One word describes Radiohead‘s music and career – incomparable. They are unquestionably the most influential band of the past 30 years, and countless artists and bands have attempted to emulate their chameleon-like genius. Even groups like Coldplay and Muse have cited the Oxford-born outfit as influences and started their careers trying to capture their magic before realizing that such a feat was nearly impossible. While these English heavyweights instead opted for safer, well-traveled paths as they chased stardom, Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, piano, keyboards), Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, keyboards, other instruments), Colin Greenwood (bass), Ed O’Brien (guitar, backing vocals), and Philip Selway (drums, percussion) opted to pave their own roads. They refused to be static and just another band. They instead chose to be master innovators, who pushed the boundaries of what was possible.
Through their 35-year career, Radiohead have become synonymous with musical greatness. A true reflection of their brilliance lies in how no two albums sound alike. Instead, each record takes on a life of its own, such as the melodramatic and unhinged The Bends, the prophetic futurism of OK Computer, and the complex dystopia of Kid A. This holy trinity of albums is unrivaled in modern music; only The Beatles could say they released three seismic yet different LPs.
Like all bands, however, Radiohead faced an existential criticism at the turn of the century. As the music landscape changed (and they were a big reason for the electronic renaissance), their relevance became questioned. Had they already peaked? Were they out of step with what people wanted to hear? As the queries mounted, Hail to the Thief arrived. The album was a return to the band’s foundations, as they embraced their rock roots as well as their social and political activism (the lyrics of “2 + 2 = 5” resound loudly today). It was a re-awakening that ultimately opened the doors to In Rainbows, which was more than just a collection of songs. In Rainbows was a grand exhibition of cinematic and spellbinding art. It was the perfect marriage of the electronic innovation of OK Computer and Kid A with the grandeur of The Bends.
Two more albums have followed in King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool, redefining how music can simultaneously be spatial and calming yet transcendent and imaginative. They were not crafted to be commercial successes (Radiohead released them earlier than expected), but rather to provoke, awe, and even bewilder. But like all great geniuses, their goal has always been to push people out of their comfort zone and challenge what is possible. Where they go, we will be close behind because we would “be crazy not to follow / Follow where you lead”.
In Volume Four of The Artists Speak, 25 artists and bands share their favorite Radiohead songs. A total of 76 tracks were nominated, and we’re sharing the top 30. The playlist is below along with the track list and a few words shared by each artist. The full list of participants is at the very end. To review the first three volumes (Prince, Marvin Gaye, and John Prine), go here.
Top 30 Radiohead Songs as Chosen by the Artists
1. “No Surprises”
Jordan Finlay: “Love how this classic builds into each chorus with so much emotion. All the instruments, including that awesome glockenspiel, craft a beautiful tune about longing for a life without worry, pain or sadness.”
Tanzos: “Probably the most accessible song on OK Computer, showing what you can achieve in a supposedly simple pop song when you are able to create the right atmosphere. It is sad in its core, but it sounds very comforting.”
2. “Paranoid Android”
Cherry Ames: “It was incredibly daring to unveil their commercial and critical breakthrough with a six-minute collage of folk, prog, punk, electronica, and psychedelic rock, that reserves its sweetest melody for a mantra about vomit. Nearly every track on our new EP, No Brakes, features a tempo shift, major mood swing or outright implosion – and “Paranoid Android” is certainly an influence in that direction.”
Crawford Mack: “It’s the single best piece of editing and producing that I have ever heard. How this was pieced together is nothing short of a marvel. The playing is out of this world, the lyrics are so vivid. Seriously, Nigel Godrich – take a bow!”
Tanzos: “At the time of its release, ‘Paranoid Android’ saw Radiohead squeeze their whole musical universe into six minutes. It has got everything: beauty, energy, fantastic guitar arrangements and outstanding vocals.
3. “Fake Plastic Trees”
JEEN: “(This song) kills me. And this year is so horrible, and this song is so perfect. But it’s perfect for everything, ever in any time because it’s epic. That fucking bass line crushes my heart and baby Thom Yorke is so so cute in the video.”
