Does anyone else remember the days before streaming services? Before playlists? I’m not going to lie, I love the ease and variety that streaming has brought into our lives but there are things from the earlier era that I definitely miss. And one of those things, undoubtedly, is the good old mixtape. Whether making them for someone you had a crush on, or to play in your dad’s car as you drove to a festival, mixtapes were an art form. If you wanted to get someone into a certain band, or play them a selection of the artists you’d be watching live at the weekend, you couldn’t just drag every song they’d ever written into a playlist and send it to them over email. Nope. You really had to think about it, to distil that feeling you wanted to give them down into a few tough choices.
Tapes had two sides, both 45 minutes long. You had that long to say what you needed to say and then it was time to move on. In our newest category, we’re bringing that challenge back. 45 minutes to convince someone why they should like a certain band, artist, genre, or era.
Today, I have 45 minutes to tell you why you should love Radiohead. Here I go:
I’m kicking off with the standout cut from their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool. It might seem a bit foolish to start a time restricted selection with a song that’s over 6 minutes long, but it would be a worse idea to put together this mixtape without including one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever created. With limited lyrics, Johnny Greenwood takes centre stage for a track that melds elements of classical music into some of Radiohead’s more traditional makeup. It’s a slow, ethereal song that should ease you all into the next three quarters of an hour. There are few songs in history as quietly gorgeous as this one.
Bangers and Mash (3:20)
But I don’t want you to make the mistake of thinking that quiet beauty is all Radiohead are about. I’m starting with a massive contrast, as we go from the ethereal to the downright aggressive. This track from the second disk of 2007’s In Rainbows showed a side of Radiohead that the main part of that album largely eschewed. It’s a jagged, sinister, bark of a song that is led by one of the most chaotic vocal performances of Thom’s career. Any accusations that all Radiohead songs sound the same should already be put to bed.
The closer to the wrongly maligned The King of Limbs puts us somewhere between those first two tracks, with drums and a bassline that hint at a hardness that the lyrics and vocal delivery belie. But this song is largely included as a challenge to anyone who thinks that this amazing band do not make beautiful music – if you can listen to the change in this song at around 2 minutes and 35 seconds, as we move towards a crescendo with the introduction of a stunning little guitar riff, and not be moved, then I now accuse you of being a total robot. This song is so uplifting that I’m dancing at my computer as I type.
‘If you think this is over, then you’re wrong…’
Climbing Up The Walls (4:45)
Don’t get too comfortable, though. ‘Climbing up the Walls’ is here. Probably the most appropriate song on this mixtape to our current lockdown situation, Radiohead were telling us about the dangers inherent in our society and the paranoias ingrained in us as individuals all the way back in 1997. This song feels like quintessential Radiohead to me, marrying their rockier beginnings to the more creative, innovative work that was too come. OK Computer is one of several masterpieces in their catalogue, but it was this song that most hinted at everything we had to look forward to.
Talk Show Host (4:41)
Sticking to earlier Radiohead for a little while, we have this excellent b-side from The Bends era which was made all the more famous when it appeared on Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet. It may have become synonymous with Leonardo di Caprio smoking a cigarette, but this song deserves its inclusion on the mixtape because of the way it brings together the aggression and the quiet beauty that have always been the two weights that balance any work by the band. That simple bass guitar riff, the almost spoken word vocals, all over the top of a raucous guitar line and drums that seem to have been dragged in from a different song completely. An absolute masterpiece.
Weird Fishes /Arpeggi (5:18)
And then, of course, there’s ‘Weird Fishes’. To many of those who aren’t caught in that ridiculous time loop that says Radiohead stopped being a good band when they stopped being a rock band, this is the BEST Radiohead song. It has everything. It builds in such an intense fashion, the vocals working alongside the guitar, the unbelievably crisp drums guiding everything, one of Thom’s best set of lyrics in terms of storytelling, Ed repeatedly calling out his own name in the backing vocals (not really, obviously. But once you hear it you won’t unhear it). This is the song I go to when someone asks me why I love Radiohead so much, it’s the song I always put on first when I get some new headphones or speakers, and it’s the song I play to someone when I’m trying to win them over. If you don’t love this then you’re a lost cause.
The National Anthem (5:52)
‘Everyone/Everyone is so near/Everyone has got the fear/It’s holding on/It’s holding on.’
Kid A. The album that made a million Radiohead fans lose their minds, laser their tattoos, rip their posters down from the wall, and listen to ‘Creep’ on repeat while cuddling their pillows and making their way through a whole box of Man Size tissues. RADIOHEAD ARE A ROCK BAND. WHAT ARE ALL THESE BLEEPS AND BLOOPS? BRING BACK MY GUITARS. If you’re one of those people that insist that Radiohead lost it after OK Computer, then you are missing out on one of the greatest evolutions in musical history. ‘The National Anthem’ typifies this change for me. The bassline and the drums tie it to the past, but the sparse lyrics and the unquantifiable and soaring sounds that appear and disappear throughout are the pointers to a band that are doing things differently now. This song takes them to another level.
Jigsaw Falling Into Place (4:09)
We’re back to In Rainbows now, but with one of the only Radiohead songs that could actually have lived on nearly any of their albums (okay, probably not Kid A). It’s Thom in his slickest form, almost rapping over the driving drums and the bassline, the song working its way up towards a frenzy that only Radiohead could offer. Measured but hectic. Impossibly funky. A sense that, even as Radiohead are into one of their most danceable moments, everything is not okay. And then we lose it completely in the final verse as Thom lets loose and the vocals glide. Probably their most underrated song.
Street Spirit (4:14)
And then to finish off my mixtape, I’m going back as far as I’m going to go to pick up the absolute standout from The Bends. This song can stand up against anything they’ve done since and they are yet to come up with a better album closer than this one, so it only makes sense for me to close my tape with it too. I’ve said it about other songs on here, but this was another one that hinted at the variation that was to come over the years. On an album that I don’t think has aged as well as their others, this is the song that shows they had more to say than they managed to say in good but not amazing songs like ‘High and Dry’ and ‘(Nice Dream)’. It has another searing build and a perfect set of lyrics and, while it may be one of the songs that back up the argument that Radiohead are miserable, it manages to be uplifting even as it drowns you in the feels.
‘Immerse your soul in love…’
So what do you think? Are you persuaded? I should point out that I am not, in any way, claiming that these are the 9 best Radiohead songs. In fact, my favourite didn’t even make it. But if we were back in the days of mixtapes and I was asked to put together one side of songs to convince you to come over to the Radiohead side of the road, this is what I’d be putting in your ears. But what did I miss and what would you choose?
Have at it in the comments or over on Twitter…
Words by Fran Slater