Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our latest installment, we tackle Radiohead’s entire discography — with one notable omission — and pose the question: which do you think is their best album?
The Bends (1995)
The Bends marks the first coherent statement by a band that would go on to say more than anyone could have ever imagined. In just twelve tracks, Radiohead recalibrated the U.K. music scene by crashing their jarring amalgam of haunting falsetto; pithy lyrics; and thick, gravid riffs into the Britpop stratosphere.
Recorded in London’s Abbey Road Studios, its no surprise that The Bends enjoyed the guiding hands of the best soundmen in the business. Not only did legendary British producer John Leckie – architect of Stone Roses’ alluring, infectious soundscapes – turn down a mob of promising Britpop acts to work on the 1995 LP, but The Bends also introduced Radiohead to sound engineer Nigel Godrich. As the story goes, Godrich’s creative energies fused so well with the band’s impulses that he would eventually earn the moniker of Radiohead’s “sixth member” by co-producing all of their subsequent albums, along with singer Thom Yorke’s solo project The Eraser.
Opening cut “Planet Telex,” ripe with electronic loops and fuzzy distortion, has Yorke straining over warbling guitars. Dripping with angst, the singer cries out, “everything is bro-keeeeennn,” stretching out that last syllable for what seems like an eternity. Transitioning with the sound of clinking glass, titular track “The Bends” provides a cathartic burst of grandeur that could very well have initiated an Oasis ditty. Set against Greenwood’s jagged riffs, Yorke winces and pleads, “I wish it was the sixties, I wish I could be happy / I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen!”
Radiohead takes its foot off the accelerator on down-tempo “High and Dry.” To the tune of subdued acoustic strumming, Yorke launches his heartwrenching, glass shattering falsetto. At the precise moment his voice threatens to crack, Greenwood’s densely textured guitar pours into the narrow gap. “Fake Plastic Trees,” arguably unsurpassed lyrically by any of the band’s later offerings, also relies on heavy falsetto à la Jeff Buckley. Amidst a nostalgic, melancholy string section, Radiohead juxtaposes the beautifully pathetic struggle of the authentic and real against that cold, hollow permanence of the synthetic and artificial. Whimpering in tragic resignation, York sobs, “the gravity always wins.”
“Bones” touts Colin Greenwood’s prurient baseline thumping in tandem with grungy guitar lines. Starting off as an airy respite atop celestial violins and pleasant harmonies, “(Nice Dream)” evolves into a thoroughly rambunctious cut with a harsh, bold instrumental buildup. Setting smooth, fluid hooks off against pulverizing riffs, “Just” has Greenwood unleashing an uninhibited, brash cacophony that threatens to drown out Yorke’s lyrics. A manic, bipolar track that goes from serene to oppressive at the drop of a dime, “Iron Lung” doubles back on itself with scathing, reckless riffs and charred vocals.
Chronicling a doomed attempt to pull a rapidly unraveling lower back from the edge, “Black Star” features sparse, tasteful guitar flourishes. Haunting apparition “Street Spirit,” closing out the LP, channels an experimental flavor that Radiohead would more fully explore on OK Computer and Kid A.
Dispelling skeptics’ inklings that the moody quintet from Oxfordshire would end up as one-hit wonders with only social paralysis ridden “Creep” to call a legacy, The Bends endowed Radiohead with a loyal fan base that the band would challenge and stretch with experimental beats, emotionalist vocals, and caustic studio effects for years to come. As guitarist Jonny Greenwood remarks, it was the moment when Radiohead finally “started to feel like we made the right choice about being a band.” Without The Bends, Radiohead may have faded away with a faint whimper and left our entire generation all the poorer.
I arrived a little late to the Radiohead party, having purchased the band’s Kid A album two years after its release. And while I remember the mumbled diffidence of the group’s debut single, “Creep,” I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it at the time. It was 1992, and I was in the sixth-grade. So I can’t tell you what made me buy OK Computer, an album largely considered the group’s seminal recording, with its glitchy alt-rock rhythms that writhe with adolescent urgency, twisting and squirming for 53 minutes of restless, chaotic bliss. These songs felt isolated, each one different in scope, yet held together by dashes of melancholy and eccentric agitation. In other moments, the album reached for the stars and felt noticeably intergalactic, even down to the android that appeared sporadically throughout the project. “Wake… from your sleep,” frontman Thom Yorke groans on the volcanic “Exit Music (For A Film).” Did I ever.
