THE TOP 50 RADIOHEAD SONGS OF ALL TIME

It’s been a week now since Radiohead dropped a brand new album called The King of Limbs out of thin air upon its adoring fans, and after probably no less than two dozen listens I feel comfortable placing two of its songs on a list that I’ve wanted to post for a long time- a countdown of the 50 Best Radiohead tracks ever. This is a daunting task to be sure, but I stand behind my selections, however heartbreaking it was too have to leave off a great many solid tunes. I’ll try to keep it brief to a one sentence analysis of each song, and for consistency’s sake will refer to Radiohead as “the band” and their lead singer Thom Yorke simply by his first name.

During my process of ranking these songs, which I actually did out to 100, I found it interesting to compare how the band’s albums stack up against each other. By assigning values equal to each song’s ranking placement (#1=100 pts, #2=99 pts, etc) and treating all songs outside of the top 100 as one point, and then averaging those values, here is how the albums compare:

OK Computer 75.9

Kid A 62.9

In Rainbows 60.8

The Bends 49.9

Amnesiac 48.2

Hail to the Thief 34.5

The King of Limbs 29.8

Pablo Honey 20.3

Interesting, right? Now, on to the countdown. Enjoy!

#50: Optimistic (Kid A, 2000)

The first single from the groundbreaking Kid A benefits from its impressive build and relative accessibility.

#49: Down Is The New Up (In Rainbows 2, 2008)

Eerie organ keys and and almost discordant melody add intrigue to this standout from the band’s In Rainbows B-Side album.

#48: Punch Up At A Wedding (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

One of the band’s grooviest tracks to date, as a sauntering piano blues riff combines with a rolling bass line and gives Thom an opportunity to show off his impressive vocal range.

#47: The Bends (The Bends, 1995)

The title track to the band’s breakthrough record catches them at their most carefree and rocky, and showcases one of the best hooks of their early material.

#46: Subterranean Homesick Alien (OK Computer, 1997)

Surreal, lush and atmospheric, this early track on the best album this band or any other band has ever made was just a taste of what was to come in the tracks, and the years to come.

#45: Thinking About You (Pablo Honey, 1993)

A simple but pure acoustic track that still holds a place in my heart, this very early song showcases the band’s knack for balladry and songwriting.

#44: Go To Sleep (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

For those wanting a return to the band’s rock roots after the experimental but brilliant Kid A and Amnesiac efforts, this track certainly filled that void in an album that was perfectly and blissfully out of focus.

#43: Videotape (In Rainbows, 2007)

I’ve always felt that the band’s greatest strength lies in its ability to create beautiful, softer sounding songs, and “Videotape” is no exception, even though it continues to be a slight disappointment to me considering how much more it could have been if they had not settled for such a subtle arrangement.

#42: Lotus Flower (The King of Limbs, 2011)

The lone single from a suddenly released album that straddles the line between EP and full length is unique for its ominous and repetitive bass line that evokes memories of Joy Division sound, not to mention Thom’s almost constant falsetto…and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the awesomeness of the video.

#41: Planet Telex (The Bends, 1995)

There are certain moments while listening to an album when you can realize that a band has made a huge stride forward, and the opening five seconds of this opening track do exactly that, packing four minutes of intense, atmospheric guitar with a voice that has to be from the heavens.


#40: Like Spinning Plates (Amnesiac, 2001 and I Might Be Wrong EP, 2001)

This track added to the experimentalism of 2001’s Amnesiac as Thom sang the lyrics backward and then recorded them backward again to make them forward again, but the best version of this gorgeous and foreboding song comes on the EP, with Thom playing solo on the piano.

#39: I Might Be Wrong (Amnesiac, 2001)

Wild, dancey two step beats and propulsive electric guitar separate this dark track from much of the band’s catalog.

#38: How Can You Be Sure (Fake Plastic Trees Single, 1995)

Back when the band was still lovesick and sentimental, it was songs like this that really propelled them from being a good band into a great band; more musically accomplished material would follow, but essentially perfect love songs like this one have stood the test of time, complete with self-affirming choruses like “I don’t want you/ Anymore” that came to mean a lot to me over the course of my early adulthood.

#37: Jigsaw Falling Into Place (In Rainbows, 2007)

Easily the most upbeat and intense track on the astoundingly strong In Rainbows, Jigsaw never releases or absorbs any of its own momentum, while still carrying the band’s signature ominous sound; it ends before you can catch your breath, but you remember when Thom proclaims that “the beat goes round and round!”

#36: Blow Out (Pablo Honey, 1993)

The closing track of Pablo Honey gave us a bit of a glimpse into what the band would accomplish in the feature, as a dreamy bass line and Thom’s falsetto add an emotional element that the rest of the album lacks, and a shoegazer guitar closes out the job; however, if you can find the subtler, more powerful acoustic version from a performance on Vancouver radio with the Posies, it shines even brighter.

#35: Codex (The King of Limbs, 2011)

There is an added dimension to the strongest track on the band’s most difficult to grasp release of its career, a gorgeously orchestrated electronic piano ballad that showcases excellent timing with its lifted, atmospheric horns that are almost reminiscent of an Air track, but with Thom’s voice.

