Sit Down, Stand Up: A Retrospective of Radiohead
Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as your read along. A note about the YouTube playlist: despite being a progressive and online-friendly band, I found it interesting to note that, aside from official videos, it’s hard to find clean versions of Radiohead's studio recordings. For some songs only live recordings could be located or the album version has several minutes of silence at the end or additional content. Their studio versions are so perfect that usually I’ve opted for those despite the issues noted above, rather than a live version. So for the YouTube playlist, listen with patience and caution, and perhaps a finger on the 'next' button.
Radiohead can easily make the claim to being one of the most prolific, critically acclaimed, and beloved bands of the past 25 years. They have had a lot of commercial success, though the latter half of their career has really been spent under the radar – purposely, one could argue - of most typical music distribution and publicity outlets. While this is typical of most bands past a certain age, facing the challenge of staying relevant and usually unable to win a mass of fans of following generations, Radiohead has never seemed a band to care much whether anyone paid them much heed. They have always done their own thing, forged their own musical path, and held to a strong moral and artistic code that has remarkably not wavered over their career.
- Stop Whispering
- Anyone Can Play Guitar
- Pop is Dead (YouTube only)
- Planet Telex
- High and Dry
- Fake Plastic Trees
- (Nice Dream)
- Paranoid Android
- Exit Music (For A Film)
- Let Down
- The National Anthem
- How to Disappear Completely
- Pyramid Song
- I Might Be Wrong
- Knives Out
- Sit Down, Stand Up
- A Wolf at the Door
- All I Need
- House of Cards
- Jigsaw Falling into Place
- Lotus Flower
- Burn the Witch
- True Love Waits
- The Headmaster Ritual (YouTube only)
- Ceremony (YouTube only)
They formed in 1985 while attending school together in Abingdon, England, a suburb of Oxford and an hour’s drive northeast from London. Originally called ‘On a Friday’, based on their usual rehearsal day at school, the band adopted the name ‘Radiohead’ when they signed their first contract with EMI, taken from a Talking Heads song. They achieved success right from the start of their recording career and have always set themselves apart from any typical trend or genre. Amazingly, they’ve held the same lineup from their first album to today (all the more remarkable given there are brothers in the line-up, Jonny and Colin Greenwood, which we know doesn’t always work out – see, Oasis and the brothers Gallagher).
Doing a retrospective of this band is daunting. More than any band of the modern era of rock and pop music, Radiohead can lay claim to being an “album band” in which their arrangements are best heard together. This is also true because their albums are unfailingly great. So even when their songs stand alone, which many of them certainly do, the additional challenge is choosing which songs to include on the playlist without resorting to picking them all. If you’re not familiar with the band, I certainly encourage listening to their albums in full.
Despite this, I must admit my affection for the band runs shallow. I’ve never followed them closely and never had an interest in seeing them live. Making this list has been great and there are so many incredible songs, but personally I grow tired of their sound – and especially Thom Yorke’s voice. His nasally, moaning vocal style grates on me at times, and while he’s a distinctive and capable singer, it often takes away from their splendid music. But yet… every time their albums come out I find myself listening to them and inevitably enjoying them. Credit for this goes to their fantastic song writing skills, inventive style, and amazing musicianship.
Creep; Stop Whispering; Anyone Can Play Guitar \ Pablo Honey (1993)
Their very first single massively announced their arrival. “Creep” became an international success. Following the heels of grunge, Madchester, Shoegazers and the burgeoning acid house/rave scene, this song rose above as an emotional rock song, rising from gentle folk strumming to aggressive, hard guitar breaks and attention-grabbing lyrics. This seemed to be another grunge song in form, but had too much style compared to the raw licks of the Seattle sound. Radiohead’s music can often be compared to many other styles, including those listed above, yet always seems to stand apart.
Given the enormous success of “Creep,” Radiohead had all the signals of being a one-hit wonder. The album was solid, but didn’t grab too much attention until later when the band was established. It was a stylish rock LP in rock n’ roll’s last great era. Listening to it now, all the signs are there of what would come, but at that point the band was still uneven and too rooted in the familiar rock structures to fully distinguish themselves. Due to the challenges of YouTube availability, the US version of ‘Stop Whispering’ is used in the playlist, which is a weaker version than the UK release and the one I’m used to on my version of the cd.