Apparently, the band sought detachment for OK Computer. “Anything that you’re trying to do that’s different, it is going to be challenging, it is going to take a couple of listens to get into,” Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien told MTV UK in a 1997 interview. In it, O’Brien also recalled the disappointment of fans who expected OK Computer to be a carbon copy of its previous album, The Bends, a landmark in its own right. Instead, OK Computer was the anti-Bends: simple acoustic compositions gave way to fidgety electronic turbulence, and soothing comfort grew into restive petulance. “Paranoid Android,” and its multiple pace changes, is the perfect example of such schizophrenia — the first movement is a gentile nudge, the second an abrasive bridge that dissolves into slow, angelic moans before it concludes with raucous guitar work. The aforementioned “Exit Music” is similar in approach: Yorke’s distinctive mumble takes precedence over a skeletal blend of strings and atmospheric ventilation before it explodes into strident pangs of dejection. Conversely, “No Surprises” feels like a lullaby until you decipher the lyrics. “A heart that’s full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you/Bruises that won’t heal.”
In subsequent years, Radiohead would build upon OK Computer’s stellar foundation, tapping into other genres to achieve musical nirvana. 2000’s Kid A is Computer’s aerial complement, with tempered instrumentals more fluid than its predecessor. “Bloom,” from 2011’s The King of Limbs, struck me as a rock-n-roll song with danceable West African percussion and window-shattering bass drops. “We Suck Young Blood,” a standout from 2003’s Hail To The Thief, is meticulous gospel with ambient drum cymbals and escalating piano chords. Certainly, the British quintet has ascended to an iconic place among the rock gods, and one could list a few albums as the quintessential Radiohead record. However, there’s nothing quite like OK Computer, which paved the way for like-minded artists to trek the same path. Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One and Common’s Electric Circus carried the same free-wielding spirit, as divergent sounds blended together to make a seamless whole. OK Computer is messy and disjointed. It frowns at contemporary wisdom. It’s moody and inaccessible. It’s perfectly beautiful.
Many might think that I got lucky, that I was the furthest off picking the short straw, and that I must have slept with someone high up to get the rights to this album in this Versus debate. And putting it simply, I am lucky, because Kid A is the best album Radiohead have ever released. Making the case for Kid A is like having to explain how wonderful The Muppets are, or how awesome monster trucks are to child; it’s just obvious. This should be a breeze, right?
Yet, here I am, twiddling my thumbs, unsure what to say, or where to start. “Don’t think about it Ray, just write whatever come to your mind”. Okay, here goes:
I’ve never seen a shooting start before… no, that’s no good.
Hey guys, remember that time Radiohead released that “perfect” album and then trolled everyone with its follow up? Christ, that’s not even funny, or true.
This is the problem with Kid A: there’s no place to start. Sure, I could begin with the sublime opening track, “Everything In Its Right Place,” and start by describing how it transcends past your sense of hearing, as synths wash in and out of your consciousness, held together by clicks and beats, and – most importantly – Thom Yorke’s savaged voice, which sounds coated in an ambiguous, hypnotic sadness that would be lost completely by any other singer if they merely thought about shifting the pitch of their vocals. I could start that way, but I won’t. Kid A deserves more than just another verbose narrative; it deserves the recognition that this is the ultimate peak of their career (so far), that this is the timeless album that should be remembered above all else, and that this is more than just a band’s best album, but one of the best albums that has ever been created.
But I still don’t know where to start with that, and even if I did, I know the words would feel inadequate. All I know that is whenever I’m on my own, or in company, the moment Kid A begins there’s no need for me, or anyone else around me, to speak up and say, “the guitar melody on “In Limbo” is so underrated”, or the way “Treefingers” bridges the gap between the surrounding two tracks is perfect!”. There’s no need because it’s just there to be heard. Kid A is the best Radiohead album. You don’t need me, or anyone else to tell you this; just use your ears.
From a critical standpoint, Kid A is Radiohead’s finest release. Nostalgically speaking, I’ll always have a soft spot for my first Radiohead album, OK Computer. But if we’re going by play count—a fair assessment, I think, of how much one actually listens to a given piece of music—then my favorite Radiohead album would have to be Amnesiac, the bastard stepbrother that came just a year after the much-heralded Kid A.
