This week's countdown features a list of my ten favorite songs by my all-time favorite band, Radiohead. With such a large discography and so many varying musical styles, the final shortlist was very eclectic. Let's dive in.
10. "The Bends" - The Bends (1995)
The title track off Radiohead's second album, which many see as their first truly fantastic output, "The Bends" is a rip-roaring rocker that's just weird enough to let you know this band is special. Thom Yorke's stammered vocals gel nicely with Jonny Greenwood's arena-sized guitar riff. "Where do we go from here?" asks Yorke earnestly. Little did he know that where Radiohead would "go" would soon be straight up to the top of the indie world. The whole song is big, and remains one of the band's best straightforward rock tracks.
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9. "A Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll)" - Hail to the Thief (2003)
"A Wolf at the Door" is a frightening ending to a disturbingly dystopian album. Hail to the Thief draws themes (and even a song title) from Orwell's 1984, discussing issues like political corruption and suppression of the public voice. Opening with a deliberate, haunting riff, the album's final track creeps you out in many ways, whether it's Yorke's desperate howl during the chorus, Phil Selway's pounding drum pattern, or even the accompanying fan-made video (shown above). Yorke's pseudo-rap during the verses contains some his darkest and most fascinating lyrics, "don't look in the mirror at the face you don't recognize" and " "take with the love it's given, take it with a pinch of salt, take it to the tax man" among them. The singer's delivery throughout is what really makes the song work, as these quick verses could have easily collapsed in a messy heap were it not for Yorke's expertise. Supremely scary, "A Wolf at the Door" is a true Radiohead classic.
8. "Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)" - Hail to the Thief (2003)
Warning: Graphic Content. (This fan-made video is also very anti-war, so if that sort of thing may offend you, you may not want to watch.)
Remember how I said Orwellian ideas were ever-present on Hail to the Thief? Well, "Sit Down. Stand Up." is a perfect example of this. Supposedly written specifically about the Rwandan genocide, this electronic track's lyrics could apply to any similar sort of situation. Yorke sings of one group of people strictly controlling another, as the title displays with its curt, contradictory, trivial commands. "We can wipe you out at any time," sings a sinister Yorke. The ominous electro pulse is soon joined by an equally freaky echoed piano part. As everything builds to a climax, an amazingly fast snare roll introduces the chaos into the song. A panicked synth piece, furiously fast-paced and jazzy drum beat, and Yorke's repeated cries of "the raindrops" (or, possibly, "the reign drops') carry the song out in what some see as a rush of rebellion from the group suppressed in the song's first half. The track contains almost no acoustic instrumentation, but Radiohead, like many other great artists, use electronic instruments not as a crutch but as an enhancement.
7. "The Daily Mail" - The Daily Mail/Staircase (Single, 2011)
This piano band is the most recent track to appear on this list, and justifiably so. Debuting on the band's adored live DVD From the Basement, the song appears to be tender but in actuality is a scathing criticism of media sensationalism. Thom Yorke calls out newspapers (such as the one the song's named for) who exaggerate stories to increase readership without considering the consequences of publishing false news in order to scare people into a panicked frenzy. "The lunatics have taken over the asylum," he sings, later adding, "Where's the truth? What's the use?" Once the horns and drums come into play, the undertones from earlier on in the track become more prominent and obvious, and it makes for one great piece of music.
6. "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" - The Bends (1995)
Often recognized as Radiohead's "saddest song ever," the gloomy "Street Spirit" closes out a spirited record on a darker note. The key to this song is, like many Radiohead tracks, the atmosphere. Greenwood's unrelenting guitar riff meets Yorke's cynical yet still beautiful shouts somewhere between depression and chaos. Though not an uplifting track by any means, "Street Spirit" is still beloved by fans and critics alike for its ability to capture beauty in darkness.
5. "Just" - The Bends (1995)
Now, for a slightly more upbeat track, "Just" picks up the #5 position. The guitars thrive here, with ear-splitting layers of both acoustic and electric guitar racing to the end of the song. Thrown in a nice solo, Colin Greenwood's throbbing bass line, fantastic drumming, and Yorke's always-awesome vocal performance, and you have yourself a very, very good Radiohead song.
4. "All I Need" - In Rainbows (2007)
The sole representative from 2007's masterpiece In Rainbows, "All I Need" is a tract you can't fully experience without a set of good headphones or possibly a high-end stereo system. The production is key here, from the morphed bass-like rumble to the atmospheric noise, and especially the cascading drums and piano during the breakout. It's pretty clear that the group is aiming for pure beauty, and they succeed with flying colors. Though the vocals and lyrics are stellar per usual, the instrumentation is what lifts this song into the stratosphere. Everything gradually builds, with more different pieces than you can count on your hands somehow managing to create an immense feeling of spaciousness and subtlety. The eruption that takes place during the final minute is golden. You don't have to be a Radiohead fan to love "All I Need," you simply need to be a music fan.
3. "Paranoid Android" - OK Computer (1997)
It's about time the album that launched Radiohead into legendary status made an appearance on a list of the group's ten best songs. "Paranoid Android" is the most recognized song from 1997's OK Computer, with it's "Bohemian Rhapsody"-esque style of dramatically changing sections. The jumpy first part contains brilliant acoustic guitar work, while the sinister second section has a more intimidating implementation of the instrument. Greenwood unleashes a blazing, disjointed solo twice, with the slow "rain down" section sandwiched in-between. The song shifts gears substantially throughout, and does so simultaneously smoothly and uncomfortably. The song is the most universally loved among Radiohead fans as it lands at #3 on this countdown.
2. "Let Down" - OK Computer (1997)
My favorite track from my favorite album (thought not quite my favorite Radiohead song) is the stellar, calming, effervescent "Let Down." A guitar riff pretty enough to be a lullaby helps Thom Yorke's equally stunning singing in generating a pristine piece of music. A buoyant drum beat doesn't hurt, either, nor do the shimmering vocal harmonies. The major "wow" moment of the song is when, after the instrumental break, Yorke returns with three outstanding lines of "you know where you are." It's as if everything the narrator of the song has wanted to say can be expressed in this one, simple sentence, and Yorke delivers in such a way that you can only stand back in awe of it. "Let Down" would certainly be my favorite composition by Radiohead if weren't for the next track on this list.
1. "2+2=5 (The Lukewarm)" - Hail to the Thief (2003)
It has the expected near-perfect performance from Thom Yorke. It has fantastically intelligent, terrifying Orwellian lyrics. Throw in amazing musical composition, a varied song structure, stellar guitar & drum work, and a good deal of weirdness, and it's obvious that "2+2=5" encapsulates so many of Radiohead's aspects of greatness, it just had to be #1. That's not the only reason, though, as Hail to the Thief's opener also sounds ridiculously good. The way everything comes together is so well done, it can only be the work of true masters of their craft. "You can scream and you can shout," Yorke allows, before warning, "there is no way out." He later jumps into a cry of "you have not been paying attention" once the drums explode and the guitars crank it up to eleven. It, like other Hail to the Thief songs mentioned above, has an extremely ominous feel. All of this combines to make what I feel is Radiohead's most complete song, which earns it my pick for #1.
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