Greg Mahdesian: “This song has one of the greatest builds in rock music, and one of Thom Yorke’s best vocals. It sounds more personal than a lot of their music despite somewhat vague lyrics – which is something we aim for a lot – and it gets me every time.”
4. “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi”
Spencer Petersen: “While this is one of my favorites for a lot of reasons, I found that I haven’t been alone in that appreciation. We had a roommate at our warehouse who would, when female company stayed overnight in his room, go turn on this record in the main area as white noise / mood music. Now rather than Marvin Gaye, I’ve been permanently reprogrammed to associate amour with In Rainbows on shuffle.”
Greg Puglese: “This is a perfect song to me. It gradually builds momentum and tension over the first three minutes, starting with nothing more than a pulsing drum beat, but instead of leading to some grandiose climax, it totally drops out. It’s a perfect example of Radiohead’s penchant for melancholy and restraint.”
Family of Things: “(‘Reckoner’) will always be the epitome of pacing, crescendo, build and evolution in popular music for me. The steady and fateful drum groove is met with a host of stunning parts serving a greater body of sound, growing and withering and blooming all over again over the course of just about five minutes.
“The small texture of drum, dry electric guitar, and falsetto voice serves as the body of the song, to which a myriad of subtle textures are welcomed in and out of the fold. None of which hits harder than when all is stripped back to nothing but a crowd of Thom’s vocals serving as a choir. The texture becomes polyphonic, surreal, ethereal, spiritual. ‘Because we separate, it ripples our reflections’...a meditative reflection, a prayer. And then the strings come in, and then the groove again. It is Radiohead’s finest work. It is their hymn of grace. ”
Daniel Walker: “I first got into Radiohead when In Rainbows was released in 2007. ‘Reckoner’ was the gateway track that let me enjoy the experience of the song, then record, and ultimately the band itself. This track represents the accessible oddness of the record overall, like a personal tarot card reading.”
6. “Everything In Its Right Place”
Anya Marina: “Those opening chords! It’s Radiohead! Right away, you know. This is the song I play while folding t-shirts to perfection a la Marie Kondo.”
Noah Clark: “”Opening statement of Kid A, which is the great costume change of Radiohead. This piece lives up to its title. Incredible recording, words, melody, tones, rhythms…my favorite Radiohead song.”
7. “Let Down”
Terry Price of Photo Ops: “‘Let Down'” is an example of how they can manage to squeeze in melancholy, empathy, and humanity to their vast array of experimentation. It showcases the band’s incredible arrangement skills and their ability to build to an orgasmic crescendo.”
8. “Karma Police”
JEEN: “it’s like this beautiful threat. The artistry and originality of this track is something I will forever reach for. You might think you’re cool but this song will always be cooler.”
9. “Subterranean Homesick Alien”
Sam Eagle: “Everything works together in perfect harmony here. It’s like an idyllic utopia in a song. Super chilled and just transports you to another place – and that’s a wonderful thing for a piece of music to be to do.”
10. “Pyramid Song”
Sam Eagle: “Incredibly cinematic and rich, this song has elements from Radiohead’s career from their first album to their latest. It has a real timeless quality, which I think is one of the things that makes Radiohead great, and this track contributes greatly to that.”
Spencer Petersen: “In college, I was taking a composition class devoted to more of the modernist movements (John Cage, Philip Glass, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, etc). We were dissecting different rhythmic motifs and the departure from standard traditions when my professor put on ‘Pyramid Song’ as a challenge. Hearing a ‘rock band’ in music school was a rarity, but beyond the novelty of trying to relate to the students, this example really opened me up to the idea of bridging the stringent divide between classical and popular music. It’s in 4/4 by the way.”
Speaker Face: “The interplay between bass, and riffs and melody on this track is Shakespearian.”
