Twenty years ago Friday, Radiohead released Kid A, the landmark experimental record that declared the most interesting rock band in the world wanted to do more than just rock. To mark the occasion, The Ringer is putting everything in its right place, ranking the band’s best tracks and exploring the myth of Kid A. Now just don’t disappear completely.
Radiohead is immune to hyperbole. Many will say “Radiohead is the soundtrack to my life,” and those people aren’t wrong. Others will say “Radiohead is so boring. I don’t get it,” like Kid Rock did in 2001, and … well, who is going to argue Radiohead with the guy who wrote “Bawitdaba”? The fact is Radiohead is Radiohead, existing in its own musical world. Similar to predecessors like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and R.E.M., Radiohead has legions of fans, and endless cycles of rereleased, remastered, and reappraised albums. It’s with good reason. For the past 25 years, these five creeps have defined alternative rock.
Consider Kid A, which turns 20 this week. Anticipation for the OK Computer follow-up built a comparable head of buzz to Britney Spears doing it again, Eminem threatening moms, and Mystikal yelling, “Shake ya ass, but watch yourself.” Amid the pop noise, one of the more intriguing questions in music in 2000 was, “What will Kid A sound like?”
At first, the question proved difficult to answer since Kid A had no singles or pre-release videos. The record was streamed in its entirety on channels like MTV2, and through the band’s own website media player, iBlip. Upon its physical release, Kid A was considered “ornery.” Nick Hornby hated it. Pitchfork gave it a 10. Chuck Klosterman wrote that it predicted 9/11 (more on that later). Still, Radiohead’s fourth album debuted at no. 1 on Billboard. Pretty good for an album the band’s singer Thom Yorke described to Rolling Stone as “getting a massive eraser out and starting again.”
Destroying and rebuilding wasn’t new for Radiohead pre–Kid A. After “Creep” made them rock stars in 1993, Radiohead spent the next two years destroying any goodwill associated with it. Even while recording “Creep,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood was actively trying to fuck up, according to guitarist Ed O’Brien. You can hear Greenwood continue to destroy alt rock’s loud-quiet-loud formula on 1995’s The Bends in songs like “Black Star,” their first track produced entirely by the future de facto sixth member of the band, Nigel Godrich.
In the midst of this distortion is Yorke, the wailing singer born with a paralyzed eye who shakes out his nerves on stage. He’s usually singing about love, isolation, and the creeping sensation that says “we’re fucked” (the feeling usually comes after staring too long at pricks in the bar). The band perfected the cocktail on 1997’s OK Computer, an album that features riffs that all beginning guitarists half-assedly play (“Airbag,” “Paranoid Android”) and lyrics loners memorize (“I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide”).
After Kid A, Radiohead continued moving at its own pace, releasing 2001’s Amnesiac. Yorke told Spin that the Kid A companion was “some of the most reassuring stuff we’ve ever done,” but critics weren’t infatuated with the supposed return to form. The band made up for the lack of energy on 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Neither had any “hits,” and they weren’t considered as mind-blowing as Kid A or OK Computer. But that’s a silly assessment as Radiohead spoiled fans with its restless energy, jumping from reversed beats (“Like Spinning Plates,” “Backdrifts”) to riff rock (“I Might be Wrong,” “Myxomatosis”), funereal ballads (“Pyramid Song,” “Sail to the Moon”) to Orwellian paranoia (“Life in a Glasshouse,” “2+2=5,” “A Wolf at the Door”).
Both Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief sold more in their first week than Kid A, but didn’t debut at no. 1. Amnesiac sold 230,000 copies its first week, debuting at no. 2. Hail to the Thief sold nearly 300,000 copies its first week, coming in at no. 3. As impressive as the numbers were, Radiohead still never sold as many combined units as then-popular modern rock bands like Creed or Kid Rock. However, while those bands were draped in traditional rock nostalgia, Radiohead was always ahead of its time, never wanting to be a “rock band.”
