This feature originally ran in May 2016. We’re reposting today to celebrate 20 years since the UK release of OK Computer.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of the biggest band to ever come out of Abingdon, Oxfordshire.
The songs had almost all been written, the studio had been booked, and EMI, anticipating an easy process, set a release date only a few months away. “Every three or four days, the record company or manager would turn up to hear these hit singles,” recalled producer John Leckie, “And all we’d done was get a drum sound or something.” Weeks passed. “There was a lot of ‘Jonny’s got to have a special sound…’ We spent days hiring in different amplifiers and weird guitars for him. In the end, he used what he’d been using for the last couple of years.” Thom Yorke called it “painful self-analysis, a total fucking meltdown.” The band missed its deadline by almost six months.
If the recording process for Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, sounds torturous, it also sounds like how they recorded most of their other albums. The band had to take a break in the middle of the frustrating OK Computer sessions. Kid A spanned 18 months and half a dozen different studios. In Rainbows took two and a half years.
Looking back at The Bends, it’s easy to see the blueprint for Radiohead’s later, wilder sounds — how a band dubbed “Nirvana-lite” became a genre unto itself. There’s the glacial, perfectionist pace; self-analysis and self doubt; the feeling of boredom with older sounds; and anxiety about finding something new. For the most part, they have: They’ve put out eight studio albums, most of which really do sound distinct from all the others. Because of this, their technical wizardry, their fire-breathing live shows, and their timeless gift for melody, Radiohead are the most beloved, critically acclaimed rock band working today. All eight records range from “possibly the greatest album of all time” to, at the very least, “pretty good.” This made ranking them a difficult, vexing process. We didn’t rest until we compromised on a list that left us all equally upset.
The five boys from Oxfordshire, initially dubbed On a Friday because that’s when they rehearsed, are now entering their third decade together, and their ninth proper album is finally here. We don’t know when they began working on it since Radiohead likes to slip into the studio as innocuously as Clark Kent into a phone booth. But we do know that one day, and sooner than we’d like, they won’t come out of the phone booth.
All the more reason to stop now and appreciate Radiohead’s many contributions to popular music. Without further ado: Radiohead, Ranked and Dissected. Knives out for the letdown, I’m optimistic but I might be wrong, there, there, no surprises, it’s just lucky everything’s in its right place.
09. Pablo Honey (1994)
“There are many things to talk about” (Central Theme): While so much of Radiohead’s future work would revolve around a Big Idea, whether it be musically or lyrically, the only glue that holds Pablo Honey together is the gnarled angst that was so prevalent on rock albums in the ’90s. That wasn’t an intentional choice, per se; it’s just where the band was at in their lives (remember, Thom Yorke was in his early 20s when he wrote the lyrics). The nature, paranoia, and dystopian landscapes would come later. But for now, they were seen as England’s answer to grunge.
“Siren singing you to shipwreck” (Squint and It’s a Pop Song): More straightforward than anything that came later, Pablo Honey comes loaded with plenty of radio-ready material, generic as it often is. “Creep” is the obvious big hit, but “How Do You?” could have easily held its own on the Top 40. Almost pop-punk in its bounce, it gets even peppier (and more chaotic) during its final moments with some tack piano from Jonny Greenwood.
“It wears her out, it wears her out” (Sneakiest Dance Song): The jazzy hiss of closer “Blow Out” makes for apathetic swaying on the verses before the chorus propels clubgoers into unhinged flailing. Granted, the loud-soft dynamics can be jarring, but whoever said dancing had to be pretty?
“Anyone can play guitar” (Essential Instrument or Sound): Outside of some scattered tape loops, Pablo Honey has the most conventional instrumentation of any Radiohead release. So it’s no surprise (ba-dum-ching!) that the most memorable instrument is, well, a guitar. That would be Greenwood’s dead chords on “Creep”, which he played at the end of each verse to ruin the otherwise quiet song. It’s no secret that the band loved his act of sabotage, thus predicting their eventual love of jolting left turns in their music.
“For a minute there, I lost myself” (Most Adventurous Shift in Time Signature): Only three songs break out of 4/4 time (still significant for no-frills alt-rock), with the band taking the biggest leap on the verses of “Ripchord”, which move from 4/4 to 2/4 whenever the distortion kicks in.
“Living on Animal Farm” (Literary/Pop-Culture Allusions): More of a tribute than a direct homage, “Stop Whispering” was written to honor the Pixies, so much so that the single’s art uses the same square framing on a white background as Surfer Rosa.
