Radiohead’s 30 best songs before ‘Burn The Witch’

Putting the Oxford group’s finest tracks in their right place.

We know what you’re thinking. The truth is, it took us so long to even decide how many songs to include in this list that we couldn’t possibly have pulled this stunt off in a day just to capitalise on the release of ‘Burn The Witch’, the reassuringly impressive first song from the band’s ninth album.

We’ve been incubating and arguing over the 30 greatest Radiohead songs for most of the year. It’s been a fool’s errand, obviously – reshuffling the back catalogue of one of rock’s great album acts feels barely short of treason for a true Radiohead stan, but some dark nerd impulse has continued to fuel the idea that we can pull off a quantitative analysis.

Putting this list together, we were reminded of everything we ever loved – and have more recently perhaps forgotten – about Radiohead. When they’re not being accused of miserablism by oafish jocks and your least amusing relatives, they’re often the target of sneering snobbery from know-alls who were apparently listening to Autechre while still in diapers. Ignore the haters – show us another band of the past two decades that has carved a permanent space in the karaoke book while introducing millions of wannabe guitar heroes to musique concrete, glitchy electronica and computer synthesis (and diverting so much wasted energy in the process).

As a kind of twisted thank you after almost 25 years of service, here are Radiohead’s 30 greatest songs – before ‘Burn The Witch’.

Best Radiohead Tracks - King Of Limbs

30. ‘Bloom’
(From King Of Limbs, XL, 2011)

Many hoped that Radiohead, reinvigorated by the propulsive In Rainbows, would enter the 2010s with a roar. Instead they opened their most elusive (and divisive) album, The King Of Limbs, with this exquisitely fragmented sigh. They hadn’t started an album on such a challenging note since Kid A, and yet a decade later, ‘Bloom’ added new depths to their sound.

Pianos whirl in endless spirals, guitars are broken into shards, and the only part that feels human is the percussion – which is played with the repetition of a drum machine anyway. And yet it was one of the band’s most striking compositions in ages, an impressionistic haze marked by jazz flourishes and Thom’s moaning falsettos. Looking back after five mostly silent years, it was the sound of Radiohead dismantling themselves and escaping into their own sound before disappearing completely. MB

Best Radiohead Tracks - OK Computer

29. ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’
(From OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997)

A Shakespearean tragedy, a teen suicide pact and an opening strum inspired by Johnny Cash, ‘Exit Music’ is a darkly theatrical masterpiece marked out by an eerie choir of MIDI voices and a line that cuts like a knife to the heart: “We hope that you choke.” Most of the song is carried along by acoustic guitar, but like so many other Radiohead tracks, it’s the fillers and flourishes that give it its personality and shine.

‘Exit Music’ was originally created to soundtrack the death scene in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. But while the anti-capitalist, anti-establishment Yorke might have taken issue in producing a song to order, he seems to have taken up this project with the zeal of a true misanthrope. The fact that ‘Exit Music’ is essentially a movie-death-ending-by-numbers leaves the mind open to wander through the potential films it could have soundtracked. Doom-laden episodes in our own personal narratives bubble up to the surface; show me a depressive Radiohead fan who hasn’t turned to this song for meaning or solace during a gloomy episode and I will show you a tragedy with a happy ending. ACW

Best Radiohead Tracks - Karma Police

28. ‘Karma Police’
(From OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997)

‘Karma Police’, in all of its sparity, works like a perfect circle: the punishable offenses (“he talks in maths / He buzzes like a fridge”) are so minuscule that the bare bones production works to bolster the inanity of its narrator’s complaints. When the song spirals out of itself, the music becomes even more narrative than the lyrics. The ringing white noise  the song ends on seems to embody how deeply one’s unrelenting neurosis can turn in on itself before the problem becomes bigger than yourself; you are stuck in the static and become what you hate. CL

Best Radiohead Tracks - Airbag / How Am I Driving?

