In the unlikely case that you disagree with the below list, you can use the Vulture Reader Ranking at the bottom to pick your own top three.
In January 1998, Radiohead released a B-side called “How I Made My Millions.” It’s a rough recording, essentially a demo, and yet the title is apt. Thom Yorke’s high, lonesome vocals join with a desolate piano and are accompanied by the ambient noises of, according to lore, his partner Rachel Owen in the kitchen. Yorke’s words are almost beyond comprehension, but the feeling behind them is palpable. The resulting track is too incomplete-sounding, and definitely too obscure, to meaningfully consider as one of Radiohead’s major works. But it’s a perfect example of how the band’s front man can summon up cryptic beauty as if doing so were as ordinary as chopping up vegetables. If the title is a prompt, the song is a demonstration.
More than 18 years later, the trailblazing U.K. quintet has just released its ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The extended prelude to its release has been at times difficult to parse: In April, “How I Made My Millions” and other vintage B-sides vanished from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music as the band went through a label change. Last August, Yorke announced a “perfectly amicable” split with Owen after 23 years together. And over the five years since Radiohead’s prior album, The King of Limbs, Yorke has brooded as a glitchy electronic solo artist when not shaking his ponytail as a member of the rhythm-centered Atoms for Peace supergroup; multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has roamed from scoring Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice to recording with traditional musicians in India; and drummer Phil Selway has devised his own singer/songwriter miniatures. But on A Moon Shaped Pool, that sense of the half-understood sublime, conveyed most powerfully through Yorke’s fragile upper register and foreboding keys, remains undimmed. Radiohead is still doing it.
In fact, Yorke, Greenwood, and Selway, along with guitarist Ed O’Brien and Greenwood’s brother Colin on bass, have been doing some variation of this since attending school together in the mid-’80s. Radiohead’s ascent from the relatively inauspicious college-rock poses of their major-label debut, 1993’s Pablo Honey, to the swelling grandeur of 1995’s The Bends, and on through the textural subtlety of 1997 masterpiece OK Computer has been well documented by a rapturous music press. But then again, almost as much has been said about 2000’s electronics-embracing Kid A, its 2001 kindred spirit Amnesiac, and 2003’s Bush-baiting consolidation move Hail to the Thief. Plus, for all the business-model significance of the surprise, pay-what-you-want approach to 2007’s In Rainbows, the music itself was as direct, euphoric, and meticulous as any in Radiohead’s catalogue. It’s hard to argue that that even the slinky, in-the-moment grooves of The King of Limbs have been underpraised. What’s most impressive, then, about A Moon Shaped Pool is that despite having such a full, respected body of work, Radiohead clearly continues to hone their craft.
Radiohead’s dependably strong material also makes for an exceptionally tough discography to rank. They’ve also been unusually prolific, with more songs than Vulture ranked by Billy Joel and more than twice as many as Led Zeppelin. A reputation for albums, not singles, means some Radiohead songs work crucially in context but don’t reward à la carte listening — what to do with those? (If “Treefingers” plays and Kid A isn’t around, does it make a sound?) What’s more, Radiohead has also made a name for itself as an act with some pretty great B-sides, so those have to be included, no matter if the band’s recent streaming change has made them a little harder to find.
But a line has to be drawn somewhere: no side projects, solo releases, or remixes, and no songs the band has performed live but not put on a proper record (including “Spooks,” a 2006 instrumental that found its way, in non-Radiohead form, onto the Inherent Vice soundtrack). Let’s also acknowledge right up front that the songs from A Moon Shaped Pool could take longer to fully sink in. Finally, when a band’s allure is partly the type of enigmatic elegance that earned Yorke his millions, it’s only natural that people will disagree. So as Radiohead themselves once put it: I might be wrong.
As they also put it: How can you be sure?
157. “Pop Is Dead,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
Thom Yorke said he wrote this 1993 non-album single — the band’s third, issued before the re-release and eventual climb of “Creep” — “as a kind of epitaph to 1992.” That’s probably a fine place to leave it.