“Out of control on videotape” (Most Notable Music Video): “Creep” is a standard performance video of the era, but “Stop Whispering”, while not as narratively satisfying as something like “Knives Out”, still features a litany of the vaguely post-apocalyptic imagery the band would perfect down the line: a rusted-over wasteland, an antiquated diving suit, bees swarming over everything, the works.
“Get judged” (Verdict): As an alt-rock time capsule, Pablo Honey is solid, and had it been Radiohead’s only release, or even if the band had stuck to its drums-and-guitars formula for the rest of their career, we might even call it great. But when you listen to what came after it, the record just feels a little thin, a little one-note, a little laughable in its first-person melodrama. It’s not bad — it’s just not very interesting.
08. The King of Limbs (2011)
“There are many things to talk about”: Full of electronic chirps, bubbling keyboards, and songs named after flowers and birds, The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s attempt to find man’s place in nature. Of course, that leads to ugliness — the wild humans of “Feral” seem to be Holocaust-era Nazis, although Yorke’s voice is so distorted that it’s hard to pick up on without reading the lyric book. Still, the songs themselves are unrelentingly gorgeous.
“Siren singing you to shipwreck”: Once you get past the menacing bass, hungry synths, and twisted pretzel percussion of “Lotus Flower”, there’s a rather sweet melody sung in Yorke’s most angelic falsetto. There’s also not one, but two hooks! Max Martin would be proud. “There’s an empty space in side of my heart/ Where the weeds take root,” Yorke sings on the first and later: “Cause all I want is the moon upon a stick/ Just to see what if/ Just to see what is.” Like an opiate dream, “Lotus Flower” is an enchanting ride with darkness lapping at the edges.
“It wears her out, it wears her out”: His ability to funk up rock songs with dance beats makes Phil Selway the most under-appreciated member of Radiohead, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise with a drumstick. On “Morning Mr. Magpie”, he carefully syncopates a few strikes of the snare so that the rhythm section is always leaning into the beat. This also prompts the guitar strings to stay so palm-muted that they’re almost another percussive instrument. True story: While I was sitting at my computer, my fiancée pulled my earbuds out to make fun of me for wiggling my butt.
“Anyone can play guitar”: The piano riff that opens “Bloom” doesn’t so much kick off the album as sidle up to it from behind. First, there’s the modest amplification, so quiet you’re reaching for the volume as soon as you’ve pressed play. No sooner does it establish itself as a lovely, if un-Radiohead-like little snatch of melody before it’s gone, transformed into a bit of background burbling. The mood for the album is now set: No grand gestures or towering statements this time around, just a quiet beauty that inevitably fades away.
“For a minute there, I lost myself”: Near the end of “Codex”, around the 3:34 mark, Radiohead relaxes from 4/4 time to 5/4 time and then repeats for four gentle measures. This allows the piano to linger and the synth to warble on unconstrained. The song features a character sitting by the lake and thinking; within this context, the two extra beats per measure feel almost accidental — like he’s unsure of himself and following a thought or maybe just (literally) losing track of time.
“Living on Animal Farm“: On “Codex”, the lyrics “Just dragonflies/ Fly to the sun/ No one gets hurt,” reference the Greek myth of Icarus. He and his father Daedalus attempted to escape from Crete on wax wings, and before they departed, Daedalus warned his son of complacency and hubris — neither to fly too low because the sea’s dampness could clog his wings, nor too high because the sun would melt them.
But Icarus is too proud, he flies too high, his wings are melted, he falls, and he dies. Despite the direct reference to the tragedy, Radiohead’s lyrics often traffic in ambiguity, and “Codex” is no exception; it’s a description of anything from a sunny afternoon at the lake to a suicide. The literary allusion would seem to suggest that whoever this character at the lake is, one thing they’re not feeling is proud.
“Out of control on videotape”: The King of Limbs: Live from the Basement video is quite good, but this category has one clear winner: the dance that launched a thousand gifs, the video that birthed a million memes — ladies and gentleman, “Lotus Flower!”
With a style that can only be described as “accidentally touching an electric fence,” this video features not only Yorke’s trademark gyrating, but also long, cockeyed stares into the camera and an extended sequence where he fondles his own chest. It’s unapologetically goofy while still coming across as totally sincere. It’s also a testament to Yorke’s charisma. How many rock stars could have pulled this off?