27. ‘Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)’
(From Airbag / How Am I Driving?, Capitol, 1998)

Polyethylene is plastic, plastic is artificial, Thom Yorke is paranoid about the modern artificial world, and so goes the narrative. But does this track also give weight to the legend that Yorke once earned a crust flogging second-hand suits? “So sell your suit and tie and come and live with me / So sell your suit and tie / So sad you seem tired / So sell your sin inside,” he sings on this 1997 B-side to ‘Paranoid Android’. Alternatively, is he is lamenting the fact that the band have just sold out by signing to a major label?

A two-part symphony of sorts, ’Polyethylene’ treads familiar Radiohead ground with a swirling organ glaze that bridges the gap between plaintive idyll and guitar-powered berserkathon. But the loud outweighs the soft to such an extent that ‘Polyethylene’ juts out like a blustering Bends-shaped rock in a sea of synthesised OK Computer waves; it’s hard to imagine where it would have sat among the perfectly sequenced tracks of the band’s third album. The soft/loud, sad/angry dichotomy is too anomalous and the lyrics – despite tapping into Yorke’s well-documented paranoia – are chronologically out of step with OK Computer’s forward-looking expedition. ‘Polyethylene’ roams the liminal, minimal fields of Radiohead’s non-album territory like a beautiful black sheep. ACW

Best Radiohead Tracks - The Bends

26. ‘The Bends’
(From The Bends, Parlophone, 1995)

“Where do we go from here?” asks Thom at the beginning of the title track of Radiohead’s second album. The complete shift away from the grunge influence of Pablo Honey wouldn’t happen until OK Computer, but the opening lines of ‘The Bends’ imply that the band was at least doing a lot of soul-searching about where to go after the success of ‘Creep’, a track they distanced themselves from in the years that followed.

Radiohead never belonged to any particular scene, but with the release of The Bends in 1994, the difference between them and their fellow UK guitar bands was palpable: Oasis sang about wanting to ‘Live Forever’ and being a ‘Rock & Roll Star’, while Thom’s line “I wish it was the Sixties, I wish I could be happy” felt like a sarcastic dig at his peers’ obsession with another era.

The angst of ‘The Bends’ isn’t the teen insularity of ‘Creep’. Jonny’s soaring guitar is as anthemic as on ‘High and Dry, ‘Just’ and ‘Street Spirit’, but it’s here that Radiohead started to look at the wider world, invoking images of the CIA and the military gone rogue. The band wouldn’t master weaving political themes into their lyrics until a few years later, but they were already light years beyond their Britpop cousins. SW

Best Radiohead songs - Spectre

25. ‘Spectre’

The Bond theme that never was, ‘Spectre’ is thankfully so much more than the overegged string-quartet-rock you might fear from such an old-fashioned commission. The quease-inducing strings gather and swoop like a flock of panicked birds, clearly stamped with Jonny’s increasing proficiency as a film composer. Recalling the Bernard Herrmann-esque chills of his There Will Be Blood score, the million-dollar melodrama of the orchestration is in almost absurd contrast to Thom’s small voice, free-floating and lost, like the ghost of the title. Too much even for Daniel Craig’s Bond, clearly – the film’s producers turned to Sam Smith to provide a more fitting theme for the tired and flaccid latest episode in the franchise. CR

Best Radiohead Tracks - Amnesiac

24. ‘You And Whose Army?’
(From Amnesiac, Parlophone, 2001)

Rappers have notoriously picked another enormous British band to list as their favorite, but ‘You and Whose Army?’ is far more in line with the ethos of the rap than anything Coldplay has ever done. The song is just as menacing, for instance, but it’s the calmness that makes it. Yorke’s “come on, come on” yearning punches like when someone tells you “I’m not mad, just disappointed.” You’re supposed to put your superiority in a massive, shiny box, but instead, with just a piano and an upright bass, Radiohead sneer in the direction of everyone else with simplicity – yet so much fury. And when the band finally comes in and Yorke coos, “you’re so sad,” it practically gives you whiplash – did a piano ballad just take everyone to task? CL

Best Radiohead Tracks - Kid A

23. ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’
(From Kid A, Parlophone, 2000)

The closing track on Kid A is really the only moment on that sonic tundra you could describe as warm, yet it’s the kind of warmth that comes with hypothermia. The organ drones glow while creaks in the recording remind you this was an album made my human beings, but it offers no resolution from anxiety, as Thom’s lyrics make clear — only escape. The vocal begins in a suicidal blur of wine and sleeping pills before drifting into some of the album’s most desperate pleas and disturbing images: “Beautiful angel / Pulled apart at birth / Limbless and helpless / I can’t even recognize you”.

