For my next musical challenge, I thought I would attempt to rate the albums of one of Britain’s most interesting and genre-spanning bands of the last 3 decades – Radiohead.
This was always going to be a tough call. Radiohead are one of a few bands I would call the ‘soundtrack to my life;’ since I first started listening to them as a young, tortured teen and I continue to be moved by their music today. There is something about the sound they make that has had a deep and unparalleled connection with my emotions growing up.
It’s an almost impossible task to rank such a diverse and impressive catalogue. This isn’t a list of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ each album is, but rather how each album captivates and effects me emotionally. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on Radiohead’s music and what it means to you, so let me know in the comments section!
9. King of Limbs (2011)
Albums like ‘Kid A’ really pushed Radiohead to new limits of what they could be as a band. They used the studio as a fascinating instrument and totally changed the rule-book for themselves and their contemporaries. By the time they got to ‘King of Limbs’ however, this desire to experiment and push the boundaries overpowers the strength of the songs themselves. For possibly the first time in their career, the process overshadows the intent, and we are left with less of an engaging experience as a result. The band riffs on stunted loop after stunted loop; without the necessary structure needed to make the songs as memorable as they could’ve been.
That said, there’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ Radiohead album, and there are still many strong moments here; such as the brilliant ‘Lotus Flower,’ ‘Codex’ or ‘Give Up the Ghost.’
But overall, King of Limbs isn’t as monumental to me as other albums that came before.
8. Amnesiac (2001)
Whilst the band did everything to convince the fans that ‘Amnesiac’ wasn’t a collection of ‘cast-offs’ from the ‘Kid A’ sessions and was a fully self-contained album in itself, the proximity it has to it’s all-too-recent predecessor made it difficult for fans not to compare it; and for the most part unfavourably so. For whilst ‘Amnesiac’ isn’t a ‘bad’ album, and certainly has it’s share of stand out moments (such as ‘Pyramid Song’ which is arguably one of their best), it can’t help but be eclipsed by the sheer brilliance of ‘Kid A.’ The ideas and the songs are interesting; they’re just not on a par, and it’s almost impossible to separate them or judge ‘Amnesiac’ on it’s own merits.
7. Hail to the Thief (2003)
The band find their guitars again after the electronic experiments of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac.’ Although it’s still an ambitious effort, Hail to the Thief failed to move me in quite the same way as what had come before or what was still to come. Good, if not great. Radiohead continue to push themselves onward, but seem unsure what direction they want to take here.
6. In Rainbows (2007)
In the early 00’s, after the disappointment of ‘Amnesiac,’ the unthinkable happened. Me and Radiohead broke-up. It was an amicable split, and I still loved them from afar. But other bands turned my head and we slowly drifted apart. I’d sometimes check in to see how they were doing, and many times I heard good things, but it wasn’t until last year when I finally got back in touch with them properly and my love for them was rekindled.
It’s a shame, because in the interim years I missed out on some great albums; like 2007’s ‘In Rainbows.’ This album shows the band finding their focus and upping their game again after 2003’s not-quite-as-good ‘Hail to the Thief’ and once again stepping up to the forefront of the music scene.
Their new-found notoriety was helped in no small part by the controversy of the album’s pricing. At the time, the band courted some attention from the press for a ‘gimmick’ their management decided upon – audience were told to pay what they wanted for the new album. Whilst in some ways, I liked this idea of putting the price in the hands of the consumer; it was a double-edged sword for unsigned and struggling musicians like myself at the time, who couldn’t possibly afford to say ‘here, take my hard work, time, effort and money and have it for whatever you like.’ My difficulty in accepting Radiohead’s idea was that it unconsciously undervalued new music and made it seem more ‘throwaway’ to people who were previously prepared to invest in it. This perhaps turned me off the album a bit at the time. Which is again a shame because it’s a bit of a corker. Not in a ‘Kid A’ or ‘OK Computer’ kind of a way, but it’s the first album in 6 years to show that the old bunch of mavericks from Oxford still had a lot more to give.
5. Pablo Honey (1993)
‘Pablo Honey in touching distance of O.K Computer; have you lost your mind?!’ would be the correct response to my placing of this album just 2 spaces behind the zenith of the bands first decade. O.K.C is without doubt the best album they had done up until this point, and many fans would argue it is THE great Radiohead album. Whereas it could equally be argued that Radiohead had barely got off the starting blocks with Pablo Honey.
However, as I pointed out at the beginning of this article, this isn’t about which is the ‘best’ Radiohead album, it’s a purely subjective account of which is my ‘favourite’ album to return to again and again. I know I’ll kick myself when I look back on this list, and I know Pablo Honey hasn’t aged too well. It is a band at the beginning of their journey; long before they showed their potential.
So why is this one so high? One word – nostalgia. This is the album that first turned me on to the band. Although pretty generic by Radiohead standards, at the time when most people were trying to sound like either Blur or Nirvana, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey WAS different. It combined the art-noise of Sonic Youth with the interesting sounds of contemporaries like Suede. Tom’s voice completely blew me away too; a mixture of snarling cynicism and swirling, soaring emotion, the likes of which I had never heard before.
