One of the first questions I ask when I meet anyone is “what kind of music do you like?” It’s a great way to break the ice; most people will have strong feelings about some genre, artist, or era, and it’s rare that anyone avoids the question or intimates that they aren’t particularly into music. Plus I have one more entry for the catalogue of musical preferences that I store inside my noggin. In fact, I’ve become so obsessive about asking the question that I’ve started to discern patterns surrounding certain genres or artists — especially one of my favorite bands, Radiohead. Most bands whose name is recognizable in all corners of the globe have a dozen or more hit singles; most bands who’ve gone platinum with five albums in the U.K., four albums in the U.S., and six albums in Canada are frequently listed as “favorite bands” by those I ask. Not so with Radiohead. My experience has revealed that nearly all music fans fall into two categories: those who adore Radiohead and have listened to most of their catalogue and those who struggle to name a single song by the band (“Creep” is the usual answer). This playlist is aimed at the latter group — the surprisingly vast majority, especially in America.
Unless you’ve been [insert a phrase containing "cave" or "hermit" here] for the last two decades, you’ve heard the name “Radiohead.” And unless you live in the United States, you’ve likely heard a half-dozen of their songs on the radio — if you do live in America, you’ve probably only heard one or two. At some point you may have downloaded or bought an album by the band (probably OK Computer, maybe In Rainbows or Kid A, possibly The Bends), but you found it difficult to penetrate and even more difficult to romance for a long-term relationship. You don’t name them as one of your favorite bands (unless you’re trying to impress someone), but you express approval and/or concurrence if they’re mentioned (unless you normally scorn indie or experimental/alternative music).
But Radiohead are not only one of the most important artists in the history of music — they’re also one of the best. From grunge to alternative rock to electronica to experimental pop, their songs are works of art. Many are easy to fall for, featuring memorable riffs, poetic lyrics, and songwriting that rivals The Beatles. Others are almost completely impenetrable and need to be heard while in a certain state of mind (euphemisms aside: listen to these songs stoned) or at a certain point in life when you can understand them on a deeper level.
All of you potential Radiohead fans, then, face a quandary: which songs should you try first? While there is no definitive list, I hope that the order of this playlist — from the most accessible Radiohead tracks to the least accessible — will assist you in understanding (and maybe loving) the preeminent band of the ’90s and ’00s. I could not, of course, include nearly all of the band’s 160+ songs, so I stuck to the 97 core album tracks from the band’s eight studio albums (plus the In Rainbowsbonus EP) and chose 1/4 of those to represent the band on this playlist.
Also read: 2 companion pieces by Alex Hall — “Radiohead Master Class,” a comprehensive survey of all of the band’s EPs and singles; and “Video Playlist: 20 Radiohead Blips,” which chronicles many of the short videos released by the band around the release of Kid A.
1. “Creep” (Pablo Honey, 1993)
The best-known Radiohead track (as well as their first single and their highest-charting song ever in the U.S., Australia, and a good deal of Europe) is as good a place as any to start, even though it barely represents the band’s future — and only a small part of their talent. Singer Thom Yorke‘s falsetto’s is present, but the crunchy prechorus and rock songwriting barely made it past their next album, The Bends. Most Radiohead fans don’t touch their copies of Pablo Honey, but hell, screeching “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” will never get old. That’s why this song’s so fucking special… and because you probably already know it, a great place to start.
2. “High And Dry” (The Bends, 1995)
There were plenty of choices for this slot, which simply had to go to a song from The Bends, easily Radiohead’s most accessible album. “High And Dry” won because of its acoustic guitar backing (which foreshadowed the pop-rock explosion of the late ’90s) and its memorable chorus: “Don’t leave me high, don’t leave me dry,” Yorke sings, hitting a falsetto note on each rhyme. It wasn’t the most successful song off of The Bends, but if you’re trying to understand Radiohead through the lens of pop and rock music, you’ll need to hear “High And Dry.” Also try: the runner-ups for this spot: “Just,” another single, and “Black Star.” They’re both rockier than “High And Dry,” but if you like one, you’ll probably enjoy all three.
3. “Karma Police”(OK Computer, 1997)
Another early Radiohead song, this one from their third album. It was the only charting single in the States for OK Computer, an album many have called the best of the ’90s. It shows the first hints of a progression from pop and rock to something totally new: a non-traditional song structure, spacey vocals, and Orwellian lyrics complement a song that is nevertheless based around the acoustic guitar and the drumset. Also try: Radiohead’s highest-charting song (#3) ever in the U.K., “Paranoid Android.”
