Radiohead might be the most critically-revered rock band on the planet, if, indeed, they can still be considered a 'rock' group at this point, 37 years into a singular, superlative career during which the quintet have repeatedly, and fearlessly, rewritten their collective DNA, and redrawn the landscape of modern music in the process.
It's fair to say that such considerations were not uppermost in the thoughts of Thom Yorke, brothers Jonny and Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien and Philip Selway when they coalesced on a Friday, in 1985 in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, to ape the sound of the nascent shoegaze scene that was beginning to take shape in the surrounding area. But the journey they have shared since those early days has been nothing short of spectacular. Here, ordered from worst to best, are the studio albums which helped transform a haphazard school band into one of the most acclaimed, influential and commercially successful guitar groups of the century.
9. Pablo Honey (1993)
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The irony of Radiohead’s best-known song, the albatross-like Creep, appearing on their debut, and least remarkable, album is not lost on hardcore fans. Pablo Honey is a still-developing group's decent attempt to meld shared passions for British indie and American alternative rock, but never amounts to much more than the sum of its influences.
NME voted Pablo Honey the 35th best album of 1993, trailing behind sets from Gallon Drunk, Dodgy, The Boo Radleys and fellow newcomers Suede, and had Radiohead settled for adhering to this stylistic path, their often-charming debut would doubtless be remembered fondly by nostalgic 40-something indie guitar fans. What we got instead though far, far eclipses it.
8. The King of Limbs (2011)
With a running time of 37 minutes and 34 seconds, TKOL is the shortest Radiohead album, and one might reasonably suggest that its brevity is evidence of Radiohead struggling a touch for inspiration. The King of Limbs is far from bad, but it lacks the forward-thinking uniqueness or emotional heft of the majority of the band's output.
It’s a very pretty, rather slight, record peppered with some truly excellent moments - the broken beats that open Bloom, the funereal march of Codex - but one that falls ever so slightly short of the sky-high standards that Radiohead have set themselves.
7. A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
Already we're at a point where we have to start splitting hairs, as A Moon Shaped Pool is a fantastic record, signalling a clear return to form for the band. Signs were good when the gloriously dark and threatening Burn The Witch was released as its first single, but that only hinted at the treasures present on this album.
The emergence of reworked fan favourite True Love Waits, first performed live in 1995, is a testament to the group's refusal to sell themselves short - "This is something like approach number 561, but it is a great song" guitarist Ed O'Brien wrote in his online diary - and for a band nearly 30 years into their career to come up with the transcendent, sci-fi throb and pulse of Ful Stop is mightily impressive.
6. Hail to the Thief (2003)
The politically-minded Hail to the Thief may stand as the most underrated set of songs of Radiohead’s career. Written against the backdrop of The War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq, the band crafted a set of often angry, often hope-free, tunes that drew on the frustration and paranoia of the situation in a typically masterful way.
Guitars were brought back into sharp focus, and the artistry with which the group coalesce rock with their electronic flights of fancy on a song like Go to Sleep is all too often overlooked. Across 14 tracks, not everything impacts as forcefully as opener 2 + 2 = 5 - the band themselves have acknowledged it would benefit from tighter editing - but it's loaded with ideas which repay repeat visits.
5. Amnesiac (2001)
The sister companion to Kid A, Amnesiac suffers slightly by comparison, due to fans' awareness of, and new-found familiarity with, the stylistic shift the band had made. Which doesn’t stop it from being a phenomenal set of songs.
Featuring the now iconic Pyramid Song, with its lumbering piano chords which can still chill the blood and raise hairs, the group's fifth album is chock full of broken beats, throbbing electronic bass, haunted keys and Yorke’s hypnotic vocals. Recorded in the same studio sessions as its more acclaimed predecessor, it's evidence of the overflowing well of ideas that were spewing from the band in this liberating, richly creative and uninhibited phase of their career.
4. In Rainbows (2007)
A record that divided opinion on arrival due to the manner in which it was released, the controversy over In Rainbows ‘Pay what you want’ marketing strategy seems quite quaint these days, but it caused something of a kerfuffle back in 2007.
Ultimately though, nothing was going to overshadow the music, and the further away we get from the release of In Rainbows the better it seems to sound. From the garage rock fuzz of Bodysnatchers to the delicately-picked-but-rhythmically-propulsive Weird Fishes/Arpeggi to the ghostly, electro dub-clash of All I Need, there’s not a second wasted here.
3. Kid A (2000)
A record that surprised, confused and actually outraged many fans upon its release, today Kid A is rightly lauded as one of the most important and essential albums of our time. It’s easy to see why it caused such ire at the time, with a huge rock band turning its back on the conventions of the genre to instead completely embrace and immerse themselves in the sonics of ambient electronic music.
Time has validated Radiohead's boldness, with many of their most beloved and popular songs, The National Anthem and Idioteque among them, appearing here. Some have called it the best album of the Millennium: that we don’t even consider it the second-best album of the band's career shows how bulletproof Radiohead’s back catalogue is.
2. The Bends (1995)
Silver medal for The Bends? Controversial? Well, a distinction between ‘best’ and ‘favourite’ might be needed here. Because while we cannot deny that Kid A and In Rainbows push, pull and manipulate the foundations of the genre far more than Radiohead's second album does, when it comes to the sheer weight of stunning, affecting songs that truly move you, can any album, by anyone, match this?
From the simple beauty of Fake Plastic Trees, to the caustic freakout of My Iron Lung, from the anthemic pull of the title track, to the haunting fragility of Street Spirit, every song here is pretty much perfect.
1, OK Computer (1997)
If The Bends is “pretty much perfect” then OK Computer is, in this writer's considered opinion, absolutely perfect in a way that almost no other album in the history of music, regardless of genre, is.
In 1997 British music was dominated by the laddish, nostalgia-driven sound of Brit-Pop, until OK Computer came and killed it stone dead. The impact of the album saw it heralded by music critics as the best ever made within a year of its release, with its creators lauded as the most important band since The Beatles. It seemed heady praise at the time, but, for once, the hype was justified: today these 12 songs are firmly established in the lexicon of truly classic pop culture.
The aching sadness, the vast cinematic glory, the icy ambience and the clattering Krautrock, the frail whispers that cause you to lean in and the wild and delirious bursts of noise that propel you back... OK Computer is simply a once in a generation masterpiece.