is sci-fi by way of alt-rock. It’s also catchy as any other radio staple of the late ’90s while still being weird, making it the perfect gateway pill. — D.C.

“SUCK SUCK YOUR TEENAGE THUMB” (’90s grunge throwback)

“My Iron Lung” from The Bends (1995)

In the early ’90s, grunge dominated the airwaves, and with the release of Pablo Honey, many critics shrugged off Radiohead as British imitators of the genre. The smash success of “Creep” didn’t help. The band was well aware of this, so as a response to their reputation, they released “My Iron Lung,” a song that lyrically and sonically acknowledges grunge as formative for the group, then expresses frustration over its limitations. The iron lung described in the lyrics represents how “Creep” gave them mainstream success and therefore life, but also wonders if it will hold them back and prevent audiences from taking them seriously as artists.

The song is also a clear homage to the grunge acts that shaped their early sound, moving between soft verses and a furious guitar bridge that unmistakably nods to Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” Radiohead wanted to show that they stood on their own as part of the massive musical movement, but also that the grunge throne was not one they sought to inherit. “My Iron Lung” foreshadows the more experimental future for the band, showcasing their uncanny ability to write a song that contains many movements and moods yet still remains cohesive. — Mary Kate McGrath


“Sail to the Moon” from Hail to the Thief (2003)

Even when Yorke writes a lullaby for his infant son, Noah, he can’t keep ominous political undertones and general doom and gloom from creeping into the lyrics. Over ballad-like piano, the two brief verses recount Yorke’s ambitions getting too big, causing him to fall from the night sky. He holds out more hope for Noah, though — perhaps he’ll be a morally just and kind president or live up to his Biblical namesake by building an ark to save humankind. Either way, “Sail to the Moon” is both soothing in its optimism and unnerving in its dread. An unhealthy lullaby? Not exactly. Just a realistic one. — D.C.

“REEL ME OUT” (Irresistible dance cut)

“15 Step” from In Rainbows (2007)

Phil Selway’s static, crunchy drums that kick off In Rainbows are a bit of a feint, teasing a return to the post-apocalyptic technoscapes of Kid A or Amnesiac. Soon though, bright guitars and a bubbling bass line from Colin Greenwood are layered over top, and the distinctive sound of In Rainbows is established: Like a culinary “deconstruction,” it’s a reinvention of familiar Radiohead elements into something fresh and new. The uptempo number, full of clapping percussion and a crowd of children screaming, “Yeah!”, is a perfect live song for audience participation — or it would be, if most audiences could keep the beat. Written in the unusual time signature of 5/4 (the same as Dave Brubeck’s iconic “Take Five”), “15 Step” is the kind of dance cut that fills the floor with a lot of crushed toes. — Wren Graves

“LIGHT ANOTHER CANDLE” (Earlier draft of a song)

“Morning Bell/Amnesiac” from Amnesiac (2001)

Radiohead often record multiple versions of their songs before they land on one that sticks. But unlike many other bands’ trial-and-error periods, the alternate takes have a habit of coming out fully formed, as is the case with Amnesiac’s funhouse mirror reflection of “Morning Bell.” It’s more of a dirge than its dancier Kid A counterpart, all slowed tempo and ghostly bicycle bells. The lyrics are similar, though (Kid A has an extra verse), rendering the brace of songs as two different emotional responses to the same divorce. In “Morning Bell,” the narrator sounds elated and free. In “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” however, he still sounds trapped — even when someone gets out of a toxic situation, the poison has a habit of staying in their veins. — D.C.

“I TRUST I CAN RELY ON YOUR VOTES” (Political commentary)

“Electioneering” from OK Computer (1997)

Radiohead’s mid-career albums are riddled with political and social disillusionment. This stance came to a head during the George W. Bush era, with Hail to the Thief being their most scathing political screed. Yet even before this point, the seeds of social discontent were planted, and “Electioneering” is one of the loudest, angriest songs off OK Computer for a reason. A critique of elections and the International Monetary Fund, the song still feels relevant, especially as campaign season in the United States continues to unfold.

While Radiohead’s music is layered with many themes — distance, love, loss — it more often than not has an underlying social consciousness to it. Messages about politics, social discord, and the abuse of the environment appear often, some more coded than others. — M.K.M.

“ALWAYS SECOND-GUESSING” (Soundtrack song that doesn’t get used)

“Spectre” (2015)

Originally pegged for the Bond movie of the same name, “Spectre” was never used for reasons that haven’t been made public. But as a song written for a film soundtrack, it’s in good company: “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” are some of Radiohead’s best work, and “Spectre” is well-positioned to join them. The jerky piano and luscious strings build and fade, avoiding the melodrama of most Bond themes by promising climaxes that never arrive. Lyrically, it’s straightforward, especially by the recent standards of Radiohead. “My hunger burns a bullet hole/ Spectre of my mortal soul.” It’s poetic, but not abstract, with a haunting melody that lingers for a scant three minutes and abruptly fades to nothing. — W.G.

“IT’S HOLDING ON” (Jazz-influenced)

“The National Anthem” from Kid A (2000)

Any purist of the genre would scoff at us calling Radiohead a jazz band. Fair enough, even when considering the upward-climbing piano of “Pyramid Song,” the New Orleans funeral of “Life in a Glass House,” and of course, the free-ranging trumpets, trombones, and saxophones of “The National Anthem.” So let’s call it caveman jazz — jazz overseen by a frontman who has no formal music training at all (let alone jazz training); jazz where the horn players are merely instructed to “Just blow, just blow, just blow!”; jazz that’s “Mingus-in-a-tumble-dryer racket.”

That quote from The Guardian’s Mike Beaumont is meant to be an insult, but I see it as a compliment. More caveman than jazz purist myself, I have no clue what’s considered to be good or proper jazz and what’s considered to be merely primordial riffing. But I do know what gets me moving. I know what awakens my reptile brain. I know what sounds like stars sloppily forming out of cosmic soup. And “The National Anthem” checks all those boxes. Who knows? It might even get me into Mingus, too. — D.C.

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“Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” from Amnesiac (2001)

At the end of the 20th century, Radiohead combined their gift for melody with recent technological advances to inject emotional expression into electronic music. Many of these new techniques are on display in the eclectic, claustrophobic “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”: Yorke’s voice is Auto-Tuned to become more distant and robotic; modular synths wash over the listener in waves; drum loops stack and battle one another; and transitions are accomplished with computerized drones.

Still, it’s not electronic for the sake of electronica; the most iconic sound of the song is introduced at the beginning when Selway bangs away on kitchen pots. Whether it’s in new technologies or old kitchenware, Radiohead is always on the hunt for just the right sound to create their desired effect. — W.G.


“Gagging Order” from the “Go to Sleep” single (2003)

Even in the more experimental latter half of their career, Radiohead will ever so often strip away all of the outside noise, computer beeps, and grinding bass lines to reveal their songwriting core. “Gagging Order,” a B-side off Hail to the Thief that also appears on the “Go to Sleep” single and the odds-and-ends EP Com Lag, is one of these rare occasions. The band pulls all the way back, featuring simple guitar work and straightforward lyrics about oppression and paranoia. Radiohead are a group unafraid to venture into unexpected territory, even if that means traveling back to the past for an earnest folk ballad. This acoustic backdrop brings the nuances in Yorke’s voice front and center, allowing us to hear some of its higher, messier reaches. — M.K.M.

Radiohead in 10 Songs
Consequence Staff

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