If Pink Floyd and The Smiths had had a awkward lovechild with a peculiar fascination with falsetto vocals and dead-complicated drum beats, that child would be Radiohead … although the Oxford quintet moved on from that early stereotype, and since 1999’s Kid A have just done their own thing with zero regard for the pop charts, they still manage to maintain a lot of the same kind of reverence and mystique associated with those two bands.
Our early encounter with the group was not particularly memorable. We caught them around 1993 supporting The Sultans of Ping FC in Leeds’s Duchess of York pub (the Sultans were ace) and they were a bit of a shambles quite frankly. You could tell that Thom Yorke had an exceptional singing voice and Jonny Greenwood was getting sounds out of the guitar that had no business being in the guitar in the first place, but the whole felt less than the sum of the obviously talented parts. It was all a bit sloppy and pretentious, like grunge plus shoegaze without being that great at either.
That would change, and it was only a year or so later when their perfect second album The Bends became one of our favourite albums of all time.
We saw them at Leeds’s Town and Country Club (as it was called then) on The Bends tour and they were magnificent – such a ridiculous cut above their Britpop peers that they pretty much put an end to the whole genre. They certainly left it behind, going all art rock, then electronic, and although Gordon lost patience somewhere in the middle of it all, John persevered, determined to stay engaged with what had been his favourite band of the 90s.
In each podcast episode we talk through the artist’s history chronologically, picking our favourite tracks and ranking the albums as we go, so check that out if you want to know how we came to our decisions and why we picked the playlist tracks we did.
Our ranking and track picks are a compromise of our two different personal opinions, and of course we have to consider the Jeffrey Rulebook, it is also only a snapshot in time, so don’t take them too seriously! But do please comment below with your picks.
See below for the full list:
The King of Limbs (2010)
No one can accuse Radiohead of standing still and trotting out the same old tried-and-tested formula to please the masses (chance would be a fine thing!) but with 2010’s electro-dubstep release, the band produced an album so difficult and odd that even many Radiohead fans can’t be arsed with it.
It’s not that bad, there are some very nice moments on it, it’s just that it doesn’t compare to their other work and even the good bits, being so intimate and complex, don’t translate particularly well to the big stage. It’s also quite short, with them annoyingly leaving off the excellent Staircase and the fun The Daily Mail which, had they been included, would have made it a more substantial animal.
Pablo Honey (1994)
It is still surprising how rubbish this album feels given how brilliant Radiohead were about to become. It’s not actually rubbish, it just seems that way because they got so good so soon after. This means you’re left scratching your head trying to work out how they went from this straight to The Bends. There doesn’t seem to be a viable path from one to the other, like a journeyman League Two footballer suddenly acing it for England in the World Cup, it just doesn’t seem possible that they can be the same band, or footballer if we’re sticking with the helpful analogy.
Pablo Honey is not a disaster, it contains a handful of decent numbers, but it remains uneven and mediocre, and whatever else you might say about Radiohead they are neither of these two things.
The inaccessible sister-album to 1999’s inaccessible Kid A, this is an album only for Radiohead enthusiasts. If you’re in the mood for some soft ambient oddities, it can be quite enjoyable with biggies like Pyramid Song and Life in a Glass House (and the two picks below), but it’s not going to appeal to anyone who hasn’t already seriously bought in to the Radiohead vibe.
Hail to the Thief (2003)
In 2003 the fellas got their guitars back out and made a melodic political album with proper songs! In many ways it feels like the natural successor to OK Computer, as if Kid A and Amnesiac had never happened, but not only is it not as good as OKC, it’s not as inventive or as experimental as Kid A or Amnesiac – but it’s also not bad.
It is overlong and a bit slipshod, too much stuff thrown on it so that it doesn’t hang together as a whole, stubbornly remaining a collection of different parts – but jolly nice parts they are, and there are a fair few Radiohead bangers on this album.
Thom Yorke regretted that they’d rushed it and crammed too much on, and he proposed an alternate track order with fewer songs which works so much better, transforming the album into something much tighter that better showcases its brilliance.
See below for our playlist based on Thom’s alternative (or here on Deezer if you’re not keen on Spotify).
Hail to the Thief is also our favourite Radiohead album cover:
Kid A (1999)
The famous so-called “left turn” that shocked the musical world. Radiohead were headlining Glastonbury and were talked about as the next massive stadium rock band but they decided they didn’t want that (leaving it to Coldplay to be “the next U2”), and instead chose to turn their back on melody and hide behind an impersonal electronic album that presented their fans with an unexpected challenge.
It is brilliant, but also maddening. Some of it is extraordinary (Idioteque), some of it lovely (Morning Bell), some of it dreadful (Treefingers), but mostly it’s a highly-impressive, if cold and unlovely, album. If you approach it as a full-blown Radiohead fan determined to get what they were aiming for, then this can become your favourite because it is super-clever. If you approach it as a normal human, you’ll probably play it once and once only.
A Moon Shaped Pool (2015)
Radiohead at their most exposed and emotional, a beautifully understated album that is heavy on the strings. It’s not the first elpee you’d reach for if you’re throwing a wild party, but it might well be the first you’d reach for if you want to kick back with a glass of wine and chill. It is a tiny bit short, and we’d have liked to have seen Spectre, and possibly Ill Wind, included to make it more solid.
One assumes the name is supposed to be A Moon-Shaped Pool (i.e. a pool in the shape of a moon, i.e. round) rather than a pool that was shaped by a moon, but who knows, they’re musicians not grammarians.
In Rainbows (2007)
A wonderful album, fully of life and variety, and perfectly flowing from one song to the next giving it a sense of fluidity and atmosphere that only great albums do. For example, the punchy 15 Step kicks off the album and segues brilliantly into the upbeat Bodysnatchers and then on to the slower Nude before easing us in to the gentle rhythms of Weird Fishes … it is a delicious beast, surprisingly accessible for a late-stage Radiohead album.
The Bends (1995)
This could easily have come top because it is perfect, but it is also of its time, more so than any of the band’s later albums. It is brilliant, every song needs to be there, and every song is better than any other song from that time, your favourite tends to be whichever song you’re listening to at that moment – but listening with today’s sophisticated ears, it feels like an album from the 1990s.
Every hit is a cracker, even the surprisingly simple High and Dry. The fast-paced Just is magnificent and if Jonny Greenwood’s guitar bit near the end doesn’t give you goose-pimples then you are a rubbish person, and if you don’t wipe away a cheeky tear listening to Fake Plastic Trees then please leave. Just go.
Perfect, but dated.
OK Computer (1997)
As you may have noticed, we’ve had to raise our voice a few times due to the band not including songs they should have, and nowhere is this more evident than on 1997’s classic OK Computer. I mean, seriously … Lift and Man of War were left off, and the rubbish Fitter Happier and Electioneering were put on!
Explain that to me!
Well, don’t, because you can’t, so don’t waste my time and yours by trying, you’ll only look silly.
Despite this it is still an astonishing album, so far beyond anything else at the time that it was like Radiohead were from a different planet. The high points are absurdly high, and still today the closing refrain of Karma Police sung by a stadium full of fans is one of the most moving things in music.
Imperfect, but timeless.