Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood may well be flexing their creative muscles in new guises, having successfully launched their new post-punk project The Smile last year amid successful turns as cinematic scorers. But the reality is, we will always keep coming back to Radiohead. Across nine stupendous albums, the band have transformed from the nerdier side of Britpop to be, alongside acts like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, one of Britain’s proudest musical exports.
One thing that has always defined Radiohead is their ability to be wholly indefinable. They operate as a mercurial set of musicians that feel as elusive as they are creative. The group have never sat still and continue to push the creative envelope whenever possible. What’s perhaps most remarkable is that, in their pursuit of artistic integrity and evolution, the band have never once left an album without a standout song. Below, we put that theory to the test as we pick out the best song from every Radiohead album.
Though the band have been on the alternative music scene since the early 1990s, they have only released nine albums across their near 30-year spell. While most artists would be happy to have one or two records become noted as influential or culturally important, there’s certainly a suggestion that the Oxfordshire band, led by Thom Yorke and complete by Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway, have delivered nine records capable of that moniker.
The band signed with EMI in 1991 and quickly made a name for themselves with ‘Creep’, a defining anthem of Generation X but one of the band’s most detested records. It’s the entire point of Radiohead. They have never sought out the commercial limelight and their albums reflect that too.
From their debut, Pablo Honey, full of Britpop-adjacent jams to the luscious orchestral arrangements of A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead have never worked within the mainstream. Yet, they are still capable of including a crowd-pleasing piece of brilliance on each LP.
Below, we’ve done the hard work for you and picked out the best song from every single Radiohead album.
Best song from every Radiohead album:
‘Creep’ – Pablo Honey (1993)
For most people, a debut album is a sacred thing, but for Radiohead fans, 1993’s Pablo Honey has often come under severe criticism, largely for being a little off the beaten track but not in the way you’d expect. That’s because, unlike most debut LPs, it feels decidedly un-Radiohead. Most of the band’s records are sold on a singular theme built upon, worked on and then cultivated to perfection.
Pablo Honey, despite possessing some stellar tracks, lacks any clear narrative. ut what it does have is the most polarising song of perhaps any rock act of the nineties. For us, despite the protestations, the best song on the record has to be ‘Creep’. That’s because we don’t bow to public muso pressure.
The song may be a sore point for diehard Radiohead fans, its anthemic nature dispelling the belief that one must pay attention to Radiohead songs to enjoy them fully. The track has become a dirty word because of its widespread appeal seeing it not only dominate MTV but college dorm rooms for years to come. We think it’s about time that ‘Creep’ was given a fresh slate and appreciated as the loner anthem it truly is, not as some Chad has made you feel about it.
‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ – The Bends (1995)
Given the inclination of our previous selection, it could be easy for us to simply draw on the same notion and pick out ‘High and Dry’ for the more bombastic side of Radiohead. And, there’s no doubt that the track is a belter, but for this record, there is no moment more arresting, no sound more enticing yet utterly capitulating than ‘Street Spirit’.
There’s plenty of grungey angst on this album, but it was The Bends when Radiohead really put themselves apart from the rest of the growing alternative rock scene. While those bands tended to focus on the banality of life and the brutality of living under such circumstances, the Oxfordshire band did it all with an educated flourish that made other groups look like soapbox screamers and Radiohead as professors.
‘Fake Plastic Trees’ may well be one of the band’s best songs and its place on this record is cherished by all but the real beauty is in the pain Yorke conveys on ‘Street Spirirt’. It’s not your usual way to close out an album and it proved, with all the poignant delicacy it provides, that Radiohead were not your average group.
‘No Surprises’ – OK Computer (1997)
The nineties were a strange time. Being constantly compared to Oasis and Blur must have been a drag and the group made sure to put an end to it with OK Computer. While the Gallagher brother and Albarn and co were still duking it out over spilt beers and football pitches, Radiohead were making one of the records of the decade and changing rock music forever.
The band kept the post-modern affluence of Britpop but they threaded it with third-person narrative and an emotional and intelligent detachment that only Radiohead can truly pull off. They invited science-fiction into the action movie world and came up trumps.
Thanks to the speculative narrative structure, we have Yorke possibly at his peak lyrically, using his storytelling skills to invite the audience to be a part of the sci-fi frolics. Naturally, on such a robust record, there are plenty of choices for the best song, but there’s something extraordinary about the languid lusciousness of ‘No Surprises’.
‘Idioteque’ – Kid A (2000)
Not only is this Radiohead’s greatest album but it may well be one of the greatest albums ever made by anyone. On this record, the band changed rock music forever and one song that perfectly encapsulates their rapid change and definitive moment in music history is ‘Idioteque’.
Working as a sonic collage of sorts, the album relies on these fractured moments to welcome their audience and achieve cracks in their impenetrable theme. It made sure that Radiohead fans were truly fans, not just people who happened to hear a song they liked on the radio. No, after Kid A, everybody had to pay attention.