And, whilst people love to berate this album, it actually has some really good songs on it. ‘You,’ ‘Stop Whispering’ and ‘Ripchord’ ROCK, ‘Thinking About You’ is beautiful and ‘Blowout’ shows early signs of a band that would go on to be as much about offering an emotional trip as it was about offering a chorus.
O.K, I may be wrong, but I don’t think Radiohead’s first effort is worth the derision it gets.
4. The Bends (1995)
The Bends sees the band growing out of their raw beginnings on ‘Pablo Honey’ to establish themselves as one of the most thought-provoking, but also most popular alt-rockers on the circuit. Songs like ‘Just,’ ‘High and Dry’ and ‘Street Spirit’ were stadium filling anthems; but each song on the album was also a compelling excursion into what indie music could become.
When compared to the timelessness of ‘OK Computer,’ ‘The Bends’ feels like more of a product of its time. But in this early musical incarnation of the band as a ‘rock’ unit, ‘The Bends’ does just that – it rocks. But it also shows early signs that the band could develop and progress with each album they brought out, and that they would always be worth listening to.
3. OK Computer (1997)
O.K Computer, to me, is Radiohead’s version of Queen’s ‘Day at the Races.’
Hear me out.
Before their 5th album, Queen were a well respected but niche heavy rock band. On ‘Day at the Races,’ they gravitated to a whole different level; throwing the most complex and interesting ideas at each song as they could to create a lush and magnificent piece of work. They essentially opened up the studio tool box and showed everything they were capable of in one career-defining album.
The same could be said for Radiohead with their most well known (and rightly so) album ‘OK Computer.’ In one stroke, they move from being an (admittedly exciting) indie-rock band to a fully fledged experimental and genre defining one. Their song ‘Paranoid Android’ feels like a twisted ‘Bohemian Rhapsody;’ managing to be both incredibly popular with listeners and critics alike, whilst racing through a dizzying array of styles and concepts in just over 6 minutes (twice as long as a regular ‘pop’ song whilst never losing it’s pace or drive).
It’s also possibly their grandest sounding project to date; the production is BIG, but so is the emotional impact of the songs. The themes come off as a neurotic, unhinged commentary on pre-millennial angst and an uncertain future ahead.
Every time I listen to it, I find new things to love about ‘O.K Computer’ – not bad for an album I’ve been listening to for some 20 years now. It is universally acclaimed by listeners and critics alike, and with good reason.
2. Kid A (2000)
You’ve probably noticed ‘Kid A’ pop up in nearly every other album review here. And there’s a reason for that. The genre-shattering collection of electronic avenues was a new benchmark for the band; a complete gearshift from everything they had done before, and a springboard to everything that they would do afterwards. In essence, it was the band pressing the reset button.
They take incredible risks in reinventing themselves from the ground up; from the art-rockers of the 1990’s into completely untrod ground at the turn of the millennium. They move from being essentially a ‘songs’ band to being a band that creates a completely new and alien landscape with each album they bring out. It was the sort of bravery and scope that hadn’t been attempted by a mainstream band since the days of Pink Floyd nearly 30 years previously. ‘Kid A’ manages to be both a complete departure for the band, and, as luck would have it, a new lease of life that would give them plenty to elaborate on and explore further down the line.
An essential album for any music fan and a barometer for any band on what can be achieved with an album. Also, one of the most psychedelic and imaginative sounds of the ’00’s or since.
1.A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
I realise ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is a strange choice for my favourite Radiohead album. It has little of what made ‘Kid A’ or ‘O.K Computer’ such groundbreaking and iconic albums. It hasn’t aged enough to have the added weight of nostalgia that elevates ‘Pablo Honey’ or ‘The Bends’ high on this list.
For me, the reason ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is my favourite Radiohead album is the overall ‘feeling’ it gives me; the place it takes me, the healing it gives me. Radiohead are one of those bands who I’ve always listened to at the most difficult times in life. From teenage breakups to adult breakdowns, their songs have always helped me to understand and process my deepest feelings and fears. And ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is no exception; connecting with me at a time when I really needed it.
It’s probably the most ‘gentle’ of Radiohead’s albums, and yet it never bores of frustrates you. It challenges and lures you in with it’s layers of dream-like instrumentation; whilst taking you off to the most ethereal and beautiful places inside your head. In short, it touches the parts other albums can’t reach, and has renewed my faith and love for this band who have fascinated me for nearly 25 years.
Well, that’s it. That was difficult, but a nice kind of difficult! I’ve enjoyed revisiting Radiohead’s incredible back-catalogue, and I look forward to seeing what they will do next. With this band, you can never be sure; and that’s what makes them so exciting!
Let me know your thoughts, comments and favourite Radiohead songs/albums below, and thank you for reading!