Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here. I realise I say that every time I sporadically write a post. Life is weird and short and I came to realise few people have an interest in what I write or make or do. My own patience has worn thin on occasion.
I have tried to commit in the past to writing more frequently, or working towards specific goals such as writing up all my various travels, but I often feel very strange writing about myself. So I’ve stepped back in recent years. What I am trying to say is I’m not committing to more regular blog writing. I’m not making plans. I simply have the urge to write now, and so I am writing now. And right now, I feel like writing about Radiohead.
Although I had certainly heard them, I spent the first 30 years of my life never really listening to Radiohead. They were fairly popular and always seemed very hip and cool, and I was trying very hard not to be those things, weird nerd that I am. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that my stance on “popular” music really softened. I never actually hated Radiohead, in fact I remember liking some of the singles when they came out (I distinctly remember enjoying Pyramid Song at the time), I just never took the plunge. When I decide to get into a band that has a large back catalogue, it can a big thing for me, a real commitment. The idea of Radiohead seemed more intimidating than most. It would mean I would have to become the kind of person who listened to Radiohead.
In 2016 I saw the video for Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch”, and I was suddenly hooked and decided to buy the album (A Moon Shaped Pool) when it came out. Then for whatever reason, I didn’t bother to go through their back catalogue until this year, starting with OK Computer, and then jumping around with no real sense of purpose. It turns out to my very great surprise that I’ve come to realise that Radiohead are probably the greatest British band of the past 30 years.
So without further ado, allow me to share with you, my latecomer’s perspective. Here are
five (wait, I thought of another one) six (no, hang on a moment)… let’s call it seven Radiohead songs that I love. This list isn’t meant to be a definitive list of songs. These are just some of songs that I would have told a Radiohead virgin like me to take a listen to.
Let’s say you were trying to write a parody of Radiohead. The first quality you would try to ape is a sense of creeping misery and crushing disappointment at the reality of the post-modern world we find ourselves in. That stereotype is a little silly and one I’m sure the band would rather escape, but it’s not entirely off-base. It all comes from OK Computer, from songs like “No Surprises”.
From the world of today, OK Computer feels both of its time and ahead of its time. It reflects the world of Mark Corrigan in Peep Show, and of my own life of shitty office jobs, of the disillusionment and dissatisfaction of realising this is basically what life is. I’ll admit, OK Computer album got me through January 2018 as I transitioned onto a new shift pattern that I would later regret volunteering for. Enough about me though, let’s talk about the song.
I sort of knew this song from before I got the album. It seemed to have seeped into my pores at some point and had become a part of me. With that instantly recognisable chiming guitar and xylophone line, and Yorke’s half-mumbled words of confused misery, not to mention that iconic video, this was the song I always thought of when I thought of Radiohead. It still is.
It’s a perfect miserable pop song. What’s not to love?
At this stage, with my incomplete knowledge of Radiohead, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that In Rainbows is the best Radiohead album. I have vague memories of poster ads around the time of its release, and stories of the pay-what-you-want digital release strategy. But I didn’t ever hear any of the album until this year.
While there are a wealth of riches on this album, “Reckoner” stands out. Radiohead are best known for their downers, but this is not really one of them. Opening with an unexpectedly dense drum beat, a kind of slow breakbeat with a constant tambourine, things already feel different. A very soft guitar sets the scene for what is one of Radiohead’s sweetest and prettiest songs. It has one of Johnny Greenwood’s best string arrangements to boot.
With Thom Yorke’s vocals firmly in the higher register throughout, there is a drifting, dreamlike quality here. This uplifting feel only becomes stronger as the string section swells into the bridge. These soft clouds of beautiful sound wrap around your head, before that drum track finally kicks back in and your feet touch ground once again.
Identikit (A Moon Shaped Pool)
This song has the quiet reflective quality of much of A Moon Shaped Pool coupled with a nervy syncopated rhythmic pulse that’s impossible not to love. It displays an impressive range of dynamics, pairing Yorke’s naked and earnest vocal performance with heavily compressed and restrained layers of guitar, bass and drums.
The vocal performance here is one of Yorke’s most effective, brimming with melancholy and the barely contained agony of a life collapsing at the seams. The murky mumbled backing vocals feel like a stream of subconscious images and ideas spooling out onto the floor as you come undone.