#34: High and Dry (The Bends, 1995)

Perhaps the band’s cheesiest ballad to date, there is something about it that just sticks to your soul- the simple chord progression, incredibly honest and hopeless lyrics, and gorgeous falsetto chorus.

#33: Polyethelyne I & II (Airbag: How Am I Driving? EP, 1997)

This track combines a soft acoustic number with perhaps the band’s most triumphant and confident rock track to date, culminating in a rare song from the band to literally pump yourself up to.

#32: Man O’War/ Big Boots (Unreleased, recordings between 1995 and 1998)

Sadly, this song never made its way onto record and never will, but not for a lack of trying- the band played it tirelessly on tour for nearly four years but could never pull it into the perfect form that they required of it in studio…which is shame, because it would have been epic (did I mention that there are worms and a poisoned drawf involved???)

#31: You And Whose Army (Amnesiac, 2001)

Recorded in an AM radio style for its distant opening half, this song evolves into an explosive and powerful coda, complete with some of Thom’s very best wailing, as he chases ghost horses.

#30: 15 Step (In Rainbows, 2007)

Immediately gripping from its onset, this opening track evolves with perfection behind a shimmering guitar riff, slowing down and speeding back up with reckless abandon with unparalleled charisma (“ETC, ETC!”), complete with screaming school children and a bass line coda for the ages.

#29: Idioteque (Kid A, 2000)

For as much of a polarizing departure that Kid A was from its predecessors, nothing sounded stranger than Idioteque, from its synthesized, gyrating techno beat to its fearful, spastic vocalizations (Ice Age Coming!); seeing this live is an experience, especially after realizing how forward looking it was musically at the time of its release.

#28: The National Anthem (Kid A, 2000)

Easily the most turbulent, thrusting and ultimately badass bass line in the band’s entire repertoire, as the track progresses into a chaotic yet perfectly orchestrated traffic jam of horns, strings and percussion through its massive coda.

#27: In Limbo (Kid A, 2000)

The first song to immediately capture my attention when I first started listening to bootlegged concerts in the summer of 2000 was the surreal “In Limbo”, a track that builds with a steady bass line and purgatory images revealing the band at their darkest and most paranoid.

#26: Motion Picture Soundtrack (Kid A, 2000)

A sparse, haunting rendition of an early live acoustic favorite managed to find itself capping off the greatest album of the first decade of the new millennium, complete with impeccable production, and was the perfect goodbye as Thom farewells “I will see you/ In the next life…”

#25: Creep (Pablo Honey, 1993)

The band’s mega hit single has lost favor with its hard core fans over the years for its accessibility, but in reality, when taken out of context from what the band was to become, it truly was the perfect mid 90s lovesick alt song; I serenaded many a sorority girl thanks to its easy, repetitive chords and dominated many a karaoke bar with that strained falsetto, so that has to count for something.

#24: Arpeggi (In Rainbows, 2007)

There’s almost an underwater feel to this shockingly lush and immaculate song, as rolling percussion, and submerged guitar rhythms combine with great vocal work, eventually building into a show-stopping crescendo and perhaps one of the most underrated tracks in the band’s catalog.

#23: Airbag (OK Computer, 1997)

What should a song sound like if it is to begin to greatest, most revolutionary album to ever grace the Planet Earth? Exactly like this. Nothing else to say, and I’ll never forget that sunny July afternoon in 1997 when I anxiously popped this CD into my car and heard the opening notes. The rest is history. (Pardon me for breach of the aforementioned rules on this one song).

#22: Talk Show Host (Street Spirit Single, 1996)

It is still a mystery to me why this brilliant, fearful masterpiece didn’t make the OK Computer cut, while the overly rocky and otherwise slight political piece “Electioneering” did—perhaps that would have make that album too perfect for its own existence, and the apocalypse would have commenced immediately.

#21: Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends, 1995)

Probably the most perfectly heartbreaking acoustic ballad ever composed by anyone, plain and simple.

#20: I Will (Hail to the Thief, 2003 and Com Lag EP 2004)

From the standpoint of pure melody, I think this is the most gorgeous song that the band has ever written, and although it is incredibly simple in and of itself, the addition of drums on the live Com Lag EP version really brings out all of its potential.

#19: A Wolf At The Door (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

Perhaps the saddest song the band has ever written (for no immediately apparent reason, which is to its credit) , the track combines its dark organ and guitar with Thom practically beatboxing the lyrics before shifting into a heartbreaking chorus.

#18: Karma Police (OK Computer, 1997)

Clearly the mainstream centerpiece to the juggernaut that was OK Computer, it is too easy to overlook how brilliant the piano driven Karma Police is, with its tempo changes and ultimately harmonizing coda, perhaps best demonstrated in this remarkable live performance on the Letterman Show.

#17: Reckoner (In Rainbows, 2007)

I suppose you could argue that this should be number one and I might be inclined to agree with you, as Thom’s falsetto soars through an astonishing melody and complexly orchestrated midsection in which the song comes to a virtual halt before picking up powerfully through the finish with strings and tambourines.

