The Guide to Getting Into Radiohead
There’s a reason that everyone from Caribou to Kanye loves them. It's time to find out what you've been missing.
Alright, so, you know "Creep." Maybe you even smoked out to OK Computer your freshman year of college. But you still haven't gotten into Radiohead, probably because you think you missed the boat, and the only version of them you've heard is Thom Yorke's weeping falsetto sandwiched between Muse and Coldplay on alt-rock radio while driving to work (two bands which, by the way, would not exist without Radiohead).
But Radiohead is way more than just a posh Grateful Dead with a slightly smaller back catalog. First of all, they pioneered the surprise album drop with 2007's independently-released In Rainbows, setting industry precedents for everyone from Beyonce to Chance the Rapper. Radiohead is also among the first artists to bridge rock and electronic music, reshaping the pop zeitgeist in the process (they've also lowkey gotten everyone to #listentomorejazz, with direct and indirect nods to Charles Mingus, John and Alice Coltrane, Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, and others embedded across their catalog).
For every "Creep" and "Karma Police," there's an entire album that sounds nothing like those songs, delving into jazz, ambient, techno, punk, krautrock, and more. There's a reason that everyone from Caribou to Kanye to those aforementioned stadium rock scions has cited the group as an influence. Like any great artist, Radiohead's enduring stylistic breadth is a testament to its talent.
That's also what makes them tricky to get into. Radiohead isn't passive music. It's why the band sounds so unremarkable on your car radio, and why its best songs don't make it onto the radio at all. Radiohead does as much with silence and negative space as any melodies or lyrics, tapping into that part of you when you're alone with your own thoughts. Thats why people love their music: It gives agency to listening. And also because these five lads from Oxford—that is, frontman Yorke, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood, guitarist Ed O'Brien, and drummer Phil Selway—can fucking shred.
Twenty years after releasing their landmark third album, OK Computer, Radiohead is showing no signs of slowing. Time to get on 'em. Here are five sides of Radiohead to explore.
So you want to get into: Mainstream Radiohead?
Ok, let's get one thing out of the way: Yes, Radiohead really only has one song that fits the radio-friendly, even-your-mom-knows-it sense of the word "mainstream," and that song is, of course, "Creep." There are a handful of others, like "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Exit Music (for a Film)," that earned some pop momentum on the soundtracks for Clueless and Romeo + Juliet, respectively. For the most part, though, Radiohead and "mainstream" feels like an oxymoron—Radiohead specializes in otherness, a band whose music trades in isolation and existential vertigo.
But that's also why they're so popular. There's a certain platonic ideal of Radiohead that lands them at the top of festival bills, and that fuels those massive crowd sing-a-longs: I'm talking about the anthemic, canonical works of big guitars and pop melodies, often fused and refried by the band's electronic experimentation. Mainstream Radiohead is all of OK Computer, that feel in the vitriol and collapse of classics like "Paranoid Android" and "Karma Police," and it's in much of The Bends and Kid A; mainstream Radiohead even shows up, albeit more subtly, in the bones of last year's A Moon Shaped Pool. These are the songs with sugar to help the anxiety and paranoia go down, making the disquietude of Yorke's songwriting feel less sad-sack than vindicating and cathartic. Quite often, like on "Exit Music (for a Film)," it's just plain beautiful.
Playlist: "Paranoid Android" / "Karma Police" / "Fake Plastic Trees" / "There There" / "15 Step" / "My Iron Lung" / "Daydreaming" / "Lotus Flower" / "No Surprises" / "Exit Music (for a Film)"
So you want to get into: Visceral, Big Guitars Radiohead
Did we mention that Radiohead fucking shreds? There's a reason these guys are one of the biggest rock bands in the world. And after three decades, they're only having more fun with it. This goes well beyond the charming grunge and Britpop of their early material, like "The Bends" and "Just," and even past the space rock throttle and crescendos of "Airbag" and "Lucky." Big Guitars Radiohead lives in the hip hop-esque production looping of "I Might Be Wrong," the digital patching at the end of "Go to Sleep" (best enjoyed live), and the jazz progressions and arpeggios all over the latter half of their catalog. Some of Radiohead's most standout guitar work doesn't even sound like guitar, as on the metal-toned, distorted-to-all-hell "Myxomatosis"—to say nothing of the bowed guitar Greenwood uses on live versions of "Pyramid Song" and "Burn the Witch." Both O'Brien and Greenwood have been named among the greatest guitarists of all time, and for Greenwood in particular, it's just another tool in his multi-instrument repertoire to play mad scientist.
Playlist: "Just" / "Airbag" / "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" / "Ful Stop" / "Climbing Up the Walls" / "I Might Be Wrong" / "Myxomatosis" / "The Bends" / "Lucky" / "The Daily Mail"
So you want to get into: Abstract, No Guitars Radiohead
If you're not familiar with the ondes Martenot, you're about to be. As virtuosic a guitar player as Greenwood is, he's always been coy about deferring to it as his primary instrument, and that's most evident throughout Radiohead's post-OK Computer work. This era saw Radiohead, with Yorke on the verge of a breakdown and the band rejecting their newfound stadium rock success, leaning into the electronics and abstraction they began flirting with on OK Computer tracks like "Fitter Happier." They drastically changed their sound, shedding their rock trappings in favor of synthesizers, orchestral strings, horns, drum machines—anything but guitars, really. And, of course, there's Greenwood's famous ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument to which you can attribute pretty much every eerie, celestial sound you've ever heard on a Radiohead song.
