The 8 Ball: Top 8 Radiohead Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.23.2014
From "Paranoid Android" and "Creep" to "Fake Plastic Trees," "Idioteque" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 Radiohead songs of all-time!
Top 8 Radiohead Songs
Welcome once again to the 411 Music Zone 8 Ball! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
When you're talking about the best acts in music today, it's simply impossible to not at least include Radiohead in the conversation. The UK band has become one of the pre-eminent rock bands of the post-grunge era, a group whose influence on the state of rock music simply cannot be denied. From their 1992 breakout success with Pablo Honey through their critical and commercial highs in the late '90s and their innovative work independent of a music label in the last several years, Radiohead has stayed well ahead of the curve every step of the way and rock music often seems to be scrambling to keep up. This week we're going to look at the top 8 songs from the band's much-beloved discography.
Caveat: As is the norm with my single-act top songs list, I was looking specifically at original songs performed by the band as opposed to covers. Luckily with Radiohead that isn't much of a concern. Basically in this case as long as it was from Radiohead than it was eligible. Nice and simple!
The first song to make our list is a single off of the band's 2004 album Hail to the Thief. "There There" is one of the more underrated examples of how good the band is at experimentation. Most of the band's more lauded experimental styles come with their use of electronica and their willingness to diverge from established musical styles. On this track, the band takes their innovative attitude and applies it to the rhythm section to great effect. The drum work has helped make it a much-loved song in their live shows as well. But that's not all that it has to offer. With Thom Yorke's voice taking a haunting turn on lyrics like "Just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there" and reverb-heavy guitars laying on the mood in thick dollops, this is a tense and gloomy track that creates an air of paranoia in the listener. It was a brief foray into more of a rock sound following their period of heavy trips into electronica and it stands out as a result.
#7: "Pyramid Song" (2001)
From moody and paranoid, we switch gears to moody and ethereal. Okay, not much of a stretch there. But there is a world of difference between "There There" and "Paranoid Song" that can't be easily described. What can be described is that this Amnesiac track is a slow, melancholy and yet somehow uplifting number. The orchestration by Jonny Greenwood is exquisite and the hazy sounds evoke an image of what heaven (or your final reward of choice) might be like. It's the best song off of the group's 2001 LP, which was a fantastic album all-around. The blend of rock, classical and electronica mixes beautifully together and the theme of Yorke's lyrics exemplify the album's themes of afterlife and reincarnation. It's not upbeat and peppy; it doesn't soar or make your heart sing. But it's certainly inspiring and the sheer serenity of the song is both calming and a little bit unnerving. Like the best Radiohead songs, this is a track that can't just be one thing and it works on multiple levels.
#6: "Creep" (1992)
"Creep" is a tricky song to talk about among Radiohead's best works. On one hand it's the band's biggest song and it has a reputation for being overrated and even getting derided by hardcore fans of the band. And to a degree that makes sense, because it's quite unlike the vast bulk of the group's work. That and its hit status make it a definite target for people to scoff at the song's appearance anywhere near a list of the band's best work. But here's the thing: it really is one of their best songs, and being a part of the 1990s alt-rock era doesn't change that. "Creep" was an anthem for a dispossessed generation who understood what it was like to be an outcast and feel entirely alone and isolated in that respect; Yorke and company made them feel like the wasn't really the case. It's one of those rare songs from the era that truly has a timeless feel to it. This was most people's first exposure to the band and it's a testament to the song and the group that they kept going and didn't just fade into One Hit Wonderville like many of their contemporaries at the time. While Radiohead themselves had a bit of disdain for the track and it disappeared from their set lists for a while, it remains one of their best-known--and flat-out best--songs.
