How the hell do you introduce someone to Radiohead? Seriously, where do you start? “Creep”? Ok Computer? “Paranoid Android”? Kid A? In Rainbows? The “Lotus Flower” music video? Where do you start?
A lot of how Radiohead is appreciated, in addition to their excellent catalog, is by how they’ve helped change and define rock music in the past 20 years. But for someone who missed out on hearing Ok Computer back in 1997 or hearing the band’s radical transition to Kid A back in 2000 or paying whatever price they wanted for In Rainbows the trick is to hook the person onto the music and not onto the backstory.
But how do you introduce a band that is known for great albums instead of great singles? That’s like introducing Quentin Tarantino to someone by only showing the best scenes from some of his movies — the true learning experience comes from watching all of his movies and seeing how one artist can have so much vision and range. This is the issue that is faced with Radiohead. They have eight albums that are all excellent in their own ways (yes, even Pablo Honey is great in its own skin). And yes, they have a couple of songs that you already know and/or would recognize, but praising just “Paranoid Android” makes no sense when you take out the rest of Ok Computer.
But alas, I’ve tried to cover Radiohead’s glorious career in only ten songs, because I like the challenge (and probably because I’m an idiot for thinking that this can be done). I tried to represent each Radiohead album on this list to show how diverse each album is, but if it were up to me I would simply tell you to go listen to all their albums right now. But you probably don’t have the time (or the desire) to do that, so here’s my attempt to (hopefully) give you a solid introduction to one of the best rock bands of recent memory.
For all my fellow Radiohead fans, I hope you understand my selection. For everyone else, let’s travel back to 1993.
The song that started it all. If Radiohead never made anything after Pablo Honey they would still be known as the band that made “Creep”. It was one of the first big hits in the post-Nirvana 90s, and, contrary to how the band might feel today, it’s still a great song. The first time you hear Jonny Greenwood’s guitar explosion into the chorus is a special moment.
2) “High And Dry”
After going through The Bends, I considered making a separate list called, “10 Songs To Introduce You To…The Bends“. Radiohead’s sophomore album is full of fantastic songs that showcased the flexibility and songwriting chops of a young band that was getting better at an alarming rate. Of all of Radiohead’s albums, The Bends is the one that has the best mix of songs that standout on their own, and most of the songs stay within the stadium-guitar-rock-via-The-Smiths ballpark that Coldplay would eventually go on to perfect (When someone compares Coldplay to Radiohead, they’re talking about The Bends).
“High And Dry” off The Bends is my favorite Radiohead ballad and, along with “Fake Plastic Trees”, is one of the band’s best overall songs.
The flipped side of the Bends coin is the loud guitar rock that was greatly improved upon since Pablo Honey. The album is full of great guitar moments (“The Bends”, “Just”, “My Iron Lung”), but I put “Bones” on the list because it shows how Radiohead can turn the guitars all the way up without sounding overbearing.
4) “Paranoid Android”
We each have our different picks for favorite Radiohead songs, but it’s hard to find a better Radiohead song than “Paranoid Android”. A three-song-in-one approach was taken from the White Album-era Beatles, and the end result is an incredible example of a piece of art that was hugely ambitious yet strangely accessible.
5) “Everything In Its Right Place”
One of the most infamous album openers of all time. When Kid A came out in 2000 it sounded like nothing else being made in popular music, and “Everything In Its Right Place” literally sounded like it came from outer space. Thirteen years later, Kid A still sounds exciting, but if it sounds somewhat conventional to you, then that’s a testament to how important Kid A was for music in the early new millennia.
Ask me to play you one song that’ll make you “get” Kid A and I’ll probably play you “Idioteque”. I believe this song, more than any song off Kid A, helped usher in a new era of popular music that allowed more digital sampling. Too bad I’ve yet to hear anything that is as catchy as this song.
7) “I Might Be Wrong”
It’s pretty common to title Amnesiac as The Godfather Part II to Kid A‘s The Godfather. Both albums came out of the same studio sessions and both albums focused less on guitars and more on electronics and experimentation, but there is still a clear distinction between the two albums (to me Kid A sounds more like the rejection of isolation while Amnesiac sounds like the embracement of it).
“I Might Be Wrong” is on this list because it restates the fact that, no matter how experimental Radiohead will get, they will always be rooted in guitar music. Plus, it’s a killer song.
I have mixed feelings for Hail To The Thief. I initially dismissed it as an album with no direction and as the first bland Radiohead album. But over time I’ve grown attached to Radiohead’s weirder side (I hated Kid A when I first heard it, but now I love it), and now Hail To The Thief sounds like a great fusion of experimentation and grounded guitar songwriting.
But all feelings aside, “2+2=5” has been and always will be my favorite Radiohead album opener, which is a high honor considering that literally every single Radiohead opener is great. The song matches the paranoia that is hinted in the Orwellian title by the nervous guitar picking and Thom Yorke’s singing that transitions into a glorious freakout midway through.
It was this or “House of Cards”. Or “15 Steps”. Or anything else off In Rainbows.
In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead album because it introduced me to Radiohead, and “Reckoner” stood out to me immediately because of how the song matures so much in so little time. Do yourself a favor and listen to all of In Rainbows.
10) “Lotus Flower”
The King Of Limbs is the most recent Radiohead album and, like Hail To The Thief, I initially had mixed opinions. We’ll see over time if this album grows on me, but I included “Lotus Flower” on this list because A) it’s a pretty good song and B) the music video.