Such a forward-thinking nature was difficult to discredit with the release of 2007’s In Rainbows. As the music industry wheezed along and rock bands like Daughtry dominated the charts, Radiohead released their seventh album straight to fans, famously using a pay-what-you-want model. The move pissed off Trent Reznor, who then realized he was Trent Reznor and used a similar tactic for his next two Nine Inch Nails albums. In Rainbows’ release paved the way for music being released directly to fans at a moment’s notice, simultaneously revolutionizing and fucking up the system. Musically, In Rainbows features the band at its loudest (“Bodysnatchers”), sexiest (“House of Cards”), and most playful (“Jigsaw Falling Into Place”) in years.
Even today, Radiohead still dictates alternative rock’s course. The genre is less concerned with guitar anthems, and more full of electronic blips set against sighs. Give credit for the move to Radiohead’s percussive experiments heard on 2011’s The King of Limbs and stand-alone singles like “Supercollider,” “The Butcher,” “The Daily Mail,” and “Staircase.” As alternative music continued to change shape, slowing down to meditate further on the overwhelming everything, Radiohead returned with 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. That most recent album is devastating (“Daydreaming,” “True Love Waits”), hopeful (“The Numbers”), and fraught with paranoia (“Burn the Witch”)—in other words, pure Radiohead.
Rumors circulated that A Moon Shaped Pool could be the final Radiohead record. But this is what Radiohead fans do. The moment something is released, they ask, “Is this it? What does it mean? Will they make another album? If they do, what will it sound like?” The fourth question is the easiest to answer. If there’s a next album, it will sound like Radiohead: “rock” music that’s impossible to ignore—and tougher to describe, even if we’ll be trying to do so for the next 20 years.
Until then, here are the best 100 songs the band has released to date.
100. “Fitter Happier” (OK Computer)
Written in a fit then programmed through a Mac voicebox named Fred, “Fitter Happier” is a manic checklist of emotions to background piano and workplace noise. Though Yorke later told Guitar World it was “the most upsetting thing [he had] ever written,” the OK Computer interlude is the singer at his most vulnerable and concise. The lyrics are made of phrases from lists he wrote to himself and lines from self-help books (“A pig in a cage on antibiotics” appears in Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up!). In the middle of OK Computer, “Fitter Happier” is at first a skippable break before the spaghetti Western guitars of “Electioneering” roll in. However, “Fitter Happier” isn’t just an interlude. It’s the sound of a literal paranoid android, trapped between how it’s expected to present itself—fitter, happier, more productive—and the reality of feeling “like a cat tied to a stick that’s driven into frozen winter shit.”
99. “Hunting Bears” (Amnesiac)
98. “Man of War” (OK Computer B-side)
97. “Stop Whispering” (Pablo Honey)
96. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (Pablo Honey)
95. “Million Dollar Question” (Pablo Honey B-side)
Nerds hate Pablo Honey because of everything that followed, but the debut is fiiiine. More fun than the aggressive singles “Stop Whispering” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” is the b-side “Million Dollar Question.” Imagine if Radiohead drank a ton of cheap beer, listened to the Replacements, and never read Noam Chomsky. Radiohead would never be that band, but “Million Dollar Question” gives us a peek into an alternate universe where they were big and dumb. Don’t tell the nerds, but it’s better than nearly everything on Pablo Honey.
94. “Morning Mr. Magpie” (The King of Limbs)
93. “Little by Little” (The King of Limbs)
92. “I Will” (Hail to the Thief)
91. “Sulk” (The Bends)
90. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” (Amnesiac)
89. “Kinetic” (Amnesiac B-side)
88. “Cuttooth” (Amnesiac B-side)
87. “Worrywort” (Amnesiac B-side)
After recording what would become Kid A and Amnesiac, O’Brien told Rolling Stone that there was discussion of releasing it all as a double album. The band decided against it, but the range of songs that came from that time is fascinating. What songs actually appeared on Amnesiac is also mind-boggling. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” has a beat that sounds like a giant Xerox and lyrics about trap doors. A cool experiment, but the third song on a major label album? Ehh … The B-sides are livelier. “Kinetic” is Tricky-esque trip-hop. “Cuttooth” sounds like deranged Coldplay. “Worrywort” is a choppy, gentle tune that’s never been played live or discussed in interviews. “There’s no use dwelling on what might have been,” Yorke sings. You could go mad formulating tracklists of Amnesiac-era B-sides. Hell, there’s probably another full-length in here. With this many earworms, it’s impossible not to dwell.