Las Mar: “When I first heard “Idioteque”, I knew this rock band was no bunch of guitar music purists – they were listening to my favourite British electronic music at the time, too, namely Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, and Boards of Canada. I loved that cold slamming backbeat, those blips and bloops, that synth riff that was somehow warm strings and scraping metal all at once. Combined with those pleading, barely intelligible vocals we all know and love, I was so hooked. I’d never heard anything balance those elements before. I remember I would chuck the CD in my Discman and mash the skip button straight to track 8 before going back to the start to settle in for a full listen to the incredible record that is Kid A.”
Mark Nash: “The perfect example of the first principle of Rock & Roll, tension & release. Yet they manage to do it on top of each other. An almost impossible task no other band could pull off. Evil geniuses.”
Speaker Face: “Some of the first electronic beats I ever listened to. Similar to the driving force of “Myxomatosis,” the looped but variated drums heavily influenced the way I make and think about beats.”
13. “Exit Music (For a Film)”
Kristian Dunn: “I actually had no idea until just a few years ago that this was written for Romeo and Juliet. I just thought Thom was telling a crazy story, ‘We hope that you choke’. Whew!
14. “All I Need”
Sam Eagle: “Pronably my favourite ending of a song ever. I find that baseline just so cool. Lyrics are incredible, and the whole song has a really strong atmosphere, building to that incredible climax.”
Worthitpurchase: ““My favorite thing about this song is Thom beat-boxing at the beginning. This song really got me thinking about production and recording – the drum and bass just fit so well together in this song and the balance of foreground and background is so immersive. And of course, the outro is so powerful and really moving. I love the juxtaposition of the gentle celeste melody over the crashing drums.”
15. “House of Cards”
Price: “‘House of Cards’ has them at their absolute peak in my opinion. They take a very simple repetitive motif and take their time with it. So gorgeous.”
J.P. Fuller: “Best played at maximum volume while driving through a small Texas town as a sixteen year old tasting freedom for the first time. Bonus points if your windows are rolled down.”
17. “Kid A”
Greg Puglese: “This is the first Radiohead song I ever heard, consciously, at least, so it holds a special place in my heart. I downloaded it at random from Limewire in 2000 or 2001. Out of all the songs that could have been out in the early-internet ether, it’s funny that this oddball wound up being my first exposure to the band. It’s so quiet, strange, beautiful, and other-worldly — it truly blew my teenage mind.”
Kristian Dunn: “I was astonished at the backlash against this record when it came out. I felt at the time, and still do, that, for me, this might just be the best record ever made. People finally seem to be coming around on it. This song is another one of those quick transports to another world.”
18. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”
Miles Calder: “I get absolutely lost in how hypnotic and atmospheric this track is. The relentless groove and constantly falling melodies get across a real sentiment. It has inspired a whole area of my songwriting where I feel comfortable sitting in an unchanged rhythm and chord progression if the feeling is there.”
19. “Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”
Miles Calder: “Bullet Proof’ just has so much atmosphere with the vocal mixed so loud and up front above the sparse arrangement so you can just follow his beautiful melodies. Pure melancholy.”
Adam Hattaway: “A couple of years before I got into Radiohead, my Dad had this song on a compilation. I loved it and never knew it was Radiohead until I started listened to them myself. As a lot of people have said, they hadn’t really found their sound until OK Computer, but I still love The Bends just as much as any of their albums, and this might be my favourite track from it. It’s sad, comforting, and downright beautiful.”
20. “There, There”
Jordan Finlay: “The crunchy guitar, ambient drumming and Tom’s signature, chilling vocals make this one of my favourites. Love the ideas of temptations and following a righteous path through life that are explored throughout this massive song.”
Mark Nash: “A bit of a subversive Radiohead track but it hit me hard the first time I heard it. The chord changes teeter on chaos against the tribal drum track & it’s absolutely brilliant.”