OK Computer may well be the more universally accepted album, it may even have more fans spread across the globe, but Kid A is an album for the fans. It is rich and luxurious but supremely complex and highly textured. It’s something that is perfectly captured in the glitching glory of ‘Idioteuqe’, a song that could well unite techno, metal, indie, pop, and rock fans within a single swoop.
Put ‘Idioteque’ on and watch your front room turn into Berlin’s Berghain, if only for a few minutes.
‘Knives Out’ – Amnesiac (2001)
Following 2000’s seminal LP, Kid A was always going to be a difficult task. The group, therefore, used a lot of material taken from the sessions of that album and tried to make an extension of the album. Amnesiac doesn’t quite live up to expectation in that regard and sounds a little detached from what appeared to be their distilled sound.
While the jury is out on the record’s validity in the spectrum of the band’s output, there are some cracking tunes on the album, including ‘Knives Out’, arguably one of the band’s best songs. There are jazz influences throughout the song and enough dissonant indie to make your circuits fuse and, if the music doesn’t scramble your motherboard, the lyrics certainly will.
“‘Knives Out’ is not exactly cruelty,” recalled Thom Yorke of the song. “Let’s rather say that to express some feelings, I can’t help but use some violent vocabulary. ‘Knives Out’ was inspired by several different situations. I think the important thing is not that it sounds violent but rather that I try to express specific moments that I have experienced in my life: I transcribe them again, especially those I’ve been through in the music business. It doesn’t hurt many people when someone disappears, they can always take advantage of what remains. In short, the lyrics are more violent than the feelings behind them. The song is also about the death of the people close to me. Each song tries to elucidates things that I don’t understand. ‘Knives Out’ is especially brutal because it is a desperate attempt at solving something very complicated for me.”
‘There There’ – Hail to the Thief (2003)
The album which saw Radiohead get political, Hail to the Thief, is a direct assault on those trying to rule us while painting a reputation of unspoiled innocence. The album became famous overnight after it was leaked 10 weeks earlier than scheduled. It stayed famous for Yorke’s incendiary viewpoint on the War on Terror as well as the rise of extremist conservatism.
One song that does a great job of expressing this displeasure is ‘There, There’, a song so deeply entrenched in the thundering lyrics of Yorke that we’re sure it could work as a spoken word poem. Although, to do so would be to miss out on the heavy drums and looming darkness that every note provides. Alluding to a failing relationship, the song’s real merit is encouraging people not to believe in illusions, no matter how alluring they may be.
If you needed any further proof of the song’s power, in a later interview, Yorke admitted that he wept the first time he heard the song played back in full.
‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ – In Rainbows (2007)
One of the band’s most iconic records, In Rainbows will likely only get more and more acclaim as time passes by. Over a decade on from its release and it is already considered a truly hallowed piece of work. It is on this album that Radiohead got over their anger, or at least the way they showed it, and instead turned their attention to connecting with their audience on a deeper level.
The album was released as a “pay-what-you-want” record and it was the biggest signal of the record to come. This album was about Radiohead and their fans merging as one unit. That didn’t diminish the calibre of work on the album though and it boasts some impressive pieces.
One such song that can certainly be regarded as a “piece” is ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’, displaying the virtuosos craftmanship that Radiohead has become famed for. There’s really no reason not to put this song and let it play out, wash over you, and bring you to the same conclusion we reached when hearing it — Radiohead, for all their acclaim, are criminally underrated.
‘Lotus Flower’ – The King of Limbs (2011)
It may well be our least favourite record of the bunch, but this album is still jam-packed with all the nuanced punch Radiohead bring to everything they do. The 2011 album The King of Limbs is likely nearing the bottom of most fans’ lists, but it does have one trick up its sleeve, the wonderful song ‘Lotus Flower’.
Under 40 minutes and across eight tracks, Radiohead displays the electronic glitch and keyboard bubbling that would become a mainstay on their later work. ‘Lotus Flower’, most certainly the best moment of the LP, displays this blueprint for future success perfectly.
Deeply poetic in its sonic delivery, Yorke’s vocal is in particularly fine form for the first single released from the record.
‘Burn the Witch’ – A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
The band’s latest release is one built out of lush orchestral arrangements with a reliance on the growing cultured ear of Jonny Greenwood. It was the first time the band truly relied on the classical music of the London Contemporary Orchestra, and it’s hard not to align the shift in sound to a maturation. But while Greenwood rightly takes most of the plaudits, it is also one of Yorke’s most spares yet luxurious lyric displays too.
Of course, ‘Burn The Witch’ is the standout single, guided by the deeply political video that came with it; the song provided the perfect gateway to A Moon Shaped Pool, developing and evolving all the themes that had come before it. If there was ever a song to capture Radiohead’s journey, then this is it.
That’s because the track was originally conceived during the Kid A sessions before being revived for the In Rainbows and Hail to the Thief sessions, eventually finding it spot on the mantel of A Moon Shaped Pool.