#5: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" (1996)
Next up on our list is one of the absolute stand-outs from the band's third LP The Bends. If there's one thing that Radiohead does to perfection it's melancholy, emotive tracks without making them sappy. This is in part why they were lumped into the Britpop movement that came about right when they were really taking off, but the group has always been heads-and-tails above most of the rest of that pack in this capacity. Thom Yorke has said that the song is one of their saddest and it's certainly true; with Ed O'Brian's guitar work coming to the forefront and a chorus of voices in the background, Yorke sings a tale of complete desolation. As Yorke has said it, this is a song without any resolve; there's no hope at the end of the tunnel here and it's a number that really chills to the bone. It sounds like you may imagine a siren's call would be, with the arpeggios beckoning you onward to what can only be a dark end. It's deeply depressing and shows how quickly the band was maturing at that point.
#4: "Fake Plastic Trees" (1995)
Another song off of The Bends, "Fake Plastic Trees" was the song that really represented a turning point for the band in terms of musical style. The act was moving away from the kind of alt-rock sound of "Creep" in favor of a more diverse and interesting direction and it paid off big-time. It's perhaps the most direct of the band's big songs; the metaphors are obvious but that doesn't deprive them of any of their potency. York fires shots at the state of capitalism and authenticity, a statement no doubt partially inspired by the difficulties that they were having with their label at the time. In fact, Capital remixed the song without Yorke's approval and found out when they insisted the band go with their version. He refused and that's probably a good thing. If there is anything that can be taken as a knock against this track, it was that it inspired a host of Britpop music that had nothing near its emotional power, which is a common failing when you're trying to piggy-back off another artist's greatness. Context aside, it's a brilliant piece of work and one of Yorke's best vocal performances.
#3: "Karma Police" (1997)
Not including "Karma Police" on a list of the best Radiohead songs would be like not including "One" on a list of the best Metallica songs: it's unthinkable. OK Computer is largely seen as the band's highest mark, a musical work that set a bar for alternative rock that has never quite been equaled. Among the best tracks on the album is this number, a sublime piece of minimalist pop music. The lyrics were inspired by the band's joke to each other that if you did something bad, the titular authorities would come and make sure that you paid for it. Of course, they took that little touring joke and turned it into one of the biggest songs of their career. What's amazing about "Karma Police" is how perfectly-paced it is. The entirety of the four minutes and twenty-two seconds is utilized to its fullest; this is a song that builds itself to a distortion-punctuated crescendo and doesn't ever feel like it's going too fast or two slow. It starts off acoustic, turns into a midtempo number Amidst it all is Yorke's emotive singing, driving the point home. It's the height of pop-rock excellence.
#2: "Idioteque" (2000)
The 2000 album Kid A represented an important and in some ways polarizing moment for Radiohead as a band. In the three years since OK Computer the band had been suffering through what they called psychological burnout. Thom Yorke actually went through something of a mental breakdown and was becoming hostile to media outlets, not to mention suffering from writer's block and growing frustrated with the state of rock music. That led the group to turn to an electronica sound, a decision that has impacted the music world in innumerable ways. Kid A was released without promotional singles and yet several of the songs have become favorites of the band's fans. Foremost among them is "Idioteque." This song is proof that techno music can have substance; it's electronica in one of its highest forms. The electro-beat and synth progression is simple yet incredibly affecting and the much-debated lyrics reference everything from apocalyptic war and media fearmongering to a new ice age. It's a song that has many imitators and no equals to date, even among Radiohead's own music. This is what we mean when we talk about IDM--intelligent dance music--as a genre.
#1: "Paranoid Android" (1997)
Yeah, this is probably not a surprise. "Paranoid Android" is Radiohead's magnum opus, a song that hits top marks for the band not only in terms of lyricism and emotion, but composition as well. It's a complex piece of work, switching between times and requiring some very intricate playing. The song is rather famously inspired by the Beatles classic "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and while that's a high mark to find inspiration from, it's fair to say that the group matched and possibly even exceeded their inspiration as a musical number. It's the distillation of everything the group has been able to accomplish otherwise in their career. It's been labeled by many journalists as one of the greatest rock tracks of all-time and whether you agree with that or not, you have to at least acknowledge that it's in the top handful of songs from the 1990s. When it comes to Radiohead, it just doesn't get any better than this; it's simply a genius piece of music.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.