Radiohead’s one of the few bands left from the 90s alternative rock boom that can still be called big without any stretch of credibility. They’re responsible for millions of albums sold, thousands of fans, and hundreds of thinkpieces; it could be argued that no modern music group has been written about more often than Thom Yorke and company. Well, today, I’m going to be adding my own ranking of their studio discography to that monolith.
I’ve had this idea for awhile because Radiohead and I have a weird push/pull relationship. I find a lot of their work really enjoyable, but I roll my eyes at them a lot, too. I find a lot of the praise dumped on them to be a bit much, and while I really like their music, I’ve also heard plenty of ‘head that left me really underwhelmed at the same time. I find them a fun band to talk about, but just a band all the same. So, let’s get down to ranking their studio albums.
8. The King of Limbs (2011)
Or “How To Bore Your Fans Completely”. The King of Limbs came out when I was less than a year into running this site, and I spent a lot of time reading other reviews for it while writing my own. So many of them, mine included, sounded like they were written by people who were telling themselves that they liked this album, that they had to like it. This is Radiohead we’re talking about, Radiohead wouldn’t release something bad.
Looking back, I dislike TKOL for two reasons. First of all, it’s Radiohead catering to all of the things I don’t like about them. It’s dense, it’s self-satisfied, and feels too concerned with being “arty” to have any real meaning. But more than that, there’s nothing really to TKOL. I more than understand that Radiohead isn’t an instant gratification act–anyone who says that they “got” Kid A on the first listen is a damn liar, but with “grower” albums, there has to be something there that keeps a listener coming back. And TKOL’s scattered beats and loops are well-made when you’re listening to them, but that’s all they are: pleasant, well-made, and too sterile to leave a lasting impression.
7. Pablo Honey (1993)
Oh (Pablo) Honey. If only we knew where Radiohead would go from here, right? The band’s grunge-tastic debut often gets flak for being their worst album, and listening to the rest of their discography, it’s a clear fish out of water. In a vacuum, Pablo Honey wouldn’t be considered a terrible record; the arrangements are mostly tasteful, and it has some of Thom Yorke’s most all-out vocals; the album’s biggest selling point nowadays is that it brands one of the smartest/artiest band of the 90s as overeager British grungees. If Radiohead hadn’t become, well, Radiohead, PH would be remembered as a kind-of-ok but derivative album (hi U2, hi Nirvana) that housed “Creep”. The worst thing about PH is that it’s a wholly uninteresting album then and now. It was uninteresting in 1993 against records like In Utero and Vs., and it’s uninteresting now against everything else Radiohead’s done.
6. Amnesiac (2001)
It’s been my experience that this album and the next entry on this list vie for the spot of Least Talked About Radiohead Album, meaning that it still gets a fair amount of coverage. Recorded in the same sessions as Kid A, and released a year afterward, Amnesiac will always and forever fight a reputation as “Kid A: The B-Sides”: the songs hit a little harder, but are less crafted and engaging. There are standouts like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and instant classic “The Pyramid Song”, but misfires like “Like Spinning Plates” as well. Even without the unfavorable comparison to a stone-cold masterpiece, Amnesiac still feels a underwhelming and hollow in a The King of Limbs way, but there are a few more notable moments here. It’s ok, but still one of the lesser offerings from the band.
5. Hail to the Thief (2003)
After mucking around with electronics and programming for two albums, Hail to the Thief was Radiohead getting back to “basics” (read: sounding a little more like OK Computer). Hail to the Thief is the Radiohead album that sounds the most like Radiohead; there’s some big, loud, electric guitars, some programmy whammy bleepy bloopy stuff, and loads of 21st century paranoia—the album’s title is a commentary on George W. Bush stealing the 2000 election, visual themes for the artwork include consumerism and War on Terror jitters.
Hail to the Thief is the Radiohead album I’m the most neutral to. Anytime I listen to it, I feel like there should be something there, but I can’t quite get at it. And, unlike The King of Limbs, this album has material that I keep wanting to come back to; “There, There”, “Stand up, Sit Down”, and “Sail to the Moon” are great, and “A Wolf at the Door” is downright terrifying. But, like I said, I can’t quite see what the album’s trying to say, and there’s a malaise that makes listening to it a sour experience for songs at a time.
