15. “A Punchup At A Wedding”
Considering that Radiohead is a band for which critical hosannas are pretty much the norm, it’s probably a shock to their system when they get a dash of the negative stuff thrown their way. This underrated track from Hail To The Thief was apparently inspired by a thumbs-down review of a performance which the band themselves thought was top-notch. As someone who knocked a few (though very few) of the band’s songs earlier in this list, you might think I would have a problem the band’s rabbit ears. But if a critic can sound off on someone, than the soundee has every right to fire right back in kind. And when you can fire right back as effectively as the band does on “Punchup,” well then, score one for them. This is the band at its most funky, achieving a groove with Colin Greenwood’s slinking bass and some downbeat piano chords not unlike something you would hear from mid-period Steely Dan. Static-charged blasts of guitar add some spunk to the later verses. And I love the “no, no” part at the start and conclusion, the way they’re all overdubbed on top of each other to make it sound like about a thousand Thom Yorkes have formed a melancholy mob. Yorke pretty much makes minced meat of his detractors, reducing their purple prose to “The pointless snide remarks/Of hammerheaded sharks.” He also boils it down to brass tacks, calling into doubt the veracity of the critic’s account: “I was there and it wasn’t like that.” Wedged into a tight melody, these words singe through the speakers. When judging a song, the important thing isn’t the message but rather the execution of said message. On “A Punchup At A Wedding,” the boys get their message across loud and clear: Criticize a good Radiohead show at your own peril.
14. “The National Anthem”
There’s a solid bedrock to this song: Thom Yorke’s grimy bassline, Phil Selway’s snare-heavy beat, and the vocals, repetitive in melody but altered just so throughout via trickery, intoning the spare lyrics. Yet that foundation takes a back seat. With “The National Anthem,” which is in many ways the sonic centerpiece of Kid A, the periphery becomes primary. All the weird bursts of sound at the start of the track that sounds like someone’s changing the radio stations in hell; the ondes martenot weaving around hypnotically into the few open spaces allowed it; the horns, insanely idiosyncratic, blasting away with seemingly no regard for what the others are doing or even for how they sound within the song itself: All of it somehow coheres, somehow makes sense in spite of itself. That bass never relents, somehow wending its way through the carnage all around it, persisting even when it’s barely audible. Yorke himself has to shout above the din in the frenzied climax: “It’s holding on.” What is “it,” you may ask? The fear? The chaos? The music? “It” is never revealed, but you can make your own interpretation from the desperation in the singer’s voice. In the closing seconds of this monumental song, the crazy horns fall away and you hear a distant recording of what sounds like an actual national anthem, all dignified and composed. It also sounds almost surreal, because, after over five minutes of the aural anarchy that defines Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” your ears can’t possibly be expected to comprehend anything traditional right away. Come to think of it, they might not be able to comprehend anything so staid and normal ever again.
13. “Talk Show Host”
Trip-hop was a genre that just didn’t support the musical variety necessary for it to make a lasting impact past its mid-90’s time in the sun. Had the purveyors of that style been able to consistently put out songs as endlessly captivating as “Talk Show Host” by Radiohead, we might have had a Best Trip-Hop Album category in the Grammys by now. “Talk Show Host” found life on 1996’s Street Spirit (Fade Out) CD release by the band, and, as bonus tracks go, it is one of their most memorable. It has lived on from that original release, first in a remixed version by Nellee Hooper on the soundtrack of Romeo & Juliet, and then in some memorable live versions by the band that never fail to send the fans into a frenzy. The open spaces in the music allow each individual instrumental element to make the maximum impact. The insinuating guitar riff is at the core, and from that core springs Phil Selway’s ever intensifying beat and Jonny Greenwood’s kaleidoscopic synth wash. It’s a mesmerizing track that somehow ends up, almost in spite of itself, being ominously funky as well. Thom Yorke’s lyrics aren’t meant to do anything but suggest themes to the listener; they’re powerful as individual lines that don’t cohere into anything but an overarching mood of defiance. There is never a mention of any “Talk Show Host” in the song, which, of course, only adds to the mystique of this track, an outlier in the band’s catalog that represents a fascinating road not taken.
The lumbering guitar riff that kicks off “Airbag”, the opening salvo off the majestic OK Computer, is positively primordial. But it’s no more than a decoy for what’s to come, a quicksilver, heady mix of elements that produces an exotic and seductive track. Phil Selway’s sampled drum beat pulls you forward than stops you short, while Colin Greenwood’s bass line hiccups along, communicating far more by what it leaves out than what it keeps. This unusual rhythm section allows room for some underwater guitar effects to enter, providing just the bright amount of psychedelic wash for these proceedings. Thom Yorke delivers one of his finest vocals here, as he blends the addled confusion of a car-crash survivor with the testifying fervor of someone who truly believes himself to be born again. The lack of control that passengers have in automobiles mirrors the individual helplessness that pervades the entire album. “Airbag” conveys the odd feeling of being saved by technology from technology, and it does so with awesome grandeur that few bands could hope to touch.
It sounds like Radiohead kidnapped a cello player, threw him in the trunk of the car, and then competed in a demolition derby to conjure the seesawing bassline that runs through “Myxomatosis.” When you combine that with the lockstep precision of Phil Selway’s jazzy drumming, you’ve got a rhythm section unlike anything on this Earth. There’s not much that needs to be added at that point, but Thom Yorke delivers anyway with some fever-dream lyrics that suit the chaotic proceedings flawlessly. The first verse sounds like an Aesop’s fable as written by Chuck Palahniuk. After that, Yorke goes on to stammer about his inability to properly communicate his message, which, for a guy whose lyrics are the subject of endless debate, must have resonated with him something fierce. There’s a perverse sense of humor that runs through “Myxomatosis,” making it, pound-for-pound, one of the most flat-out fun Radiohead tracks. That’s not to say it’s frivolous; I don’t think the band could ever go down that avenue. But there’s still something tongue-in-cheek about it, as if the band is having a laugh at the perception that they’re a morose bunch. Name-checking a rabbit disease is just another curve ball to send the obsessive fans diving for clues, but I think this is the band at its most off-the-cuff and irreverent, taking the piss out of their own somber image.