86. “Faust Arp” (In Rainbows)
85. “15 Step” (In Rainbows)
How many takes did the Matrix Music children’s choir get for that one “Yeah”?
84. “Like Spinning Plates” (Amnesiac)
83. “We Suck Young Blood” (Hail to the Thief)
82. “A Punchup at a Wedding” (Hail to the Thief)
“No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no” is the exact emotion anyone would have while witnessing someone embarrass themselves at a wedding.
81. “The Numbers” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
80. “Desert Island Disk” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
79. “Glass Eyes” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
Much of A Moon Shaped Pool’s coverage focused on the band’s surrounding circumstances. After Godrich’s father died, the producer went directly from the hospital to recording “Burn the Witch.” In late 2016, Yorke’s former longtime partner, Rachel Owen, died after battling cancer. Yorke told Rolling Stone in 2017 that the recording sessions were tough: “It was a miracle [A Moon Shaped Pool] got made at all.” “Glass Eyes” feels uncomfortably personal. Jonny Greenwood conducts its longing strings. Yorke see-saws from nervous love to lovesick. “Hey, it’s me,” he sings, as if leaving a voicemail, before ending with, “I feel this love to the core / I feel this love turn cold.” Such a casual delivery makes it difficult to separate the personal drama from the music. More devastating is realizing that “Glass Eyes” is a break-up song.
78. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” (Amnesiac)
An antagonistic, Auto-Tuned Yorke mumbles against keyboards, sequencers, and distorted drum loops (including one that’s reportedly drummer Phil Selway playing kitchen pots). Amnesiac was supposed to be a “back-to-basics” follow-up to the abstract Kid A. The opening track gives no fucks about these expectations. Drained of energy and dealing with writer’s block, all Yorke can muster is, “I’m a reasonable man / Get off my case.”
77. “Kid A” (Kid A)
76. “Sit Down. Stand Up” (Hail to the Thief)
75. “Backdrifts” (Hail to the Thief)
74. “Gagging Order” (Hail to the Thief B-side)
Hail to the Thief is a mixtape of every style of Radiohead to that point. “Sit down. Stand up.” has abstract lyrics that could be about politics, war, or “the raindrops.” “Backdrifts” shows the band’s love of Aphex Twin and creating electronica collages. Of all the songs, though, the B-side “Gagging Order” stands out with its bare arrangement of acoustic guitar and vocals. The lyrics are just specific enough to make theorists mad. “A couple more for breakfast, a little more for tea / Just to take the edge off … Move along / There’s nothing left to see” could be about society, depression—you name it. The simplicity signals the band’s newfound comfort. Before Hail to the Thief, Radiohead sounded anything but.
73. “Go Slowly” (In Rainbows Disk 2)
72. “Lewis (Mistreated)” (The Bends B-side)
71. “The Trickster” (The Bends B-side)
70. “Killer Cars” (The Bends B-side)
69. “Myxomatosis” (Hail to the Thief)
Sexy Radiohead … ? In a 2003 interview with Spin, Yorke thought Hail to the Thief was a record “for shagging. … The rhythms are very sexy.” Though the literal definition of myxomatosis is a viral infection that kills rabbits, Yorke said the song is “about wishing that all the people who tell you that you’re crazy were actually right. That would make life so much easier.” That tracks. This song being sexy does not.
68. “Bones” (The Bends)
67. “Planet Telex” (The Bends)
66. “Last Flowers” (In Rainbows Disk 2)
65. “Bangers + Mash” (In Rainbows Disk 2)
Sexy Radiohead … wait, dammit. A tambourine-filled track at the end of In Rainbows Disk 2, “Bangers + Mash” is a wake-up call. Jonny Greenwood flings around a snorting guitar riff before O’Brien strums a few siren-like chords to balance the arrangement. Yorke has fun with lines like, “Whatever turns you on, whatever gets you up.” Later, he chuckles to himself before beatboxing against drummer Phil Selway. It’s enough to make you want to dance. That is, until you read the lyrics, “I’m puking on the wall.” Maybe there’s no such thing as “sexy Radiohead,” but this devilish jam comes close.
