The members of Radiohead formed the band at high school – they were originally named On A Friday, reflecting their practice regime at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire. It took them an album to find their feet – debut Pablo Honey contained the hit ‘Creep’, but was lacking in personality compared to their later work. But they launched themselves into the big leagues with 1995’s The Bends, and have never looked back, making them the most acclaimed rock band to emerge in the 1990s.
Like The Beatles and David Bowie, the group’s triumph isn’t being the most experimental group out there, but that they were able to bring adventurous sounds to the mainstream; far more listeners have heard Kid A than have heard the Can, Autechre, and Oliver Messaien recordings that inspired it.
Here’s my take on Radiohead’s nine studio albums, from worst to best. It’s also worth remembering that, in the best British tradition, the band have placed a lot of good material on b-sides, and it’s worth hearing non album material like My Iron Lung and the OK Computer extended edition.
#9 – Pablo Honey
Radiohead’s debut album launched the hit ‘Creep’, but it has less personality than the group’s other work – the only album where they’re trend following and unsure of themselves. Despite some good tunes, it often sounds like the work of a now-forgotten 1990s alt-rock band.
#8 – The King of Limbs
The King of Limbs is a brief collection of songs that sound like b-sides compared to Radiohead’s usual high standards. Even a weak Radiohead album has its moments, however, like the beautiful ‘Codex’ and the brooding ‘Little By Little’.
#7 – Amnesiac
An album of songs drawn from the same recording sessions as Kid A, Amnesiac is a more difficult listen, with some of Radiohead’s most abstract work. But stand out tracks like ‘You And Whose Army’ and ‘I Might Be Wrong’ that mean that Amnesiac deserves official studio album status, rather than relegating these excellent tunes to b-sides.
#6 – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead returned from a five year hiatus album with A Moon Shaped Pool, an album that doesn’t break any new ground, but which is often beautiful and heartfelt. Songs like ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ and ‘Ful Stop’ are strong.
#5 – Hail To The Thief
It’s a little overlong, but there’s a lot of great material on 2003’s Hail To The Thief – ‘There There’ is my favourite Radiohead song, combining the group’s rhythmic exploration and beautiful melodies, while ‘Sail To The Moon’ is another gorgeous piece.
#4 – OK Computer
I know it’s provocative to place the acclaimed OK Computer at #4, but Radiohead have a lot of great albums. Radiohead’s last album as a rock band has great songs like ‘Airbag’ and ‘Paranoid Android’, which overshadow the lesser numbers like ‘Electioneering’ and ‘Fitter Happier’.
#3 – In Rainbows
In Rainbows was famous for its marketing, where fans could nominate their price for the album, but it’s also one of their strongest records, with the gentle electronics giving the album a dreamy, consistent sound. ‘All I Need’ is especially beautiful.
#2 – The Bends
The Bends was Radiohead’s great leap forward – if they were perceived as one hit wonders after Pablo Honey, The Bends cemented their place as one of the most significant bands of their generation. ‘Street Spirit’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ are among the best known songs, but it’s full of strong pieces – opener ‘Planet Telex’ shimmers, ‘Bones’ seethes, and ‘Black Star’ jangles.
#1 – Kid A
Kid A was a daring move from Radiohead – challenging their listeners with more esoteric material after establishing their career as a rock band. The sonic territory staked out on Kid A has effectively fuelled all of the band’s subsequent studio albums. Despite the adventurous eclecticism of the album, ranging from the ambience of ‘Tree Fingers’ to the demented marching band of ‘The National Anthem’, Kid A is full of memorable ideas, and holds up as the band’s finest.
Agree? Disagree? Do you have a favourite Radiohead album?