4. “Optimistic” (Kid A, 2000) MP3
And on to the band’s fourth album. Don’t worry, we’ll reverse direction soon enough; but “Optimistic” is the song on Kid A, my favorite Radiohead album, which owes the most to the band’s early work. Between the guitars and falsetto ghosts in the intro, you may believe you’re still there — but then Yorke howls the opening lines: “Flies are buzzing around my head/ Vultures circling the dead.” The Creep is dead, and the Depressed Weirdo is stronger than ever: “You can try the best you can/ The best you can is good enough,” Yorke assures you, but you’ll never be sure if that’s sarcastic or not. Also try: “There There. (The Boney King Of Nowhere.),” the least difficult song from 2003′s Hail To The Thief, which reminds you: “just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.”
5. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (The Bends, 1995)
Ahhh…take a deep breath. From here on out, we won’t be visiting rock music with nearly as much vigor. There are no more songs from Pablo Honey and only one more from The Bends, and “Street Spirit” is an appropriate transition. A timeless guitar riff provides the first layer for the song, which is an all-encompassing ode to — death, perhaps? Yorke has called the song the band’s “purest,” and offered this in explanation of the lyrics: “‘Street Spirit’” is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes, and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh.” Needless to say, it’s one of Radiohead’s most powerful songs.
6. “Idioteque” (Kid A, 2000)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to the drum machines and foreboding synths at the beginning of this song — possibly my favorite by Radiohead — and felt a sudden chill run down my spine. Live, Thom Yorke will wiggle maniacally and erratically as the song is played; the power and emotion behind this stark futuristic ode might inspire you to do the same. An subliminal and horribly discomforting feeling is establish by the band’s use of 5 measure of 4/4 time per bar, and alongside lines like “laugh until my head comes off,” you’ll start to understand why Radiohead’s music is some of the most visceral in existence. Also try: “2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm.)” from Hail To The Thief, a song almost as insane and danceable as “Idioteque.”
7. “Fake Plastic Trees” (The Bends, 1995)
This song has experienced a sort of renaissance as of late, finding popularity among both the indie pop/neo-folk crowd and the I-know-one-song-by-Radiohead crowd. I toyed with putting it higher on the list, especially because it becomes immense and anthemic when it finally explodes into my favorite song lyric of all-time: “She looks like the real thing/ She tastes like the real thing/ My fake plastic love.” But for the newcomers, “Fake Plastic Trees” might prove a little too raw and a little too downtempo/acoustic, so here it is. Beware: once you start listening to this song, it’s hard as hell to stop. Also try: “Exit Music (For A Film)” from OK Computer, a chilling lonesome tune that progresses into a hymn of emotional hullabaloo obviously influenced by “Fake Plastic Trees.”
8. “Reckoner” (In Rainbows, 2007)
And now we’re starting to dig deeper into Radiohead’s catalogue. “Reckoner,” arguably the centerpiece of In Rainbows, is the album’s most immediately accessible song, featuring rhythms not unlike “Idioteque” — but the song’s ripened, reticent cousin: instead of asking questions and painting war imagery (“who’s in a bunker?”) it provides answers through metaphors of a quiet pond (“because we separate it ripples our reflections”). So far in the playlist, we’ve hinted at Yorke’s falsetto, which dominates the band’s later releases, on Kid A cuts like “Idioteque” and “Optimistic,” but now it’s full-blown — and it won’t retreat for the rest of the playlist. Also try: “I Might Be Wrong” from 2001′s Amnesiac, the forerunner of “Reckoner.”
9. “Lotus Flower”(The King Of Limbs, 2011)
On Radiohead’s eighth album, February’s The King Of Limbs (review), the band created their tightest compositions yet — not a single second sounds out of place on any of the songs, least all of fan favorite “Lotus Flower.” Buzzing electronic beats are like bees around the lotus, and the song unfolds into nascent, shivering falsetto petals with lyrics like “There’s an empty space inside my heart/ Where the weeds take root/ So now I set you free.” It feels simultaneously frail and infinite, as if the song is undecided on its own fate. Also try: “Little By Little,” this song’s brother from the same album/mother.
