The induction of Radiohead into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could be perceived as a monumental moment in the preservation of the band’s legacy, or a waste of time, as frontman Thom Yorke seems to believe by shrugging off the ceremony on Friday night (Mar. 29). Yet the honor is, at the very least, an occasion to reflect on what the British quintet has achieved over the course of its quarter-century-plus career, using a pissed-off debut hit single as a springboard to explore the limits of alternative rock, then shift in focus to MIDI-powered electronica, then shake up the modern album distribution model and finally release one of its best-loved live songs on its most recent album.
Because Radiohead has released nine albums, and has never catered to radio to the point of having a large collection of immediately recognizable singles, it may be hard for an unfamiliar listener to know where to start. The following 15 songs provide a starter’s guide for the band’s major eras and most memorable moments, from fan favorites to essential hits, from the songs everyone loves to the ones only true ‘Heads consider indispensable — and yes, one non-Radiohead song is included here, too.
“Creep” (from 1993’s Pablo Honey)
Two things about “Creep” remain undebatable: Radiohead effectively transcended its monster debut single, to avoid one-hit-wonder status and sustain a hall of fame-worthy career; and, nevertheless, “Creep” still rules. The international smash hasn’t been uplifted by Yorke and co. and their career has progressed — they went years and multiple tours without playing it live before finally bringing it back to their set lists in 2016 — but the simmering obsession that boils over into a full-throated howl would make this an enduring alt-rock artifact from the early ‘90s, even if Radiohead hadn’t followed their debut with multiple classic albums.
“Fake Plastic Trees” (from 1995’s The Bends)
“Yearning” is a word that pops up a bunch in critical writing on “Fake Plastic Trees,” and it’s easy to hear why: the way Yorke’s syllables are stretched to their breaking points throughout the song makes it clear he’s reaching for some sort of peace that’s just out of his grasp. The single from The Bends is a prime example of how the songs on that album were able to add dimension to the band’s sound following 1993’s Pablo Honey, and marry their more sentimental impulses with layered instrumentation (here, a mix of organ, strings and acoustic strumming).
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (from 1995’s The Bends)
No shots at “The Tourist,” “Motion Picture Soundtrack” or “Videotape,” but “Street Spirit” remains Radiohead’s most effective album closer to date. A ticking guitar-rock single that pulls back into a woozy sway, Yorke sings about “cracked eggs” and the “beady eyes” of death before concluding the band’s first beloved album with the refrain, “Immerse your soul in love.” For a group that would eventually be playing arenas around the world, “Street Spirit” demonstrated that Radiohead could toss out a more nuanced type of anthem, along with sing-alongs like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High And Dry.”
“Paranoid Android” (from 1997’s OK Computer)
If not Radiohead’s biggest hit, perhaps their best-loved song: the six-and-a-half minutes of “Paranoid Android” contains three distinct sections, tethered together by a pleading urgency in which Yorke lashes out at his unnamed opposition in between distorted guitar screeches and dead-eyed harmonies. The comparisons to “Bohemian Rhapsody” were inevitable, but whereas Queen’s song suite bursts with melodic joy, the moody “Paranoid Android” is full of anxiety and lacks any obvious hooks, making its crossover success (it became a No. 3 hit in the U.K., still the band’s biggest to date) all the more unlikely. Regardless, the second track on OK Computer showcased that album’s ambition, and the band’s refusal to safely abide within the tropes of alternative rock.
“Karma Police” (from 1997’s OK Computer)
The only Radiohead song to appear on a Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation in the U.S., “Karma Police” stands as one of the band’s biggest alternative radio hits, and one of the reasons the critically lauded OK Computer was able to cross over to mainstream rock fans. The song’s verse-chorus structure and abundant vocal hooks certainly make it more accessible than most of the band’s singles, although there’s still an Orwellian sense of dread — magnified by Yorke’s wailing outro, “For a minute there/I lost myself, I lost myself,” as the cacophony grows — that makes this a uniquely Radiohead hit. For all the brilliance of OK Computer, the album would have been missing its gateway to the masses if “Karma Police” wasn’t positioned as its centerpiece.
“Let Down” (from 1997’s OK Computer)
There are other songs on OK Computer worth highlighting — the opening rush of “Airbag,” the searing balladry of “Exit Music (For a Film),” the bleary-eyed beauty of “No Surprises” — but there are few moments in Radiohead’s vast catalog more powerful than the bridge of “Let Down,” in which a disaffected Yorke raises his arms and quivers toward a feeling of hope through the cynicism: “Floor collapsing, falling/ Bouncing back and one day, I am gonna grow wings.” Meanwhile, the guitar interplay between Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien is stunningly crisp, and builds to a crowd-pleasing catharsis that Radiohead has rarely embraced since.