The song sinks into fantasy as harps dance and bloom like an ascension to heaven, and after that comes the second half, which is almost entirely silent save for a brief synthesizer gasp rushing back from the void, making for possibly the only “hidden track after silence” that actually improves an album. On one of the most apocalyptic albums of all time, Radiohead show us a light at the end of the tunnel. MB

Best Radiohead Tracks - Kid A

22. ‘Optimistic’
(From Kid A, Parlophone, 2000)

Kid A’s one concession to rawk, ‘Optimistic’ opens the second half of the album in a racket of distorted, down-tuned guitars, thumping toms and ghostly, sweeping voices; an almost bluesy rumble that shows how deftly the band can make a guitar sound like anything but. A lyrical cut-up that’s a joy to recite (“This one went to market, this one just came out of the swamp”), ‘Optimistic”s gloom-ridden groove ends on a flutter of drums from poor old Phil, who’s finally given a chance to swing his elbows about a bit on the band’s least drummy album. One for guitar tab enthusiasts everywhere. CR

Best Radiohead Tracks - In Rainbows

21. ‘15 Step’
(From In Rainbows, XL, 2007)

A common criticism of Radiohead from people who don’t understand Radiohead is that they’re “too depressing.” Exploring the misery of the human condition is a central part of what Radiohead do, but they’re also incredibly good at evoking joy when they want to. Album opener ‘15 Step’ is about as joyous as they get – it even includes a of a group of schoolchildren cheering.

The song’s closest point of comparison in the Radiohead catalogue is ‘Idioteque’, a track that sounds like an IDM panic attack; this time round it’s Phil doing the drumming, not a machine, but the dry snares and frantic hi-hats are as likely to slot into a DJ set as anything from the hit-and-miss remix project that accompanied 2011’s The King of Limbs. It should be bleak, but it’s complete euphoria.

‘15 Step’ is also a song about the the paralysing fear of death. In an interview prior to the release of In Rainbows, Thom said the album was about “the fucking panic of realising you’re going to die, and that any time soon [I could] possibly [have] a heart attack when I next go for a run.” “One by one / It comes to us all / It’s as soft as your pillow,” he sings around the cheering children and some of the most wistful guitar playing we’ve heard from the band. Their catalogue is full of these paradoxes, but ’15 Step’ is one of the best. SW

Best Radiohead Tracks - The Bends

20. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’
(From The Bends, Parlophone, 1995)

‘Fake Plastic Trees’ was America’s first taste of Radiohead’s post-‘Creep’ direction, and as the grungey track had been such a massive hit for the band, switching into a completely different mode no doubt gave their label cause for pause. They obviously did something right though – an acoustic version of the track was used in one of 1995’s biggest films, Clueless, which no doubt helped their transition.

It wasn’t a song that came easily by all accounts. Yorke struggled to contain his thoughts and finalize the composition; early versions were “pompous and bombastic” according to Ed O’Brien, apparently sounding something like Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’, if that’s even possible. It took a live performance by Jeff Buckley for Yorke to feel adequately equipped to record the song – after the show, he reportedly went into the studio and sang ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ twice before breaking down in tears. Cheery stuff, then. JPT

Best Radiohead tracks - Jigsaw Falling into Place

19. ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’
(From In Rainbows, XL, 2007)

In Rainbows is sometimes overlooked, seen as less adventurous than the band’s other albums. There’s no doubt that it’s one of their easiest listens, but it’s probably because being free of a recording contract led them to create what is actually their most concise and focused LP, combining the experimentation of Kid A with the universal songwriting appeal of The Bends far more successfully than its sprawling predecessor, Hail to the Thief.

‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, chosen as the album’s first single following its physical release, is the closest thing to a straight pop song they’d written since the mid ‘90s; possessing the same tightly wound energy as ‘Just’, the lyrics are all about Thom getting drunk (“As your bad day disappears / No longer wound up like a spring / Before you’ve had too much / Come back and focus again”). The song’s video, directed by comedian Adam Buxton, films their live performance through cameras attached to cycle helmets on their heads – it’s silly, it’s fun, and it’s the sound of Radiohead out to please nobody but themselves. SW

Best Radiohead Tracks - The Bends

18. ‘Planet Telex’
(From The Bends, Parlophone, 1995)

Written by Thom and Ed, ‘Planet Telex’ is The Bends’ communication breakdown lament, but also doubles as a kind of Lads Bible-ready ode to ‘avin it large, allegedly recorded after a heavy night drinking, with Yorke remaining horizontal for the duration of the recording. In terms of The Bends’ timeline, however, it’s more of an aperitif than a hangover, written before the band even began recording the rest of the album.

Sonically, the jittering intro waxes and wanes like a throbbing headache which refuses to let up. The lilting, widescreen guitar drifts in and out and promises some soothing respite before Yorke’s half-manipulated vocal cry of “you can force it but it will not come” stirs up some unease (and constipation-based jokes). Apparently this track was originally titled ‘Planet Xerox’ but had to be changed for copyright reasons, and with its keyboard-heavy instrumentation, it was certainly more forward-looking than the rest of the tracks on this Britpop-era guitar album. ACW

Best Radiohead Tracks - Kid A

17. ‘Kid A’
(From Kid A, Parlophone, 2000)

The title track of Kid A arrives just after the ice-water bath of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ and is the moment Radiohead make clear they’re not coming back to the surface for air. It’s carried by Aphex Twin-indebted drums and a fragile music box melody (supposedly played on a sequencer the band nicknamed “Kid A”) which twinkles agitatedly, like stars shot through a frayed modem connection.

The delicate arrangement provides the perfect foundation for Thom’s curious, never-more-distorted vocals. He has one of the most recognizable voices in music, but reduces himself here to a computerized moan, more alien than the Apple Macintosh SimpleText employed on ‘Fitter Happier’. It’s the song that likely inspired most of the claims of the band’s “career suicide”, even as Kid A rose to #1 in the album charts and critical worship. ‘Kid A’’s digitally choked whisper lays out Radiohead’s dominance with a crystal clarity: “We got heads on sticks, you got ventriloquists”. MB

Best Radiohead Tracks - Knives Out

16. ‘Like Spinning Plates’
(From Amnesiac, Parlophone, 2001)

A classic example of Radiohead pulling something unexpectedly gorgeous out of the debris of another project, the backwards-spun ballad ‘Like Spinning Plates’ is built from the scraps of a failed attempt at recording ‘I Will’ (later to appear fully formed on Hail To The Thief).

The hypnagogic highpoint of the back half of Amnesiac is  a rushing current of reversed tape, glassy echoes and rising drones, Thom’s voice stretched and layered into barely graspable fragments, cracking upwards as he hits the “spinning plates”; we’re free-floating in zero-gravity here, untethered from clear rhythm. Don’t mistake that for fuzzy songwriting, though – the ripping live version from 2001’s I Might Be Wrong EP is almost baroque in its orderliness, a lattice of orderly piano arpeggios rising and falling under Thom’s bell-clear vocal. Luxury sadness. CR

Best Radiohead Tracks - Just

15. ‘Just’
(From The Bends, Parlophone, 1995)

‘Just’ not only presaged Radiohead’s outward interest in karma (see number 28 on this list), it was also almost a preview of what was to come on OK Computer. Instead of the straightforward rock that dominates The Bends, ‘Just’ doubles down on the band’s experimental edge and their knack for building worlds with guitars. But the world that exists within ‘Just’ is presumably one of addiction and insurmountable guilt – and the lofty riffs mimic the unsinkable feeling of self-loathing. It’s another example of Radiohead’s ability to not only tell a story through lyrics, but to create a vision within the music. CL

