The Radiohead Public Library and their 40 Greatest Songs

There’s been a fair amount of online excitement for Radiohead fans this week following the rebranding of the band’s website as ‘The Radiohead Public Library’.

http://www.radiohead.com now hosts an array of archived media, including the best of the band’s music videos, TV spots and filmed concerts. There are links to stream most of the band’s back catalogue and there’s even an online shop where you can buy formerly discontinued tour t-shirts and old merchandise.

According to an announcement from the band on Monday, the Radiohead Public Library is ‘an official online resource containing everything we, Radiohead, have ever done, more or less’ – which for me means a welcome wealth of unseen or under appreciated Radiohead material for us to enjoy in the absence of any new music.

A particularly satisfying part of this website relaunch has been the band’s own involvement in sharing what they themselves consider to be the best of this compiled material.

Each day this week a different member of Radiohead has acted as a ‘librarian’ and curated their own favourite selections of Radiohead performances for us to enjoy.

Bass player Colin was first up and I loved that he included one of my own favourite Radiohead clips, their 1997 performance of Paranoid Android on BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland.

I’ll never forget watching a re-run of this performance in the early naughties with my Dad in the room:

“So this is that band Radiohead you pay all that money to see?”

“Yes.”

“So what’s he singing about?”

“Um…”

I’m still not sure to be fair. I can’t explain it really, I just think it’s amazing.

Here’s a link to all of Colin’s ‘library’ choices as well as links to the curated lists from the rest of the band as well.

Colin’s picks: https://www.radiohead.com/library/curatedby/colin/#kida

Ed’s picks: https://radiohead.com/library/curatedby/ed/

Jonny’s picks: https://radiohead.com/library/curatedby/jonny/#amsp/present-tense-jonny-thom-and-a-cr78

Phil’s picks: https://radiohead.com/library/curatedby/philip/

Thom’s picks: https://radiohead.com/library/curatedby/thom/

Meanwhile, as Radiohead are back on our minds (or social media at least) it’s only natural that their work is being reappraised by fans and the press alike. On Thursday The Guardian published an online ranking of Radiohead’s ’40 greatest songs’ which was always going to draw a response. I for one have bitten.

Despite containing a fair representation of the band’s finest work, there were some debatable inclusions amongst the list and I think it’s also fair to say, some pretty inexcusable exclusions as well.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jan/23/radioheads-40-greatest-songs-ranked

To be fair to Jazz Monroe who made this list for The Guardian, ranking songs is an unbelievably subjective and a hard thing to stick to. A favourite one day could easily be replaced on another. I should also point out that Jazz is a writer and contributor for the likes of Pitchfork and Q Magazine, so is far better qualified at this sort of thing than I am, but that being said, on what planet is Fake Plastic Trees not one of Radiohead’s 40 greatest songs?

I’ve had a go at coming up with my own Radiohead top 40 list (of course I have) and I’ve tried to be as objective as I can. Some of my favourites like House of Cards and Bulletproof… haven’t made the list despite how much I love them. Even though they’ve always meant a lot to me they’re quite generic as Radiohead songs go and they could easily have been written or performed by other artists. Maybe they lack a little uniqueness in comparison to the rest of the songs that I’ve chosen? Maybe I’m talking nonsense?

I’ve grouped these ’40 greatest songs’ in batches of 10 to avoid actually having to arrange them as a countdown of numbers 40 to 1. There are just too many tied songs to make that work. I’m presenting them as joint fourth best, third best, second best and a joint top 10 so don’t pay too much attention to their ordering within their groups. I think I’ve got a pretty solid list. It’s not going to please everyone and there are some songs that I can’t believe I haven’t picked myself [Nice Dream]?? but I guess that’s testament to how good Radiohead are. I could’ve picked 100 but I could only pick 40!

So, without any further ado. Here are Radiohead’s 40 greatest songs (as chosen by me).

RADIOHEAD’S TOP 40 – FOURTH TIER

Bloom (2011) I’m not going to annotate every choice I’ve made but I feel that I should explain some of them. I’ve put Bloom first on the list as it’s probably my most questionable selection. I’ve not heard a great deal of disdain for Bloom but I haven’t heard much love for it either. Bloom, for me, is one of those Radiohead songs that on first listen can be quite jarring and unenjoyable but over time reveals a hook or a melody or something of note that just elevates it to being more than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure how many times I played it before it won me over but now when I hear the brass arrive around the 3:40 mark I feel strangely warm and comforted. Bloom is unique in that it’s Radiohead playing with texture and rhythm in a way that they hadn’t really done before. They’re really making music for themselves, but unlike the change of path they took with Kid A, I feel they’re more relaxed here and not really bothered if the rest of us aren’t into it all. Bloom is a song for the band.

These are My Twisted Words (2009)

Life in a Glasshouse (2001)

I Will (2003)

Daydreaming (2016)

Lotus Flower (2011)

A Reminder (1997) This is another slow burner. It’s not as instantly gratifying as other OK Computer B-Sides like Pearly* or Palo Alto, but A Reminder has faired better over time. Arguably one of Thom Yorke’s most personal and revealing lyrics, A Reminder is bleak but it’s hopeful. There aren’t too many bands that can create an atmosphere like this.

All I Need (2007)

Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi (2007)

Subterranean Homesick Alien (1997)

RADIOHEAD’S TOP 40 – THIRD TIER

High and Dry (1995)

Airbag (1997)

The National Anthem (2000)

Idioteque (2000)

Morning Bell (2000)

Nude (2007)

Present Tense (2016)

You and Whose Army? (2001)

15 Step (2007)

Seperator (2011) Not exactly a hidden gem but a definite unappreciated highlight from The King of Limbs. The guitars that appear during the second half of the song are simple but gorgeous.

