Radiohead has evolved quite a bit since they released their first album in 1993. It’s fun to take a look at this evolution through the years and the progression of styles on their nine albums.
Each one is special in its own way. I don’t have kids but I imagine choosing a favorite Radiohead album is a bit like declaring which child you like best. I could honestly see any one of Radiohead’s albums being someone’s favorite.
My ranking is seemingly always shifting, but I wanted to establish where I am at the moment. Here is how I’d rank one of my favorite band’s albums.
9. Pablo Honey (1993)
I’m putting Pablo Honey here by default as it’s the Radiohead album I’ve listened to the least over the years. The band’s debut album was released during the “grunge” era and was (unfairly) lumped in with that type of music. Other than “Creep”—my initial introduction to Radiohead—Pablo Honey featured singles “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Stop Whispering.” This album ranks here for me mostly because of the greatness of the band’s other albums; Pablo Honey isn’t a bad album by any means. Radiohead rarely plays songs from Pablo Honey live, but I was fortunate enough to see them play “Blow Out” last time I saw them, and it rocked the place.
8. The King of Limbs (2011)
Probably the most disappointing Radiohead album for me, The King of Limbs was released a long four years after In Rainbows. “Lotus Flower” and “Separator” are solid songs (and I still love the use of “Codex” in the Season 2 finale of Westworld). But I wouldn’t say there’s a single song on The King of Limbs that I definitively love. I have found the album’s songs are more enjoyable live than on the album (especially “In Bloom” and “Morning Mr Magpie”), and the Live From the Basement performance made me like King of Limbs more.
I do think they should have included the second song from that performance, “The Daily Mail,” on The King of Limbs—I think it’s a better song than any other on the album. Overall, The King of Limbs is a transition album into more slow electronic stuff (it’s sorely lacking Ed O’Brien’s presence, both in guitar and backing vocals), similar to what you might find on a Thom Yorke solo album. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do enjoy a bit more rocking out in my Radiohead.
7. A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
Radiohead’s most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool took some of Radiohead’s past sound found on albums like OK Computer and mixed it with what we heard on The King of Limbs. And some sadness. Released shortly after Thom Yorke’s separation from his partner of 23 years, A Moon Shaped Pool is considered by many as a “break-up” album. I can see that in places (“When I see you messing me around, I don’t want to know…Broken hearts make it rain,” Yorke sings on “Identikit”), and throughout the album it sounds like Yorke has surrendered to the evils and darkness in the world. Sobering stuff.
A Moon Shaped Pool, while still lower on my list, has some truly great tunes. “Decks Dark” would sound right at home on OK Computer with its UFO imagery, and it features one of those classic subtle-but-so-powerful Colin Greenwood bass lines.
“Ful Stop” builds and builds with a sound that is other-wordly. I love “The Numbers” as well, with its eerie, soft mood and unbelievable imagery (and possibly offers some hope for us yet in this dark world: “The future lives inside us”).
A Moon Shaped Pool is bookended by two songs that were floating around long before the album was released. Album opener “Burn the Witch” features some deadly strings from the London Contemporary Orchestra. “This is a low-flying panic attack” is one of my favorite lyrics on the album, and when Yorke belts “We know where you live”…wow. Nobody else can sing like that.
Album closer “True Love Waits” has been around since 1995 and in the past had been performed with Yorke solo on acoustic guitar. The Moon Shaped Pool version is arranged on piano. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful.
A Moon Shaped Pool does feature some songs I’m not crazy about. I often skip over “Glass Eyes” and “Present Tense,” and I’m not as into “Daydreaming” as a lot of people seem to be. Still, it’s a very solid record.
6. Amnesiac (2001)
Kid A‘s little brother, Amnesiac is much more than just an album of B-sides. The album is compiled with some of Radiohead’s stranger tunes with a lot of electronic influences, such as opener “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box.” I’ve always loved the second-verse line: “After years of waiting, nothing came. And you realize you’re looking, looking in the wrong place.” So simple, yet so perfect.
“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” sounds like it was made by robots, with lyrics that make me feel like I’m walking through the haunted Navidson home in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves: “There are doors that lock / And doors that don’t / There are doors that let you in and out / But never open / And there are trapdoors / That you can’t come back from.”
Amnesiac also has a few of Radiohead’s best songs, like “Pyramid Song” and the mind-melting, backward-speaking “Like Spinning Plates.” And that ending of “You And Whose Army?” gives me all the feelings.
Amnesiac is dark and haunting. It’s difficult to have to put it down in the sixth spot, but ultimately some of the album’s weaker songs hold it outside of my top five Radiohead albums.
5. Hail to the Thief (2003)
When I backpacked through Europe for two months in 2004, Hail to the Thief was one of the 10 or so CDs I had with me, so I listened to the album probably a hundred times during the trip. The album has a lot of sentimental value for me.
Hail to the Thief is an obvious change in direction from the more electronic-focused Kid A and Amnesiac, which came directly before it. Right out of the gate, Hail to the Thief rips off nine songs in a row that—to put no other way—seriously rock. “2+2=5” and “Sit Down. Stand Up” are one hell of a one-two punch to kick off an album.