156. “Nothing Touches Me,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
This spot would’ve been taken by another pre-Pablo Honey B-side, the psych-pop trifle “Philippa’s Chicken” — both from the days when Radiohead were called On a Friday — if a BBC Radio 1 Evening Session of that one had appeared on the 2009 expanded version of Pablo Honey. Instead, it’s this swelling rock number. Yorke reportedly said in the group’s first interview it’s “based on an artist who was imprisoned for abusing children and spent the rest of his life in a cell, painting. But the song is about isolating yourself so much that one day you realize you haven’t got any friends.” Whatever the inspiration, the song falls below the band’s later standards.
155. “How Do You?,” Pablo Honey
Pablo Honey has a deserved reputation for being of its time. The punk-posing sneer — Yorke hadn’t figured out his voice just yet — and preachy lyrics about a “dangerous bigot, but we always forget” keep this toward the bottom of the pile. Points for the cacophonic ending, though.
154. “Faithless the Wonder Boy,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
Is the “can’t put the needle in” repetition on the fuzzed-out chorus a reference to heroin? The band demurs, and this jangling soft-loud stomper, the B-side to second single “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” doesn’t really warrant any parents worrying.
153. “Inside My Head,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
“When [the label EMI] first hired us, they asked us to produce on ‘Inside My Head’ and another one,” Pablo Honey co-producer Paul Q. Kolderie said in Trevor Baker’s Thom Yorke — Radiohead & Trading Solo. “They weren’t great songs.”
152. “Million Dollar Question,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
The other one. Kolderie: “It didn’t have much of a tune.”
151. “Yes I Am,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
Released the same year as the Melissa Etheridge song and album of the same name, but with a slightly different theme: This openly resentful, overly long “Creep” B-side is more like, “We hate it when our non-friends want to become our friends when we’re successful.”
150. “Molasses,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
This jumbled B-side from The Bends single “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” though recorded with eventual Radiohead production mainstay Nigel Godrich, may never see its live debut.
149. “Vegetable,” Pablo Honey
“I never wanted anything but this,” Yorke begins. If that were true of this basic-issue ’90s alt-rock album track, there’d be no need for a career-length retrospective 13 years later. Plus, the lyric “I’m not a vegetable”? Hadn’t he heard Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”?
148. “Ripcord,” Pablo Honey
Another strummy representative of its Matchbox 20–presaging era: “So destroyed with clever toys for little boys.”
147. “MK 2,” In Rainbows [CD 2]
You’ll find instrumentals won’t necessarily get short shrift on this list. But little more than wobbly synth lines, for less than a minute, from the companion CD to In Rainbows? This rank is generous.
146. “Coke Babies,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
Originally available only on the “Anyone Can Play Guitar” single, this shoegaze-inflected reverie is now on the expanded Pablo Honey for all streamers to hear. The neo-psychedelic textures give this one a longer shelf life than some of its contemporaries.
145. “I Can’t,” Pablo Honey
Radiohead do their best impression of the Smiths: “If you give up on me now / I’ll be gutted like I’ve never been before.”
144. “MK 1,” In Rainbows [CD 2]
This wind-tossed, minute-long bit of wordlessness opens the In Rainbows companion CD and extends the piano chords of the proper album’s finale, “Videotape.”
143. “Killer Cars,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition) & The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
I identify with Yorke’s recurring distaste for cars, but this bombastic B-side — an early version of which dates as far back as 1993’s “Anyone Can Play Guitar” single — may not win over the kind, wonderful people who drive me places.
142. “I Am a Wicked Child,” Hail to the Thief (Deluxe Version)
Fast-forward all the way to 2003’s “Go to Sleep” single and COM LAG (2plus2isfive) EP for the harmonica-blowing Radiohead blues stomper you’d always wanted.
141. “We Suck Young Blood,” Hail to the Thief
Yorke told NME: “For me, that song is not to be taken seriously, but at the same time it was quite fun because somewhere in the lyrics it’s pretty twisted. Then we break out into this freeform jazz nightmare. It’s like ‘Come on lads!’ Well, it makes me laugh…”
140. “Hunting Bears,” Amnesiac
Two-minute instrumental comprising halting guitar tones, string scrapes, and airy sibilance.