#16: No Surprises (OK Computer, 1997)

The genius in this absolutely hypnotizing classic is the contrast between its modest, sarcastically gorgeous lullaby melody and its dark, cynical lyrics, as it slowly builds into more than one can bear as Thom pleads for “No alarms, and no surprises/ Please-” with an epic, aquaphobic video.

#15: True Love Waits (I Might Be Wrong EP, 2001)

A pure, stripped down acoustic track that became somewhat of a live phenomenon before the band finally released a perfectly recorded bootleg version, this song proved after the decidedly experimental departures of Kid A and Amnesiac that the band had not lost its penchant for impossibly addictive guitar melodies- not by a long shot.

#14: Nude (In Rainbows, 2007)

A live favorite for over a decade as “Big Ideas”, the band finally put the song to record with masterfully intimate perfection, as the beauty of this song is and always has been completely in its subtlety and restraint; although I lament the omission of an entire verse and that glockenspiel that made the live versions appear to have top five potential, beggars can’t be choosers.

#13: 2+2 =5 (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

Forget the fantastic build, political eccentricities and mathematically diabolical title, this song may actually contain the best single moment in the accomplished band’s entire catalog around the two minute mark, when the seemingly soft and pretty guitar line explodes without warning into a sprawling concoction of distortion and pounding drumming as Thom screams the words “Pay attention” with unexplainable disregard for his own vocal chords before the song shifts again and ends abruptly before we can even process what the hell has happened.

#12: Just (The Bends, 1995)

The band’s best pure rock moment, without compare, and with a shocking and poignant video to boot, this was one of the first “wow” moments where we realized that we could be witnessing something very special indeed, and we wouldn’t have been more correct had we said that 2+2 equaled 4.

#11: Life In A Glass House (Amnesiac, 2001)

In a striking, admittedly polarizing departure from its already fanatic cult live acoustic following, the band decided the impart elements of a New Orleans funeral dirge to this sweeping epic that closed the most innovative album they have ever made, complete with horns and some of Thom’s very best vocal work ever through its conclusion.

#10: Lucky (OK Computer, 1997)

Perhaps Johnny Greenwood’s finest moment, as his soaring guitar solo through the conclusion defines this dark, foreboding and ultimately impeccable track.

#9: Exit Music (OK Computer, 1997)

An essay in song structure, as hopeless, melancholy acoustic guitar verses absolutely explode into an amazingly cynical vocal performance by Thom, who in an escalating bravado suggests that “We hope your rules and wisdom choke you” before reiterating that “We hope that you choke” as the song collapses back onto itself.

#8: All I Need (In Rainbows, 2007)

Opening with a deep string arrangement, heavy bass and a dancey drum rhythm that rolls along with suave persistence, what could have been a simple romantic tune succeeds as one of the band’s greatest songs ever behind glockenspiel notes, deep strings and an eerie simplicity before exploding into a piano-based crescendo.

#7: How To Disappear Completely (Kid A, 2000)

The band’s penchant for gorgeous, melancholy acoustic tracks is epitomized by this classic, which expands upon that element with its slow build and unorthodox picking pattern that picks up a symphonic string backing as it cascades toward its conclusion behind one of Thom’s best falsetto moments.

#6: Pyramid Song (Amnesiac, 2001)

Astonishing, lush and fearful, featuring dense layers of piano and an unusual time signature that drummer Phil Selway absolutely dominates in one of the best moments of his career throughout the track’s ominous sound and lyrical imagery.

#5: Everything In Its Right Place (Kid A, 2000)

Ambient organ notes open this album on the strongest note imaginable, as “Everything in its Right Place” is a vast, hypnotic and surprising yet immediate beginning that showcases the band’s shift in style with Thom’s spot-on, fuzzy vocals and eerie tone.

#4: Let Down (OK Computer, 1997)

The best single vocal moment from Thom’s illustrious career comes towards the end of this gorgeous track (roughly from 4:00-4:25, probably a big part of why this song is rarely, if ever, played live), but not before it demonstrates and amazing melody and some incredible lyrical imagery.

#3: The Tourist (OK Computer, 1997)

Perhaps the most overlooked track in the band’s entire catalog, OK Computer’s closing track is also its saddest and most intimate, showing restraint and never really completely releasing through its fantastic melody and Thom’s amazing vocal performance before ending with a single goose bump-inducing goodbye note.

#2: Paranoid Android (OK Computer, 1997)

This will always be recognized as the band’s epic track, the song that took them to another level; through a complex shift between four exhaustively different melodies and tempos, there is a level of musical and compositional ingenuity here that defies explanation, complete with Johnny Greenwood’s startling space guitar sounds that shift between the song’s stages (2:42, 5:39).

#1: Street Spirit (The Bends, 1995)

This simple, heartbreaking plucking melody builds with its percussion, subtle electric guitar pattern, soaring vocals and string elements into what I believe to be the band’s defining moment over its final minute and a half- a literally perfect song that I will always remember as the tune that began my obsession with this band. “Immerse yourself in love.” Indeed.

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