RADIOHEAD’S TOP 40 – SECOND TIER

The Bends (1995)

True Love Waits (Live) (2001)

No Surprises (1997)

Talk Show Host (1996) The band’s best B-Side and arguably one of the best B-Sides ever? It ticks a lot of boxes. A live favourite, a movie soundtrack highlight (Romeo & Juliet) and it contains a great bit of swearing too. Surprisingly overlooked on The Guardian list.

My Iron Lung (1995)

Climbing Up the Walls (1997) Has literally moved me to tears, but in a good way. Was my favourite song from my favourite album for many years but I never managed to catch it live the first handful of times I saw them. When I finally did, that was it, I was a mess. It’s pretty dark to be a favourite song though, innit? I’ve cheered up a bit since those days.

Exit Music (For a Film) (1997) Could easily be in their top 10. It’s still hair raising.

Pyramid Song (2001)

Like Spinning Plates (Live) (2001) This beautiful piano led rendition is a far more obvious choice for greatness compared to the jumbled electronica that hinders the Amnesiac studio version. I can only think that The Guardian included that one to be provocative.

There, There (2003) This was really exciting to hear when it first started to air but over time it has lost a little bit of its magic. A fantastic lead single nonetheless and a solid live staple, the rest of Hail to the Thief didn’t quite match it’s brilliance.

 And finally,

RADIOHEAD’S TOP 10 GREATEST SONGS

Creep (1993) I’ve always loved it but it’s by no means a song I’d pick for my favourite top 10 Radiohead songs. We’re dealing with ‘greatness’ here and that can be read in different ways. Like a lot of people Creep was the first Radiohead song I ever heard, but even by the time The Bends came out it was already a bit novelty. Despite having very fond memories of seeing them play Creep live after a long hiatus, Creep is still a pretty schmaltzy song and it’s absolute karaoke fodder now. But like I said, this is supposed to be a list of Radiohead’s greatest songs, and for the man on the street, their greatest song? It has to be Creep. It’s the one that practically everyone knows and for that reason it has to be this high.

Just (1995) This is Radiohead at their most fun and playful. It’s an air guitarist’s dream. I’d like to put forward that Just is one of the songs that epitomises what the electric guitar was invented for in the first place. In my mind it’s Thom, Ed and Jonny saying “these are electric guitars, and THIS is what can they do!” It’s just sounds so exciting, so, well, electric! It’s no wonder they used less guitars over time. They’d already owned the instrument on songs like this.

Karma Police (1997) Yes it takes its piano hook from The Beatles, but what’s the saying? Talent borrows, genius steals? Karma Police is anthemic despite its slow pace and darkly humorous lyric. Probably the best example of Radiohead’s ability to end a song on a moment of high sense of release (a-la Hey Jude), Karma Police builds to a breathtaking finale, with Thom’s last “I lost myself” delivering a seemingly never ending crescendo. It’s a great moment that demonstrates a band working at the height of its collective powers.

How to Disappear Completely (2000) I can’t stress how disappointed I was when I first listened to Kid A. I guess I’d been waiting for OK Computer 2 but this clearly wasn’t it. Kid A as an album didn’t click for me until a few listens in when I finally noticed the beauty of How to Disappear Completely. Ed’s haunting guitar flourishes, Thom’s falsetto, Jonny’s string arrangement. I’d been listening to this album on headphones for the best part of 10 years before I played it on a stereo again and my jaw dropped at what I heard with some space. It really is disorientating when the strings swirl towards the end of the song, the aural equivalent of falling down a rabbit hole.

Lucky (1997)

Fake Plastic Trees (1995) One of the main reasons I started this post in the first place. It’s quintessential Radiohead and countless artists have copied it. Fake Plastic Trees was the blueprint for rock and pop in the late 90’s until The Strokes came along. I’ve always enjoyed Alicia Silverstone’s character’s take on it when she hears Fake Plastic Trees in Clueless: “Wah-wah-wah!” I think that sums up how the majority of people who don’t like Radiohead feel about them. A classic.

Street Spirit (Fade Out) (1997) Radiohead are pretty adept at album closers and Street Spirit is no exception. It’s arpeggiated guitar pattern is more hypnotic than grating, it’s simple chords being made into something quite compelling. The accompanying video compliments it well and is surely one of their better promos. It’s a brooding, moody affair but there’s beauty here too. Another example of classic Radiohead. Immerse your soul in love.

 

 

The Tourist (1997) Sparse, epic, soaring. Another hair raising finale that brings a groundbreaking album to a close. The Tourist is my favourite Thom Yorke vocal and I never tire of hearing it. What a voice.

Paranoid Android (1997) There’s not much I can say here that hasn’t already been said. When talking about Radiohead’s greatest songs it’s a given.

Let Down (1997) A firm fan favourite and a glaring omission from The Guardian list, Let Down is a truly majestic piece of music. I’ve tried to explain it before but I really can’t put into words how good it is. The whole song is fantastic but the way the song builds from around the 3:07 mark is just astonishing. The point where Thom sings “one day…you’re on your own” is a Phil Spector-esque wall of sound and it’s probably my favourite moment of any song I’ve ever heard. I’ve been lost in that moment so many times, it’s perfection. Radiohead have often been labelled as miserablists but that tedious summarisation fails to acknowledge how uplifting they can be. Let Down might be dealing with fairly despondent themes but it’s delivery is something else entirely. How can songs about feeling so at odds with the world make you feel so happy?

My word, they’re bloody great.

Thanks for reading.

You can listen to this list on Spotify

https://open.spotify.com/user/y3orn29orwhx4ubl422pq3u9l/playlist/3iJ7dVG7f1UbdOo6Hot2Y1?si=HixXCXTuRmGYtcs4NxopGQ

 

 

 

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