There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like Radiohead, and those who do not. Many praise the band as groundbreaking, brilliant, and generally faultless; many find the group—particularly frontman Thom Yorke—whiny and pretentious. To the former I say: no, Fall Out Boy is whiny. I think it’s that second alleged flaw that leads detractors to this impression. Yorke’s voice may not be as accessible as Paul McCartney’s or Otis Redding’s, but I have a hard time seeing it classified as whiny. Indeed, I believe it is tarnished by reputation—he is a jerk and a snob and dances around like such so therefore his falsetto is whiny. Sure, it can be jarring at times, but is it ever out of key? Piercing? Accompanied by petty and childish complaints? I don’t think so. Cleanse your mind of everything you know about Radiohead (including the past ten sentences), watch a performance of “Nude” from In Rainbows, and decide for yourself. As for pretentious, well, maybe they are. But I’m not going to let that get in my way of enjoying an innovative and talented band, and neither should you.
Now that that’s out of the way… I’d like to rank their albums. It would be easier to rank two lists: the organic, alternative Brit-rock Radiohead and the electronic, intricate, experimental Radiohead. But that would be a cop-out. Both styles have their high and low albums, so the coming list is sort-of all over the place sonically (i.e., you’re not going to see the progression of a band refining a sound, or even two sounds at that). So here goes nothing:
1. Hail to the Thief (2003)
This may not be a great starting point for the Radiohead skeptics, but if approached with readiness for a strong blend of experimental and alternative rock, this album is perfection. The reason it holds the top position is because it marries the band’s two styles and with such drive that its songs become one-of-a-kind anthems. Not the ballad-esque, OK Computer-type anthems, but aggressive and dreamlike songs that hook you right into them. Perhaps a few listens are necessary to break into this level of involvement, but once acclimated to it, Radiohead’s passion and genius are exposed wholly on Hail to the Thief. Get lost in it:
2. The Bends (1995)
The Bends, on the contrary, is the album to start with for Radiohead virgins who may be off-put by the reputation. I can picture them playing it for the first time, hearing “Planet Telex” pleasantly ring in a series of catchy, approachable, and satisfying Brit-pop-rock songs and thinking, “wait a tic, Radiohead is just a normal good band!” It may be the most pop-sounding record in the discography, but that should by no means discredit it among the band’s artistic efforts. Radiohead prove on this album that they can write songs in conventional structures and still be remarkable. (Granted, this album came before the experimental stuff, but with that we know the band progressed their way from honest, synth-less rock music, rather than just materializing as some trippy avant-garde act.) Most of the tracks make you want to belt along and lose your inhibitions, and that’s what a great record should do. The title track is a prime example:
3. In Rainbows (2007)
With In Rainbows, Radiohead refined the experimental approach by confining their wandering soundscapes within tight drum rhythms and intricate melodies. The result is a warm, textured, and explorative yet organized concept album (or what seems like one, at least). At some moments it’s raw and intense, at others soft and beautiful, yet In Rainbows at large feels entirely consistent. Not to mention it was released off a record label and priced at whatever the consumer felt like paying. That’s pretty awesome. And the coolest-song-in-the-world award goes to:
4. Kid A (2000)
Kid A is great. It’s like In Rainbows‘ little brother, comprising similar qualities but not as developed. It’s certainly broader and looser in terms of how far the songs estrange from their origins (just how many horns are there in “The National Anthem”!?), and at times this works better than others. The album pushes itself above landmark OK Computer via its climax, “Idioteque”—my favorite Radiohead song of all time.
5. OK Computer (1997)
I may get some flack for ranking OK Computer in the bottom half, but don’t let it be mistaken that I dislike this album. I recognize its importance in Radiohead’s career as it introduced the bigger sounds that they’re now renowned for. “Karma Police” and “Paranoid Android” might go down as their most recognized hits, and both deserve that recognition. It’s a flawless album (save for the computer-voice driven “Fitter, Happier”), and as cohesive as the records listed above. Though its highlights are strong, they fall behind those of the aforementioned, lacking slightly in vigor and heart. That said, if you don’t know this song (where have you been?), you are at a loss until now:
Radiohead’s epic, “Karma Police”
6. The King of Limbs (2011)
The King of Limbs is good, but I can’t get involved with it as more than a cool soundtrack. It’s soothing background music—sonically pleasing and interesting—yet lacks the grabbing appeal of its predecessor In Rainbows. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think it could’ve been pushed farther.
“Morning Mr Magpie”
7. Pablo Honey (1993)
It seems very common that fans of an artist pine for the quality of the treasured debut album (Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Weezer’s Blue Album, The Strokes’ Is This It, etc), so it is somewhat telling that Radiohead fans share a collective view of Pablo Honey: “eh.” Instead of losing touch, the band has grown leagues from their starting point. Lining up this album with their newest work, it is hard to believe that it’s even the same band. Sure, everybody knows “Creep,” but other than that and a few playful grunge jams, this album is more or less mundane. Do note “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” though, and imagine an alternate universe where Radiohead exist in 1990s’ Seattle.
“Anyone Can Play Guitar”
8. Amnesiac (2001)
Amnesiac belongs in the same brotherhood as Kid A and In Rainbows, but fails to contain that wandering quality in a manageable execution. It’s just a little too out there for me. “Knives Out” is a stand-out, though, and would fit more appropriately on OK Computer or Hail to the Thief.
In conclusion: Radiohead is good. If skeptical, listen to these albums with headphones and investigate their musical breadth.