“Get judged”: The King of Limbs is original, coherent, and quite lovely to listen to, but that’s true of almost every Radiohead album, and most of the others have the advantage of at least one tentpole single strong enough to open or close a music festival. To be fair, that wasn’t what the band was aiming for here, but I’d be willing to bet that no Radiohead fan’s favorite song is on TKOL — even Pablo Honey has “Creep”. Albums like Kid A or OK Computer contain all the spectacle of an exploding volcano while TKOL, at a brisk 37 minutes, is more like a long walk down a forest path. It’s a wonderful way to pass the time, but the memory is going to fade.
07. Amnesiac (2001)
“There are many things to talk about”: On a surface level, Amnesiac is about the main word in its title: amnesia or chronic forgetfulness or, if we’re speaking in the terms of Radiohead’s frequent sci-fi obsessions, a memory wipe. But Yorke elevates the potentially singular lyrical content by bringing the words to a more spiritual yet still scientific place. Taking a note from the gnostics’ belief that, to be reincarnated, one has to forget who they were in their past life, he’s able to move through a variety of eras (ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, today), philosophies (Buddhism, cyclical time), and musical genres (jazz, blues, krautrock).
“Siren singing you to shipwreck”: Since its cells are constantly mutating, Amnesiac often does away with traditional song structure in favor of free jazz, loops, and electronica, all delivered in short bursts so the band can clear the path for the next thing. That all changes during “Knives Out”. Placed smack-dab in the middle of the album, it’s as if Radiohead slams on the brakes in the middle of a time leap, bringing everything back to a more tempered speed and arrangement. The conventional art-rock is pretty catchy, too, despite being about cannibalism.
“It wears her out, it wears her out”: Truth be told, I can’t picture dancing to anything on Amnesiac, at least not in the casual club sense. I guess a lot of the songs would fit in at an interpretive dance performance at the MOMA or something, and closer “Life in a Glass House” — backed by the Humphrey Littleton Band — is modeled after a New Orleans jazz funeral. People dance at those, right?
“Anyone can play guitar”: The Mingus-summoning “Pyramid Song” always gets praised for its ascending piano scale, but it’s the uneasy string section that truly brings out the mystery and wonder in Yorke’s lyrics about the Egyptian underworld.
“For a minute there, I lost myself”: Get this — there are actually no time-signature shifts on Amnesiac. Every song is in 4/4, proving that the wildness comes from changes in tonality and instrumentation, not the beat.
“Living on Animal Farm“: We already talked about Charles Mingus and the realm of the dead, both of which represent the two halves of Amnesiac’s cultural influences: other musicians and philosophy/spirituality. While there aren’t as many direct references to science fiction and George Orwell novels, as is the case with past and future Radiohead releases, the band has cited various subtle nods to the theories of Stephen Hawking (“Pyramid Song”, again), The Smiths (“Knives Out”), and even themselves (an alternate, bicycle dirge version of “Morning Bell”).
“Out of control on videotape”: Even before I was a Radiohead fan, Michel Gondry’s single-shot video for “Knives Out” stuck with me for its surreal depiction of domestic claustrophobia. Sometimes you’re deathly worried about your partner (Yorke watching her become a life-sized Operation game), and sometimes you’re aggravated by them (the two beating each other with toy weapons inside a TV screen), neither of which is a pleasant feeling.
“Get judged”: Because it came out of the same sessions as Kid A, Amnesiac tends to sound detached. That, combined with its refusal to stay in one place, can make it hard to penetrate upon relistening. But once you view it in the proper thematic context, it becomes a bizarre kind of masterpiece. The band isn’t jumping from older art forms like blues and jazz to chilly electronic effects because they want to jostle the listener — they’re doing it to suit the time- and dimension-traveling nature of Yorke’s lyrics. Or is it the other way around?
06. Hail to the Thief (2003)
“There are many things to talk about”: In case you didn’t pick up on it from the album title, Hail to the Thief ruminates on soiled government, false patriotism, and blind faith. Right from opener “2+2=5”, the album wastes no time hounding on the intense politics of the new millennium. Yorke often sings about interpretations of the War on Terror and the rise of Republican politics in America, and the album’s infamous leak 10 weeks before its release unintentionally emphasized these core themes. If you can’t trust the government and the ways in which it runs things online or offline, then why not claim independence? Hail to the Thief was legally Radiohead’s final album with Parlophone. With the contract wrapped up, they were free to go their own way shortly after.
“Siren singing you to shipwreck”: Leave it to Radiohead to double Hail to the Thief’s most frightening track as its most pop-like, too. Colin Greenwood’s bass on “Myxomatosis. (Judge, Jury & Executioner.)” sounds filtered through an outdated fuzz pedal while a detuned keyboard mimics ‘70s new wave. Despite the harsh sonics, the song still runs according to a pop setup, clearing the air for a quiet chorus where Selway’s drums ditch the downbeat to muddle preconceived notions of pop. But at its core, “Myxomatosis” remains a radio-friendly recording.