139. “Permanent Daylight,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
Originally from 1994’s My Iron Lung EP, which was Radiohead’s first collaboration with later producer Godrich, “Permanent Daylight” uses a Sonic Youth-like open tuning to pleasantly Sonic Youth-like ends.
138. “Feral,” The King of Limbs
Are instrumentals getting short shrift, after all, you ask? Well, Yorke actually sings on this intriguing percussion workout, though his vocals are processed beyond discernibility.
137. “You,” Pablo Honey
O’Brien once described Pablo Honey as “a collection of our greatest hits as an unsigned band.” This guitar-strewn rock anthem captures both the positive and negative connotations of that billing.
136. “The Butcher,” The King of Limbs-era non-album single
The B-side of 2011 single “Supercollider” has impressively rumbling percussion, but by Radiohead standards, not too much more.
135. “I Am Citizen Insane,” Hail to the Thief (Deluxe Version)
Another “Go to Sleep” and COM LAG inclusion, this one is blissed-out electro-shoegaze that might’ve been a lesser act’s highly bloggable career highlight. “Hey!”
134. “Scatterbrain,” Hail to the Thief
I’m partial to the skittering Four Tet remix, featured in the Richard Linklater film A Scanner Darkly.
133. “India Rubber,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
What might’ve been a forgettable B-side to 1995’s “Fake Plastic Trees” wound up prefacing much of Radiohead’s career, mixing rock moves with an experimental bent that culminates in a protracted laughter-loop groove.
132. “Fast-Track,” Amnesiac (Deluxe Version)
This B-side to 2001’s “Pyramid Song” is heavy on trip-hop atmosphere.
131. “Lurgee,” Pablo Honey
It’s hard to fault Radiohead for sounding like R.E.M., but they — to use Yorke’s words here — “got better” when they started sounding more like themselves.
130. “Lozenge of Love,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
Titled after a line from the Philip Larkin poem “Sad Steps,” this My Iron Lung EP track is an excursion into raga-like English folk à la ’60s groups like Pentangle or Fairport Convention. The sinuous melodic sensibility would return in more forward-looking trappings, including on a A Moon Shaped Pool, but viewed from the right angle, the yearning here can still be moving.
129. “Backdrifts,” Hail to the Thief
See, the synths are Tokyo-drifting backwards. “We tried but there was nothing we could do.” Sounds cheerful, doesn’t it?
128. “Thinking About You,” Pablo Honey
Pure acoustic longing, dressed up with strings — it’s tougher to pull off than the success of early Coldplay might suggest. Minor demerit for the lyric where Yorke is “playing with myself,” which, to be fair, everyone was singing about around that time.
127. “Lewis (Mistreated),” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
This My Iron Lung rave-up implores, Morrissey-like, potentially self-referentially: “Lewis, save yourself the pain, you’ll never get there.”
126. “Stupid Car,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition)
This variation on Yorke’s car-phobic theme, from Radiohead’s 1992 debut EP Drill, is just a slow-motion, percussion-less demo, but at certain moments it thrills with its unvarnished emotion. “I can’t change gear / I cannot see the road.”
125. “Sit Down. Stand Up.” Hail to the Thief
A pre-Kid A idea, likely inspired by Charles Mingus (as Yorke has suggested), and exhilarating enough just for the frenetic “and the raindrops” conclusion.
124. “Paperbag Writer,” Hail to the Thief (Deluxe Version)
This 2003 “There There” B-side and COM LAG cut has a nice staccato bass line, Hitchcock-like string snippets and, recalling solo Yorke, frosty electronic pulses, plus a vaguely exotica-esque loop. “It was nice when I left it, but now it’s gone.”
123. “Staircase,” The King of Limbs-era non-album single
Selway teams up with veteran drummer and percussionist Clive Deamer on this The King of Limbs: Live From the Basement spellbinder that ended up sharing a single with “The Daily Mail.”
122. “I Want None of This,” Help!: A Day in the Life benefit compilation
OK Computer landmark “Lucky” debuted on the 1995 compilation Help from U.K. charity War Child, raising money to benefit strife-stricken countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. This haunting piano ballad didn’t go on to such a prominent place in Radiohead’s discography, but nevertheless, ably filled its role on a compilation marking the original’s 10th anniversary.