There are some interesting surprises in store. The weird choral section of “broken hearts make it rain” in the middle of the song is an interesting counterpoint to the gloom-laden lyrics. And eventually the repeating guitar line breaks into a solo that stubbornly refuses to release the knotty tension the song has built, instead forcing it down it into a gnarled pit of desperation.
Given its origins around the time of the maligned King of Limbs, live versions of “Identikit” tend to emphasise that album’s snaking polyrhythmic tendencies more than the restrained studio version. I happen to enjoy both takes a great deal.
Jigsaw Falling into Place
Another trusty In Rainbows cut, “Jigsaw Falling into Place” has all the hallmarks of uptempo Radiohead song structure; a strong central groove with layers of tension added one at a time and building into an enormous cathartic climax.
The arrangement of this piece is particularly impressive, building on top of an acoustic guitar, into a furious groove, augmenting its impossibly dense rhythmic core with layers of strings and reverb as it drives into that final chaotic crescendo, somehow never losing clarity or devolving into a fuzzy mess. The razor sharp acoustic guitar blends into the mix at points but never vanishes, and by the time everything else starts to drop out, it’s right out in front filling the entire soundscape.
Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors
Okay, this is probably the weirdest choice on this list. So weird in fact that I changed this list from five songs to six (and then later to seven) in order to include it. Amnesiac is a weird album, and this is maybe the weirdest song on it. Similar to the title track from Kid A, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is a fuzzy and indecipherable swamp of odd looped rhythms, fragments of ghostly keyboards and chiming tones, over which a distorted semi-robotic voice intones seemingly meaningless descriptions of types of doors. It’s abstract to the point of obscurity.
However, there is something uniquely haunting about this piece, particularly when it hits the line “there are trap doors – that you can’t come back from,” before that relentless beat drops out and you realise this song wasn’t building to a traditional Radiohead climax, it’s just time spent being churned up in the mechanical jaws of routine. Sonically it feels like what Aphex Twin would do to a Radiohead song. Thematically, it fits right into the canon.
I couldn’t find a proper video for this song, so you’ll just have to track it down yourself or imagine it in your heads. Just know that your imagination could never end up where this song goes.
It would be impossible to not include “Idioteque” on a list of Radiohead songs. “Idioteque” very quickly establishes itself not only as one of the best songs Radiohead ever produced, but as a standout from the radical Kid A it also feels like a final nail in the coffin of 90s “Britpop”.
From the monotonous electronic pulse of its relentless crushed electronic drums, to the short sampled experimental chord sequence, to that simple and endlessly catchy vocal melody, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect expression of Radiohead’s transition from guitar-focused indie rock band to electronic experimentalists.
In the light of their later works, there’s a unrefined simplicity to this track that only reinforces its successes. It’s not built to any kind of template, either as a Radiohead song, or as a piece of electronic music, and yet it works, and works so well. This is the sound of a band successfully reinventing their own wheel.
The closer from In Rainbows (you know what, just go listen to In Rainbows already), whose studio version is sometimes looked for not capturing the weird syncopated rhythm of its live incarnations. “Videotape” has such a feeling of finality and resolution, contrasting its haunting lyrical clarity with a rhythm that feels like all of reality drifting inexorably out of sync with your own heart beat.
Even in its lower-key studio recording it feels like a towering achievement of arrangement and songwriting, distilling that off-beat feel into a beautifully uneasy song about death. Utterly mesmerising.
Postscript, and other songs I missed
Like I say, this is not a definitive list, it’s what occurred to me at the time. If you were to ask me tomorrow, it would probably be a different list.
I don’t have Hail to the Thief, The Bends, or Pablo Honey. So maybe one day I’ll learn that my favourite Radiohead song will be in there. But I don’t think it so, because I’ve already heard “Idioteque”, so you know…
For the record here are some notable omissions that narrowly missed the cut when the list was five, but before I expanded it to seven to add “Pulk” which is criminally underrated, and “Videotape”.
- Paranoid Android (OK Computer)
- Everything in its Right Place (Kid A)
- Pyramid Song (Amnesiac)
- All I Need (In Rainbows)
- House of Cards (In Rainbows)
- Burn the Witch (A Moon Shaped Pool)
That’s it folks. If you don’t like Radiohead after giving them a shot then I feel bad for you son, I’ve got 99 problems but not liking Radiohead is decidedly not one of them – and I am willing to defend this position in a court of law.