64. “Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was” (The Bends)
63. “(Nice Dream)” (The Bends)
62. “You and Whose Army?” (Amnesiac)
Recorded live using antiquated equipment and with a heavy nod to doo-wop, “You and Whose Army?” begins like a World War II–era tune. Yorke’s vocals crackle, sounding like he’s already been defeated as he teases oppressors, “Come on if you think you can take us on.” Then, the song explodes. O’Brien told Rolling Stone that the final burst of the song could have gone on for another four minutes. “In the Radiohead of old, on OK Computer … we would have carried on ‘Hey Jude’–style.” The reprise of “We ride tonight” isn’t quite “Na na na na na na,” but, fuck it, #ReleasetheHeyJudeCut.
61. “Decks Dark” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
60. “Identikit” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
59. “Where I End and You Begin” (Hail to the Thief)
58. “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” (Amnesiac)
57. “Morning Bell” (Kid A)
The haze of the morning shuffle, two ways. Amnesiac features a slow-motion “Morning Bell.” The percussion is panned right, constantly rattling before Yorke sings, “Release me.” The twinkles, xylophones, and keys sound like something Jon Brion would pitch to a Charlie Kaufman movie. The Kid A version is more grounded as Selway’s drums loop, nearly out of rhythm, to a few keys and Colin Greenwood’s smooth bass lines (how underrated is he?). By the second verse, the song is out of its slumber with reverse guitars and Yorke’s conversational imagery, “Where’d you park the car? / The clothes are on the lawn with the furniture.” From there, it escalates to “cut the kids in half.” Whatever you think this song is about, it’s not about a homestyle breakfast with the family.
56. “The Daily Mail” (single)
55. “Life in a Glasshouse” (Amnesiac)
54. “A Wolf at the Door” (Hail to the Thief)
53. “Knives Out” (Amnesiac)
How can a song this violent sound like a lullaby?
52. “A Reminder” (OK Computer B-side)
51. “The Bends” (The Bends)
50. “My Iron Lung” (The Bends)
The precursor to the song-in-a-song structure of “Paranoid Android,” “My Iron Lung” is a sarcastic status update on the band in all its post-“Creep” fame. Recorded live during a 1994 concert at the Astoria in London with crowd noise leveled out, this was the first taste of The Bends. Capitol Records A&R Perry-Watts Russell told Billboard in 1995 that it “wasn’t a proper first single. We really didn’t even pursue radio airplay for it.” Fans and college radio knew “My Iron Lung” was a glimpse of an evolving band, not like “the last one, a total waste of time.” For that, we are grateful.
49. “2+2=5” (Hail to the Thief)
48. “Ful Stop” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
47. “Sail to the Moon” (Hail to the Thief)
46. “In Limbo” (Kid A)
45. “Burn the Witch” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
44. “I Might Be Wrong” (Amnesiac)
43. “Pearly*” (OK Computer B-side)
42. “Palo Alto” (OK Computer B-side)
41. “Scatterbrain” (Hail to the Thief)
40. “Lotus Flower” (The King of Limbs)
39. “Codex” (The King of Limbs)
A detached experiment in rhythm, The King of Limbs documents the band’s search for the next phase. “We didn’t want to pick up guitars,” Jonny Greenwood told Rolling Stone in 2012. “We didn’t want to sit in front of a computer either. We wanted a third thing, which involved playing and programming.” What was recorded (in Drew Barrymore’s Los Angeles house) took “a year and a half to unravel,” Godrich told fans via The Guardian this past February. The King of Limbs is full of interesting ideas that don’t quite stick as the band leans into the idea of feeling free. After seven albums of alienation, comfortable Radiohead is a tough sell. But “Lotus Flower,” in all of its memeable glory, and the sparse ballad “Codex” are reminders of what the band does best—juxtaposing familiar alt-rock styles against something sinister.