121. “These Are My Twisted Words,” post-In Rainbows non-album single
When “Twisted Words” initially surfaced on a file-sharing site in August 2009, fans speculated that Yorke himself might have been the leaker. While this study of krautrock propulsion is gloomily mesmerizing (aren’t most Radiohead songs?), it remains less provocative than the song’s origins.
120. “Prove Yourself,” Pablo Honey
Originally released on 1992’s Drill EP, “Prove Yourself” brought Radiohead to national radio for the first time via a spin by BBC Radio One DJ Gary Davies. It’s the sort of fairly predictable art-school guitar-pop that Radiohead would later outgrow, but it nevertheless hints at Yorke’s gift for plaintive vocals.
119. “Supercollider,” The King of Limbs-era non-album single
This seven-minute, electronics-based 2011 Record Store Day offering, which shares its name with a computer programing language for music, demonstrates Radiohead’s wisdom around album sequencing: They surely could have found room for it on the same year’s eight-track, 37-minute The King of Limbs, but both are better off apart.
118. “Where Bluebirds Fly,” Hail to the Thief (Deluxe Version)
Used as intro music during Radiohead’s 2002 gigs, this 2003 “There There” B-side smuggles Yorke’s twisted take on some “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” lines into drifting electronics, though few reviewers seem to have noticed The Wizard of Oz connection. I admire the chutzpah as much as I enjoy wondering exactly what this pre-In Rainbows (“rainbows,” see?) artistic decision might mean.
117. “Blow Out,” Pablo Honey
A bossa nova-like mid-tempo rocker gives way to the type of guitar atmospherics also being explored around that time by bands like the Verve. It’s one of the more effective songs on Pablo Honey, if only a glimmer of what was to come.
116. “I Will,” Hail to the Thief
A theme in Radiohead’s discography is their willingness to rework their own material. The source instrumental on Amnesiac’s backward-guitar-based “Like Spinning Plates” appears here turned forward again. What it may lack in its predecessor’s sonic adventurousness it makes up for in its righteous vitriol, reportedly inspired by an Operation Desert Storm destruction of a bomb shelter.
115. “Banana Co.,” Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition) & The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
One of the plentiful Radiohead B-sides worthy of more attention, this anti-colonialism broadside sounds better in its full-band incarnation as a B-side to 1996’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” — coming close to the style of OK Computer — than in its fine-enough acoustic version from 1993’s “Pop Is Dead” and 1994’s Itch EP. “We better dig it up somehow, yeah, yeah.”
114. “Bones,” The Bends
A relatively straightforward album track that could have been a single in its own right, even though its guitar thrash might’ve fit in just as well on Pablo Honey.
113. “Sulk,” The Bends
Yorke wrote the second-to-last track on The Bends way back in 1987, which perhaps explains its traditional guitar-rock upswell (also why Radiohead have hardly ever played it live), but his emotive vocal, delivering lyrics inspired by gun violence, stands out above the waltzing backing.
112. “Myxomatosis,” Hail to the Thief
Yorke once said this scathing synth riposte, titled after a disease that killed British rabbits, is “about wishing that all the people who tell you that you’re crazy were actually right.” Though the connection to a bunny illness may be obscure, the polemical content was clear enough when the album arrived, and it’s sad to say it hasn’t dated much.
111. “Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was,” The Bends
This falsetto-based acoustic ballad set out a sweetly chiming template later taken up by Parachutes-era Coldplay. It’s easy to hear why Chris Martin might’ve known this was a blockbuster idea.
110. “Fog,” Amnesiac (Deluxe Version) & Hail to the Thief (Deluxe Version)
Originally titled “Alligators in New York Sewers,” this unusually direct track from the Kid A / Amnesiac sessions appears as woozy electronic rock on the 2001 “Knives Out” single, and, retitled “Fog (Again),” in an aching live piano version on the 2003 “Go to Sleep” single.
109. “Where I End and You Begin,” Hail to the Thief
The central lyrical image is evocative and pairs well with the Ondes Martenot-encrusted motorik pulse that was pretty typical of Radiohead around this time. Plus, before you know it, all that stately yearning gives way to Yorke repeating that he “will eat you alive.”
