Continuing our occasional series where we place bands’ albums in order, from best to worst
Last month I wrote a thing explaining, at punishing length, why ‘Paranoid Android’ was the best song of the past 15 years. A few people even agreed with me.
But if ‘Paranoid Android’ is Radiohead’s finest hour, does it follow that ‘OK Computer’ is their most accomplished album? Personally, I don’t think it even comes close.
So what is the Oxford band’s best LP? Well, since that is obviously one of the most profound and important questions facing mankind today, I thought I’d try and settle it ONCE AND FOR ALL. Here goes.
Oh, and before you mention it, yes I know I wrote a piece last year on why ‘Kid A’ was their best album. Well, I’ve changed my mind. And probably will again. Sorry.
1. ‘In Rainbows’
A ray of human warmth melting a 10-year, post-‘OK Computer’ ice age, ‘In Rainbows’ was a miraculous reminder of why we all fell in love with Radiohead in the first place: arcing melodies, Thom Yorke’s incredible violin-bow vibrato, and production that sounds rich and generously layered, rather than brittle and machine-like.
‘In Rainbows’ combines the emotive qualities of early Radiohead, with the subtlety-of-touch they only developed later. Just think of ‘Reckoner’s cello-laced coda – so beautiful, and sounderstated. Plus, on ‘Videotape’, Thom Yorke actually sounds – yes! – heartfelt. Sadly, that’s not a quality he’s displayed on record since, and doesn’t look likely to ever again.
2. ‘The Bends’
They’d never admit it now, but this album was totally influenced by Jeff Buckley. It was initially going to be a full-on rock record in the ‘Pablo Honey’ mould, until the band went out one night to see Jeff Buckley at the Highbury Garage. Thom Yorke came back to the studio that night and recorded his ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ vocal in one take, before bursting into tears.
It’s that nakedly emotional quality that makes ‘The Bends’ great. There’s a weirdly spiritual quality to it, too, which people don’t often pick up on. Listen to ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ – “Immerse your soul in love”. Thom Yorke had been reading up on Buddhism when he wrote that line.
But it’s not all acoustic, falsetto-voiced balladry. There are thrillingly heavy moments, too. The title track, in particular, finds Radiohead rocking out, in a Springsteeny, clench-your-fist kind of way that they’ve never returned to since.
3. ‘Kid A’
Yes, better than ‘OK Computer’, for all the reasons I go into here. It’s not the inhuman, alienated digital squawk everyone seems to think it is. ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’? ‘How To Disappear Completely’? This album is all heart.
4. ‘OK Computer’
You don’t need me to drone on about the genius of ‘OK Computer’. It’s interesting, though, how willing people are to overlook its flaws. When was the last time you thought, ‘Ooh I must listen to ‘Climbing Up The Walls’?
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Plus, ‘Fitter Happier’ – “A cat tied to a stick that’s driven into frozen winter shit”? Who ever thought that was a good idea? The band are apparently embarrassed by the track now, as well they should be.
5. ‘Pablo Honey’
You thought this was going to be in last place, didn’t you? Well, I don’t buy the standard critical line that Radiohead’s debut was a naive mess. Sure, the Johnny Rotten sneer Yorke adopts on songs like ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ has aged badly, but guitar wigouts like ‘Blow Out’ are as fine examples of early 90s, white-noise shoegaze as you’ll find anywhere.
6. ‘The King Of Limbs’
Yes, ‘Codex’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ are both gorgeous. But come on. Eight tracks? That’s all we get? And no, the remix album is not sufficient consolation.
Obviously it contains moments of jaw-on-the-floor genius – every Radiohead album does. ‘Knives Out’, ‘Pyramid Song’ etc. But a lot of it is mystifyingly oblique, maddeningly hard to love, and at least 32% too jazzy. My theory, just throwing it out there, is that no-one in history has ever actually enjoyed ‘Dollars & Cents’.
8. ‘Hail To The Thief’
An album that starts brilliantly (‘2+2=5’)… and then promptly goes nowhere (although ‘There There’ provides a brief window of enjoyment halfway through). Oh, it’s not bad as such. It seems unlikely that any Radiohead album could truly suck. But when you see ‘Hail To The Thief’ pop up on your iPod, don’t tell me your finger isn’t drawn magnetically to the scroll wheel.
Right, that’s my list then. What order would you place the albums in? Post your comment as a numbered list. It’s more, er, ‘fun’ that way.