Updated: Nov 28, 2018
Okay, guys. I’ve spent hours upon hours slaving over this question of how I’d rank Radiohead’s albums, and I think I’ve finally come to some clarity. I think my list is ready.
If you’ve been living under a rock, Radiohead is an art rock band that, throughout their career, has constantly reinvented themselves and expanded their sound; they’ve dabbled in genres like alt rock, chamber pop, dream pop, electronic, and IDM. Their lyrics are pretty pessimistic, cynical, and sadly relatable. For the most part all of their albums have their own sound; even albums that are similar like Kid A and Amnesiac or The Bends and Pablo Honey bring distinct ideas to the table.
Because I have complete and total bias and so much undying love for this band and worship Thom Yorke, you should know that I still feel that every one of these projects has some element to it that’s worth saving. I enjoy all of them, as I think a lot of Radiohead fans do; they never had a moment where they totally fell off or anything. Which is why I feel like it’s a lot of fun to see different perspectives/answers to this question, since it seems to vary so much. So here’s my solution.
1: Kid A- 10/10
Not really sure where to begin with my love for this album.
Let me paint you a picture here. At one point in high school, there was a version of me that didn’t really fuck with experimental music. I didn’t really fuck with Radiohead, either. And I didn’t see why everyone was so in love with them. For context of the story, I was/am an artist; alas, I don’t spend every second of my life analyzing music like this.
So eventually I tried this album out. And I loved it immediately, listened to it over and over again. Finally saw the hype. So it became an album I used to define myself, and as a result of falling in love with it, the way I decided to approach my own art changed. I started to do weird, abstract paintings in which you’d have to pay attention to the beauty of the textures, color mixtures, shapes, etc to see their point. It was something I always wanted to do, but actually going about it seemed pretty risky and uncomfortable. But my extreme love for this project that seemed totally weird and unconventional to me at the time pretty much pushed me over the edge and made me go for it. I had to just take the first step and make a good number of shitty paintings to eventually find a sense of direction. I don’t really think I’ve fully found that sense of direction yet, but at least I’m on the right track now. Thanks Kid A.
(This isn’t not the most crazy, experimental music you’ll ever hear in your life- do know that going in- but it was weird enough for me to love as a kid who only ever frequented pretty conventional alt-rock. It was a perfect middle ground.)
This is a flawlessly consistent, beautifully executed album with an overwhelmingly dismal tone. The flow from track to track adds so much to its narrative. The lyrics are vague and minimal, but so accurately resemble a mind dissociated from life. Just look at the sense of isolation in tracks like How to Disappear Completely or Treefingers. Things get more heavily electronic in Idioteque, a clear highlight in the tracklist. Motion Picture Soundtrack ends the album on a bleak note with its unsettling organ and maybe my favorite lyrics on the whole record.
2. In Rainbows- 9/10
Trying to describe the production on this album is like trying to mention every good thing about the cats that live on my college campus. It’s overwhelming and I don’t know how to approach it, but let me get into some of the extreme highs.
There are so many hidden layers to the production here, every time I listen to it I discover something new about it. Just look at a song like Bodysnatchers for example, with its reverb-heavy guitars, wailing synths and thunderous drums. 15 Step is slightly more mild in tone, but has tons of tempo changes between punchy drums, guitars, and ambient synths. The skeletal guitars and violin on Faust Arp are beautiful without needing to make a big deal of themselves. And then there are beautifully subdued and melodic cuts like Nude, Weird Fishes, and Reckoner, with memorable guitar leads and reverby vocals.
To me In Rainbows is easily one of Radiohead’s most consistent efforts, it’s one highlight after another. There are hard hitting highs and subtly gorgeous moments, and the flow of this album is pretty undeniably flawless.
3. Ok Computer- 8/10
Don’t get me wrong. This is still an undeniably essential listen and crucial to Radiohead’s discography and artistic development. In the stretch from Airbag to Electioneering, it’s otherworldly. The creepy synths and guitar leads in Subterranean Homesick Alien, soft, depressive guitars on Exit Music for a Film, and the way Paranoid Android handles tempo changes and heavy buildups of sound and emotion easily stand out as highlights not only among the album, but Radiohead as a whole. Some of the group’s most lyrically compelling moments are found here, too; we get a sense for Thom Yorke’s cynicism towards the seemingly pointless routine of everyday life, and feeling like an outsider to the rest of the world.
Please don’t kill me for putting this third, though. Hear me out. This album is nearly flawless until we hit the wall (lmao) that is Climbing Up the Walls; a decent song in itself with a ghostly, creepy feel. But then we get No Surprises, whose production puts me to sleep, and this being the first Radiohead song I ever heard contributed stubbornness towards the band for a while. Sure, it works as background/mood music, but it just drags on for way too long. The lyrics here are heartbreaking and beautiful, but it doesn’t make up for the instrumental step back in quality. And Lucky and The Tourist are undeniably forgettable. Without those this would probably be a 10/10. I’m sorry.
