5. “A Wolf At The Door”
When you look at the albums of Radiohead, the band has always proven a knack for picking just the right songs to close them out. To me, none can match up to “A Wolf At The Door” for the haunting way it sends Hail To The Thief to it’s not-so-gentle goodnight. It’s always presumptuous to call a piece of work autobiographical, but the stream-of-consciousness nightmare coming out of the mouth of Thom Yorke certainly sounds like it came from somewhere deep inside of his own worst fears. Radiohead once named a song (“Subterranean Homesick Alien”) as an homage to Bob Dylan, but “Wolf” is the closest lyrical descendant to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with torrents of words pouring from Yorke, one phrase linking to the other in increasingly macabre fashion. Instead of a jaunty electric jangle to accompany this rapid wordplay, Jonny Greenwood composed a woozy waltz instead, making the proceedings somewhat more sinister. Yorke has said that this song was the product of a nervous breakdown, and that doesn’t seem like exaggeration when you delve into those lyrics. Every once in a while the humanity breaks out from behind the nihilistic barrage. At the end of the first verse, Yorke advises himself “Don’t look in the mirror/At the face you don’t recognize,” a stark admission at how all of these horrible events that he has described in deadpan have changed him. In the last verse, Yorke asks for a shred of mercy: “Oh I wish you’d get up/Go over get up go over and turn this tape off.” Release, relative release anyway, comes in the form of the chorus, as Yorke sings in a lilting melody how hard it is to keep the “wolf at the door” at bay. “A Wolf At The Door” represents the dark side in everyone’s psyche that can get loose when all of the external forces become too overbearing. We’ve all got one, and it’s important to find outlets for such possibly destructive energy. I would recommend Radiohead’s ridiculously amazing music as just such an outlet.
4. “Exit Music (For A Film)”
Skakespeare speaks of a “glooming peace” that falls over the scene after the deaths of his two young lovers in Romeo and Juliet. But Radiohead shatters that peace in “Exit Music (For A Film)” with a piercing scream of youthful independence, proof that, even in death, love is stronger than any opposing force of negativity. Thom Yorke understands the generation gap is at the heart of the conflict here, which is why he contrasts the lovers talk, all gentle and sighing, with the abrasive sneer the protagonist shows to the naysaying elders. It’s like two different songs, but the music brings them together effortlessly to make them one complete statement. When you hear the song, it’s fascinating to note how there is no real line of separation between the opening part when the two lovers are plotting their escape and the closing parts, when, from the line about “everlasting peace,” we can infer that they’re already dead. I don’t think it’s too far to leap then to say that the earlier section is written from the perspective of Romeo as he lays dying next to Juliet. That would explain the admonition to her to “keep breathing” and the final line before the music gets heavy: “There’s such a chill, such a chill.” That’s when the fuzz bass and drums enter the picture, shattering the reverie with a blast of aggression that matches Yorke’s shift to uncontained hatred. It builds to that explosive climax, Yorke singing with every ounce of power he has as the music swirls and crashes all around him. I’m a Shakespeare fan, have read Romeo and Juliet a bunch of times, have seen a couple movie versions as well as countless pop-culture tributes and homages, and I can say with complete conviction that, for me, nothing has ever come as close to matching the spirit and emotion of Shakespeare’s original play as “Exit Music (For A Film)” does. That’s really all that needs to be said in praise of this song.