“Everything In Its Right Place” (from 2000’s Kid A)
It took about three seconds for Radiohead fans to realize how drastic a departure 2000’s Kid A was going to be from the guitar-driven alternative music of OK Computer, as album opener “Everything In Its Right Place” starts with a thick clump of synthesizer and proceeds to feature Yorke’s disembodied, highly processed voice looped on top. Taken as the literal beginning of a new era for the band in 2000, “Everything In Its Right Place” served as a stunning rebuke of everything that made Radiohead a world-conquering group in the 1990s — but removed from its context, remains hypnotic, ghostly and a mean groove, especially when performed live.
“Idioteque” (from 2000’s Kid A)
Speaking of grooves, the drum-machine smashes on “Idioteque” — the most immediately satisfying song on the famously uncommercial (but still Billboard 200-topping) Kid A — serve as the foundation of this frantic doomsday dance that remains the album’s most cohesive fusion of experimental electronic music and traditional rock song structure. The yawning four-chord phrase was actually borrowed from a piece by computer music pioneer Paul Lansky, and Yorke has said that he came up with some of the lyrical yelps — “Ice age coming,” “First of the children” — by literally pulling phrases out of a hat.
“Pyramid Song” (from 2001’s Amnesiac)
Recorded during the same sessions as Kid A and released just seven months after its more polished predecessor, Amnesiac was always doomed to suffer from little-brother syndrome within Radiohead’s discography. However, the set very likely contains the most jaw-droopingly beautiful track on either album in “Pyramid Song,” a cracked piano ballad that blossoms to include a haunting string section, performed by the Orchestra of St. John’s in England. Although most of Amnesiac has fallen away from Radiohead’s recent set lists, “Pyramid Song” endures as a daring instrumental experiment and showcase for Yorke’s melancholy vocals.
“There, There” (from 2003’s Hail to the Thief)
Similar to Amnesiac, Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail to the Thief is largely considered one of the band’s lesser works; at the very least, it’s one of their most unwieldy, with acoustic lullabies, folk riffs, tape loops, and choral chants sprawled across its 14 tracks. Lead single “There There” is where the band’s prodding alt-rock congeals and nears the dazzling highs of OK Computer, however: Colin Greenwood’s bass guides the action forward, the harmonies unfurl during the second verse and Yorke’s hook, “Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there,” works as a universal cry. This is Radiohead at its showiest, and it’s one of the most important songs to understanding their appeal.
“Atoms For Peace” (from 2006’s The Eraser)
This is cheating a little, as “Atoms For Peace” is not a Radiohead song but a Thom Yorke track from his solo debut, 2006’s The Eraser. Yet the album, recorded during one of the group’s breaks, is a worthwhile exploration of Yorke’s electronic predilections and political leanings (like Hail to the Thief, the album is critical of the George W. Bush administration and War on Terror). The sparse, jittery “Atoms For Peace” finds Yorke at his most emotionally bare; its title is a reference to an Eisenhower speech on atomic warfare, and later became the name of a short-lived supergroup featuring Yorke, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, among others.
“15 Step” (from 2007’s In Rainbows)
For many Radiohead fans, listening to In Rainbows album opener “15 Step” for the first time took place following one of the group’s biggest surprises to date: They announced a new album one week before its release in October 2007, and a pay-what-you-want online model that was unheard of at the time. Hearing Yorke’s falsetto on “15 Step” after opting to pay a penny, or less, made for a revelatory moment; today, the song still stands as one of their more successful marriages of electronic and rock music — programmed beats percolating next to workmanlike guitar riffs — and a preview of the fleshed-out album to follow.
“Reckoner” (from 2007’s In Rainbows)
“Reckoner” is not flashy, especially when compared to In Rainbows rockers like “Bodysnatchers” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.” It’s elliptical, with a structure that’s evident only when really paying attention to the slight flare-ups that comprise the chorus. Yet “Reckoner” has become a Radiohead fan favorite because of its shuddering beauty, as Yorke’s voice and backing falsettos seamlessly blend into the icy clanging of the percussion and the coda’s restrained string section. Although the band has used a wall-of-sound approach to vocals in the past, “Reckoner” may be their most artful harmonizing to date.
“Lotus Flower” (from 2011’s The King of Limbs)
The highlight of the band’s muted The King of Limbs, “Lotus Flower” is forever tied to its black-and-white music video, in which Yorke is shown dancing spastically by himself, to the point in which memes were inevitable. Although it heralds the band’s least-acclaimed album — when its eight tracks were released in early 2011, fans wondered in vain whether it was really part one of a two-part release — the song’s spiked bass line has made it a commanding moment in Radiohead’s live show, even if Yorke’s body movements are often more reserved than the music video during performances.
“True Love Waits” (from 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool)
Think of “True Love Waits” as a sonic password to the Radiohead Fan Club: if you only think of it as the final song on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and not a beloved composition that the band has been performing since the mid-90s and released on a live album in 2001 before finally, properly recording 15 years later, you’re probably not getting in. The reason why diehards adore “True Love Waits”? It really is that powerful of a statement on devotion and the way in which love endures as we evolve, or try not to in order to preserve it. The live version is acoustic, the studio version is electronic, and both are essential to understanding one of Radiohead’s biggest bits of folklore.