A band that has always been extremely polarising within the prog community, Radiohead’s name is often met with either glowing adoration or groans. Yet, their sense of adventure has never been up for debate. From Pablo Honey’s grunge dipped alt-rock and the stratospheric success of OK Computer’s stirring melancholia to King Of Limb's electronic-jazz exploits and collaborating with Hans Zimmer, they’ve never been afraid to try new things.
Throughout their career, as this list attests, their progressive ambitions have been a perpetual undercurrent to their songwriting, from subtle flourishes to grandiose complexity. Here, we run through the band’s ten proggiest moments.
From 2007’s In Rainbows, which was released as a pay-what-you-want download helping set a trend continued by countless artists today, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is a fine example of the band’s hidden complexities. Without getting bogged down by technical mumbo-jumbo, not only is its jittery intro instantly recognisable, it also has three time signatures happening at once. Drummer Philip Selway and both guitarists – Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien – purposefully play out of sync with each other to create a beautiful, moving piece of art rock belying of its disjointedness.
Exit Music (For A Film)
Since its release, Exit Music (For A Film), while not written for the silver screen, has been used countless times in film and TV thanks to its gripping cinematic darkness. It hangs heavy, providing the musical bedrock for shadowy plot twists and tear-jerking moments with, Romeo + Juliet, Black Mirror and Westworld all using the song to heighten the drama of their storytelling to name just a few. The latter was a re-imagined string quartet working, proving it isn’t just its lyrics, but the atmosphere of the song as a whole that has made the song such a success.
Written for the 2015 James Bond film of the same name, Spectre’s progressive approach to Bond themes was supposedly rejected for being too depressing, with Sam Smith’s more hopeful Writing’s On The Wall chosen instead. Featuring night-dark piano, mournful strings and a powerful, wounded vocal performance from Thom Yorke, they twisted many iconic Bond theme tropes through their own lens, maintaining the class and grandeur of the Franchise but adding the grit and more vulnerable nature of Daniel Craig’s reinvented secret agent. It shows that the band will always do things their way.
As Radiohead developed as musicians and songwriters, they began to prioritise rhythms over melodies. Bloom is another song to open an album in a strange way, but as its shuffling, dislocated rhythm unravels, it takes on a hypnotic effect. Thom Yorke is quoted as saying that “almost every tune is like a collage” and that on Bloom, “the melodies were there but so much was implied so that when you did embellish, it [would] really come out of itself.”
The National Anthem
Another pick from Kid A, whilst The National Anthem starts with a typically Radiohead alt-rock bassline, where it progresses to gives the song so much more. The album writing sessions were heavily jam orientated, with Can cited as a driving factor for that, but it’s the spirit of Beefheart that’s most prominent in the discordant brass that wrangles and writhes above that driving bassline.
Yorke says the song, from In Rainbows was “born out of a mad rhythm experiment.” Underpinned by a stuttering electronic drum beat in 5/4, the band adopts a twofold approach on top of its pulse, with uneasy, unhappy and jarring moments greatly contrasting the brighter refrains that add a greater melodic power to the songs captivating weirdness.
On its surface, Pyramid Song is just a sad piano ballad bruised with sweeping strings. Dig deeper though and you’ll find irregular rhythms pulling the song in different directions as it draws heavily from the avant-garde jazz of the late Charles Mingus. For its lyrics, meanwhile, Yorke found inspiration from an Egyptian underworld exhibition he had visited whilst recording in Copenhagen, as well as Buddhist musings on time. The track remains a mainstay of their live shows today.
My Iron Lung
Even at their most primal, Radiohead loved making music that flirted with the bizarre. My Iron Lung doubles the clean guitars of its verse with surreal effects-lavished takes that give the progression an evil undertone before lurching into a chaotic, punching chorus. Elements of the song wouldn’t sound out of place on King Crimson’s THRAK, released that same year and its template would later become the blueprint for large chunks of Muse’s debut album Showbiz.
From their most recent album, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool which showcased a much more stripped back sound, Identikit prevails as a major highlight. Its perpetual motion is attained by Selway’s sharp, stabbing beat, as choral textures, ethereal electronics and jutting overdriven guitars come and go. The dizzying repetition of Yorke’s vocal refrain grows increasingly agitated and besmirched before grating jazz guitars see out the song in a way that only Radiohead could by finding something beautiful in jarring noise.