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Listen: Radiohead's 11 Best Guitar Songs
Revisit the Oxford, England group’s highlights to date.
True love does indeed wait -- and it seems that longtime Radiohead fans’ dedication and patience may finally be rewarded with a return to form.
"I've always been extreme about resisting us being a drum-guitar-bass band," Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke recently told Rolling Stone. "But if that's what people want to try, I'm too old to be standing there with a hammer and saying, 'We must do this, we must do that!' I would like everyone to feel free."
What words! What words! Of course, Radiohead minted their career with the alt-rock anthem “Creep,” then followed up with the beautifully melancholy, guitar-forward The Bends. Then the quintet began a period of experimentation, adding layers and electronic flourishes to their guitar-pop sound on OK Computer, a masterstroke that turns 20 years old this month. From there, the band dove head first into the electronic realm, culminating in the genius 2000 LP Kid A. Since then, the lads have continued to push the borders of sound, periodically dropping a guitar-led tune between their other more colorful, warped songs. But for OG fans of Radiohead’s early work, the band’s purposeful return to meat-and-potatoes rock music is basically the holy grail.
While we wait, though, let’s revisit the band’s best guitar songs to date, from early album tracks to B-sides, unreleased tunes and even the rare guitar gem from their more recent catalog.
Yorke’s crippling fear of travel and technology fueled the beauty of OK Computer, just like it did with this tender but hyper-direct, Computer-era B-side. First released on 1995’s “High and Dry”/ ”Planet Telex” UK single, the track finds Yorke’s piercing falsetto reciting a tale that will have you think twice next time your seatbelt goes “Click!”: “Too hard on the brakes again / What if these brakes just give in?” he sings over hard-jangling guitar buzzes. “What if they don't get out of the way? / What if there's someone overtaking?”
Then Jonny Greenwood hits the gas, accelerating into a teetering-out-of-control solo that’s among the band’s best, ever. “I'm going out for a little drive,” Yorke sings again. “And it could be the last time you see me alive.”
This track definitely puts the “drums” into Yorke’s aforementioned comment. It’s a rhythmic masterstroke, a bouncy, swaggering jam with Radiohead’s signature experimentation in the face of Britpop basics. Sure, there are moments of floating-into-the-ether keys, but its rhythmic interlocking is the star, driving a hard beat with ace guitar work and unhinged solos. Oh, and who could forget: The spine-tingling cackles that close out the tune.
“2+2=5 (The Lukewarm)”
Musically, it’s a spiritual sibling to “Paranoid Android,” but this multi-part guitar epic has a much different message. Back before Donald Trump made George Bush look like FDR by comparison, there was serious opposition to (a) Bush’s questionable victory in the polls over Al Gore and (b) a little scuffle called the Iraq War, which the band, especially Yorke, opposed.
So the third and final single from 2003’s Hail to the Thief -- itself a reference to Hail to the Chief, the official anthem of the President of the United States of America -- attacks the C-in-C in menacing swirls of guitar that are patch-worked together to form a rock epic that’s constantly shifting. It’s an art rock middle finger to the man, and its description of an evil, attention-hungry world leader is certainly apropos now.
It’s easy to brand “Knives Out” as the most straight-forward song to emerge from Radiohead’s experimental, epiphany-giving Kid A / Amnesiac sessions. And while the band closed the millennia with producer Nigel Godrich electronically deconstructing their sound while under the influence of classical, dance and Krautrock sounds, “Knives Out” is far more than just “The song without any accoutrements.” Its interweaving electric guitars twinkle and glide, and its structure is smooth and linear, nodding to jazz influences -- and, damn, it’s sexy, evil and empowering: “Knives out,” Yorke wails. “Cut him up. Squash his head. Put him in the pot.” Toothpick please!
This The Bends gem is a crushing tale of life on the road, away from a loved one, a relationship strained by the miles in between, told with melodically devastating walls of guitar and Yorke’s pleading. “I keep falling over I keep passing out when I see a face like you / What am I coming to?” he wails. “Blame it on the black star / Blame it on the falling sky / Blame it on the satellite that beams me home.” The guitars fall in a powerful, descending melody -- one so affecting it ceases to amaze 23,549 listens later. It’s un-wear-out-able.