108. “Worrywort,” Amnesiac (Deluxe Version)
This 2001 “Knives Out” B-side lets us hear Yorke sing, “It’s such a beautiful day,” and sound as if he means it, draped by wistful ambient electronics and beatbox-like percussion. A welcome moment.
107. “Up on the Ladder,” In Rainbows [CD2]
Evidently dating back to the Kid A / Amnesiac sessions, and performed live in 2002, “Up on the Ladder” eventually saw release on the bonus disc within the In Rainbows box set. It has the immaculate production of In Rainbows, particularly noticeable at CD quality, while the “watch me dance like a puppet” line might’ve predicted the “Lotus Flower” video, and the sighing, synth-steeped chorus has a definite pull. But the band had ended up doing better with a similarly gnarled riff on Amnesiac’s “I Might Be Wrong.”
106. “Lull,” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
That this heart-tugging, nimble-guitared profession of apology could be relegated to a B-side just shows how towering Radiohead’s powers were around the time of OK Computer.
105. “Pearly*,” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
Here’s another 1997 B-side that would’ve been among the best songs on the band’s previous albums — for the surging guitar and hypnotic call-and-response, if not for the discomfiting lyrics.
104. “Sail to the Moon,” Hail to the Thief
Often compared to a lullaby — and, yes, available covered in lullaby form — this appropriately moonlit slow burner would be too rhythmically tricky for most people to sing to their infant children, but its uneasy grandeur is impressive to behold.
103. “Kinetic,” Amnesiac (Deluxe Version)
This Miles Davis-sampling “Pyramid Song” B-side continues Yorke’s lyrical focus on menacing automotives, with beguilingly enigmatic, texturally detailed results.
102. “A Punchup at the Wedding,” Hail to the Thief
Favorite fact about this Atoms for Peace-predicting, “hypocrite”- and “opportunist”-saving funk-rock rumination: An early draft of the lyrics reportedly invited critics to take the stage if they thought they could do better, adding, “I’m sick of all your bullshit … who invited you anyway?”
101. “You Never Wash Up After Yourself,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
Like “Lull,” this 1994 My Iron Lung EP live track — just arpeggiated guitar and Yorke’s voice — is potent despite coming across as little more than an offhand sketch.
100. “Treefingers,” Kid A
It’s constructed from processed samples of O’Brien’s guitar, but it lends a soothing ambient interlude on an album with little interest in being a palliative. Its place on Kid A alone would deserve recognition. But then the band decided to play this piece live, for the first time, in its return performance after a tragic stage collapse killed drum tech Scott Johnson. It was an inspired tribute.
99. “Separator,” The King of Limbs
Radiohead typically excel when it comes to picking their album closers, and this unexpectedly serene 2011 track, complete with sprightly highlife guitar, is a case in point.
98. “Cuttooth,” Amnesiac (Deluxe Version)
Krautrock propulsion meets Yorke’s lyrics about wanting to run away to the foreign legion or be in the wallpaper on this fine 2001 “Knives Out” B-side.
97. “Meeting in the Aisle,” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
Though very much of its time, Radiohead’s first-ever instrumental, a B-side that’s also on Airbag/How Am I Driving?, has pleasant Air-circa-Moon Safari vibes, helped by programing from electronic duo Zero 7.
96. “The Gloaming,” Hail to the Thief
Throwback techno-pop that renders Trump-like messages (“Murderers, you’re murderers / We are not the same as you”) somehow angelic.
95. “Dollars & Cents,” Amnesiac
More krautrock inspiration, this time directed toward “gibberish … about how people are basically just pixels on a screen, unknowingly serving this higher power which is manipulative and destructive, but we’re powerless because we can’t name it.” Also weirdly uplifting.
94. “Trans-Atlantic Drawl,” Amnesiac (Deluxe Version)
This 2001 “Pyramid Song” B-side is half sneering, punk-ish skree and half synthesizer elegy. It’s named after the plummy accent Mark Ronson has in common with Katharine Hepburn and is memorable for its repeated query, “Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel?” A decade and a half later, fighting continues in Iraq.