Best Radiohead Tracks - No Surprises

14. ‘No Surprises’
(From OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997)

There must be some sort of universal element to ‘No Surprises’ that makes it one of Radiohead’s most popular and overplayed tracks. Whether it taps into our inner child through Jonny’s infantile glockenspiel, or whether Ed O’Brien’s neat-as-a-button arpeggio makes us remember those treasured nursery rhyme melodies, it’s a pretty, twinkling track that’s easy on the ear.

It does, however, lull you into a false sense of security. Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning (“no alarms and no surprises”)? Or a metaphor about suicide (“taking a quiet life”) and leaving this godforsaken planet? ‘No Surprises’ is infused with the nostalgia of childhood and plays to our weaknesses as human beings. ACW


13. ‘Where I End and You Begin’
(From Hail to the Thief, Parlophone, 2003)

Jonny’s guitar is often thought of as the anchor behind Thom’s vocals, but it’s easy to forget that his brother Colin is often the band’s real lynchpin. The juggernaut bassline of ’Where I End and You Begin’ is one of his high points, a queasy, rolling loop that any of the punk-funk bands that emerged around the time of Hail to the Thief would kill to have written. The album to some extent takes a break from the electronic focus of Kid A and Amnesiac, but the band’s power to make you dance had never been more present.

The mood of ‘Where I End and You Begin’ is hardly joyous, combining the story of a relationship gone sour with imagery of extinction level events and houses consumed by the sea, addressing the band’s fears of climate change as well. The song also ties in with Stanley Donwood’s album artwork, whose lurid colours he said were inspired by the petrochemical industry: “We’ve created this incredibly vibrant society, but we’re going to have to deal with the consequences sooner or later.” SW

Best Radiohead Tracks - Lotus Flower

12. ‘Lotus Flower’
(From King Of Limbs, XL, 2011)

It’s a weird footnote to an already beguiling album that Radiohead recorded The King Of Limbs at Drew Barrymore’s house. That record’s lead single, ‘Lotus Flower’, famously arrived with a video that featured Thom dancing like a drunken uncle at a wedding in one of the Never Been Kissed star’s rom-coms. When the track dropped, the internet reacted in GIFs and guffaws, but ‘Lotus Flower’ is, beneath the LOLs, a serious meditation on love, lust and addiction. “I can’t kick your habit,” sings Yorke 0ver an agitated beat and synths that blossom and stretch outward, “I will shape myself into your pocket, invisible, do what you want, do what you want.”

The deliciously weird sway of the song owes it all to handclaps, which drop in and out of rhythm in a 5/8 time signature over the track’s guiding 4/4 beat. Radiohead have few floor-fillers, but ‘Lotus Flower’ could be considered one: almost dubby in its bass-led slink, it writhes seductively to climax in five minutes of danceable murk. Contorting his arms and legs in the video, Thom sparked an internet meme, proving to be a king of limbs himself. Just don’t neglect the spellbinding song beneath it. AH

Best Radiohead Tracks - Nude

11. ‘Nude’
(From In Rainbows, XL, 2007)

‘Nude’ was the great lost Radiohead song for almost a decade, originally written circa OK Computer (or slightly before) and often performed live during the band’s nerve-fraying and never-ending late ‘90s tour, as captured in the grim documentary Meeting People Is Easy.