“Sail to the Moon” is beautiful and dream-like. “Backdrifts” features a bit of dance element that we’d see later on future Radiohead songs on In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. The breakdown at the end of the song is dizzying.
“Go to Sleep” seems very relevant in today’s crazy times: “We don’t really want a monster taking over” and also includes some vintage Jonny Greenwood wailing on his guitar. And then there’s “Where I End and You Begin,” with its amazing interplay between drummer Philip Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood and eerie cosmic background sounds. One of the band’s biggest singles, “There There” is also one of my favorite Radiohead songs. It’s just an amazing rock and roll song.
The one downside to Hail to the Thief is its length—it’s probably two or three songs too long.
4. The Bends (1995)
With its 25th anniversary almost upon us, The Bends still holds up. Throw on the first song of the album, “Planet Telex,” turn it up very loud, and I dare you to try and deny its epicness.
The Bends is definitely more of a traditional rock album; it doesn’t have the elements of Radiohead strangeness quite yet. Although you can see the pathway there—more so than you can on Pablo Honey.
The song “The Bends” has such a powerful ending with an explosion of emotion. It’s impossible to not sing along “You do it to yourself!” in “Just” before the song concludes with some of Jonny Greenwood’s best guitar work. It’s a sound that is now so distinctively Radiohead, and it’s cool to see its origins on an album that came out 25 years ago.
I do feel like the latter part of The Bends lags a tad, but ends on such an emotional high with “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” If this song doesn’t give you goosebumps, you may not have a pulse. It’s one of the earliest and best examples of how much of a positive impact Ed O’Brien’s backing vocals can have on a song.
Overall, The Bends is more of a raw Radiohead album, but I love it for being the bridge between Pablo Honey and what we get on OK Computer.
3. In Rainbows (2007)
It’s crazy that it has been more than 12 years since In Rainbows came out because I can remember its release so clearly. At the time of the release, Radiohead implemented a “pay what you want” policy for a download of the album. This was before music streaming, of course. I half-expected this plan to be a gimmicky way to build up a subpar album. But then I listened to In Rainbows. And then I listened to it again and again, and I couldn’t believe how good it was.
In Rainbows may be the only Radiohead album in which I genuinely love every song. There isn’t a single song to be skipped here. “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” are absolute heavyweights. And “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “Reckoner” are two of my most favorite Radiohead songs—from any album.
Will we ever get another Radiohead album that is as good as In Rainbows? The two albums we’ve gotten since have been very different, and I wonder if the band has moved in another direction creatively. But I won’t rule it out. And for now, I’ll consider myself lucky to be able to witness this album’s release. It’s an all-time great.
2. Kid A (2000)
OK, now is when things get fluid for me, depending on the mood I’m in. I easily could put Kid A in my top spot, but at this moment it’s number 2.
I vividly remember the day I bought this album. My local record shop had a listening station with all of the latest releases. I donned the headphones, pressed play, and was absolutely blown away about 30 seconds into “Everything In Its Right Place.” My reaction was pretty much: “Oh, cool a keyboard. Is he singing backwards? What is this?? I love it!”
In all honesty, I still basically have very strong, positive feelings when I listen to “Everything In Its Right Place.” The song “Kid A” is something we could easily expect on a Radiohead album in 2020. But in 2000? Two songs in, and it’s clear that Radiohead was making revolutionary music.
Kid A also features some more accessible—but still so good—songs, like “Optimistic” and the heartbreaking “How To Completely Disappear.” “National Anthem” will knock you over with its cosmic energy.
I love the seamless transitions between songs (“Treefingers” > “Optimistic” > “In Limbo” > “Idioteque” > “Morning Bell”) on this album; it’s something I wish Radiohead would experiment with more. Kid A ends with one of the more depressing Radiohead songs, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” but it’s also quite beautiful.
Kid A is such an intense change of direction from its predecessor. I feel like after OK Computer came out, Radiohead entered a cocoon and transformed into this new wonderful, weird creature that is Kid A-era Radiohead. Radiohead became my favorite band because of Kid A, and I don’t think I’m being overdramatic (well maybe a little) when I say this album changed my life.
1. OK Computer (1997)
OK Computer gets the nod for my top spot, mainly because it kicked off my love for Radiohead. It was the first album of theirs that I bought—probably at the time because I was intrigued by “Paranoid Android.” But then the album grew on me. Then I became obsessed. The rest is history for me, I guess.
Every single time I listen to OK Computer opener “Airbag,” I play the air drums when Philip Selway breaks in. “Paranoid Android,” with its different layers and moods, has the best guitar solo to ever hit my ears.
“Subterranean Homesick Alien” introduces us to the spacey, trippy aspects of Radiohead. A hint of what would come on Kid A, perhaps; just a peek behind the curtain. “Let Down” is probably my overall favorite Radiohead song. I get chills listening to it every time, with the crescendo at the end.
OK Computer, for me, creates this feeling of a certain acute nostalgia like no other music. It’s hard to explain. I can vividly remember listening to this album back in high school, letting it wash over me, and just being in complete awe with what I was listening to. I’m not sure I’ll ever come across another album that has that type of effect on me.
So, what do you think of the list? How would you rank Radiohead’s albums? Let me know in the comments, or share it on social media.
Feature image source: Alterna2 http://www.alterna2.com