May 12th, 2023
Radiohead have long been heralded as an act that have changed the face of rock forever. Your artist’s favourite artist, every male rock fan’s favourite band, songs that will change your taste in music forever. Say what you want about Radiohead, but their chart-selling and critical success is underpinned by an everlasting ability to connect with fans, one of few 90s bands with the longevity to still sell out arenas a ‘mere’ 38 years on from their formation.
As expected with a discography characterised by so many nuances and volatile influences (grunge, electronics, classical and just pure anthemic classics) there is inevitably significant debate when picking out Radiohead favourites. Up for the challenge, whilst also demonstrating two generations of Radiohead fandom, we invite Graham Whatley (longstanding Radiohead fan and former DJ) and son Dylan (from our Rough Trade events team) to make a full assessment of the band’s superlative career.
“Radiohead have been a constant in my twenty-two years of life. With five out of nine studio albums arriving since 2001, a plethora of side projects and an industry that will never shut up about the latest Thom Yorke release, or Jonny Greenwood‘s new brand of olive oil (?), it’s been quite hard to escape them.
As well as this, my Dad is basically their #1 fan, and I’m not too far off either. So, I thought it’d be good fun to work together on a ranking of Radiohead’s albums, ignoring the fact that we definitely would disagree on almost every position. My Dad first saw Radiohead supporting Kingmaker in 1992 at Leicester University, and has since bought every album, book and t-shirt he could get his hands on. Although we share a love for this band, he was there when OK Computer came out and everyone’s tiny little 90s minds were blown, whereas by the time I started to really get into Radiohead, Kid A and In Rainbows had followed, which in my eyes, are even better. Our relationship with Radiohead has even influenced a long-standing feud as to who owns a copy of Amnesiac, that was gifted to me by my Dad’s best friend before I’d even turned one (it has my name on it).
Unfortunately, I’ve still not seen Radiohead live but the both of us saw The Smile last summer and with their second album on the way, it’s starting to look less likely that I’ll get the chance to see the real deal, but I’m keeping the faith (largely thanks to Philip Selway’s comments of late) that the five of them stop messing about and gift us with another masterpiece soon.”
Thirty years on it’s my least favourite of all their albums, though I don’t hate it. Not remotely. It’s just that compared with what was to come, how could it possibly rank any higher? The opening chords of You still provide a lovely rush of nostalgia, as do most of the subsequent tracks. The melodies are pretty, the riffs still impress, though lyrically, it’s a little, er, unsophisticated. But you know, it and the band didn’t end up in the great indie landfill. And as far as albums released in 1993 go, it wasn’t bad at all. It’s just a shame they didn’t have a few more tracks as sonically adventurous as Blow Out on there.
Favourite tracks: Blow Out, Prove Yourself, Creep
It’s only two songs longer than Pablo Honey, but it feels like so much excess baggage. Having said that, it kicks off with one of my favourite Radiohead songs, 2+2=5, takes in the sensuous Sail To The Moon, the ominous, propulsive Where I End And You Begin, before giving Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood the opportunity to bang a drum as well on the stomping There There. And what’s cooler than a band playing drums together? I should also mention the album cover. Truly iconic – an example of the great relationship between the band and artist Stanley Donwood, which started all the way back in 1994 with the sleeve for the My Iron Lung single.
Favourite tracks: 2+2=5, There There
I love how this album opens up so similarly to In Rainbows, mirroring that drum-heavy introduction of 15 Step, with overwhelmingly, almost disjointed drum patterns that drive its first two tracks, as well as most of the album, that really help create a sense of pure unease. I’m still confused as to why this is the Radiohead album that divides fans and critics so much – to me it seems like an obvious next step and fantastic melting-pot of the jazz-fused, naturalistic and electronic sounds they’d been developing throughout the 00s. Despite the continued experimentation, and the fitting TKOL RMX 1234567 accompanying remix album, I think Lotus Flower is one of their best pop songs – fantastic verses and an anthemic chorus, with a stunning video to match.