“It wears her out, wears her out”: Despite its slow pace and almost nonexistent bassline, “Backdrifts. (Honeymoon Is Over.)” is the album’s most do-as-you-please groove, complete with an extended outro. Actually, maybe that’s what makes it work so well. Yorke backs out of the spotlight to let drum machines and modular synthesizer wiggle over one another like visible sine waves. Get lost in it the way the band members do, whether you’re executing interpretive dance moves at a club in Berlin or cutting up the carpet of your own bedroom.
“Anyone can play guitar”: Hail to the Thief is not an alt-rock record. It’s not an electronic album. It’s no college rock LP either. Instead, the band finds middle ground between the three, which makes Hail to the Thief both their most experimental record as well as one of their most accessible. For the former trait, they frequently rely on laptops, such as the ones on “Where I End and You Begin. (The Sky Is Falling In.)”. Without the computers, the otherwise straightforward indie rock song would lose its hums and ringing, the cloud of mist that lifts everything to the next level.
“For a minute there, I lost myself”: Perhaps the easiest introduction to Hail to the Thief is the album’s biggest flip in pace. “We Suck Young Blood. (Your Time Is Up.)” stands on a slurring drawl of a tempo, oozing long guitar and brooding handclaps while heavy piano notes trudge at its center. But then, as if woken up from a night terror, things triple in time. The piano becomes a beautiful melody, the drums slip into jazz territory, and a shrill guitar line quivers in fear. Then it fades. Everything goes back to normal, the heartbeat slows, and their eerie harmonies stretch out over the solemn ivories, petting your head until you forget the jump even happened. It’s as bold as the vampiric imagery the song draws upon throughout.
“Living on Animal Farm“: Hail to the Thief begins with its most obvious literary allusion, “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm.)”, where the brainwashing doublethink of George Orwell’s 1984 sounds both passionate and claustrophobic. “Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights/ I’ll stay home forever where two and two always makes a five,” Yorke sings. “Don’t question my authority or put me in the box ’cause I’m not.” As the album’s third and final single, “2+2=5” can’t leave the listener with only one reference.
Subtitle “The Lukewarm” is a nod to Dante’s writings (those who are lukewarm “don’t give a fuck” about living on the edge of Inferno), the album name-drop scolds the president (and mocks anyone who watched George W. Bush with heart-shaped eyes), and there’s some extra math love thanks to titular text-painting (“two and two” is sung on an ascending 4th while “always makes” is sung on an ascending 5th). In a single song, Radiohead satisfies not just lit nerds, but politic junkies and math geeks, too.
“Out of control on videotape”: “There There. (The Boney King of Nowhere.)” is classic Radiohead. With some literal text-to-image translations (“In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape/ Broken branches trip me as I speak”) and personified animals, the stop-motion animation video is easy to follow along. Its real feat, however, is how the imagery enhances the song’s takeaway quote: “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” If you remember the video well, thank the band’s tongue-in-cheek promotion. It played hourly on both MTV2 and the Times Square Jumbotron the day of its debut in 2003. As a bonus, their critique of mass-media culture and digital consumption was enhanced by the creation of radiohead.tv, a website where short films, music videos, and live webcasts were streamed at scheduled times, including this very music video.
“Get judged”: There’s no pretending Hail to the Thief’s 15-song tracklist doesn’t frighten listeners, casual or not. Even the band members themselves have admitted that. Yet its 56-minute runtime also allows the album to be rich with production, time signatures, and intellectual perfections. Slight electronic vocal distortion washes over Yorke’s voice on “Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)” acts as a subtle hint at what’s to come: manic repetition and a cocaine-laced bassline where the rain, finally, drops. This is the type of rawness bands dream of creating. There are ties to their other records, too.
“Go to Sleep. (Little Man Being Erased.)” sounds like a B-side from The Bends due to its acoustic guitar overlay. “A Wolf at the Door. (It Girl. Rag Doll.)” is a Grimms’ fairytale ballad off Amnesiac. “Sail to the Moon. (Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky.)” was, at the time, a look at what was to come with In Rainbows. Like Stanley Donwood’s cover art — a collection of phrases drawn from roadside advertising in Los Angeles — Hail to the Thief is a pop record sparkling with twisted fears, electronic sampling, and satirical lyrics that bite. Years later, it still feels like it’s a genius moment somehow, as if by magic, captured on tape, where unbridled energy overrides the album’s daunting length.