93. “Go to Sleep,” Hail to the Thief
The 1960s U.K.-folk-tinged acoustic guitar riff is one of several moments in Radiohead’s catalogue that presages the silvery psych-folk moments on A Moon Shaped Pool. Then the song, with its admonitions against polluters, gets notably frantic. Not a lullaby.
92. “Melatonin,” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
However, this 1997 B-side, which also appeared on the same year’s Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP, could almost be a lullaby: “Don’t forget that you are our son / Now go back to bed,” Yorke begins, amid church-like peals of synth. Radiohead being Radiohead, it’s not that simple: “Death to all who stand / In your way, my dear,” Yorke concludes.
91. “Go Slowly,” In Rainbows [CD2]
Yes, yes, another fitting title, but the tension keeps building on this drum-free track of guitars, xylophone, synths, and Yorke’s voice. “There’s a way out,” the ghostly wail repeats, but we’re never quite shown it.
90. “Electioneering,” OK Computer
Though often derided compared to the rest of OK Computer, “Electioneering” has a churning rock energy and polemical straightforwardness (“Voodoo economics”!) that may warrant reconsideration for live sets.
89. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” A Moon Shaped Pool
Natural or supernatural forces are coming out of the woodwork, “and all you have to do is say yeah,” on one of the new album’s most seamless meldings of orchestration, electronics, and rock-band drums. A lovelorn theme emerges: “Honey, come to me before it’s too late.”
88. “Morning Mr. Magpie,” The King of Limbs
“You got some nerve” converting a 2002 live solo acoustic track into jittery, Nigerian-influenced funk-rock. Nerve is good.
87. “A Wolf at the Door,” Hail to the Thief
Another well-chosen album closer, this time fusing talking-blues grotesquerie with a typically buoyant chorus that finds a certain majesty in everyday existential worries.
86. “Decks Dark,” A Moon Shaped Pool
Fragmented keyboard-based grooves provide the soundtrack to Yorke’s murmurs about both “a spaceship blocking the sky” and “split infinites,” so yes, you are three tracks into a new Radiohead album.
85. “Bloom,” The King of Limbs
Bustling electronics and aching gloom thrown together with Afro-pop? Plus flugelhorn? “Don’t blow your mind with why.” Also worth seeking out are Jamie xx’s “Bloom” remixes, particularly the dance-focused “Rework Part 3.”
84. “Down Is the New Up,” In Rainbows [CD2]
An ominous piano anthem in the In Rainbows full-band style, with even-more-ominous violins. It’s not the new anything, but it’ll do. Especially when Yorke hits a funkier-than-his-usual falsetto at the end.
83. “Little By Little,” The King of Limbs
Oddly clattering percussion, bleak lyrics verging on self-parodic (“The dark cell / The pit of my soul”), but damned if I can get the ornately riffed chorus out of my head.
82. “The Daily Mail,” The King of Limbs-era non-album single
“The lunatics have taken over the asylum” on this entrancing piano ballad that grows, bolstered by fury at someone who “got past security,” into a swaggering anthem.
81. “Fitter Happier,” OK Computer
How do you assess “Fitter Happier”? It’s a Dr. Sbaitso-era computerized voice reading lyrics of quotidian bourgeois meaninglessness atop rickety piano and a looped sample. It’s hard to imagine reaching for it often by itself, but it’s even harder to imagine OK Computer without it.
80. “Desert Island Disk” A Moon Shaped Pool
Whoever had “Lozenge of Love” in your “what old Radiohead songs will the new album sound like” in your LP9 pool before Yorke debuted this one live in Paris last year, please collect your winnings.
79. “Maquiladora,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
This “High and Dry” B-side is one of the standout B-sides from this era, a bristling, fleet-fingered rock anthem that improves upon its predecessors from Pablo Honey but also hints at the bombast of Radiohead followers like Muse.
78. “The Trickster,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
Another excellent The Bends-era B-side, this time from the My Iron Lung EP and single, and another fiery guitar showcase.
77. “Present Tense,” A Moon Shaped Pool
“Keep it light and keep it moving,” Yorke’s narrator seems to tell himself amid finger-picked acoustic guitar. “I’m doing no harm / As my world comes crashing down / I’ll be dancing, freaking out.” It’s a stylish bummer, and like many Radiohead songs, it was years in the making.