For one thing, I find it to be the most Radioheady album, perfectly balancing the band’s various aesthetic modes—rock stars (“I Might Be Wrong”), electronic whiz kids (“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”), and avant-garde enthusiasts (“Life In A Glass House,” “Like Spinning Plates,” “Pyramid Song”)—without sacrificing Thom Yorke’s typically cryptic lyrical eloquence or the gift of melodic songwriting that have made so many of Radiohead’s albums so rewarding. If Kid A was the band’s attempt at “destroying themselves, and subsequently rebuilding a perfect entity,” as one critic put it, then Amnesiac represents a stronger push towards the edge of not just popular music but musicality itself. Opener “Packt” is all rhythm and bass, while the unbeatable closing one-two punch of “Glass House” and “Spinning Plates” finds the band going from melodramatic backmasked balladry to an unexpectedly New Orleans-indebted jazzy sound. Sandwiched between are some of the most beguiling, occasionally frustrating, and altogether entrancing music in the band’s storied catalog.
The versatility of Amnesiac is best displayed in its middle stretch. “You And Whose Army?” starts as a sparse, haunted, almost a capella outing before exploding into a spacy yet cathartic post-rock denouement. Next comes the rockabilly stomp of “I Might Be Wrong,” arguably the most accessible track here. Like “Whose Army,” “Wrong” also plays with its own structure in its final minute, but this time we hear a (refreshingly guitar-driven) cooling off instead of an escalation. The relatively straightforward “Knives Out” follows, allowing us to catch our breath before the perverse and vaguely threatening reworking of “Morning Bell.” There’s a quietly cinematic streak to Amnesiac, and it’s best heard in the tense string sections on “Pyramid Song,” “Morning Bell,” and “Like Spinning Plates.” Even more so than Kid A, this album grapples with the fragmentation of identity in the digital age; using these movie-score allusions therefore seems a bit ironic, as though the band is borrowing from older artistic traditions but twisting the high-pitched violins into something more sinister.
While I wouldn’t recommend Amnesiac as a starter album for someone just getting into Radiohead, I think it’s a vital document in the band’s history. At the intersection of pop, rock, electronica, and experimental music, Yorke and company briefly set up camp and laid down eleven of their weirdest, most original tracks to date. Its title is thus a misnomer; Amnesiac is difficult to forget.
“…I think they’re trying too hard not to be Radiohead… I like them as a rock band, all the buttons and sequencing and stuff like that I don’t really care for.”
– Tad Kubler (of The Hold Steady)
A band redefines itself each time it releases new music. Each new definition may, but needn’t be, a reprint. Radiohead doesn’t reprint. When the vestige that is “Creep” first catapulted them to rock-star territory, the words that introduced the band to listeners were “I don’t belong here.” In the next two albums, the group strayed, coyly, from the restrictive “rock” format, but remained at arm’s length. In the Kid A and Amnesiac sessions, they deserted these confines, and ventured boldly into uncharted sonic territory. War broke out.
On one side are the sweet old-timers, whose mantra I’ve included above for your appreciation; these poor things just want to rock out. Diametrically opposed are proponents of the view that musical progress follows an unwavering path, away from traditional instruments and structures, and toward electronics and experimentation. Frustratingly, remarkably few realize that Radiohead are concerned solely with making good music. By indulgently expanding their sound palette during the Kid A sessions, the band tapped into a fresh aesthetic, and attained a new potency. On Hail to the Thief, they further explore these sounds, but concurrently excavate and employ their old “rock” tools unabashedly. There is a palpable musical freeness on the record, which makes for a particularly enjoyable listen.
There’s a certain edge to the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions that seems to have withered in In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. Consider “Feral,” the most abstract, electronic track on the latter album, alongside “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” its counterpart from Amnesiac. The earlier song rattles, cracks, bends and morphs, creating an effect that the comparatively subdued and stripped-down “Feral” cannot replicate. The most electronic songs on Hail to the Thief, however, retain the elusive edge: the warped, skittering “Backdrifts” the skewed, ethereal “The Gloaming,” the meditative adrenaline that is “Sit Down, Stand Up.”