4. In Rainbows (2007)
It’s a mark that In Rainbows is a great album that whenever it’s brought up these days, the quality of the music outshines the “pay what you want” model under which it was released. Like its predecessor Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows is Radiohead in “band” mode, but instead of HttT’s twitchy paranoia, IR has a sense of sleek melancholy. The ‘head albums are known for Nigel Godrich’s immaculate production, but something about the warm mix on IR is a head above the band’s other records. That mix, along with the band’s great songcraft, makes this album the most user-friendly and accessible work that Radiohead’s ever done.
What makes In Rainbows work is that it came at a point in the band’s career where they didn’t feel like they had to do anything other than make a great pack of songs that sounded like Radiohead. It’s a sleek album for sure, but there are also harder hitting moments like the utterly heartbreaking “All I Need”, the bleak “Reckoner”, and “Bodysnatchers”, the three-guitared sequel to “Paranoid Android”. If this album is ranked “low”, it’s only because the band’s top three records are so great.
3. OK Computer (1997)
Often considered Radiohead’s magnum opus, OK Computer was a game changer when it came out. It revitalized alternative rock when the subgenre was running dry. It was prog-rock friendly, but still had hooks. It handled heavy topics, but was still approachable. It’s rightly considered one of the best albums of the 90s, and I’m only putting it at number three.
I can explain.
For me, OK Computer, while brilliant, is a very uneven album. “Paranoid Android”, “Let Down”, “Karma Police”, and “No Surprises” are all flawless songs, but as an end-to-end album, OK Computer meanders a little too much for me to rank it above either of these next two; I find it’s second half fairly skippable. It’s a scary, thought-provoking album that resonates as much today as it did when it was released, and is rightly regarded as a masterpiece. And speaking of masterpieces…
2. Kid A (2000)
Were it not for how much I really like my number one pick, Kid A would take the top honor. Hell, if this list was ranked by how much time I’ve spent with each album, it’d be first by a long shot. If OK Computer was called one of the best albums of the 90s, then Kid A is routinely called the best album of the 00s.
I think the reason that Kid A gets so much attention and adoration is that it’s one of those albums that you just have to “get”, and by that time you’ve listened to it so much that everything is in its right place. And while it takes awhile to come around to tracks like “Kid A”, the album also has constant, immediate victories: the deliriousness of “The National Anthem”, utter despair at “How to Disappear Completely”, and the techno-pop freak-out (but oh so catchy) “Idioteque”. Those anchors keep you coming back to Kid A, and eventually, you even get to appreciate the more oblique stuff. I remember walking home from campus a few years ago, and listening to the album in full. It was late, and I was on the second chorus of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, and everything just clicked. It’s been a favorite ever since.
1. The Bends (1995)
Radiohead beat the sophomore slump by ditching damn near every hallmark of Pablo Honey, and making one of the hallmark alternative rock albums with The Bends. It’s not a common choice for the best album, but it’s the one that I feel the most confident in.
There’s no discernible lull on The Bends; even the less interesting songs feel like part of the whole, and they aren’t clumped together to bog down a particular section of the record. The Bends is the last time until In Rainbows 12 years and 5 albums later that there wouldn’t be a concept behind a Radiohead album, and it’s arguably better for it. Sure, themes are common, but The Bends isn’t intrinsically about the ghosts in the machine or the hell of modern life; it’s a collection of solid songs.
What a bunch of songs it is. Radiohead made a career out of writing about thinking the world’s ending, but the loops and crashing guitars on “Planet Telex”, the freakout towards the end of “My Iron Lung”, and the rapid-fire loud/soft of “Just” are unhinged in a way that makes The End less of a musing, and more of a threat. And then comes the utter hopelessness of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” to push that threat home. The Bends is still alt. rock to the bone like Pablo Honey, but there’s intricacy here that was unthinkable on that album: “Fake Plastic Trees” remains one of the band’s finest moments, and Johnny Greenwood’s guitar tone throughout the album—at once hysteric and aggressive but still wildly expressive and diverse, make it one of the best of the 90s.
The Bends might not have taken the music world over like Kid A or OK Computer, but it’s still a hell of a package that hasn’t lost a step since its 1995 release. It’s cohesive, well-crafted, affecting, and cathartic, and my pick for Radiohead’s best.
Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in comments!