English band Radiohead formed in 1985, becoming one of the leaders of the developing alt-rock scene of the following decade. They have remained highly influential in the new millennium, marked by their uniquely complex instrumental backing tracks and unusual lyrical inspiration.
These songs have marked the biggest successes of their career from the 90s to today.
1. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Of Radiohead’s discography, 2007’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, which appears on In Rainbows, might be the most lyrically experimental. The words are cloaked in metaphor, alternately appearing to be about suicidal ideation, desire, purpose, and failure.
This is all elaborately presented in a metaphor of the ocean, into which the narrator expects to sink and where weird fishes will eat him. Meanwhile, the frantic arpeggios underline the narrator’s mental anguish.
Scatterbrain is an underappreciated track from Radiohead’s 2003 album, Hail To The Thief. The song’s genius comes from its marriage of message to music, featuring metaphors that compare the chaos of the mind to the wildness of strong winds blowing newspapers through the forest.
This same wildness is reflected in the discordant, unresolved music that is both intriguing and frustrating simultaneously. It is one of the early tracks that prove Radiohead’s musical creativity in communicating unique emotions.
3. Harry Patch (In Memory Of)
Released in 2009, Harry Patch (In Memory Of) is a tribute to the last living veteran of World War I. Thom Yorke was inspired by an interview he saw with Patch in 2005, which included vivid descriptions of his experiences in the trenches.
He composed a song that was fit for a film score, featuring heavy orchestral accompaniment and a somber intonation. Patch passed away in 2009 at the age of 111; his family later expressed gratefulness to Radiohead for the tribute.
4. Kid A
Kid A is the title track of Radiohead’s fourth album, released in 2000. The song is marked by its strange instrumentals that seem almost otherworldly, particularly due to the lack of Radiohead’s signature guitar accompaniment.
But it is the lyrics that are most intriguing, marked by heavy distortion and randomness, that prompt more questions than answers (and were said to be chosen by Yorke pulling lines out of a hat at random, a method he would use for later songs as well).
5. Paranoid Android
Ask anyone to name their top twenty Radiohead songs, and Paranoid Android will likely be one of them. Released in 1997, the song follows a curious pattern of four suites, giving it the impression of a rock opera.
The original version was more than 14 minutes long and included such ridiculous lyrics that the band often had difficulty playing it. Its final cut is also wickedly witty, but it’s the technically complex music that jumps out at listeners just as much as the words.
6. Like Spinning Plates
Radiohead is known for finding inspiration in strange and unexpected places, and Like Spinning Plates is the perfect example. The concept for the 2001 song arose after Thom Yorke listened to their song, I Will, backward.
He took the instrumental and reversed it in a hauntingly beautiful track about the futility of war, pointedly aimed at world leaders in the wake of the September 11 attacks; Radiohead continued to be vocal critics of the War in Iraq throughout the 2000s.
7. 2 + 2 = 5
Radiohead was never shy about their criticism of the Iraq War, throwing jibes at both Tony Blair and George W. Bush.
2 + 2 = 5 was Thom Yorke’s rallying cry against mass media manipulation, mainly when it came to war propaganda and redefining the language around enhanced interrogation techniques.
The title is a nod to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with other literary references scattered throughout. Poor journalism and sensationalism are regular themes in Yorke’s songs.
8. Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Street Spirit (Fade Out) was featured on Radiohead’s second album, The Bends. Though it’s now several decades old, it remains a fixture of their early career and is still played at their concerts. The song is a heartbreaking commentary on the inescapability of capitalism; it is noticeably gloomier than most of their discography, which usually incorporates some element of hope or resolution. In Street Spirit, the sadness simply goes on and on, a deliberate choice to leave listeners dwelling on the song.
Videotape was featured on Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows, which is fused with optimism throughout. This track is the exception, a negative commentary on death, government surveillance, loneliness, and a lack of privacy.
Videotape is written as a reflection from a person pondering the legacy they will leave when they die, then realizing that whatever videotape they leave behind will eventually become outdated and irrelevant. It’s a gloomily existential question.
10. Fake Plastic Trees
Radiohead released Fake Plastic Trees on their second album, released in 1995. The chintzy pop track is a sarcastic ode to fakeness, taking shots at plastic surgery, fake house plants, and insincerity.