And then there’s the rock… Kid A’s release gave rise to a worldwide chorus of bitching for the band to “sound like a band again.” The King of Limbs drowned out some of this bitching, with loud guitars. When a band seizes to sound like a band, as Radiohead did on Kid A, the band, in a way, transcends its form, and inhabits a separate realm, floating slightly above the constant reshuffling of clichés that constitutes pop music. Listen to Kid A’s “Everything in its Right Place,” and you might understand. Then, stop it, and put on “Bodysnatchers” from In Rainbows.
Seriously? That riff? WTF?! Are these guys just jamming in a garage?
Point: a return to “sounding like a band” can actually be a debasement. Yet, it isn’t on Hail to the Thief, hence much of the album’s brilliance. Radiohead manage to do it well, starting with the opening track’s mid-song eruption, and punk rock snarl. The three-guitar attack, which was so elemental to the band’s early sound, is in top form. “Go to Sleep” grounds the band with organic guitar sounds, yet assumes a transcendental quality with its off-kilter folk stylings. This cryptic, otherworldly quality has been in Radiohead’s music long before their electronic period. You can hear it, say, in the final minute of “Street Spirit” or in the third section of “Paranoid Android,” but it has a particularly marked presence in Hail to the Thief. It emerges in the latter portion of “There There,” when Thom’s emotive vocals soar over the meshing guitar lines and massive drums. It’s in the haunting drag of “We Sung Yuck Blood,” which sonically recaptures the gothic magnificence of OK Computer’s “Climbing Up the Walls.”
Intertwined with the electronic and rock components of Hail to the Thief are sundry softer songs to which the album owes much of its beauty and poignancy. Take, for instance, the unassuming grandeur of Thom’s bare harmonies in “I Will,” or the clever musical angularity and immaculate dreaminess of “Sail to the Moon.” An elegant balance is maintained via the inclusion of rhythmic, catchy songs “Where I End and You Begin” and “Myxomatosis.” Overall, the versatility in style and consistency in quality of the total fourteen tracks make a quite remarkable album.
I sometimes wonder whether Thom Yorke still wishes he were special. He lives in a perpetual sulk, which relaxes its grip only when he dances himself loose. The vapid squares in the mainstream media, who raise their contemptuous eyebrows at this miserable bastard, manage to occasionally elicit a trace of my empathy. Luckily, someone like Ted of the Hold Steady always comes to the rescue, with a sufficiently exasperating comment to scare me straight. Invariably, I run back to Radiohead with open arms, and commiserate with Yorke. My wish is that people would simply realize and accept that true artists evolve. Radiohead is a case in point. Each album is conspicuously different, and should be considered on its own. Many of the records intently focus on a specific type of sound or concept. For instance, Kid A is the abstract album. The King of Limbs is the rhythm album. Yorke has said, himself, that In Rainbows was “a particular aesthetic.” Hail to the Thief, however, does not seem to have been created with any such concept or style in mind. Consequently, it showcases the band freely surveying the varied sounds at which they excel. More importantly, it does this extraordinarily well. It this sense, one might consider it Radiohead’s strongest album.
It’s unfortunate that the much of the discussion around In Rainbows was centered on its business model. Back in 2007, the novelty of the online tip jar overwhelmed the music, but that hasn’t stopped it from blossoming into tidiest, and best, release yet. We really shouldn’t be comparing this album to the likes of OK Computer or Kid A, not yet at least. In Rainbows isn’t even five years old, and we’ve really yet to see Radiohead divorce themselves from the low-key sound that has come to define their post-EMI career. It occupies an entirely different emotional realm than anything that they had released up to that point. Radiohead’s early output is anxious and creeping with dread; In Rainbows is elegant and understated. It may also be the most accessible work in their canon.
I believe history will look upon as Radiohead’s best record for this simple reason: Everyone I know who didn’t like Radiohead liked In Rainbows. It’s something even a casual music fan can marvel at. The music is polished, efficient and often beautiful, the usual prickle in Thom Yorke’s voice is gone as he wades through the densest set of melodies he’s ever crafted.