Pop is Dead (1993) (YouTube only)
This was released as a non-album single almost immediately after the album. It fits nicely with the album though has a punkier vibe than the album material. I think it’s great and one of their better songs, despite it being lesser known. For this band, its’ especially notable for being brief and to the point.
Planet Telex; High and Dry; Fake Plastic Trees; (Nice Dream) \ The Bends (1995)
Wow, so much for being a one-hit wonder. Easily one of the best albums of the decade and rock history. Still rooted in the standard, guitar-driven rock sounds, the band stepped up their game with impeccably written songs filled with hooks, intriguing melodies and notes of a broadening sound. From the beautiful entrance of “Planet Telex” (perhaps spoiled in my part of the world from its use by Jian Ghomeshi as the theme music for his radio show, ‘Q’) to the graceful exit of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, the album didn’t make a misstep. I selected a mix of these great songs and still haven’t included huge successes like “Just” (perhaps the best-known song off the album) and “My Iron Lung.”
This album showed greater variety than the first and was the last album they would do that was less of a project and more a collection of great songs. Yet there was signs again of what would come, as the lush tones and moments of grandiosity precluded their coming dominance on the next LP. Also, songs like “High and Dry” seemed rooted in the Brit Pop sound that was exploding at the time and was a song that could fit on any Oasis album. They also excelled more here with the mid- to lower-tempo songs which were good on the first album but a song like “(Nice Dream)” was a measurably more complete song than something like “Stop Whispering.” These songs made you close your eyes and ride along.
Airbag; Paranoid Android; Exit Music (For A Film); Let Down \ OK Computer (1997)
Ok Computer makes most fans and critics lists of being one of, if not the, best album of the decade and of modern rock history. Yes, I said that about the last album too and will say it about others to come. Radiohead was, just a few years and albums into their career, a force to be reckoned with.
But let’s put this album into perspective. By 1997 rock was struggling to keep a beat on the popular conscious. Major rock songs were of the ilk of Creed (or Big Wreck in Canada) and Nickelback was on the horizon – in 1997, Live, No Doubt, Metallica and U2 (with a decent but lesser effort for them, Pop) were the only rock acts to top the charts in the US, getting elbowed out by hip hop and country acts and The Spice Girls (whatever they were). Against that environment, OK Computer would be considered by most as venturing away from a straightforward rock sound into experimentation, but also standing higher and more impressive than what was available for the time. For those who were lamenting the decline in rock, it is easier to see why this album was considered so monumental.
The first single was “Paranoid Android,” a brilliant composition that lurched between folk-tinged melodies and crashing guitar breaks, surreal lyrics, and an animated video that would give any MTV viewers pause. This was not a song ready to reach out and embrace a mass audience. However, it was a bit of an outlier on the album, which instead was filled with moody, atmospheric, and broad musical soundscapes. The most successful single was “Karma Police,” which after hearing it on the radio probably over a thousand times during those years I’m happy to not hear it again (you won’t hear it on this list – and it was perhaps forever ruined for me after a co-worker observed that Yorke sounds like Elmer Fudd in it; and I’m sorry if this ruins it for you too.). It’s also interesting that a recent article in the New Yorker included it as a Prog Rock record, which Radiohead disavowed as being a part.
OK Computer was a brilliant album. It’s not packed with standout tracks the way The Bends was (which is not to say it doesn’t have several standouts all the same), and dipped into the artsy indulgences too many album-oriented artists give into with “Fitter Happier,” but every song gave you something different to sink your teeth into; so in that regard it was a more satisfying listen start to finish than The Bends. “Airbag,” the opening track, was just a brilliant dance between the drums and bass. The beautiful and grand sweeps of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” compared to bands like The Verve, and the taut suspense of “Exit Music (For A Film)” made its melodic final third all the more satisfying when it arrived.
After these two triumphant albums, Radiohead was not a dominant act on the charts from a singles perspective. The album went to number one in the UK (six of their nine albums would do so) but only reached 21st in the US. Yet they were commanding a forceful contingent of fans and critics. In an era not noted for remarkable music, Radiohead stood like a giant. Would they continue to build on this momentum, perhaps ready to take the mantle from U2 as the biggest act in the world? It wouldn’t work out that way.
