The Artist Essential Playlist: Radiohead
When I was considering which musical act to kick off the Artist Essential playlist series, it didn’t take me long to settle on Radiohead. Not only are they one of my favorite bands of all time, their insistence on evolving as artists and refusal to cover the same ground twice make it unbelievably challenging to try and capture the essence of their sound in one playlist. The band that broke onto the scene in the early 90s with Creep bears little to no resemblance to the one that released The King of Limbs three years ago. To wit:
At 40 tracks long, this playlist reaches the upper limit I set for myself in the series rules, but even so it seems woefully lacking, with at least a dozen songs foundering in the wake that could have easily been included. Consider then that I wasn’t even able to consider one of their very best albums, In Rainbows, which is not found on Spotify, and you get an idea of the scope of the task.
Anyway, challenges aside, I’m more than pleased with the outcome here. Rather than bore you with a 5000 word piece that struggles to find 40 different ways to say “this song is awesome,” I’ve limited this post to write ups on 10 of the more interesting inclusions on the playlist.
Stop Whispering: Hands down the best song on Pablo Honey, which somehow has become much maligned due to the ubiquitous Creep. I’m here to remind you that it’s a heck of a fun record to sing along with in the car at the top of your lungs, which quite honestly you can’t say about many Radiohead albums.
Let Down: Let Down is my by no means the best song ever written, it’s not even the best song on OK Computer (that honor belongs to Lucky), but it most definitely IS the best song ever to listen to obsessively in the dark with a decent of studio monitoring headphones. This hot mess of a song, with dueling time signatures, complex layering, and overdubbed harmonies, reaches a thrilling, exhilarating, climatic release at the 3:40 mark, signaling one pop music’s absolute zeniths.
The Daily Mail/Fake Plastic Trees: Released nearly 20 years apart, these songs in their own way represent the blueprint that multiple imitators tried and mostly failed to replicate. On the surface it seems quite simple: a simple piano or guitar ballad that starts slowly, and steadily builds into heavier, messier track before fading. The trick is, instead of coming back to a louder, more “rock” finale like you expect, both tracks simply fade away. Much like the great jazz, these songs impress as much with the notes that aren’t played as as with the ones that are. Plus, they are just awesome.
Myxamatosis: Just your typical mix of a fuzz-drenched, un-danceable dance rhythm propelled by an almost criminally complex drum line, with lyrics about a pompous, lothario cat that may or may not be suffering from an obscure disease normally found in rabbits. How could it not be good?
Lotus Flower: The killer song from The King of Limbs that launched a million Thom Yorke/Beyonce mashup gifs with one video.
How to Disappear Completely: The best track from Kid A, one of the defining albums of the 2000s. Alienation, longing, loneliness and despair, and rolled into one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre. The guitars, string instruments, and ethereal electronic sounds that pan across the track create a soundscape unlike nothing else I’ve heard in modern pop music.
Polyethylene Pts. 1&2: Here’s the truly astounding (or infuriating, depending on your perspective) things about Radiohead: of the 40 songs on this playlist, 9 of them received no official release on a studio album, surfacing only as B-sides, bootlegs, or reissues, including this one. Had they wanted, Radiohead probably had enough The Bends/OK Computer songs that sounded enough the very best tracks from those stellar records to release at least two more records that “sounded” like Radiohead. This makes the decision to instead pivot to the sound of the brilliant Kid A instead only that much more astounding. For better or worse, depending upon your outlook, they would rarely return to the three guitar sound that defined their best easy work.
True Love Waits: Barring a miracle reworking or inclusion of True Love Waits on a future release, Radiohead will likely go down as the biggest act in modern recorded music history to withhold their arguably best pure song from a proper album release.
Motion Picture Soundtrack: Radiohead excel at absolutely killer album closing tracks, and this one from Kid A may be the best. Mournful organ and accordion sounds give way to angelic, sweeping harps and the soaring ondes martenot, as Thom Yorke sings of red wine, sleeping pills, cheap sex, and sad films, culminating with a promise to see you in the next life. Simultaneously thrilling, deeply sad, and soaked to the hilt in regret.
Feel free to comment and tell me how woefully wrong I am and/or which one of your favorites I left out. I’m not even finished with this post, and already I’m kicking myself for leaving Fog (Again) out of the mix.