Radiohead launched onto the scene in 1992 with their smash "Creep." Because the song so captured its angst-ridden era, it risked cementing the band as one-hit wonders. Thankfully, this U.K. quintet were just getting started. Picking their all-time best songs is a tricky endeavor -- "Creep" didn't even make the cut -- but these are the tunes that most define their legacy as one of alternative rock's most influential and inspiring bands.
Apparently, Radiohead -- or just frontman Thom Yorke -- weren't that thrilled that this single from The Bends became such a big hit. "High and Dry" may be "just" a pop song, but it's a killer pop song -- one with a lot of smarts and feeling to it. And the song's examination of souls coming apart would help set the stage for the ennui they'd explore on future albums.
If the world is collapsing around our ears, why not make a party out of it? On "Idioteque," Radiohead do their version of a dance song, and unsurprisingly it's jittery and uncomfortable, the drum track detonating on each beat. Singing about an ice age that's on its way, Yorke paints a grim portrait of mass hysteria that's only slightly lightened by his heavenly vocals.
On its surface, "Fake Plastic Trees" is one of the simplest, almost cliched, songs in the Radiohead canon. The narrator laments the fake, disposable nature of everyday life, hoping to find one, true love out there in the world. And yet the song's beauty transcends any banality, the guitars echoing the singer's despondency.
Radiohead are often praised for their experimental nature, but they don't get nearly enough credit for their rhythmic inventiveness. "There There" is a fine example of this, its foreboding drums crafting a paranoid landscape that threatens to envelop the listener. "Just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there," Yorke intones, which ought to sound reassuring but, in the context of this brilliantly moody tune, sure doesn't.
A song inspired by the band's wish for what they called the "karma police" to come and right certain wrongs, this OK Computer cut, like much of the album, deals with alienation and pent-up frustration. The narrator longs for a time when someone will take away the nuisances in his life, but the music's beautiful blur almost makes you wonder if his misery is less about others and more about himself.
Expectations were high for the follow-up to the acclaimed OK Computer. In response, Radiohead released the less rock-centric Kid A, kicking off the album with this chilly, gorgeous song that might be considered the articulation of a nervous breakdown, except this is one of the calmest panic attacks ever. Over icy keyboards, Yorke's voice is nearly inhuman as he keeps repeating "everything in its right place," which comes across as a plea to hold onto one's own mental stability at a time when everything is falling apart.
This underrated gem from OK Computer was declared by Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl to be the best song of 1997. Of course, "Let Down" has its share of competition on that great album, but this is definitely the peak of the band's early guitar-rock anthems, eloquently complementing the lyrics' search for a purpose amidst the futility of modern life.
What might the afterlife look like? In "Pyramid Song," Radiohead imagine it as a river filled with angels leading you to Heaven. "There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt," Yorke sings over ghostly piano chords and strings, but it's the utter calmness of the track that makes it so unnerving. They go gently into that good night, but the song's spooky overtones will haunt you.
In Rainbows focused on quieter, warmer songs, but "House of Cards" demonstrated that Radiohead were far from going soft. Underneath the romantic melody, the song details what sounds like an illicit affair and some spouse-swapping. Over the years, Yorke hasn't written a lot of love songs. It's telling that when he does, it comes out in a dark, seductive tone like this.
Rock 'n' roll has long been about rebellion and upsetting the status quo. But for this OK Computer masterwork, Yorke sings in the voice of a man who simply wants to be left alone. "No Surprises" makes the case that the daily irritations -- such as "a job that slowly kills you" -- must be tolerated to be part of the human race. What we need is the strength to persevere and to make peace with our own limitations. It's impossible to know whether "No Surprises" is meant to be taken literally or as satire, but the brilliance of this song is that, really, it works just as well either way.