10. “No Surprises” (OK Computer, 1997)
Continuing along, we jump back 14 years to the melancholy tinkling of the lullaby-esque “No Surprises.” It’s soothing, it’s sublime, it’s smooth…until you take a glance at the lyric sheet and realize that Yorke’s softly crooning, “You look so tired and unhappy/ Bring down the government/ They don’t, they don’t speak for us/ I’ll take a quiet life/ A handshake of carbon monoxide.” Lyrics like these are why the song, a relatively light trip by Radiohead’s standards, is not one of the first on the playlist. Also try: “Faust Arp” from In Rainbows.
11. “Everything In Its Right Place” (Kid A, 2000)
The opener to Kid A is a tragic, magnificent song; it follows “No Surprises” because the OK Computer cut is the harbinger of this mellow-yet-unnerving electronica. Can you imagine waking up to the year 2000 — a rather arbitrary date to celebrate in the grand scheme of the universe — and seeing that the world hadn’t changed… and then hearing this song? You might be convinced that Radiohead were the future, the sound of the third millenium; nothing quite like it existed beforehand, and it utterly embodies Y2K and the digital age. Give it at least three listens, and then the opening quintet of notes will wake you up “sucking on a lemon” for the rest of your life. Also try: Kid A‘s “Morning Bell,” another insistent-yet-intimate cut.
12. “Nude” (In Rainbows, 2007)
Our writer Alex Hall wrote in his Radiohead Master Class article that this song “singlehandedly changed [his] life.” Opening with drenched strings and lonely howls, the song is perhaps the best example of Radiohead’s ability to do more with less. Minimalist yet grand, plodding yet anxious, it is an exercise in existentialism (“Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone/ Now that you feel it, you don’t”) and demotivation (“Don’t get any big ideas/ They’re not gonna happen”). Yet for all its disconsolate poignancy, it seems to reach towards the skies for something bigger than itself, leaving the listener naked in his mortality, striving to understand the world and himself — and thus, depression heals the soul through music. Also try: “(Nice Dream)” from The Bends.
13. “Bloom”(The King Of Limbs, 2011)
The opening track from The King Of Limbs (review) begins like déjà vu of Kid A‘s opener, the playlisted “Everything In Its Right Place” — from the opening keyboards, however, it delves into electronica more reminiscent of “Idioteque.” The lyrics are some of the most surreal that Yorke has written: “…While the ocean blooms/ It’s what keeps me alive … / I’m moving out of orbit/ Turning in somersaults.” “Bloom” is also a great halfway point on the playlist — from here on out, the playlist turns to the esoteric side of Radiohead. Also try: “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box” from Amnesiac.
14. “Life In A Glass House” (Amnesiac, 2001)
Like a jazz piece corrupted by a virus, the closing track on Amnesiac features cacophonic horns and woodwinds that clash throughout the song’s 4.5 minutes. But you won’t hear lyrics like these in a Borders cafe (…our kids won’t understand that reference…): “once again, we are hungry for lynchin’.” The song calls out hypocrisy and advises “don’t talk politics and don’t throw stones” — and it was one of the only tracks on Amnesiac recorded after the release of the album’s predecessor, Kid A, as most of the record was composed of other songs from those session. For that reason, it deserves a spot on the playlist — it is the true sound of post-Kid A Radiohead. Not to mention that it prepares you for the discordant horns on later playlisted songs. Also try: “Down Is The New Up” from the In Rainbows bonus disc.
15. “A Wolf At The Door. (It Girl. Rag Doll.)” (Hail To The Thief, 2003)
Hints of Muse and The Beatles (numerous lyrical references such as “the taxman”) can be heard on the last track from Hail To The Thief, but that doesn’t mean it’s an effortless journey. Radiohead’s sixth release is generally considered their most demanding, as well as their weakest post-Pablo Honey — even the band wishes they could “have another go” at the record. But even when Radiohead aren’t as good, they’re still 15 steps away from pure genius, as evidenced by the monumental riffs and careless rambling of “A Wolf At The Door.” You don’t know Radiohead ’till you’ve heard Yorke mumble “dance, you fucker.” Also try: In Rainbows‘ “15 Step,” just because I made a pun with the title two sentences ago.
16. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (OK Computer, 1997) MP3
My personal favorite from OK Computer, “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is just that: awash in a barrage of ambient rock that strongly influenced bands like Coldplay, the song aches and echoes like an extraterrestrial outcast serenading his homeworld from Earth. Also try: “Separator” off of The King Of Limbs (review), a shiver of a song.
17. “How To Disappear Completely” (Kid A, 2000)
Perhaps the most morose composition that Radiohead have ever recorded, this Kid A bares Yorke to the world: “I’m not here/ This isn’t happening,” he moans during one of Radiohead’s most striking moments. It is an exploration of just how meaningless and just how evanescent life can feel, and its glossy strings give the entire piece the aura of a dreamscape. Also try: “Motion Picture Soundtrack” from the same album.
