Ranked: Radiohead Albums from
Worst to Best
Spurred by the surprise release of a new album, we got a Radiohead die-hard to revisit the band's entire output.
Without warning, Radiohead sprung a new album on the world last week. Given the intricacy of their music and the obsessiveness it tends to provoke, we decided against ranking their work ourselves, instead handing the job to Radiohead die-hard Sean Owen, of the blog Radiohead At Ease. Here are his rankings.
8. Pablo Honey (1993)
While there is debate about what Radiohead's true masterpiece is, there is basically unanimous agreement that the band's debut, Pablo Honey, is their low point. Heavily indebted to American alternative guitar rock, the sound of Pablo Honey is one the band would not work in for very long. The album did spawn their biggest worldwide hit in "Creep," a song they still occasionally play live in concert. But aside from "Creep," the bombastic closer "Blow Out," and the delicate "Lurgee," there's little to bring listeners back to Pablo Honey. The album is like that first girl- or boyfriend you had in high school: you appreciated them at the time, but ultimately you were meant for better things.
7. Hail To The Thief (2003)
After a short run of gigs in Spain and Portugal in the summer of 2002, Radiohead decamped to Los Angeles with their producer Nigel Godrich in an attempt to quickly record the many of the songs played on the tour. The result was an album that featured a more guitar-based sound than the previous two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, but also a less focused album overall. The band had a wealth of material to choose from when constructing Hail To The Thief, and it shows in a slightly bloated tracklist. That said, the album does contain an undisputed Radiohead classic in "There There" and some of their more accomplished experimental work in "The Gloaming." Personally, I'm also a big fan of its aggressive closing song, "A Wolf At The Door." But the lack of a cohesive mood means Hail To The Thief is seldom mentioned when discussing Radiohead's best work.
Listen: There, There
6. The King Of Limbs (2011)
It's really too early to tell where The King Of Limbs will fit in the Radiohead catalog, but for now it seems to fall somewhere in the middle. While it's Radiohead's briefest record in length and number of songs, The King Of Limbs is not short on creativity. The opener, "Bloom," shows off the ever increasing skill and precision of Radiohead's rhythm section, while "Feral"'s frantic beats and heavily treated "vocals" show the growing influence of dubstep on the group. The back half of the album is actually quite different and, in "Codex" and "Give Up The Ghost," features some of the prettiest and most delicate music Radiohead has yet recorded. An odd little record.
5. Amnesiac (2001)
Because it was recorded almost entirely during the same lengthy, contentious sessions that resulted in Kid A, Amnesiac is often unfairly cast aside as a "leftovers" record. But when examined on its own merits, Amnesiac is a tremendous blend of Radiohead's major influences around the turn of the millennium: electronic music, ambient music, and jazz. The album's claustrophobic mood, heightened by songs such as "I Might Be Wrong" and "Like Spinning Plates," gives it a slightly menacing feel. Even the closing "Life In A Glasshouse," with its funereal jazz horns, refuses to let the listener escape easily. Probably Radiohead's most underrated and under-appreciated album.
Listen: I Might Be Wrong
4. The Bends (1995)
It's easy to understand why there are many people who long for the Radiohead of 1995: here was an exhilarating guitar band. Unlike the straight-ahead guitar sounds of Pablo Honey, on The Bends, the band was able to use the studio in more inventive ways, giving its music the atmosphere it would be known for going forward. If The Bends is a reference to the band coming up too quickly after the success of "Creep," then things certainly seemed difficult for Thom Yorke; images of a body in distress permeate the record in songs like "Bones," "My Iron Lung," and "Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was." Yet the album doesn't wallow. The woozy yet powerful "Planet Telex" is Radiohead's most powerful opening salvo while the closing "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" remains one of the band's very finest songs. The Bends also ends with one of the greatest and simplest pieces of advice ever given out by a rock band: "Immerse your soul in love."
Listen: Street Spirit (Fade Out)
3. In Rainbows (2007)
While the pay-what-you-want pricing scheme of In Rainbows grabbed all the early headlines, what's left now is one of Radiohead's true classic albums. Recorded over a lengthy period from 2005 to 2007, In Rainbows seamlessly melded the band's experimental side with their impeccable songwriting. Gone was the excess baggage of Hail To The Thief; this time around, every song played a part and every song had its place. As a result, In Rainbows manages to appeal to many different facets of Radiohead's fan-base: the three-pronged guitar assaults of "Bodysnatchers" and "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" appease one crowd, while the glitchy electro opener, "15 Step," appeals to another. And "Reckoner?" Well, it appeals to everyone, as it's one of the greatest songs the band has yet released. In Rainbows is a triumphant record.
2. Kid A (2000)
When Kid A appeared in October 2000, there was no single and no video to introduce the album to the masses. What we got instead was a record that seemed to arrive out of nothing, beamed in from some distant locale without any context or distraction. The opening notes of "Everything In Its Right Place," played on an electric piano, heralded a very different Radiohead than the band we got to know in the '90s. Gone were the big guitars and epic choruses. In their place were ambient soundscapes ("Treefingers"), nervy electronica ("Idioteque"), and bass-heavy grooves ("The National Anthem"). Jonny Greenwood, the band's resident guitar genius, brought an ondes Martenot (an obscure early electronic instrument) into the studio, and its eerie wails give songs like "How To Disappear Completely" an otherworldly feel. While many originally felt that Kid A was a difficult record to love, over time it has grown to be considered perhaps the band's finest album and a perfect soundtrack for the new millennium.
Listen: Everything In Its Right Place
1. OK Computer (1997)
There's not much to be said about OK Computer that hasn't been said many, many times before. It is quite simply one of the greatest albums ever recorded, and its massive influence on many artists cannot be ignored. Shedding the verse/chorus/verse structure of much of The Bends, OK Computer features more ambitious songwriting and an increasing comfort in the recording studio (which this time around happened to be an old English manor in the Bath countryside). The chopped beats of "Airbag," which come crashing out of the speakers to open the record, signaled Radiohead's love of electronic music for the first time. While the big singles, "Paranoid Android" and "Karma Police," garner a lot of the attention, the real strength of OK Computer is in less celebrated places, like the direct storytelling of "Exit Music (for a film)" and the celestial beauty of "Let Down," the final minute and half of which is my favorite Radiohead moment ever. And sometimes I think "Lucky," coming toward the end of the album, is Radiohead's most perfect song. When OK Computer ends on that note-perfect "ting" of a triangle, it's hard to dispute the brilliance of the album and the band.