Thom Yorke has said that the song was the result of both an emotional breakdown and a running joke. It wasn’t received well by some critics, but after being featured in the film Clueless, it introduced American audiences to Radiohead; it is now considered one of the band’s best songs.
11. Exit Music (For a Film)
In some cases, Radiohead’s lyrics are complex and metaphorical, but in the case of Exit Music (For a Film), the title is entirely literal. The song was written for the end credits of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation Romeo + Juliet.
A gentle but heartrending track, it borrows phrases and ideas from Shakespeare’s story and follows them to their tragic conclusion in a stunning orchestral finale. Truly the perfect end to a tantalizing film.
12. Burn The Witch
Burn The Witch wasn’t released in its final form until 2016, but it was a long time in coming. Radiohead began working on the track as early as 2000, intending to include it on their fourth studio album, Kid A.
The song took well over a decade to flesh out, featuring the kind of layered, complex instrumental backing that Radiohead seems to love. Burn The Witch was widely considered one of the best songs of 2016, making the long workshopping all worth it.
Radiohead knows how to explore complex concepts both lyrically and musically. The 2016 track Daydreaming isn’t just a gentle piano ballad—it is layered over mistuned string tracks and slowed to increase pitch warping.
The lyrics, meanwhile, discuss topics of loss and perseverance, with references to Plato’s cave. Some fans also think it was affected by the breakdown of Thom Yorke’s long-term relationship with Rachel Owen.
14. Let Down
Let Down was initially set to be included on OK Computer, but the band ultimately opted for Paranoid Android and Karma Police instead. This was a good move, as the two tracks were primarily responsible for them becoming widely popular.
However, it also meant that Let Down had been somewhat forgotten in the shadow of other singles released simultaneously. The song is about true and false emotions and learning to live with your feelings.
Reckoner took a long time to develop, first appearing at live shows in 2001 under the title, Being Pulled Apart By Horses. The song wouldn’t be released in digital form until the 2008 album In Rainbows, by which time it was a much more fleshed-out version. The extra time resulted in a song that stands out from the album, a percussion-heavy but lovely piece called one of the decade’s best songs.
16. Motion Picture Soundtrack
The exact meaning of this song is disputed, but many believe it to have suicidal overtones. Singer Thom Yorke has denied this, saying that the song may contain references to someone’s death but that suicide was being read into it.
Radiohead began writing it in 1987 but first performed it in 1996. By the time it made it to Kid A, it had changed significantly but remained one of the most poignant songs of Radiohead’s discography.
17. Morning Bell
Morning Bell was first recorded into a mini-disc player. When the player was zapped in a lightning storm, Thom Yorke forgot about it. He woke up one more about five months later after a long flight and remembered the song. The band recorded two versions, one appearing on Kid A and the other on Amnesiac. Though it was typical for Radiohead to rerecord songs, Yorke said it felt especially fitting because a recurring dream partly inspired it.
18. Blow Out
Blow Out is guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s favorite song on the album Pablo Honey. The song was inspired by Thom Yorke’s self-expectations and the anxieties they caused; he said it is one of his most vulnerable and personal songs. Radiohead played Blow Out for many years as their last set at live performances. The lyrics make many references to Greek mythology, including the stories of Achilles and Medusa.
19. Knives Out
Thom Yorke describes Knives Out as an expression of feelings requiring “violent vocabulary.” The song took 373 days to record because the band kept reworking it before settling on the original composition. Guitarist Ed O’Brien said The Smiths inspired the cascading guitar parts featured in the song. The song involved many inspirations, including a businessman leaving his wife and family or staring at someone knowing they’re going to die, an unusually morbid thought experiment for the band.
20. Everything In Its Right Place
Everything In Its Right Place was featured as the opening track of Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. The song features heavy use of synthesizers, moving away from their specific preference for guitar or piano.
This move toward electronica was directly related to Yorke’s frustration with rock music following the success of OK Computer. It has become one of Radiohead’s most enduring songs, partly because of its relatable lyrics dealing with themes of isolation and depression.
21. Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Jigsaw Falling Into Place was the lead single of the 2008 album In Rainbows, which showed Radiohead moving in a new direction in terms of sound. In the brighter, pop rock sound of In Rainbows, Jigsaw Falling Into Place imitated the same sound with a much darker story to tell. It was inspired by the wildness of drunken weekend nights in London, with each person having their own unique experience in an alcoholic haze.
22. Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box
Typical, in some ways, of their early sound, 2001’s Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box has a robotic, distinctly inhuman quality.
Yorke’s vocals are distorted (intentionally) almost beyond understanding, while metallic percussion clangs in the background. The song seems to be a desperate cry from the endless crowds of humankind, especially those stuck in a pointless job or—to quote Yorke himself, addressing the audience before a live performance—stuck in traffic.
23. Subterranean Homesick Alien
You have to give it to Radiohead—they know how to construct a song that explores concepts almost unexplored in the music industry.
In Subterranean Homesick Alien, Yorke plays the part of a man watching aliens as they, in turn, watch humankind. The song ultimately raises the question: Who is really the alien, the watcher, and who is living in isolation? The delightfully weird philosophical exercise plays out to perfection over an elaborate melody.
Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A showed the band entering an experimental phase marked by an exploration into electronic music. It was a fitting style for Idioteque, the eighth track of the album.
The song warns about the overtaking of technology, relating to an end-of-the-world event, including global warming and nuclear warfare. In typical Radiohead fashion, the music was composed by choosing a single chord progression from a 50-minute recording of guitar improvisation.
25. Climbing Up The Walls
For a band that literally has a song called Creep, Radiohead really got, well, creepy, with their 1997 single Climbing Up The Walls. Written from the perspective of a stalker, the song layers 16 distinct violin tracks on top of one another in a backing track that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
The speaker describes himself as someone that the object of his affection knows. What she doesn’t know, however, is that he’s in her house.
Every list of Radiohead songs needs to include Creep, despite the claims that Radiohead themselves despite this song. The 1992 hit has become one of the band’s signature songs, earning comparisons to other grunge-infused anthems such as Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The song is about a man stalking a woman as he feels too anxious to approach her directly. It’s a nervewracking subject, but one that Thom Yorke sings about with the electric anguish that has made Creep a hit since its beginning; later, he resented its success, which inspired other songs such as My Iron Lung.
It seems as though Radiohead rarely finds inspiration in normal places, seeking it instead in strange noises, phrases, or concepts. The 1997 track Lucky was inspired by an unusual screeching sound produced by a guitar during a sound check.
According to Thom Yorke, the result was a song that would shape the overall sound of the album OK Computer. Lucky touches on themes of war (particularly the Bosnian Conflict of the 1990s) and tells the story of a plane crash.
28. The Daily Mail
Radiohead released The Daily Mail in 2011, but it had been in production for roughly six years at that point. The song was a sarcastic, piano-fueled criticism of the Daily Mail, a British tabloid.
As it develops, it turns from a ballad into a furious tirade against false news reporting and indiscriminate media consumption. Radiohead has never been shy about criticizing consumerism, and in The Daily Mail, they release all holds in the most aggressive rock ballad of their career.
29. Sail To The Moon
Thom Yorke wrote Sail To The Moon as an ode to his son. He sings to his son that he could grow up to be president but implies that he won’t because he knows right from wrong. The song’s alternate title is Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky. Radiohead performed the song for about a year before releasing it, performing it live for the first time in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2002. Yorke sings a fantasy that his son could escape by sailing to the moon, escaping the world’s evils.
Next: Songs about sailing
30. Karma Police
Karma Police is a 1997 song about the impossibility of escaping fate. Radiohead members would warn each other about “karma police” coming for them if they did wrong.
Thom Yorke described it as a song dedicated to anyone working for a big firm, describing it as a song against bosses. It reflects on “karma police” coming for those who behaved wickedly, tying in with Radiohead’s classic criticisms of capitalism and mindless work.
31. There, There
There, There is a surprisingly nuanced song, one that might catch you off guard as you listen. In some ways, it may seem that the lyrics are simply a dismissal of fears as he says, “Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” But as the song continues, driven by the perpetual beat of tom-toms throughout, you begin to wonder if maybe there is more truth to those fears than not. Thom Yorke has said that he thinks There, There is the greatest work Radiohead has ever done.
