It’s not easy to pick a favorite Radiohead song, let alone create an entire top 100 list, but American Songwriter scribe Jim Beviglia has managed to do just that in his book No Surprises: Radiohead’s Best 100 Songs. Whether you’re a die-hard fan, a casual listener or a Radiohead newbie looking for a place to start, this book will provide an in-depth and insightful look at one of the music industry’s most celebrated bands. Here’s a list of Beviglia’s top 20 Radiohead songs, taken from the book.
20. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”
As the second guitarist in a band in which Jonny Greenwood usually plays lead guitar, it’s understandable how Ed O’Brien often falls off the radar in band discussions. And yet the steadiness of his playing is integral to the band’s success, because it allows Jonny to go off on his daredevil flights and sonic experiments knowing that the core of the song will remain strong. On “Street Spirit,” O’Brien’s steadiness becomes brilliance right before our ears, playing arpeggios that tug at the heartstrings with every clarion note. From there the rest of the song can be built, and yet, at the end, it comes back to the arpeggios once again, not quite fading out so much as bidding us a melancholy farewell (and bidding a farewell to The Bends as well.) Thom Yorke has spoken about the dark alleyways that his lyrics traverse here, as they alternate between desperate hope and resigned despair, despair getting the better of it. Some light creeps in as Yorke sings “Immerse yourself in love” at song’s end, piercing through the Gregorian chant backing vocals, but it’s fleeting. Through it all, those arpeggios persevere. In a way, they keep “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” from being too dark, melancholy as they may be. O’Brien’s playing presses on through it all, unwavering, courageous even, beckoning us to do the same, steady as we go.
19. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”
Thom Yorke on the club scene. Who woulda thunk it? Yet here he is on this In Rainbows track, nailing the inner workings of a one-night-stand-to-be with lothario cool and anthropological attention to detail. His descriptions, all flash cuts and quick shots, are practically cinematic. The band makes a typically atypical move here; whereas the obvious choice might have been to go back to some of the artificial rhythms of Kid A or Amnesiac to portray the desired atmosphere, Radiohead goes with a whooshing acoustic groove that keeps right up with one of Yorke’s more wordier compositions. The vibe of the song is reminiscent of “Hazy Shade Of Winter” by Simon & Garfunkel, which gives an indication of the level of songcraft on display. Yorke’s lyrics get short shrift sometimes, but they shouldn’t be ignored here. He nails the impossibility of true connection between these two damaged souls, impassively rifling off his observations as if he were reading them from notes he had taken. He finally takes off in the chorus, warning his protagonists that, while they seek such fleeting physical pleasures to feel more alive, they’ll end up having no more choice as to how things turn out than inanimate puzzle pieces forever fated to end locked in the same position. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is some of the sexiest music the band has ever laid down, even as the song itself clinically deglamorizes the act of hooking up.
18. “Life In A Glasshouse”
Radiohead knows how to wrap an album up, don’t they? They must have sensed they didn’t have the right candidate laying around to send off Amnesiac, which is why they went in and cut this monumental track in the period before the album’s release (whereas the rest of the album was recorded during the sessions which also yielded Kid A.) Good choice on the band’s part. What an inspired choice it was to bring in Humphrey Lyttleton and his jazz band to take this song to another level. The horns bring the perfect amount of melancholy warbling to the verses, as the trombone and clarinet play off each other as if they were having their own private conversation independent of Thom Yorke’s musings. In the chorus though, they get their act together and all come booming in for a common purpose, creating a New Orleans funeral effect to go along with Yorke’s wails. A funeral is just what Yorke’s lyrics demand, as they bemoan the death of common decency and good graces, those quaint notions replaced by intrusiveness, venom, and scapegoating. Yorke’s clever turns of phrases and subtle broadening of the scope keep this from being just another celebrity bitching about the price of fame. “Life In A Glasshouse,” as aided by those majestically mournfully horns, becomes nothing less than a requiem for empathy.
It is undoubtedly one of the most flat-out beautiful songs Radiohead has ever recorded, an example of a less-is-more approach to recording that the band may not always take but uses to staggering effect here. Coming on the heels of the invigorating throb of “Lotus Flower” on The King Of Limbs, it forms the back half of a 1-2 punch that shows the band at the peak of its myriad powers (and makes me wonder what those people who felt that Limbs was a letdown were hearing.) That entrancing chord pattern does a lot of the work. It starts out mournful before it takes a brief turn upward into the light, only to return into its original somber depths. In that way, it mirrors the different ways that the lyrics can be interpreted. On the one hand, Yorke’s watery imagery hints at innocence and rebirth. When those muffled piano chords turn south, it feels like such ideals are hopelessly out of reach. To amp up the beauty, a lovely flugelhorn part creates some gorgeous counterpoint to the piano chords and the heartbeat rhythm. Yorke’s singing is at its most ethereal here, almost as if he’s playing an angel giving this advice to some lost soul standing at the water’s edge. A brief orchestral interlude shows up in the coda, and then “Codex” is gone, leaving us agape and wanting more.
16. “Motion Picture Soundtrack”
The Beatles once closed out their weirdest album with “Good Night,” which featured Ringo Starr softly whispering a farewell to all the listeners as harps and strings played the song out. Radiohead takes a similar tack on “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” wrapping up the defiantly untraditional Kid A with a song that sounds like Walt Disney in a dour mood. The harps and angels that the band conjures here are seriously at odds with the message of the bulk of the song, as Thom Yorke plays a wheezy pipe organ and bemoans the fact that the movies “fed us on little white lies.” Those lies seem to have failed the at-wit’s-end protagonist. With the sampled harp on overload, Yorke signs off is typically ominous fashion: “I will see you in the next life.” Take that line along with the references to wine and sleeping pills and you can make the easy jump and infer that the character is about to off himself. I’ve never taken such a literal look at it myself though; I look at the song’s message as a general disillusionment with the way the promises our culture spoon-feeds us often bear little resemblance to reality. The rest of Yorke’s lyrics are just a way to amp up the drama. However you choose to read it, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is a stunning closer, hauntingly performed by Yorke and brilliantly conceived in terms of production. Whether you hear that final line as hopeful or harrowing, you can’t deny it’s an unforgettable way to say goodbye.