4: A Moon Shaped Pool- 8/10
Easily Radiohead’s most stripped-back and skeletal album; however, its full of beautiful layers of quiet/subtle instrumentation make for a pretty compelling listen nevertheless. The descending and ascending pianos and glistening synths on songs like Decks Dark and Daydreaming, weird/alienlike ambient sounds on Ful Stop, and elegant, simple guitar work on Desert Island Disk, and The Numbers are some of its standout moments. This album is pretty unique in the band’s discography and I can’t really compare it to any of their other projects, yet at the same time it fits right in among the others. It’s also insanely consistent the way In Rainbows is; if you forced me to cut a song or two, they’d probably be Present Tense or Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor whatever the fuck it’s called.
5. The King of Limbs- 7/10
I admit this might be a result of my weird recent bias towards electronic music, but I feel that The King of Limbs is a little underrated. It might not be anything revolutionary, and sort of reads like an experiment or side project, but there are a lot of nice textures going on here. It’s easily much more engaging and enjoyable than Hail to the Thief and much more consistent than Amnesiac. The production is a little awkward and messily disjointed at parts, namely moments like Bloom and Little by Little, but it’s still interesting and ultimately enjoyable. The lyrics in the second half become pretty strong; songs like Separator and Give up the Ghost are beautifully melodic and elegant. The project flows well from track to track and doesn’t leave much to be desired; it pretty much achieves everything it sets out to.
6. The Bends- 7/10
I wasn’t alive when this was released, nor did I listen to it growing up, but does The Bends give anyone else unbearable nostalgia? I don’t know, when I listen to High and Dry or My Iron Lung I feel like I’m remembering a time when life was so much simpler. At the same time, I imagine this was much more enjoyable/fresh at the time it was released in the 90s. I don’t think it would’ve been received well had it dropped in 2017, and it’s generally regarded to be the most accessible of any Radiohead release, besides maybe Pablo Honey. Despite not experimenting much in its sound, it’s a pretty consistently enjoyable alt-rock album. Epic highs like Just, The Bends, and High and Dry make its praise feel worthy. Unfortunately though, there are a good amount of moments that didn’t need to be here; Black Star, Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was, and Sulk could’ve all been cut, for example.
7. Hail to the Thief- 6/10
Had this been condensed down to just its most exciting moments, it could’ve been a decent EP, with songs like 2+2=5 with its epic buildup of guitars and Sit Down Stand Up with its intense layering of synths, punchy drumming, piano, and vocal effects, Where I End and You Begin with its eerie layering of vast, spaced-out synths and infectious bassl3ine, Myxomatosis with its wailing synths and reverby production.
I think where this record falls flat is its attempt at condensing a lot of different sides of Radiohead into an album without a clear sense of direction. Backdrifts’ electronic influence could’ve fit into The King of Limbs, Sail to the Moon’s simple piano-based production reminds me of Pyramid Song, the chaos on the second half of Sit Down Stand Up reminds me a little bit of a messier Bodysnatchers. Where the songs don’t sound similar to an album that did or would end up doing it better, they’re unnecessary and filler. Moments like Go to Sleep, I Will, A Punch Up at a Wedding, and Scatterbrain are criminally boring and leave me wondering when the song is going to start.
8. Amnesiac- 5/10
Super inconsistent as an album. I get that it’s a collection of b-sides anyway, but if that’s the case I don’t feel like it should necessarily be ranked next to the others. You have songs with a more atmospheric and stripped-back feel like Pyramid Song and Morning Bell/Amnesiac, songs with an experimental electronic tone like Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors and Packt Like Sardines, Life in a Glasshouse with its piano and strange freakout of horns, Knives Out and I Might Be Wrong with a harder rock groove… this thing just doesn’t flow well at all. I don’t hate it or anything as a whole; had some of these songs been better executed or fully developed, they could have been amazing. Take Hunting Bears for example, a chillingly beautiful guitar cut; but other than some ambient sounds, that’s all there is to it. Why not develop it further or use it somewhere else in a fully realized song? The whole album just feels really half baked.
9. Pablo Honey- 5/10
Is Pablo Honey?
Ok, listen, I actually feel like we shouldn’t be poking fun at this album when there’s albums out there that are way worse. Still, I don’t really think I have to explain myself for this; this was Radiohead before they really found their voice. If not for Creep, this album most likely would’ve faded to total irrelevance as so many bands were doing the exact same thing they did at the time. Still, it’s almost like the way the project is so unassuming and doesn’t try to be anything revolutionary makes it enjoyable. It’s similar to The Bends in aesthetic but has fewer highlights.