38. “Reckoner” (In Rainbows)
37. “Go to Sleep” (Hail to the Thief)
36. “Videotape” (In Rainbows)
Soundtracking death wasn’t a new concept for Radiohead in 2007. OK Computer had “Exit Music (For a Film).” Kid A had “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” Both were cynical, depressing vignettes, fraught with Yorke’s late-’90s phobias. In Rainbows, though, is “one for the good days.” The band’s seventh album is hopeful and confident with lyrics that are “positively evergreen,” Yorke told The A.V. Club in 2008. The attitude adjustment came from realizing they were “not the center of attention anymore,” Yorke said. Instead of “red wine and sleeping pills,” “Videotape” is a sweeter coda. “You are my center when I spin away,” Yorke sings against syncopated piano. “You shouldn’t be afraid / Because I know today has been / The most perfect day I’ve ever seen.” The frontman who perfected the anxious sigh was human after all, sighing with relief.
35. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (OK Computer)
34. “The Tourist” (OK Computer)
33. “Lucky” (OK Computer)
After The Bends, Radiohead was on a roll. “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “The Tourist,” and “Lucky” seem like less-cool songs on OK Computer. But upon relistening, you remember they are absolutely necessary. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is Yorke’s attempt to create the magic he heard on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. The idea makes no sense until you hear how many notes are shoved into the chorus. “The Tourist” feels superfluous—that is, until you hear the best vocal performance on the record during the chorus of “Idiot, slow down.” “Lucky” is the best Bends-era song not on The Bends, originally recorded in 1995 in a five-hour session for the benefit LP The Help Album. Together, these songs represent a band standing on the edge of their greatest moments.
32. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” (In Rainbows)
31. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” (Kid A)
30. “Optimistic” (Kid A)
When all else fails in predicting society’s collapse, yell “Dinosaurs roaming the Earth.”
29. “Electioneering” (OK Computer)
28. “Climbing Up the Walls” (OK Computer)
27. “Talk Show Host” (Romeo + Juliet Soundtrack/The Bends B-side)
“I’ll be waiting with a gun and a pack of sandwiches” is the perfect lyric for a song thrown to the soundtrack for a Baz Luhrmann movie.
26. “How to Disappear Completely” (Kid A)
25. “High and Dry” (The Bends)
24. “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” (OK Computer B-side)
Fifty-six seconds in, these guitars are like a Clark Kent punch, destroying anything in their path.
23. “True Love Waits” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
In late 2000, O’Brien wrote in his online diary that the band was again trying to record “True Love Waits,” a song that had been around since 1995: “This is something like approach number 561 … It may of course be utter crap and we have so lost the plot on this song. Please don’t let that be the case.” As the finale on A Moon Shaped Pool, “True Love Waits” is proof of how much Radiohead changed musically in 25 years. The acoustic ballad from the live album I Might Be Wrong was scaled down to a few pianos bouncing off each other, and an out-of-place fan favorite morphed into a haunting plea, a far cry from what O’Brien had feared.
22. “All I Need” (In Rainbows)
21. “House of Cards” (In Rainbows)
20. “Nude” (In Rainbows)
The thump of “All I Need”; the intro lyric of “I don’t wanna be your friend / I just wanna be your lover” on “House of Cards”; and the mention of a “dirty mind” on “Nude”—now this is Sexy Radiohead. That doesn’t necessarily mean the songs are about sex. What made In Rainbows such a treat in 2007 (other than being able to get the new Radiohead for free ninety-nine) was its straightforwardness. This isn’t a fussy record that needs to be deciphered. As Yorke described to The Independent in 2008, “In Rainbows is a conscious return to [the rock album]. Our aim was to describe in 45 minutes, as coherently and conclusively as possible, what moves us … our classic album.” No one could help getting swept under.
19. “Black Star” (The Bends)
18. “Pyramid Song” (Amnesiac)
After I bought Amnesiac from Warehouse Music, my aunt told me to put it in the car CD player. I hadn’t heard the rest of the album, so I skipped to the “single,” “Pyramid Song.” A few measures in, my aunt commented, “This sounds like music for a funeral.” “Duh,” I thought, and then shrugged. With its sweeping strings, tumbling drums, and Yorke’s vocals about jumping into a river, “Pyramid Song” does sound morbid. What’s funny now is coming across a 2001 interview with MTV, and hearing Yorke talk about how the song isn’t concerned with death at all. “It’s not a desperate attempt to avoid death,” Yorke told Gideon Yago. “It’s not a desperate attempt to avoid life passing you by, getting old, all that sort of stuff. That’s all bollocks. [Time] is just this really beautiful thing that’s going round and round and round.” Now, as I sink into the song again, with Yorke’s explanation in mind, all I can think is, “Duh.”
