It’s easy to pigeonhole Radiohead as the thinking man’s favourite rock band. And, truth be told, there’s a lot of weight to that argument. The group have never been one to rely on pop sensibilities or big hooky choruses to sell their records. Instead, they’ve used a cunning technique of never standing still to make sure they keep the pace of creation flowing and the looming boredom of becoming stale far from the recording studio.
Though the band have been on the alternative music scene since the early ’90s, 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. It means, while below we’re ranking their studio albums from worst to best, in reality, it’s more in order of greatness.
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 enjoyed 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.
The band have sold well over 30 million records worldwide and with each album they have produced a new evolution, a new step forward and, by and large, a brand new sound. It’s what has kept the band as one of the most adored bands in the world — there are no fans more willing to defend their group as ardently as Radiohead fans.
Below, we revisit those albums that have garnered Radiohead their astounding reputation.
Ranking Radiohead albums worst to best:
9. The King of Limbs (2011)
It’s very hard to pick out our favourite Radiohead album but it isn’t so difficult picking our least favourite. And that is the correct term too: “least favourite,” because 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, however.
Under 40 minutes and across eight tracks, Radiohead displays the electronic glitch and keyboard bubbling that would become a mainstay on their later work. Though the record is certainly an original sound, that acts as the minimum required for a Radiohead record and therefore falls a little short. See ‘Lotus Flower’ for the LP’s best song.
8. 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 LP. Sadly, Amnesiac doesn’t quite live up to expectation in that regard and sounds a little detached from their sound.
That’s not to say there isn’t any value to be had in the album. As well as songs like ‘Knives Out’ – arguably one of the band’s finest – the record refuses to stand still. It provides itself as a moving target which can be hard for the audience to pierce and that, in itself, is one beautiful facet of Radiohead’s writing. There are jazz influences throughout and enough dissonant electro to make your circuits fuse and, if the music doesn’t scramble your motherboard, the lyrics certainly will.
7. Pablo Honey (1993)
For most people, a debut album is a sacred thing but for Radiohead fans 1995’s Pablo Honey has often come under criticism. That’s because, unlike most debut LPs, it feels decidedly un-Radiohead. Most of the band’s records are sold on a singular theme which is built upon, worked on and then cultivated to perfection. Pablo Honey, despite possessing some stellar tracks, lacks any clear narrative.
The two standout moments on the album have to be ‘Creep’ and ‘How Do You?’ The first 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 but the latter track is just as bouncing but with enough grit to capture one’s attention.
There’s plenty of grunge influence in this record and although it was written as britpop became a dominant force, the songs aren’t determined by any machismo, instead, they set the foundations for their intellectualised reputation.
6. Hail to the Thief (2003)
The album which saw Radiohead get political, Hail to the Thief is a direct assault on those who try to rule us while painting a reputation of unsoiled innocence. The moment ‘2+2=5’ kicks off, we know that this album isn’t like any other record in the band’s repertoire — what is?
The album became famous overnight after it was leaked 10 weeks earlier than scheduled but it stayed famous for Yorke’s incendiary viewpoint on the War on Terror as well as the rise of extremist conservatism. It’s a brutality mirrored in the 15 track record, running at just under an hour, and using every single second to leave lasting impression.
It’s one album that separates the fairweather fans from the hard and fast Radiohead fanatics.
5. 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 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, ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Burn The Witch’ are standout singles, there’s a lot to be said for letting this one play out as intended. Only then can one get truly lost in its atmosphere. There’s no use trying to endlessly decipher the meaning of this or that, one is much better off allowing the album to swallow you whole and enrich your musical bones with the fragrance of tradition and evolution meeting at the corner.
Put simply, this is Radiohead’s classical record and it’s a bonafide classic to boot.
4. 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. 13 years 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.
Don’t get us wrong, there’s still plenty of darkness in this rainbow, but the colours and the mirage of being able to touch them, play just as an integral role in the record’s potency. 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.
There’s a perpetual motion to In Rainbows that mean it will never really age and although some albums rely on brute force to move their audience, Radiohead manage to do it with the deftest touch, like a gentle breeze guiding us towards the record’s finish.
3. The Bends (1995)
There’s plenty of grungey angst on this album but it was The Bends when Radiohead really 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 having to live 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. Equally, ‘Bones’ and ‘Street Spirit’ may well be other songs to challenge the top of the Radiohead pile. But the real beauty of this record is not the songs but how they’re delivered.
Grunge had been largely about turning up the volume and smashing guitars. On The Bends, Radiohead are more intent on what they can use their guitars to achieve. They’re still just as angry but they’re not resorting to low blows.
2. 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 spilled beers and football pitches, Radiohead were making one of the records of the decade and changing rock music forever.
They still kept the post-modern affluence of britpop but they threaded it with third-person narrative and a 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. As well as hits like ‘Paranoid Android’ the album truly relies on the duality of marrying both their rock roots and their evolutionary ethos. A masterpiece.
1. Kid A (2000)
Was there really any doubt? 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.
It’s not only a great album but it has a great artistic integrity behind it too. Workling 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 doesn’t want any fairweather fans or looky-loos screeching past on the way to pick up a McMadchester revival act. It wants you to sit down and enjoy the ambience as they serve up the latest in sonic gastronomy.
This album remains one of the most influential albums of all time because of this fact. It said to hell with commercialism and put art in the driving seat. For that reason alone, it must be considered their greatest, even if it isn’t particularly easy to listen to.