The song wasn’t fully realised to the band’s liking until In Rainbows, when they had the bright idea to swap out the Dylan-esque Hammond organ bedrock for Colin’s loping dub bass and a cushioning of gentle fingerpicking. Despite it being maybe one of the most miserable-yet-beautiful and quintessentially Radiohead songs in existence, it actually became the band’s biggest chart hit in the US since ‘Creep’. CR

Best Radiohead Tracks - In Rainbows

10. ‘Videotape’
(From In Rainbows, XL, 2007)

The spectre of death hovers near in plenty of Radiohead songs: ‘Exit Music…’, ‘Wolf At The Door’ and many more all have the feel of a black cloak being pulled over, a dark oblivion stretching closer. ‘Videotape’, undoubtedly Radiohead’s best ever album closer, confronts mortality better and more beautifully than any other moment in their catalogue. Thom has said the song’s about an old man filming a goodbye to loved ones on a grainy VHS. On first glance, that is a weird way into a song about death. But the more you sit with it, soaking in those plaintive descending-and-ascending piano melodies, the more it makes sense: when laid out on a death bed, knowing those “pearly gates” as Thom sings soon await, you probably can’t help but rewind and replay parts of your life like a rental from Blockbuster.

Originally the band imagined it as something more lavish: the piano part was supposed to be a building block on which they built something intense. When they gave up and stripped it back, the band, Thom told Mojo on release, were left in tears when they landed on the final version. It’s hard to blame them. AH

Best Radiohead Tracks - Street Spirit

9. ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’
(From The Bends, Parlophone, 1995)

The Bends’s closing track and its final single, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ is possibly the best example of the band’s dramatic stylistic shift. A few years earlier, Radiohead had been thrust into the limelight through the success of future jock-rock classic ‘Creep’ and the deeply underwhelming Pablo Honey; now they were working with director Jonathan Glazer to create an avant-garde video for a song that basically didn’t have a hook. Against all odds, ‘Street Spirit’ became one of their most popular singles, hitting #5 in the UK (their highest chart position before ‘Paranoid Android’); no mean feat for a song that even Thom describes as one of Radiohead’s saddest.

The track is informed by Nigerian author Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road, which Yorke read on tour in America while the band narrowly avoided disintegrating; the book concerns an abiku, or spirit child, which gives the track its name. Yorke himself calls the track a “straight rip-off” of R.E.M. (who famously influenced the band in the early days), despite it signaling a move towards an era where they would challenge listeners with each and every new release. JPT

Best Radiohead Tracks - Knives Out

8. ‘Knives Out’
(From Amnesiac, Parlophone, 2001)

A slight return to jangling guitars midway through Amnesiac, the Smiths-inspired ‘Knives Out’ was described by Ed in his weblog (lol) at the time as “the most straight ahead thing we’ve done in years”, which, he added, was why it took the band over 12 months to complete. One of Radiohead’s real softly-softly growers, the song offers some of the most satisfyingly bleak Yorke-isms ever committed to tape (“If you’d been a dog, they would have drowned you at birth”) and a dreamlike video that seems to be broadcast direct from the agitated subconscious of the band’s paranoiac frontman. CR

Best Radiohead Tracks - There There

7. ‘There There’
(From Hail to the Thief, Parlophone, 2003)

The clash of child-like innocence and deep-bubbling darkness in the ‘Burn The Witch’ video has roots in a song 13 years older. ‘There There’, the first track glimpsed from 2003’s Hail To The Thief, is a fantastical amble through a fairytale woodland in both sound and vision, even packing a reference to kids TV favourite Bagpuss in its original title (‘The Boney King Of Nowhere’). “There’s always a siren singing you to shipwreck,” sings Thom over timpani thunder and grainy guitars as the track speeds from a stumble to a sprint, while the video – also directed by Chris Hopewell, who shot ‘Burn The Witch’ – finds the frontman lost in a forest both magical and menacing.