3. “Paranoid Android”
It was as if they decided that they needed a song that could properly describe the essence of Radiohead to a stranger (or an alien, perhaps) in one fell swoop. So they distilled everything that makes them great, the energy, the beauty, the experimentation, the abrasiveness, the gentleness, the fearlessness, the fears, the transcendence of those fears, the songwriting, the musicianship, the uniqueness, the utter, unadulterated brilliance, the whole ball of wax, into one crazy, untamable beast of a song. Ladies and gentlemen, behold “Paranoid Android.” Actually, it’s at this point you should cue up the song, because no amount of my bloviating can ever quite capture the manic grandeur of this recording. I don’t know if it was bravery on the band’s part or just that they didn’t think it through, but even attempting a song with such a ridiculous degree of difficulty could have been a folly of epic proportions. They ran the risk of being called prog rock, at which point all ambitions to critical acceptance are beyond hope. They certainly ran the risk of befuddling those fans who only knew them from “Creep.” And they ran the risk of just screwing the damn thing up and ending up with a big, pretentious mess on their hands. But, of course, they didn’t. Two obvious musical forbears, The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” don’t quite match up to Radiohead’s opus. “Happiness”, as subversively excellent as it is, doesn’t meld with the cohesion of “Android.” And “Rhapsody,” while certainly a lot of fun, doesn’t really hold up that well to repeated listens, the over-the-top cheekiness eventually wearing thin. As unhinged as the lyrics of “Paranod Android” may seem, there is a consistent thread of dread running through them, the feeling that all of these seemingly unreal acts of tyranny and fascism are committed on a smaller scale every single day. The edgy unease of the opening two sections’ music speaks well to this feeling. Colin Greenwood does a brilliant job in the transition between the first two parts of holding things together, but then brother Jonny comes in with a guitar solo that rends everything to pieces. That leads to the spine-chillingly and unexpectedly beautiful third section, the Gregorian -chant pace working subtle magic on our defenses that have already been battered by the first two parts. Thom Yorke delivers some of his best singing here, pleading for redemption from on high only to be rebuffed by another version of himself snapping him back to reality. One final wash of guitars cleans everything away, leaving just rubble in its wake. Of all the things that “Paranoid Android” could have been, it’s what it actually turned out to be that is most shocking of all: Inspiring, frustrating, bewildering, bemusing, confounding, comforting, rocking, and, ultimately, surprisingly, against all odds, moving. As a matter of fact, I’d say that sums up Radiohead pretty well too.
2. “Fake Plastic Trees”
So how do you express anything real in a world of artificiality run amok? How can two people connect in any meaningful way amidst all the clutter and detritus of everyday life and all of the things that distract and distort and delude you without your ever really being aware of it happening until it’s far too late? How can you say, “I love you” when no one can really, truly hear it? Those are the questions that dwell at the heart of “Fake Plastic Trees,” the song that marked Radiohead’s transition from shot-in-the-dark newcomers to the status of rock preeminence that they still hold today. I knew it the moment that I heard this song that they were headed in that direction, and I frantically passed the word around to anyone who would listen at the time. I can’t say why the band’s American popularity didn’t take off with this release; in the U.S., they were still by-and-large the “Creep” band until the release of OK Computer blew everything up. Maybe people thought that the song followed the template of “Creep” too closely, but a closer listen reveals that “Fake Plastic Trees” takes that narrow quiet-loud framework and improves upon it immensely with subtle touches like the strings and the moaning Hammond organ that add color and depth to the proceedings. Speaking of depth, the lyrical depth shown on “Plastic” also puts the band’s previous output and, in truth, everything in rock at the time to shame. The characterizations are sharp. The black humor is cutting (especially the nail-on-the-head lines about plastic surgery. The malaise that has infected the souls of these people is palpable. What ultimately sells the song though, and allows it to transcend all of its myriad excellent elements and become something that affects the listener on a much more profound level, is the vocal performance of Thom Yorke. He takes that deceptively simple melody and imbues it with little twists and turns that bring out heretofore unreachable layers of sadness. Whereas on “Creep” he sounds like an expert actor playing a part, he lives inside this character, feeling his frustration, his weariness, his hurt, and then allowing those emotions to spill unconsciously into the vocal. The thundering final verse, with the guitars joining Yorke in soaring up, ever higher, in a vain attempt to break through the constraints, is the essence of catharsis; maybe he can “blow through the ceiling” after all. But then it all crumbles back down to the lonely singer, at his most achingly vulnerable, giving voice to the hypothetical yet impossible hope that could solve all his problems: “If I could be who you wanted/All the time, all the time.” This kind of performance (one which allegedly caused the singer to break down in tears at its completion) is why we listen to music, why we expose ourselves to any kind of art for that matter, in the hopes that its infinite power can make us feel something inside of ourselves that we didn’t even know existed, even if it is a feeling of sadness. Lest we forget, to feel is to live. The most endearing quality of “Fake Plastic Trees” is the way it serves as a heartbreakingly eloquent reminder of this simple truth.
