You’ve got to give it to Thom Yorke; the man knows how to keep himself occupied. As well as releasing countless albums with Radiohead, Yorke has always made a point of connecting with the musicians that he admires, working alongside numerous artists to create something uniquely beautiful. He, like Blur’s Damon Albarn, seems to recognise that, in collaborating with musicians outside of his usual band set-up, he is able to push himself to the very limits of his creative ability.
These collaborations have spanned a dizzying multitude of genres, from Burial to Bjork, but they all have one thing in common: they all show Thom Yorke working in an area in which he is not entirely at home. His collaborations are exhilarating because, in listening to them, we are shown a man who is widely regarded as spearheading one of the most creative band’s on the planet, in the hands of individuals who work using very different creative processes.
Perhaps this is why Yorke has always sought to create with so many unique artists. Listening to the tracks below, one gets the sense that Yorke has absorbed something of Flying Lotus’ or Bjork’s creativity and that he is already re-directing that energy towards his solo work or the next Radiohead album.
In this list, we’ll be looking at five of Thom Yorke’s best collaborations. It’s been a hard task narrowing them down because Yorke has bought something irresistible to every track he’s been featured on, but I believe these five demonstrate Yorke’s pioneer spirit more so than any others.
Thom Yorke’s five greatest collaborations:
PJ Harvey — ‘This Mess We’re In’
Taken from PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea, this track is perhaps the most recognisably Yorkian Track on this list. In many ways, it feels like it could have been plucked from OK Computer, which had been released three years previously. It’s hardly surprising, given that Thom Yorke had been pretty much king of the world in those three years, influencing his contemporaries no end.
In ‘This Mess We’re In’, Yorke’s elastic falsetto wraps its way around a grungy, dirt-driven guitar line, blending with Harvey’s huskier register to give the track a sort of soft-hearted grittiness. It’s a classic piece of early ‘00s rock with faintly cheesy lyrics and all. But, in Yorke’s hands, those lyrics take on an undeniably poignant quality.
Sparklehorse — ‘Wish You Were Here’
Thom Yorke’s collaboration with American lo-fi outfit Sparklehorse was his first outside of Radiohead. In this cover of Pink Floyd’s classic song ‘Wish You Were Here’, he provides backing vocals that seem to redefine the very meaning of the term. His voice gives the track breadth and space, elevating it from a mere cover to something that is quietly stunning.
One can’t help feeling a little bewildered Yorke’s choice to cover, of all things Pink Floyd. After all, Radiohead spent years riling against the extended guitar solos and flamboyant stagecraft of classic rock. But in retrospect, this collaboration seems more like an extension of Radiohead’s minimalist aesthetic in that regard. Here, he proves that you don’t need to have a £30,000 portable studio to make something mesmerising.
Mark Pritchard — ‘Beautiful People’
Released in 2016, Mark Pritchard’s ‘Beautiful People’ is one of those tracks which makes you wonder why Thom Yorke spent so much time messing around with electric guitars.
In this track, Yorke dances around ambient vintage flute samples and thick analogue synth lines, pushing and pulling at the pool of textures in which his vocals sit. Yorke collaboration with Pritchard came after the electronic musician contributed two tracks of his own to Radiohead’s TKOL Remix album.
Björk — ‘I’ve Seen It All’
This collaboration with Icelandic icon Björk sits in start contrast to the glitchy electronica of Kid A, which came out just a month after this stand-alone track was released. Yorke has always been a huge fan of Björk, and for the two to work together must have felt inevitable. The beauty of this track lies in the simmering chemistry between Yorke and Björk, one heightened by the swooning orchestral arrangements.
By this time in her career, Björk had, like Yorke, mastered electronic production and made it a more significant part of her work. As a result, in ‘I’ve Seen It All’, we get to hear two artists blending their experimental electronic tendencies with lush operatic vocal performances.
Flying Lotus — ‘…And the World Laughs With You’
The post-internet landscape of Flying Lotus must have been fascinating for Thom Yorke. Indeed, much of his solo work owes a lot to the glitchy chaos of Lotus’ production style. In this track, Yorke’s voice is spliced into a tiny thousand pieces and warped almost beyond recognition. The result is a piece of music that is both cerebral and intensely physical.
The collaboration feels like the natural by-product of Yorke’s work on albums like Kid A, which was inspired by the otherwordly electronic manipulation of artists like Aphex Twin and Burial. The former, in particular, had such an effect on Yorke and his bandmates that they quickly decided to abandon soft-hearted guitar-wielding and pursue something far more experimental, pushing themselves to explore new textures and rhythms away from the traditional band format.