17. “Bodysnatchers” (In Rainbows)
If anyone ever says Radiohead doesn’t go hard in the paint, blare “Bodysnatchers” into their skulls. Yorke’s guitars fuzz down the middle. O’Brien is off to the left with some wah-wah atmosphere. Jonny Greenwood is to the right, bending his guitar to his will, stabbing and hammering notes. It’s the heaviest fucking ripper Radiohead has ever written.
16. “The National Anthem” (Kid A)
15. “Fake Plastic Trees” (The Bends)
A 20-something who just saw Jeff Buckley live presents the downside of consumerism.
14. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (In Rainbows)
13. “There, There” (Hail to the Thief)
12. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (The Bends)
11. “Airbag” (OK Computer)
The best Radiohead opener is the band’s stylistic calling card. The three-guitar attack of Yorke, O’Brien, and Jonny are panned, respectively, middle, left, and right. Selway’s drums are chopped and looped, and Colin’s bass pops in and out. By OK Computer’s release, songs about car crashes weren’t anything new (see “Killer Cars” and “Stupid Car”), but no other version felt like “Airbag.” For that, give credit to Godrich. His mix creates a mutant, DJ Shadow–like rock, warping Selway’s drums through guitar pedals, racing to build back to that opening riff. “Airbag” is an interstellar burst that changed everything we knew about alternative rock and Radiohead.
10. “Daydreaming” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
Near the end of “Daydreaming,” a Frankenstein-like voice and strings imitate each other. That voice is Yorke saying “Half of my life” in reverse. Though it’s easy to connect the song to the tabloid drama, the song isn’t only about relationships. In 2016, Yorke had spent half of his life playing music, being in a band, “happy to serve you.” A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s midlife crisis. “Daydreaming” is a morose “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Instead of a joyous Cher on a battleship, we’ve got a dreary Yorke, wondering aloud, “What now?”
9. “Exit Music (For a Film)” (OK Computer)
Then-obsessed with Johnny Cash’s live album At Folsom Prison and commissioned to write a song for Romeo + Juliet, Yorke quickly made “Exit Music.” The result was so good that the band held it for OK Computer, throwing the aforementioned remix of “Talk Show Host” to the soundtrack instead. “Exit Music” doesn’t see love as a tragedy, but as the ultimate escape and revenge act. As the curtains draw on the final act, the couple is “one in everlasting peace.” As for everyone else? Yorke sneers a final send-off: “We hope that you choke.”
8. “Creep” (Pablo Honey)
Here it is. The band joked that this was their “Scott Walker song,” their one bona fide hit—the “so fucking special” “Creep.” Noel Gallagher hated it. Beavis and Butt-Head loved it. The ’93 single borrowed a chord progression from an old Hollies song, “The Air That I Breathe.” The pace was too slow for Jonny Greenwood, who makes his guitar sound like he’s priming a chainsaw before the chorus. Chugga. Chugga. The transition makes your mind pats of butter, and inevitably, American rock radio fell in love. Most bands would have spent the rest of their careers chasing and trying to re-create this success. By 1994, Radiohead was tired of it, leaving concert stages after having to play it. In 1997, the band told crowds to fuck off if it was requested. Over time, the band has accepted “Creep,” performing it live here and there. What makes the song so special is that, yes, it does rule, but everything after “Creep” was done to wreck its success, to be the antithesis of ’90s rock. Radiohead were the weirdos.
7. “Everything in Its Right Place” (Kid A)
*Hits bong.* So, I’m walking in the neighborhood, listening to this song. As my main man Thom starts singing, “Everythiiiiiiing in its riiiiiight place,” this mom and stroller are approaching from the opposite direction. At first glance, no big, right? Then, I look again … There’s no baby in the stroller! Everything was not in its right place, man. And that’s what this song is about.