21. “Planet Telex”
22. “2 + 2 = 5”
Anya Marina: “All of these are songs I would play on the radio when I was a DJ in San Diego, but ‘2 + 2 = 5’ is hands-down the greatest Radiohead song that ever was. I love how much it does in such a short time, and I love how nuts Thom Yorke goes during the whole ‘paying attention’ bit and again during the ‘Hail to the Thief’ shoutout and ‘don’t question my authority’ part at the end. There are about three different songs and personalities in one in this song – all incredible – and I dare you to blast ‘2 + 2 = 5’ alone in your room without completely flipping out.”
23. “High and Dry”
J.P. Fuller: “The falsetto, the roomy drums, the acoustic guitar. Everything about ‘High And Dry’ places me firmly in happier times. Even more impressive is that such a clearly depressing song can evoke such positive feelings.”
24. “The National Anthem”
Cherry Ames: “That bassline… Colin Greenwood and Phillip Selway are impossibly deep in the pocket. That locked-in, punishing yet funky groove clears a ton of space for Yorke’s menacing lyrics and the improvised sonic chaos swirling about. Live, we often stretch our legs – and jamming on songs like this is what makes playing shows so transcendent.”
Ryan Berti: “Driving bass lines are core to the Swerve songwriting process. The fucking bass line in this song could play infinitely and not get old. I also had a bad mushroom trip because of this song. The brass section at the end really made me question my life decisions.”
Crawford Mack: “I’m pretty sure this was the first Radiohead track I ever heard. It was on the soundtrack for a FIFA game, and I would have been about eleven years old. I became totally enthralled with the way that Phillip Selway’s drum part interacts with the fuzz bassline. The first verse is particularly gripping; that imagery and how it relates to Thom Yorke describing his struggles with the pitfalls of fame and the duplicity of the industry burn a lasting image into your brain.”
Speaker Face: “Most amazing textures for guitar and bass on this one. Energetic and off-kilter beat pushes this song into an intense journey. How can a song be so powerful with only one riff?”
26. “True Love Waits”
Crawford Mack: “The sheer excitement of Radiohead finally releasing this track after so many years had me on tenterhooks when A Moon Shaped Pool was released. It did not disappoint. The overdubbed pianos are hypnotic, but I always find I’m just kept from losing my sense of what’s going on by the arresting lyrics.”
Daniel Walker: “‘True Love Waits’ embodies the genius of Radiohead as a band. The song has shape-shifted from a yearning folk ballad into a haunting, minimalist meditation. The original I Might Be Wrong live version is a masterclass in songwriting while the A Moon Shaped Pool edition is a masterclass in song composition.
Adam Hattaway: “A lovely track off perhaps my second favourite Radiohead album. I remember reading that Thom Yorke felt vulnerable about how feminine his voice sounds in this track, which I think is kinda a non-issue but also kinda cool to be able to do that. Also, it’s just how I think he sings half the time anyway and what I love him. Goes to show how differently artist and listener can perceive this.”
28. “Knives Out”
29. “Motion Picture Soundtrack”
Sam Eagle: “Such a beautifully written piece that has such a candid and loose feel. It feels as though the recording has really captured a moment, and that’s when a song becomes really special.”
30. “The Bends”
Miles Calder: “I can never not enjoy listening to this piece of soaring triumphant rock. It’s full of angst and grit, but always has this human universality that still gives me shivers everytime it builds to the beautiful crescendo and Thom belts, ‘I wanna live, breathe. I wanna be a part of the human race’.”
Participating Artists and Their Reflections:
Adam Hattaway (New Zealand singer-songwriter who brings classic roots-rock to the 21st century): “Radiohead’s albums are so cohesive, and they work so well as a ‘piece’. Because of this, so many songs could’ve fit into this list. My favourite album of theirs would have to be Hail to the Thief, as it encompasses everything I love about them – the sensitivity, experimentation and the darkness… When I discovered Radiohead properly at age 15, they opened up so many more possibilities in music for me as a songwriter, and a listener.”