The National Anthem; How to Disappear Completely; Optimistic; Idioteque \ Kid A (2000)
To say this album was a surprise is an understatement. After riding the critical and relatively strong commercial success of their first three albums, clearly the band felt it had room to manoeuvre. OK Computer had revealed a band willing to stretch themselves, do their own thing, and not be held to the standards of outside expectations of who they should be and how their music should evolve. With Kid A they shifted to further experimentation, but this time moving away from guitars and towards electronics. The band again put forth a remarkable album, one that can be considered another list-topper for the decade, which was in its infancy.
The songs on this album were studies in rhythm, measure, and hypnotic, repetitive riffs that mesmerized and provided basis for flights of fancy with horns and various forms of electronics, loops and samples. From the opening notes of the first song, “Everything in its Right Place,” it was obvious this was not going to be like their other albums. Aside from the change in sound and song structure, the ambient and moody elements of OK Computer were explored more fully, resulting in a more subdued listening experience. It was with this album, in the face of digital and online advances in music and the fracturing of the music industry into a thousand niches and triumph of songs and singles over albums, that against all those odds Radiohead became an album-oriented artist.
Critically acclaimed and still a sales success – this one would reach number one in the US (one of only two of theirs to do so) – there was no doubt that Radiohead’s fan base changed. They lost the casual fans but strengthened their mass of die-hards. They wouldn’t become the world’s biggest band, put possibly it’s most respected. Without singles or traditional promotion, Radiohead also embraced the online universe and used it to promote the album. Video clips were released online and the album was made available online, despite the current outcry over Napster’s impact on the industry.
Pyramid Song; I Might Be Wrong; Knives Out \ Amnesiac (2001)
Leveraging leftover recordings from Kid A and still in the experimental frame of mind, Radiohead quickly followed with a new album, Amnesiac. Less electronic than the prior album it was still a moody and ambient soundscape. Personally, it was by this time that I couldn’t take Yorke’s moaning vocals anymore and checked out. This was a good album, and songs like “I Might Be Wrong” and “Knives Out” showed the band was still masters of the light, alt-pop music they’d wowed us with on OK Computer. It further entrenched the idea of Radiohead as an album band, since this is appreciated more as a complete listen.
2+2=5; Sit Down, Stand Up; Myxomatosis; A Wolf at the Door \ Hail to the Thief (2003)
Perhaps a combination of Kid A and Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief was a masterful album in which the band seemed to pull together all their elements into a full expression. Bringing back some welcome rock guitar riffs, but now mixed with the jazz elements, electronic experimentation and moody, repetitive rhythms of the prior two albums, the entire album hungs together brilliantly.
Examples of the blending of their sound was the opener “2+2=5” (all the songs on the album had parenthetical references in their titles, which I’ve not included here), a song that started quiet and launched into a noisy, fantastic rock n’ roll finish, and “Stand Up” which did the same but instead finished in a pulsating, driving electronic finish. Then there was “Myxomatosis” that was closer to the Kid A and Amnesiac structure with driving, repetitive riffs; and finally “A Wolf at the Door,” another of their exquisite, hook-filled mid-tempo songs that would have fit perfectly on OK Computer.
At this point more familiar, Hail to the Thief wasn’t the attention grabbing, pop-rock brilliance of “Creep” or The Bends, nor the landmark expression of OK Computer or the shock to the system of Kid A, and therefore didn’t create the attention and awe of those works. Perhaps it lacked enough melody or the experimentation of the prior albums, but as a listening experience it was a joy (and Yorke started to sing again instead of sounding like he was enduring a slow death). So yeah, it was one of the best albums of the decade.
Although always internet friendly, Hail to the Thief made headlines when it was leaked online ten weeks prior to release. Despite that assumed hurdle to overcome, the album debuted at number one in the UK same as their prior albums. The die-hard fans were still loyal to them despite having the opportunity to score the album for free.
Bodysnatchers; All I Need; House of Cards; Jigsaw Falling into Place \ In Rainbows (2007)
In Rainbows will be forever remembered as the first album to be released online for, essentially, free. It was made available two months prior to its physical release under a pay-what-you-can offering. Despite the success of Hail to the Thief after a similar (unplanned) release, there were prognostications this approach would accelerate the death of the music industry. It still debuted at number one when released in physical formats, so In Rainbows wouldn’t kill the music industry, other factors would do that anyway. Radiohead had departed its label, EMI, and thus was able to experiment in this way with their new label, TBD Records. They would later self-release their music and continue to experiment in ways the major labels couldn’t tolerate.