Released in 1995, Just came from the era of Radiohead struggling to the line between Britpop and grunge. But, like most of the band’s songs, its inspiration came from multiple, unusual sources. On the surface, Just is a criticism of modern life in a busy, capitalist society, but it was also a diss track of an egotistical acquaintance and—strangest of all—a bet between band members to see how many chords they could stuff into a single song. However, the song was inspired, and it seems to work.
33. A Wolf At The Door
A Wolf At The Door was featured on Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail To The Thief. The album’s final track is a lesson in contradiction, combining a pleasant, upbeat melody with disconcerting lyrics. The goal was to leave listeners feeling uneasy, mainly due to Thom Yorke’s noted spoken-word performance. The title comes from a proverb referring to eking by just enough to keep yourself alive.
34. How To Disappear Completely
How do you deal with living in the spotlight as a world-famous musician? You teach yourself to pretend you can completely disappear. The 2000 song was inspired by R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, who told Thom Yorke about his own coping mechanisms for life on tour.
While How To Disappear Completely is now seen as a standout track on Kid A, people weren’t exactly impressed when it was first released. It was a stark contrast to much of Radiohead’s other music of the time, which featured stronger electronic elements.
35. Pyramid Song
Pyramid Song was performed for several years before the band recorded it for an album. The song was based on Charles Mingus’ jazz standard Freedom, with lyrical inspiration about Egyptian mythology of the afterlife, which Yorke learned about after seeing an Egyptian exhibit at a local museum.
While many of Radiohead’s songs from the same era heavily use electronic elements, Pyramid Song remains untreated. Yorke initially experimented with more elaborate instrumentalization but decided it was best suited to a simple acoustic arrangement.
Airbag is a song about a car crash, inspired in part by Yorke’s accident with his girlfriend in 1987. She suffered from whiplash while he emerged unscathed. Yorke felt that it inspired him to renew his outlook on life, even encouraging people to scream, “I’m alive!” after surviving such dangerous situations.
The airbag represents the illusion of safety since cars are dangerous no matter how much control we feel we have. Yorke’s fear of long-distance travel plays a role in many of his compositions.
37. Where I End And You Begin
Where I End and You Begin is a fairytale-inspired song that reflects personal and political anxieties. Yorke was inspired by a children’s story about a flock of chickens being lured into a fox’s den, a favorite of his childhood. Subtitled The Sky Is Falling In with references to Chicken Licken, Where I End and You Begin also contains nods to the story of Genesis, speaking from the perspective of God as He creates Adam and Eve.
Radiohead attempted to write a theme song for the newest James Bond movie in 2016; however, they reportedly submitted it past the deadline and were rejected on this basis.
Instead, producers opted for Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall. But the moody orchestral ballad stands proud, a standout in Radiohead’s discography. They released it on their own platform in 2016 and premiered it live in 2018; later, both Yorke and Jonny Greenwood expressed their happiness that the song didn’t make it into the film, as it gave them more time to rework it.
39. My Iron Lung
Radiohead has long been an outspoken voice against the evils of capitalism, all while watching its own success grow exponentially. They took a dig at their own superstardom in the wake of Creep with My Iron Lung.
The song was released in 1994 and compared success to being in an iron lung, which forces you to breathe as the machine controls you. On its surface, it’s an angsty emo pop song, but ultimately it is an anthem against art controlled by money, even as it applies to themselves.
40. No Surprises
Radiohead is known for putting their songs through many versions, but 1997’s No Surprises was an exception. The song was the first they recorded for their third album, OK Computer.
Though they tried to experiment with other versions, Thom Yorke said, they could never improve on their original. So they chose to keep it, proving that sometimes, you simply can’t improve on a classic. No Surprises also became known for its music video, featuring Yorke performing in a water-filled helmet.
41. All I Need
All I Need is a song of obsessed and unwelcome love that paints quite a visceral picture. Ith lyrics such as “I’m an animal trapped in your hot car,” it is easy to feel the narrator’s frantic and fruitless desperation. To mirror this, the band chose a cacophony of backing tracks that make a chaotic hum in the background. Strings, synthesizers, piano, and a host of percussion instruments all artfully communicate the noise in the narrator’s head.
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