Favourite tracks: Lotus Flower, Codex
Yes, Morning Bell appears again, and a number of the instrumentals sound like something that would have been released on Warp Records in the 90s, but Amnesiac is a weird and beautiful album in its own right. It’s so much more than Kid A part two. The ambient guitar-laced instrumental Hunting Bears is one of my favourite Radiohead songs, preceding the hypnotic Like Spinning Plates. This features some of their most harrowing, politically driven lyrics – “While you make pretty speeches, I’m being cut to shreds” – perfectly setting the stage for closing track Life In A Glasshouse, and the subsequent Hail To The Thief.
Thom Yorke may sing of “low flying panic attacks” and “red crosses on wooden doors”, but A Moon Shaped Pool is the aural equivalent of immersing yourself in a lovely, warm bubble bath. The unnerving video for Burn The Witch references The Wicker Man, but I don’t find this album sinister or uneasy listening at all. Daydreaming has an enchanting piano motif, and this magical atmosphere continues throughout. For me, this is their most ‘human’ record, evoking, for the most part, pastoral scenes set in bright sunshine – “We are of the earth, To her we do return”, Thom sings, before the lush orchestration comes in on The Numbers. “The future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else”, he adds.
Yes, Radiohead were obviously tuning in to Warp’s output in the late 90s, and Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada‘s influence is all over this album, but so what? After their worldwide cultural explosion in 1997, they came back with their second masterpiece in the space of three years, ditching the guitar-driven songs fit for any stadium – the thunderous The National Anthem a complete anomaly here – for low-key electronic and melancholic acoustic landscapes. The four track run starting with the gorgeous Treefingers that would sit perfectly on an Eno album, to the twitching Idioteque, is phenomenal and features some of their finest album cuts. Idioteque will always be my favourite Radiohead song, and I would pay very good money to hear those drums kick in on the second verse live.
Favourite track: Idioteque, Optimistic, Treefingers
Proving that there was more to them than Creep, Radiohead build on their basic guitar template, creating in the process a perfect album. Lyrically, the band have matured too (no more cringeworthy references to Jim Morrison!) and there are signs of experimentation with their sound. From that glorious intake of breath at the start of Planet Telex, you know they mean business.
Thom sings “gravity always wins” on Fake Plastic Trees and they are certainly serious, but not po-faced (a common misapprehension at the time). With one great tune after another, the album – which was dedicated to the late Bill Hicks – concludes with Street Spirit (Fade Out), where the strain is starting to show: “Rows of houses all bearing down on me, I can feel their blue hands touching me” and “this machine will not communicate” – a foreshadowing of what was to come next.
Favourite tracks: Planet Telex, Just, Fake Plastic Trees, Street Spirit (Fade Out)
This is my favourite Radiohead album. It’s perfect. It’s the first one I remember coming out, and I have vague memories of the whole “pay what you wish” saga, which is crazy to think about now with the explosion of streaming services, and Radiohead’s own public battle with Spotify over the years. The glitchy breaks that open and appear throughout 15 Step, call back to instrumentals from Kid A and Amnesiac. Despite not fully representing the intimate and stripped-back feel that In Rainbows captures so beautifully, it introduces Radiohead at the peak of their powers. This album does not allow for emotional respite, with back-to-back tear-jerkers, briefly gifting us with the euphoric Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, only to bring us all the way back down again with All I Need. I think a lot of people born post-OK Computer might recognise this as their best.
Favourite tracks: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, Jigsaw Falling Into Place
In 1997, as we hurtled towards the new millennium, Radiohead were “back to save the universe”, so we were in safe hands. Weren’t we? In what is undoubtedly their masterpiece, the listener was subjected to paranoia, conspiracy theories, deep mistrust of the government and the hope that we might be invited aboard a UFO and shown “the world as I’d love to see it”. But before then we had to endure environmental concerns plus “kicking and squealing Gucci little piggy” types in Paranoid Android with girls sporting disturbing “Hitler hairdos” in Karma Police. It was quite the ordeal, really; even Thom acknowledged that: “Phew! For a minute there I lost myself.” Fortunately, it’s a record of great beauty too, with some startling melodies and tunes that can make an adult human cry No Surprises, The Tourist. So whilst it might describe a society of 26 years ago – all the hullabaloo, fear, politics, hopes and dreams – it’s just as relevant today. Lucky we were in safe hands.
Favourite tracks: All of them (even Fitter Happier)
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