It’s a beast! First released on the “High And Dry”/ ”Planet Telex” UK single in ‘95, this track finds Radiohead slingin’ guitars and charging hard. It’s several guitar riffs tied together -- some melodic interludes; others monster wrecking balls -- with Yorke’s falsetto flying overhead. Then Greenwood lets loose a spiking shiv of a solo over a one-two-three punch rhythmic start-stop. In terms of outsized guitar anthems, this is impressive, even for the band that wrote “Paranoid Android.”
It was the song that almost changed the arc of Radiohead’s career. Back in ’96, Radiohead were road testing material for their upcoming third album on tour with Alanis Morissette, who was at peak Jagged Little Pill fame. They played it 30-plus times live, and with its feather-light melodies and catchy vocal melodies about seizing the day, “Lift” was pegged as the first single for the LP that became OK Computer.
Then it went into hiding for over 20 years. “It was a really interesting song,” Ed O’Brien told BBC 6 Music. The audience … suddenly you’d see them get up and start grooving. It had this infectiousness. It was a big anthemic song. If that song had been on that album, it would’ve taken us to a different place, and probably we’d have sold a lot more records... And everyone was saying this, and we kind of subconsciously killed it. If OK Computer had been like a Jagged Little Pill, it would’ve killed us.” But, finally, it’ll see its proper release later this month on the repackaged release of OK Computer, OKNOTOK.
It’s OK Computer’s Guitar Hero moment. Like the outsized “Maquiladora,” this track is a straight-up rock song, nodding to prog rock, Krautrock and Queen simultaneously. Greenwood leads his six string in a total spazz out, a moment of careening awesomeness that sends sonic sparks flying. Its title and lyrics use a metaphor of a politician selling his party platform to critique the live promotional shows the band were performing to sell their music -- “Say the right things when electioneering,” Yorke sings, “I trust I can rely on your vote.” But it’s the high-voltage electric guitar work that rightfully contributes to Greenwood’s rep as a genius.
“House of Cards”
It’s the sexiest song in the Radiohead catalog. The quintet do sad and melancholy, surreal, experimental, jazzy, mysterious and dancey. But there’s not much in the below-the-belt category. This In Rainbows tune fixes that. “I don't wanna be your friend / I just wanna be your lover,” Yorke directs, detailing a story of two married lovers in a secret tryst, as he strums a jazz-inflected riff. Meanwhile, the band’s two other guitarists round out the full sound, with O’Brien plucking a hip-swerving groove and Greenwood bringing the lava-lamp atmospherics. “Denial,” Yorke croons, “dennnniiiiaaaaallllllllllllll.” Then the backing vocals come up an -- sssswoooooooooon -- everyone melts inside.
Explosive or acoustic, both versions of this tune are stunning. Originally released on Pablo Honey, Radiohead’s 1993 debut, “Blow Out” was the LP’s closer, employing the Pixies-style loud-to-soft-and-repeat dynamic with a jazzy flair, Yorke’s songwriting and Greenwood’s guitar work showing those who were really listening that their musical ambitions extended far beyond “Creep.” Then an unofficial acoustic version of “Blow Out,” recorded on-air at a U.S. radio station with a tropicalia-like hand-drum (from the Posies’ John Auer!), found favor with super fans online, helping to further dispel the myth that Pablo Honey was a one-hit wonder. Because, in fact, the LP is an early look at one of the world’s most important bands -- and hints at the heights their ambitious music will later reach.
It’s the most celebrated song on Radiohead’s most celebrated album. After opener “Airbag” sets the album’s impressionistic, anxious tone, the next song, “Paranoid Android,” kicks the door down. It’s a six-minute-long “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the end of the millennium, as computers, handheld devices and trains, planes and automobiles change the ways we behave and interact with each other, forever.
Over four distinct parts, Yorke squeals about consumerist Gucci piggies, a theme inspired by his witnessing a woman become violent when a drink was spilled on her at an L.A. bar. “There was a look in this woman's eyes that I'd never seen before anywhere,” Yorke once said. “[I] couldn't sleep that night because of it.” It’s a complicated song from the ground up -- even the basic acoustic tablature is tough to play on guitar -- with the band layering on the additional glockenspiels, guitars, organs and percussion. It’s an undisputed masterpiece -- one of the last of its kind.