1. “Let Down”
Is it the most well-known Radiohead song? Not by a long shot. Is it emblematic of the bulk of their work? Not so much really. Is it a summation of all of the themes that they’ve highlighted throughout their career? Maybe somewhat, but even that’s a stretch. So why “Let Down” as the best Radiohead song ever? Because it’s perfection. Simple as that. To these ears, there is not a moment of “Let Down” that could ever be improved upon. Whereas some songs, a precious few, give me chills at certain moments, “Let Down” belongs to an even more select group, maybe less than a handful, that give me chills all the way through. And since this is ultimately a personal list, “Let Down” had to be the one. Now if anyone is willing to try and fault with this choice, I’d ask you to try and find fault with the song first. If you can, then I’ll hear you out. For the nearly 5 minutes of its existence, “Let Down” glides by so smoothly, so unerringly, that it hardly seems like any time has passed. And when those final blips stop at the end of the song, the only letdown I feel is the disappointment that it’s over. Before I go overboard (I know, that train has probably already sailed,) let’s analyze a little, shall we? At its narrowest level, “Let Down” is about travel, the utter lack of control we have as we’re being bandied about from train to plain to car and the desensitization that on-the-go life causes. Luckily, you don’t need to have amassed thousands of frequent-flier miles to find this song relevant. What “Let Down” is about at its core is the speed at which our life passes us by. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who says that they feel like their life is going by slowly. A day perhaps, or a week maybe crawling by, I’ll give you. But have you ever heard somebody say, “Boy, it seems like the kids’ childhood is just dragging along?” Or how about “Man, these 20’s are taking forever. When am I going to be 60 already?” No, you hear stuff like “It seems like yesterday” or “Where has the time gone?” “Let Down” goes beyond those clichés to explore the way that modern life can speed you up, whether it’s by keeping you constantly on the go so you fail to appreciate the time you have, or by putting so much pressure on you that you desensitize yourself, by “clinging on to bottles” perhaps. And at the heart of all of that is disappointment, the “Is this all there is?” feeling that creeps inside all of us at one point. Thom Yorke’s lyrics posit that society frowns upon those who ask for more: “Don’t get sentimental/It always ends up drivel.” None of this would matter were the music not so perfectly poised to deliver this message. I don’t know of another better band performance than the one they deliver on “Let Down.” Jonny Greenwood’s precision strokes at the start of the song get you rolling on the conveyor belt. Brother Colin delivers some of his most melodic bass, underpinning the song with bittersweet notes. Phil Selway is more the aggressor here, trying to beat his way through the doldrums. All on different paths, and yet they bond without a crack. In the bridge, Ed O’Brien keeps things cool and collected with his flawless guitar lines, only to have Jonny Greenwood bring some chaos to the order with a solo that seems beamed in from another song. Shortly after, arcade-like computer noises enter the fray, all the better to symbolize our lives as human pinballs. When the bass and drum come crashing back in with gusto, you just know we’re set up for a classic Radiohead finish, and, boy, is this one a doozy. Yorke is singing at this point with barely-contained ferocity, his voice arcing up as we expect the same chilling lines from earlier in the song: “One day, I’m gonna grow wings/A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless,” lines that represent the utter futility. Those lines do reappear, but Yorke also leaves the corporeal world behind to wail out, “You know where you are.” As simple as that line sounds, the way his voice cuts into it, it feels like a triumph, however brief.
And there you have it. I talked about “Let Down” being a perfect song, in my opinion, but what has struck me most in doing this list is how there isn’t much to complain about with the Radiohead catalog in general. I really had to nitpick to find minor faults, and even then often came up lacking. For a band whose material is as diverse as Radiohead’s, and considering their reckless abandon when it comes to pushing the boundaries of their music, that’s really saying something. This list has been a joy to compile, and if it gives someone an excuse to revisit the music of Radiohead, or maybe to explore it for the first time (lucky you,) then it will certainly have been worthwhile.