6. “No Surprises” (OK Computer)
As harmless as OK Computer’s fourth single sounds, there’s something off. The music is childish glockenspiels. The lyrics recall a shitty time on the road, with Yorke listing his complaints: “A heart that’s full up like a landfill / A job that slowly kills you / Bruises that won’t heal.” In interviews in 1997, O’Brien and Yorke compared it to Louis Armstong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Armstrong’s jazz ballad is sentimental. “No Surprises” captures a more disturbing world, where people do their best to keep up appearances while crumbling inside.
5. “Let Down” (OK Computer)
Disappointment has never sounded more hopeful.
4. “Just” (The Bends)
Nearly 50 years old, Jonny Greenwood is becoming Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to composer, having already worked on scores for There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread. But Greenwood is first and foremost an absolute beast of a guitarist. If there’s any question, blast this single from The Bends. “Just” starts with Greenwood showing off his speed, hitting higher and higher notes until none are left on his guitar neck. He does this FIVE TIMES in the song. After his final run, he holds onto this feedback that sounds like a boiling teapot before ripping into an entirely different, nasty solo full of bending strings and stuttering notes. As classy as those film compositions are, nothing comes close to loud guitar freak-outs like this.
3. “Karma Police” (OK Computer)
The idea for OK Computer’s second single came from an inside joke within the band. If a bandmate did something wrong, the rest of the band would threaten to call the “Karma Police.” The song is funny in the way that No Country for Old Men is funny—you’ll chuckle for a second at a tossed-off line then realize, “Christ, this is bleak.” “Karma Police” captures the unsettling suspicions that some authority is examining every detail, and those details are worthy of punishment. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the guy who “talks in maths” or the girl with the “Hitler hairdo.” These are the exact traits a judgmental kook might list as reason enough to be locked up. The music isn’t light, either, as O’Brien finishes the song with a delayed guitar that sounds like a dissolving siren. What started as a joke feels increasingly prescient today. Bleak.
2. “Idioteque” (Kid A)
In an essay from 2005’s Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman wrote that Radiohead predicted 9/11. Within his theory, “Idioteque” is an indication of the eventual War on Terror. The evidence is all there in the lyrics of “Who’s in a bunker? / Women and children first” and “This is really happening.” In the 15 years since this essay, “Idioteque” sounds less concerned with a single, historical moment, but rather the result of a constantly sped-up society in which, no matter the political situation, “I’m allowed everything all of the time.” Yorke free-associates, going from extreme to extreme with each subsequent line. “I have seen too much / I haven’t seen enough, you haven’t seen it / I’ll laugh until my head comes off,” he sings in the first verse. “Ice age coming, ice age coming / Let me hear both sides,” he rambles later. Minimalist samples of ’70s computer music and Jonny Greenwood’s bit-crushed gunshot snare make up the background for what was at that point Radiohead’s most experimental detour. In 2000, “Idioteque” was unlike anything in mainstream music and the band’s catalogue. As hard as it hits, the song isn’t a club banger, either. “Idioteque” is Radiohead’s peak dystopic portrait.
1. “Paranoid Android” (OK Computer)
This was OK Computer’s first single: a six-and-a-half-minute epic that Yorke said was “about the dullest fucking people on Earth.” “Paranoid Android” is Radiohead’s finest platter of alt-rock violence, mocking “the panic, the vomit” of witnessing a coke-fueled fit in Hollywood. Recorded in Jane Seymour’s 10th-century mansion in Bath, the song was tinkered over with some versions running past 10 minutes, into what Godrich called “Deep Purple territory.” The sixth man took the tape and edited the song into a three-part monster. When talking to Rolling Stone in 2017, O’Brien accurately described “Paranoid Android” as “Queen meets the Pixies.” The scale of the song is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The feel is Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, starting with a shaker-infused acoustic groove before breaking into a theatric guitar solo-infused fit that would piss off any of “the yuppies networking.” In the come down of the slow motion, Yorke’s sarcasm shines as he moans, “God loves his children.” The guitar freak-out comes in again, seemingly louder than before with Yorke screaming through a distorted mic against Jonny Greenwood’s warping, agitated guitar solos. Hell yes, this was OK Computer’s first single, and Radiohead’s return made mincemeat of whatever “semi-charmed” bullshit dominated airwaves in 1997. More than 20 years later, “Paranoid Android” shows a band operating “from a great height.”
Matthew Sigur is a writer, comedian, and musician based in Chicago.