18. “A Punchup At A Wedding. (No No No No No No No No.)” (Hail To The Thief)
Its piano and pleated percussion establish a groove as enveloping as any the band have created, but the wandering melody and lyrics make it difficult to find a firm foothold while scaling this song. Plus it’s a lot more angry than the arrangement suggests. Also try: “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” from In Rainbows.
19. “Pyramid Song” (Amnesiac, 2001)
We’re now venturing into the part of Radiohead’s catalogue that relies less and less on traditional chord progressions, vocal melodies, or song structures. “Pyramid Song” is an easier entry than many possible choices for this slot — some sections are swamped with meandering layers, like a flooding river that constantly changes courses; others swell like musical cacti upon the sudden watershed, soaking up each and every piano chord. It is the instrument which anchors the song to earth — otherwise, it’d soar away with that homesick alien. Also try: “The Tourist” from OK Computer.
20. “Codex” (The King Of Limbs, 2011)
In “Pyramid Song,” Yorke “jumped into the river” alongside “black-eyed angels,” and “there was nothing to fear, and nothing to doubt” — 10 years later, in “Codex,” he “jump[s] off the end into a clear lake” with “no one around, just dragonflies,” and “the water’s clear and innocent.” While I could write a thesis on these two songs and their connections to each other, it’s not needed: the Radiohead fan understands it as Yorke maturing and escaping many of the demons that plagued him a decade ago. There is little distortion here (and even less of a hook than “Pyramid Song” offered) — it is a fresh, clean look at life through an experience and nature, and it is truly beautiful. Also try: “We Suck Young Blood. (Your Time Is Up.)” from Hail To The Thief, this song’s dark-side doppelgänger, featuring piano by Darth Vader himself. Or not.
21. “Go Slowly” (In Rainbows bonus disc, 2007)
Half falsetto drone (a description that would be oxymoronic if it weren’t correct) and half acoustic guitar lovesong, “Go Slowly” escorts in the final five tracks of this playlist with only a handful of lines. Over the eddies of electronica, Yorke sings, “Oh Maria/ Come slowly/ Come slowly to me/ I’ve been waiting/ Patient/ Patiently… / I didn’t know it/ But now I can see/ That there’s a way out” — and that’s the whole song. It’s acutely tender but obtusely organic, as if it just sprouted out of Radiohead’s garden but is impossible to devour before it’s cooked for years in your mind. Also try: “Give Up The Ghost” from The King Of Limbs (review), another droney one.
22. “Like Spinning Plates” (Amnesiac, 2001)
This whirling, morbid number turns static into an instrument, synthesizers into ocean waves on Neptune, and your conception of “music” into an admission that you know next to nothing about the subject. “This just feels like spinning plates/ My body is floating down the muddy river”… close your eyes, and you might start to believe it.
23. “The National Anthem” (Kid A, 2000)
Many first-time listeners will ask to skip this track — one of my friends even said it scared her. A malevolent bass riff opens the song before being joined by a cymbal-heavy beat; at first it is umcomfortable but not entirely intimidating. And just as strange, discordant noises enter, the song retreats to the (relative) comfort of some rather impervious lyrics from Yorke. And then come the horns. The horribly tuneless, abrasive, screaming brass that seems less like music and more like noise. But that’s the point. “The National Anthem” has the potential to elicit hidden, repressed emotions by way of its aesthetic of ugliness and malaise — you might be surprised at the many ways the song can affect you after you’ve gotten used to it. Also try: “Bodysnatchers” off of In Rainbows, another beat-heavy piece.
24. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” (Amnesiac, 2001)
Even long-time Radiohead fans like myself can’t always get a tight hold on songs like this one, a trippy, driving electronic piece. Featuring vocal filters, ominous ambiance, and an anti-climactic shutdown, this track doesn’t allow for easy access — but that makes the adventure all the more interesting.
25. “MK 2″ (In Rainbows bonus disc, 2007)
Less than one minute of ambiance and deconstructed noise, if you can find it in your heart to love this one, then there’s nothing in the Radiohead catalogue that can defy you. Except maybe the only Radiohead song I frequently skip: Also try: “Hunting Bears” from Amnesiac, my least favorite Radiohead song in my iTunes. It’s a 2-minute instrumental with a repetitive, dark guitar riff carrying it through.