Musically the new album built off the sound of Hail to the Thief. Grounded back in traditional guitar, drums, and bass there were still plenty of electronic elements but they were not as prominent. There were again plenty of the ambient songs they had now mastered such as “All I Need,” “Reckoner,” and “House of Cards.” But then there was also “Bodysnatchers,” the most ferocious song they’d released since perhaps The Bends (they’d only had moments like that on prior albums, like the end of “2+2=5”). There were less arresting moments on this album, tending to the more pleasant and familiar, but the quality of the songs couldn’t be denied. In Rainbows likely won back some of the casual fans lost during Kid A and rejuvenated the band to a more mainstream presence than they’d had in years (indeed it was their second album to each #1 in the US). Yes, all their albums went to number one in the UK, but in the modern music era that meant less and less when it came to sales. This album however, more than the others since OK Computer, had staying power and penetration to the multitudinous channels of distribution and awareness now needed to bring music to people.
Lotus Flower; Codex; Separator \ The King of Limbs (2011)
After re-establishing themselves in the popular consciousness, waiting four years to issue their next album resulted in Radiohead slipping back into its status as Gods of only the alt-indie universe. During those four years the reliance on physical music ebbed away and online music streaming took over. Initially released online again and, like Kid A, issued no singles, the album made less of an impression. It was the first since The Bends to not reach #1 in the UK. Some of this was likely due to the shift in sound to a rhythm emphasis, once again relying heavily on loops, electronics and a focus on drums and bass, resulting in less melody and rock moments for fans to sink their teeth into. There were lovely ballads like “Codex” but not quite the same atmospheric sound that tended to make you want to just sit and listen. This was closer to background music for while doing your homework.
Between albums the band released a few singles as online downloads, including this song that had been written during the King of Limbs recordings. It was released as part of a live performance video release, and the live sound gave it a different feel than their other work. It was a great song that harkened back to the elements of their 2000-2003 period. Like the album it accompanied it was rhythm based more than melodic. I personally like it better than anything that was on The King of Limbs.
During that time they also recorded “Spectre,” written for the new James Bond movie of the same name that wasn’t used for being “too dark,” (the movie instead featured Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall”). The band was happy to rework it to their liking and then released it as a free download single as well as a bonus track on their next album. It is lush with strings (I think that’s a requirement to be a Bond song these days) and a bit of a boring song.
Burn the Witch; Daydreaming; True Love Waits \ A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
Much like The King of Limbs, this album slipped out with my barely being aware of it. It was again a long wait of five years between releases which in today’s environment is as good as ten years. So I’m discovering and listening to it for the first time as part of putting this list together. Many of the songs were written earlier in their career, and the album has a very familiar feel to it. Radiohead still writes great songs and like any band thirty years into its craft is in full control of its expression. “Burn the Witch,” worked on for over ten years and born during the Kid A recording sessions, is a remarkable song. There is definitely a ‘Radiohead sound’ and this album fits comfortably into it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the excitement and freshness that made this band one of the most formidable and critically acclaimed of its generation has been replaced with the inevitable comfort of a well-defined sound.
Radiohead covers: The Headmaster Ritual by The Smiths; Ceremony by Joy Division/New Order (YouTube only)
I don’t usually include covers in my playlists, especially unreleased versions, but I appreciate Radiohead, a band of such originality, paying homage to their forebears. It is interesting that both these choices are Manchester bands. These videos both come from a webcast performance from their studio in 2007.
Radiohead is an important band. They have released some of the most lauded and admired music of the past 25 years. They were one of the last champions of an era in which rock dominated, but managed to transition into the electronic and varied forms that followed. They are masters of both rhythm and melody, can move from light pop and folk into lush, shoegazer-like moments and then frenetic rock or electronica. I think their sound is not for everyone and I imagine their legions of devoted fans all have different favourite albums and songs. I’ve always held them at arm’s length, but perhaps it’s time I get around to checking them out in concert one of these days (I will unfortunately be out of town for their July show in Toronto). After listening to this playlist a couple times, you certainly have to marvel at their consistency (literally not one bad album – I can’t even say that about my favourite, New Order!), the high quality of their compositions, and their musicianship.
This list was built to reflect their musical breadth and not just be a listing of their singles and hits, so certainly go back and listen to their albums and check out the many other great songs in their discography.