Anya Marina (singer-songwriter and DJ who brings mystery to pop)
Cherry Ames (shoegaze noise rock to get lost in. New EP, No Brakes, is available on Bandcamp): “Like Wire, Pink Floyd, Wilco, or the Beatles, Radiohead is a major influence on how we use the studio as an instrument unto itself, and how we work to align the emotional content of our vocals with the mood of the melody and the sonic qualities of the recording. Thus far, we’ve produced and mixed all of our own material and being able to take a DIY approach has given us the creative control to push ourselves as musicians and to take chances with our arrangements and atmospherics.”
Crawford Mack (alternative singer-songwriter who blends folk, jazz, and rock): “Radiohead are the benchmark for what all bands should aspire to. When I say that I don’t mean that we should all aspire to sound like them, but that the level of detail they have put into making their albums is second to none. They embody the creativity, discipline and attitude that I love about jazz music, where they have assimilated musical information and repurposed it with the fluidity of musicians who understand the music they draw from. What is more, few can match them for sheer lyrical intrigue, dexterity and imagery.”
Daniel Walker of Owen Meany’s Batting Stance (indie pop-rock outfit with a tongue-in-cheek approach to their songwriting): “Growing up, Radiohead felt like the musical equivalent to science class in high school. I was awed by the complexities of the process and product, but could not grasp how what I was listening to came to be. Radiohead was otherworldly, and at the time what I felt musically connected to were bands with a more straightforward, or of my planet, English class approach. I came to love Radiohead, and appreciate science, later in life when I stopped trying to understand and just enjoy the experience. ”
Family of Things (anthemic, indie band whose debut album, Oscilloscope, is out now)
Greg Mahdesian and Ryan Berti of Swerve (indie rockers from Los Angeles who have been dubbed one of California’s 10 best in 2019): “Radiohead are legends, one of the greatest bands ever. They really are a band, too, which is more rare than you’d think. Each member contributes something unique to the sound and composition of each song, which is a model that Swerve tries to follow.
“There are many different Radioheads, but you never feel like it’s a totally different artist, which makes them so compelling to revisit. They’re virtuosic without being showy, intellectual without being distant or removed, and despite all their experimentation with structure, instrumentation and tone, they can always rock out to remind everyone why they fill stadiums worldwide.”
Greg Puglese (a.k.a. Mock Suns) (psychedelic-pop artists from Philadelphia, whose self-titled album will be released October 23rd): “I discovered Radiohead as a high school freshman in the early 2000s – a time when I was mostly listening to whiny pop-punk. Naturally, I credit (and thank) them, along with albums like At The Drive In’s Vaya for broadening my horizons and instilling in me a lasting interest in more experimental and strange music. To me they are a perfect band. Always evolving; masterful, thoughtful, and challenging songwriting; heart-shattering ballads; and mind-bending arrangements, production, and sonic wizardry.”
Jeen O’Brien (a.k.a. JEEN) (indie- and synth-pop artist whose eponymous LP arrives in October): “I love Radiohead. The Bends schooled me when I first found it and then it just went on and on. They are the epitome of what it means to be a recording artist. Their songs are visual and serve as a bar for the rest of us. I tried hard to ‘rank‘ my top 10 here, but I have to say a lot of these are closer to a tie with one another …cause they are each their own little islands of perfection, much like the guys who wrote them.”
Jenny Banai (multi-genre, powerhouse vocalist, whose sophomore LP, Couch Walker, is available on Bandcamp): “I came to know Radiohead when their 2007 release, In Rainbows, became all the rage! As a vocalist, I wasn’t in favour of Thom York’s ‘whiny’ voice, or at least that was how I coined my excuse for not loving them as much as all my cool, music-guy pals did. It is my natural inclination to boycott anything gaining popularity, especially when there is a pretentious air circling it. But in hindsight, I’ll admit my own pretentious opinion, a veil for the insecurity I felt around the fanboy club.