Abstract, No Guitars Radiohead can be, alternatingly, Radiohead's least accessible and most striking work. Loads of folks hated Kid A and Amnesiac when they first came out, and plenty still do, but the albums have also gone on to be regarded as some of Radiohead's most influential recordings. Today, you can hear their textures, additive rhythms, and string orchestration in the work of everyone from Nicolas Jaar to James Blake to Frank Ocean (whom Greenwood helped produce).
Playlist: "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" / "Everything in Its Right Place" / "Kid A" / "Like Spinning Plates" / "Kinetic" / "Feral" / "The Gloaming" / "Decks Dark" / "Life in a Glasshouse"
So you want to get into: Political, Dystopian Radiohead?
"Dystopian" is to Radiohead as "purple" is to Prince—it's the milieu they inhabit, seeped into every dissonant refrain and piece of conceptual album art. The band has plenty of songs that don't have to do with technological isolation or Western tyranny (more on those later), but themes of consumerism, narcissism, and hypocrisy have been embedded in Radiohead's work since the band first began reeling from the sudden fame of 1993's "Creep." Subsequent releases have gone on to tackle everything from modern disconnectedness (Ok Computer) to fear and apathy (Kid A) to political corruption (Hail to the Thief).
Radiohead doesn't uphold the legacy of political music so much as holds a mirror to it, inverting dialogues sparked by forebears like Bob Dylan (see: the squarely un-Dylan "Subterranean Homesick Alien") to ask how the hell we got here. Political, Dystopian Radiohead offers some of the band's headiest work, but it's also some of the group's most ferocious and vulnerable, tapping into that human thing inside us that knows most of what we accept as normal isn't.
This subset is also the material from which much of the band's pioneering work emerged, incorporating electronics and distorted production as both a nod to the former genre's history of dissent, and as a means of underscoring the themes and paradoxes of their subject matter. Some of it is intentionally abstract, as with the chilling Mac speech processor featured on OK Computer's "Fitter Happier," but a lot of it makes for some of Radiohead's most sonically gripping work, from the ambient techno of "Idioteque" to the garage-punk of "Electioneering" to the trip-hop of popular B-side "Talk Show Host." Though recent albums have focused more on relationships than social commentary, Political Radiohead made a timely return on last year's A Moon Shaped Pool, loaded with all-too-apropos political paranoia: "Stay in the shadows / Cheer at the gallows / This is a round up / This is a low flying panic attack."
Playlist: "The National Anthem" / "Idioteque" / "You and Whose Army?" / "2+2=5" / "Electioneering" / "Talk Show Host" / "Subterranean Homesick Alien" / "Down Is the New Up" / "Burn the Witch"/ "Fitter Happier" / "Bodysnatchers"
So you want to get into: Intimate, Lovelorn Radiohead?
"It's always confused the living shit out of me that anyone could shag to our music," Thom Yorke once said. "This girl come up to me, she says she bangs to 'Paranoid Android.' How?!"
Right there with you, buddy. But when Thom and the lads aren't busy getting heavy or deconstructing pop, Radiohead writes some pretty remarkable ballads and orchestral pieces, much of which take on love and intimacy.
This includes much of 2007's In Rainbows—if Radiohead does have a bone-worthy album, it's that one—along with much of A Moon Shaped Pool, a record largely centered on the disintegration of Yorke's 23-year relationship with the mother of his children. But every Radiohead album has at least one of these delicate, often slow-burning numbers, and they're the reason the band makes great albums, not just great songs.
If Yorke is ruthless as a rock songwriter, he's equally elegant and austere when turning his reflections inward. Here you'll find tracks that take on everything from profound alienation ("How to Disappear Completely") to mortality ("Videotape") to unbearable desire ("All I Need"). They're not all about love, but they're just as intimate, spotlighting the band as masterful musical impressionists, and Yorke as a singular tenor. Together, they make for ephemeral callbacks to something tender, in the most exposed sense of the word. You really don't need to listen to the lyrics to get it (but you should).
"I'm not here / This isn't happening," Yorke repeats over sighing strings and guitar on "How to Disappear Completely." Neither the lyrics nor the instruments are very effective on their own, but combined, they elevate to something immediately human and familiar: The spiritual siege of being so gripped by sorrow, it's all you can do to repeat a mantra for distraction.
Radiohead's music is a lot like film in that way, evoking a kind of unmoored nostalgia—maybe for past emotions that have no connection to the band, or maybe for things that haven't even happened yet. But it's there, in the quiet between the rise and fall of strings, filling the pauses and refrains. What you're feeling—and this goes way beyond the gloom—is as much an instrument as the rest.
Playlist: "Pyramid Song" / "True Love Waits" / "How to Disappear Completely" / "Videotape" / "Nude" / "Motion Picture Soundtrack" / "All I Need" / "Like Spinning Plates (Live)" / "Identikit" / "Codex"
Andrea Domanick might be wrong. Follow her on Twitter.