Such are Yorke’s teasing lyrics, it’s easy with Radiohead to see meaning where there isn’t – “just ‘cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there,” as the song’s chorus goes. But the grim storybook fantasy of the Hail To The Thief centrepiece and its memorable video, adventuring through a sinister Hansel and Gretel-like landscape, feels somehow an expression of the album’s political reality; the grotesqueries and gloom of the War On Terror, a huge preoccupation of Thom’s during the making of the record, turned into animated horror. Having not released new music since the electronic one-two of Kid A and Amnesiac, some called ‘There There’ a retreat – Radiohead back to their guitar music of old. Listening now, it seems a strident step forward. AH

Best Radiohead Tracks - Paranoid Android

6. ‘Paranoid Android’
(From OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997)

On May 21, 1997, I dressed for school as normal and wandered down to the stone hippo in Walsall town centre (a longtime meeting/smoking spot for juvenile yam-yams) to meet my then-girlfriend. Instead of awkwardly trading teenage woes before heading to assembly (late), we waited impatiently outside of Virgin Megastore, desperate to lay our hands on a CD copy of OK Computer. All we’d really heard at that point was ‘Paranoid Android’, which despite being hyped as “unplayable” due to its 6:23 runtime was already picking up steam after a debut on Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session. Long, proggy and lacking the catchiness of ‘Just’ or ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ (both big radio hits), ‘Paranoid Android’ was the perfect taste of OK Computer‘s pensive, melancholy wheeze, and fans like myself weren’t confused – we were in awe.

Thom jokingly described the song at the time as a “Pink Floyd cover”, and given that the original version clocked it at a mammoth 14 minutes, he’s probably not far from the truth. But it’s not all doom and gloom – the band intended the song to be humorous, right down to the Douglas Adams-influenced title. “If you can have sex to this one, you’re fucking weird,” Yorke told audiences at a live performance, while hinting at its prog pedigree (there’s Hammond organ and glockenspiel) with self-deprecating glee.

Back in Walsall, my girlfriend and I wandered back to my parents’ house, skipping GCSE prep in favor of listening to OK Computer on repeat and thumbing through its cryptic booklet. Time well spent, I reckon. JPT

Best Radiohead Tracks - Kid A

5. ‘Idioteque’
(From Kid A, Parlophone, 2000)

When Kid A first arrived, ‘Idioteque’ was a flag planted in the soil – we knew the band was concerned with machines, but this extended their interest in electronic music to another level, introducing a hefty amount of their audience to sounds they’d never heard before. Using a loop sampled from Paul Lansky’s ‘Mild und Leise’ – which he composed for a contest and originally landed on an album quite literally called Electronic Music Winners – it is not only Greenwood’s nod to his other influences, but a celebration of electronic music’s rich history.

Despite it going completely against the expectations of Radiohead fans, it has become one of their most monumental hits. Yet in 2016, its ubiquity almost feels beside the point. Now it almost sounds like a warning call: “We’re not scaremongering, this is really happening / Mobiles squerking / Mobiles chirping / Take the money and run” is almost scripture written about the music moment we are living in now (and one the band is participating in themselves). We knew this was ahead of its time then, but Radiohead continue to prove that they’re always one step further than we think. CL

Best Radiohead Tracks - OK Computer

4. ‘Lucky’
(From OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997)

Recorded in just five hours for the Warchild charity album HELP (released to support the humanitarian effort in Bosnia) and accompanied by a harrowing video, ‘Lucky’ goes straight for the jugular. The song is dragged along by a winding, downbeat guitar melody that threatens to collapse under the weight of its own sluggishness, but the surge of emotion through its soaring chorus and Jonny’s enormous guitar solo lift us up towards optimism: we may have turned a blind eye, but it’s not too late to help. ‘Lucky’ is drenched in deep melancholy but its message – the one that urges you to “Pull me out of the aircrash / ‘Cause I’m your superhero” – clutches at a kind of humanity rarely glimpsed. ACW

Best Radiohead Track - Pyramid Song

3. ‘Pyramid Song’
(From Amnesiac, Parlophone, 2001)

‘Pyramid Song’ is the black heart of Radiohead’s discography, taking us on boat ride down the Styx, surrounded by “black-eyed angels” who accompany us on our journey to the afterlife. “A moon full of stars and astral cars / All the things I used to see / All my lovers were there with me / All my past and futures,” Yorke sings in some of his most visually evocative lyrics. Like a dark and sinister painting, ’Pyramid Song’ creeps under your skin in a way Radiohead’s other songs don’t. Listening back now, it’s unthinkable that it made it to #5 in the UK singles chart.