“Radiohead has an alluringly rare and abstract sophistication that would take a lot of scrutinous listens to tap into. But whether I understand their muse completely or not, their complex time signatures and unusual song structure have inspired many a band, including myself! I have grown to appreciate their musical tonality and creativity, even so far as to celebrate Thom York’s solemn and emotionally-nuanced voice, in spite of my initial (and perhaps personal and silly) unwarranted hostility.”
Jordan Finlay of Teenage Dads (indie pop-rock band making the mundane amusing)
J.P. Fuller of Fuller (indie-pop “dude” whose new EP, Crush Me, is available on Bandcamp): “Radiohead is the perfect band to listen to when you’re not sure if you’re happy or sad because they’ll make you feel both.. or neither? I still haven’t quite figured it out. So many feelings wrapped in beautiful, big, melancholic, anthems. They set up camp in a special corner of my heart long, long ago and I don’t think they’ll be leaving any time soon.”
Kristian Dunn of El Ten Eleven (post-rock / art-rock duo who recently released a triple LP, Tautology): “Like a lot of people, I was stunned by OK Computer when it came out. I remember borrowing my roommate’s copy, putting it in my Discman, and listening to the entire thing twice in a row. I’ve never done that with any record before or since. Their career is truly enviable: they are artistically credible yet commercially successful. U2 should have followed their path! Radiohead are capable of poignantly evoking sadness, hopefulness, surrealness, nostalgia, and more… all in the same freggin’ song! They really do make the rest of us musicians look bad.”
Las Mar (making innovative, experimental music that spans genres. Check his Bandcamp page): “Radiohead means listening to the Discman on the bus to school, feeling like there was a whole world that belonged just to me (before putting up with the dickheads I went to school with). I needed that world – that time and space was as sacred as a secular teenage boy understands.
“They were very formative during my formative years. Radiohead balances the fun and ‘hookiness’ of popular music, the elements that keep you wanting a fix, but offer something more – interesting textures, ambitious creations and unusual song structures – for the adventurous listener. I always loved that about them. And that voice, it simply does things to the heartstrings. They are an undeniable band.”
Mark Nash of In Parallel (dramatic indie-rock band, whose new EP, Fashioner, is out now): “To pick and rank ONLY 10 Radiohead songs is a cruel, cruel ask but here we go. There is no chance of getting this right & lifetimes of arguments to make on which song goes where and why. I tried to take a holistic approach across the bands entire catalog.”
Miles Calder (emerging, alternative singer-songwriter from Wellington, New Zealand)
Noah Clark of Gold Record (three-piece indie-pop band making the classics sound fresh): “Radiohead is one of the greatest examples of the evolution an artist or group can make. Being privy to the progression and unrelenting boundary pushing of their sound over the years has been something to cherish.”
Sam Eagle (21-year-old multi-instrumentalist perfecting psych-pop whose new EP arrives in October)
Speaker Face (award-winning electronic band)
Spencer Petersen of Sego (buzzy, anthemic indie-rock band from Utah): “I wanted to hate Radiohead for a long time and definitely don’t claim membership in the OG Early Adopter Club. It took me till the mid-2000’s when a girlfriend pushed The Bends on me, which elicited a deep dive through the rest of their catalog, landing them as one of my most consistently listened to acts since.
“Radiohead lives in a Beatles-esque world for me in that I have never witnessed their live show (I know I know), thus my entire perception comes via their highly-creative recorded experience. The other parallel being that they struck it big with a more straightforward rock career, but rather than staying in that lane, they used their new found popularity/position to experiment and reinvent their music, love it or hate it.”
Tanzos (cinematic indie-rock from Austria)
Terry Price of Photo Ops (a confessional singer-songwriter): “People come to Radiohead for many different reasons. But the combination of Thom Yorke’s voice, the melodies, and the band’s harmonic adventurousness are what keep me coming back. They’ve created some of the most beautiful and haunting music I’ve ever heard. I remember always thinking that their brand of dystopian sci-fi always seemed fun and overblown, but now that I revisit their music, it seems actually reflective of our very strange world, and dares to see hope in it.”
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