This also is the first record that Radiohead made where they weren’t plagued by the possibility of a break up. It’s a singular vision, the opus of a band finally at peace with itself. They didn’t want to make a statement, just a set of really, really good songs. “Nude,” the OK Computer-era lullaby (which sounds strangely familiar backwards) is perhaps the best example of how much their songcraft had improved. The version from their live shows circa 1997 lacks the confidence and incisive melodicism of the studio version. They made this album when they were ready and not a second sooner.
In Rainbows isn’t troubled by consumerism, politics, personal crisis or technological disconnect. I can’t imagine a song like “All I Need,” which does so much with so little, coming from any other band at any other point in time. Its final minute might just be the most devastating minute of music Radiohead have ever produced, but it doesn’t need doomsday orchestration to make its point. Elsewhere, the band is as tight and refined as ever. “Jigsaw falling Into Place”’s moonlit jaunt through the clubs is seductive and builds with an eerie sense of desperation, while the odd time signatures on “15 Step” sound loose and playful. Even when they tackle darker subject matter, like on “Reckoner,” it’s hard not to be blown away by the majesty of the music.
Like all great albums, In Rainbows has to age, be reflected upon and dissected. The fact that it’s a relatively recent release from a still-active band obscures this prognosis somewhat, but if any of Radiohead’s records can withstand the scrutiny that all classics must inevitably undergo, it’s this one.
– Brendan Frank
Released independently, In Rainbows is unavailable on Spotify.
The King of Limbs (2011)
It’s hard for me to defend The King of Limbs as the best Radiohead album when it was the most immediately disappointing to fans. While Kid A alienated many listeners due to the fact that, well, it didn’t sound like a Radiohead record, The King of Limbs disappointed because it was hardly a full-length. Furthermore, it was the band’s first release in three and a half years, and one of the tracks had been kicking around in various iterations since ‘02. With only seven new tracks, it’s hardly a surprise that people immediately entered into conspiratorial whispers over that standout lyric on “Separator”: “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” Fans wanted more than what they were offered and began praying that a follow-up would be announced. “Greedy capitalist wankers,” Thom Yorke probably muttered under his breath at some point.
If you’re looking at quality over quantity, TKOL offers up some of the strongest tracks that the band has ever crafted. A cohesive mixture of electronic blitzes, unplugged movements, and full band workouts, the album is a compact culmination of Radiohead’s finest moments from the post-OK Computer era. Yet even as a culmination, it finds the band continuing to develop and explore new territory.
Take the opener “Bloom” as an example of this phenomenon. “Bloom” finds the band exploding into a polyrhythmic electronic shuffle that recalls “15 Step” from In Rainbows. But the production on “Bloom” outdoes “15 Step” in almost every way, supplemented by an even smoother bass groove and a thickly layered clattering of percussion and electronic blips. Again, the piano triads of “Codex” hearkens back to Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song” – hell, both tracks even depict jumping into water. Yet, while “Pyramid Song” builds into a beautiful orchestral swirl, the arrangement on “Codex” only grows from a whisper to a tremulous murmur. Radiohead has learned how to use a symphony more tactfully over time, and such subtlety produces an unparalleled, haunting effect on this track. Finally, consider “Little By Little,” a song that could’ve fit nicely on Hail To The Thief if that album weren’t already so overstuffed. The music is instantly recognizable as Radiohead in moody-rock-mode, but even here the band throws some new ideas into the mix; the song features a drum track that sounds like it was made on a set of electronic pots and pans, as well as a recurring noise that sounds like a reversed and processed guitar line.
In essence, Radiohead takes what they’ve done over the course of the 21st century on The King Of Limbs, and revises it into an oeuvre that is somehow more eclectic, more mature, and more sonically diverse. For me, it was one of those albums that didn’t really impress on first listen. My initial conclusion was that it was just another eight Radiohead tracks. But listening to one of their albums once and passing judgment on it is like reading a few pages of a book and saying that you’ve read the entire thing. After repeated listens, I began realizing how remarkably impressive the album is. Most bands that have been around as long as Radiohead have either stopped making music or have made the same record four or five times. But for a band that has been around for upwards of 25 years, they still make music that feels refreshingly young. On TKOL, they still sound like they have an infinite pool of creative ideas floating around their heads. Every album prior to this one was an attempt to establish a sound that is uniquely Radiohead. The King of Limbs is the realization of those efforts, wrapped into a succinct LP that proudly exclaims, “Well, we don’t really have a sound, do we?”