While I could probably name two dozen songs, my gut says “Idioteque.” It’s amazing that more than a decade later, Kid A doesn’t sound the least bit dated (maybe it never will). But “Idioteque” is the only song that still sounds like it’s from the future. I love the tension between the the twitchy electronics and Yorke’s primal, panicked chanting. I can’t think of a song with a better vocal performance from him.
But buried beneath the textured glitches and scratches, “Idioteque” beckons to be danced to — and urgently. Every time it comes on, I want to start shaking aggressively (in a fun way). It’s the apocalypse, and we’re going down in style.
I mean, watch that video.
(FYI: the music videos off Kid A feature slightly different recordings from the album.)
The first song that springs to my mind is “Paranoid Android,” which I know is sort of ridiculous, considering that it’s on the same album as “Karma Police,” “No Surprises,” and “Lucky,” all of which are arguably more nuanced and interesting. But I started listening to Radiohead ten years ago, when I was 15, and what does a teenager care for musical complexity? So this pick is dedicated to high school me.
“Paranoid Android” is a typhoon of angst, scored by a virtuosic rock band at its most cathartic. For all its virulent social commentary and dystopian imagery, the core tension in the song, the line that transforms the foreboding bass line into a snarling guitar-driven monster, is “why don’t you remember my name?” The true paranoia of the song is borne from insecurity; its sneering violence is just lashing out. What could be more teenage than that? And before we get too far up our own asses about all the subtle details that make this band so special, I want to recognize that rock and roll, fundamentally, is meant to be music for young people with more feelings than they can handle. You may disagree, but to me, “Paranoid Android” captures that spirit even better than “Creep.”
Plus, I’ve never had more fun mangling a song at karaoke.
The I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings EP might seem like a throwaway release, but I think it’s an essential piece of Radiohead’s discography.
Now, I know that “Myxomatosis” is not the best Radiohead song. It’s always been one of my favorites from Hail to the Thief, but the recorded version doesn’t reach the same heights as the others we’re talking about here. But in concert, that distorted guitar changes from a neat effect to a thundering roar. Yes, music often sounds better live simply because it’s louder, but this was more than volume. That guitar rattled some deep part of me. I’ve often thought that Radiohead would be delighted to write the soundtrack for the apocalypse, and that sound could kick the whole thing off.
I watched a ton of recordings of the song from their last tour, and often the guitar simply overwhelms the microphone. Of course, it’s impossible to truly capture the effect on a smartphone, but I think this one comes closest.
Oh, and if you’re curious (and I know you are), this is the best video of Thom Yorke dancing to “Myxomatosis.” We could probably do another series just breaking down his moves.
Yorke’s on-stage moves have never been better, and maybe on the songwriting front, Radiohead is doing their best work right now. People seemed generally underwhelmed by The King of Limbs, but hey, it took fans a while to come around on In Rainbows too. Look at “Lotus Flower.”
This song is cooler and sexier than anything Thom and co. have ever written (and those are two words I wouldn’t have used to describe the Radiohead of five years ago). There’s a steady drum beat and some sparse electronics, but it’s really Yorke’s vocals on display here, as he drifts beautifully in and out of his falsetto. The video also highlights something that Radiohead hasn’t traditionally been known for: a sense of humor.
For my money, this is the strongest song from Radiohead’s early period. In it, you can see the band dabbling in the more atmospheric and layered sounds that will define their wonderful experimental phase. The song feels forboding and mysterious, with undertones that hint at something even more sinister. It builds steadily, propelled (as all great Radiohead songs are) by a masterful performance from Yorke. I love the way he sings the “strain I am under” part; I can’t think of another rock vocalist who could impart so much pathos into a lyric that’s actually kind of wonky.
I try my best not to look up setlists before concerts, but some punk kid told me there was a chance they’d do “Street Spirit” before we saw them, and when they didn’t, I was pretty bummed.
Man, this video is so ’90s.
Sure, it’s Radihead’s oldest single, but if the infamous teaser trailer for The Social Network is a good cultural indicator (which featured a choral cover of “Creep”), it might be the most resonant.
It’s “Reckoner.” I’m gonna have a tough time explaining why, but let’s work backwards from this video. I can watch it a thousand times and still get chills when the instruments drop out and we’re left alone with Thom’s voice. That’s gotta be one of the most perfect sounds ever captured on tape.
Then, with no fanfare or buildup, the instruments return, just the same as before, but somehow they feel oversaturated and doubly potent. It’s such an incredible moment.
I’d love to be able say “Reckoner” represents everything good about Radiohead, but that’s not really true. It doesn’t have any of the dark, paranoid, or unsettled energy that characterizes much of their best work. But I do think it’s the most beautiful song they’ve written. The guitar is melodic and perky, but restrained in a wonderfully tantilizing way, leaving room for the insistent percussion to fill the song with a rush of percolating optimism.
So yeah, I adore the song. If I had to listen to a single track on repeat for the rest of my life, from Radiohead or anyone else, I’d choose “Reckoner.” It’s as good as it gets.
A version of this post first appeared on our retired blog Editor vs. Editor.