Beyond the suggestion of suicide, there’s little subtext to the track. It’s as pure a song about death as Radiohead have written, alluding to both Greek mythology and the burial place of the Egyptian pharaohs. But Radiohead’s songs usually conceal multiple layers of meaning, which makes this one so disconcerting. Its title feels like a puzzle waiting to be solved, with a chord progression you fruitlessly turn over in your head in an effort to get it to sit the right way up. When it arrived in 2001 after the experimentalism of Kid A, ‘Pyramid Song’ felt like a return to more traditional songwriting; 15 years later, it feels more elusive than ever. SW

Best Radiohead Tracks - OK Computer

2. ‘Let Down’
(From OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997)

When Radiohead bloomed into best-selling household names with OK Computer, they became a hilarious punch line for a certain breed of lads’ mag wags. Radiohead were depressing. Thom Yorke was dubbed “The Incredible Sulk” on the cover of UK music magazine Q. By 1998, cult Irish sitcom Father Ted was riffing on it, ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ pulling a priest into a black hole of sadness. The band’s reputation as indie-rock miserablists is an albatross even now. True, Radiohead have often waded through gloom – when they were first rising to fame, as their 1990s peers were basking in the cheer of a prosperous Britpop-era economy, Thom was lamenting being a ‘Creep’ in minor-chord misery. But the Oxford crew were always capable of sweet, subtle moments of life-affirming sunlight too.

‘Let Down’ is one of those moments, and one of their best songs all round. Lyrically, it explores the same space as the rest of OK Computer, Thom wandering an oppressive metropolis full of “motorways and tramlines.” But on ‘Let Down’, he seems to rise above it, in part the effect of a twinkling bed of warm guitars, swaying in and out of time hypnotically. It doesn’t seem to matter that the world is often “so, so disappointing” and capable of leaving you “crushed like a bug in the ground”. Instead, he clings to a belief that “one day I’m going to grow wings, a chemical reaction.” Recorded at 3am in a ballroom at the historic Oxfordshire manor they hired to create OK Computer, the track was about how “we’re bombarded with sentiment, people emoting. That’s the ‘let down’,” said Thom. “Feeling every emotion is fake. Or rather every emotion is on the same plane, whether it’s a car advert or a pop song.” The emotion of ‘Let Down’ remains decidedly, beautifully real. AH

Best Radiohead Tracks - Kid A

1. ‘Everything in its Right Place’
(From Kid A, Parlophone, 2000)

In the wake of David Bowie’s death, a video appeared showing the singer accurately predicting the impact of the internet back in 1999. One line sticks out though: “There hasn’t been one single entity, artist or group that have personified the ‘90s.”

Radiohead had certainly dominated rock music by the end of the decade, but they chose to enter the new millennium on a different, far riskier path, the kind that Talk Talk walked (to ruin) 10 years earlier, and that Kanye West would set out on 10 years later to achieve a similar infallibility in his own genre. It’s the same path that nearly killed Scott Walker — a 60s pop-music star turned 90s avant-garde black hole — whose spirit inspired both the rockstar-making hit absent from this list and the album whose opener tops it.

Like any journey into undiscovered country, it’s daunting for the band and listener, but few have made such harsh territory sound as overwhelmingly enticing as Radiohead did on ‘Everything In Its Right Place’. Kid A’s opening tumble of keys is the most pure-pleasure sound Radiohead have ever recorded, while Yorke’s lyrical mantras blink like neon signs for anxiety: “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”. It’s a stilted poetry which predates the miscommunication and addictive gratification of Twitter with the spiraling refrain, “What, what was that you tried to say? / Tried to say, tried to say…” And it all dangles like bait in front of the labyrinthine sessions that cemented Radiohead on the level that Bowie was talking about — his own, really. Kid A wouldn’t appear until the end of 2000, but this millennium — stupefying in both its ecstasy and terror — seemed to begin as soon as we heard this song. MB

Read next: Radiohead on film – The 9 best uses of their songs on screen



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