76. “The Bends,” The Bends
“Where do we go from here?” Yorke begins the title track of Radiohead’s sophomore album. This wiry, hard-charging song, in hindsight a clear iteration between Pablo Honey and OK Computer, was a solid answer, complete with military-industrial-complex imagery that still seems more playfully absurd than the deadly serious.
75. “Last Flowers,” In Rainbows [CD2]
“Snot-nosed little punk / And I can’t face the evening straight,” piano arpeggios, Yorkeian mournfulness, and a smattering of acoustic guitar, this is another one that could be named “How I Made My Millions,” or at least hundreds of thousands. Charming, though.
74. “Bishop’s Robes,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
Those Bends-era B-sides! This slow, sepulchral flip from the “Street Spirit” single, anchored by a gorgeous “I’m not going back” refrain, supposedly responds to a real-life “bastard headmaster.” But the unprincipled principal’s quasi-fascist sort of tendencies would remain a favorite Radiohead target all the way through A Moon Shaped Pool opener, “Burn the Witch.”
73. “4 Minute Warning,” In Rainbows [CD2]
Islands’ Nick Thorburn once called this his favorite Radiohead song. Impending apocalypse has rarely sounded so peaceful. The droning ambient intro is worth noting, too.
72. “The Numbers,” A Moon Shaped Pool
Originally called “Silver Spring” by fans after a live solo performance, this eco-conscious folk-rock anthem channels Yorke’s inner Neil Young.
71. “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
The Bends non-album tracks again. The lyrics about firebombing and bullets being fired suggest a high-minded subtext to this B-side, another from the “My Iron Lung” single and EP. But those ethereal guitars, and the crushworthy chorus, live up to that colorfully sing-song title.
70. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” Amnesiac
This whirring, loop-based experiment, with speech Auto-Tuned into melody, “seems to be like a litmus test,” Yorke once said with a laugh. A decade and a half later, the doors are wide open, and it isn’t hard to see, say, Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder stable passing the test.
69. “(Nice Dream),” The Bends
The sweet melody of this strummy, string-embellished guitar anthem belies its tragic implication that hopes of belonging are just what the title says.
68. “Black Star,” The Bends
This album track seemed to recur on playlists after David Bowie’s passing and upon the release of his own Blackstar, but for all the outer-space imagery, it’s a searingly emotive relationship examination that still resonates.
67. “Codex,” The King of Limbs
Another unhurried piano lament in the “How I Made My Millions” mode; come on in, “the water’s clear and innocent.” And even if something more sinister lurks beneath the magisterial flugelhorns, there’s no one else here, “just dragonflies.”
66. “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” Pablo Honey
There’s a naiveté here that would understandably cause today’s Radiohead to blush, but also an insouciant vigor: “And if London burns / I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar.” In the seaside town that they forgot to bomb …
65. “Gagging Order,” Hail to the Thief (Deluxe Version)
“I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not your property,” Yorke starts on this gentle acoustic song that somehow missed the cut for the album proper.
64. “How I Made My Millions,” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
A blueprint of sorts for Yorke’s piano poignancy, supposedly recorded straight to MiniDisc.
63. “Stop Whispering,” Pablo Honey
This likable alt-rock single would be the standout of Radiohead’s initial phase, if not for one glaring omission still to come.
62. “Bangers + Mash,” In Rainbows [CD2]
The lone uptempo freakout from In Rainbows’ bonus disc. More banger than mash.
61. “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy,” Amnesiac (Deluxe Version)
This creepily shuffling “Pyramid Song” B-side made its live debut during the King of Limbs tour, well past time for audiences to appreciate the lyrical reference to “the day the banks collapse on us.”
60. “Ful Stop,” A Moon Shaped Pool
On this, another the King of Limbs tour premiere, Yorke sings, “You’ve really messed up everything,” amid anxious, familiarly krautrock-inflected forward motion: heartbreak as autobahn.
59. “Identikit,” A Moon Shaped Pool
This too debuted during the King of Limbs tour, and it has the prickly rhythms to show its provenance. But it may also be a poignant display of A Moon Shaped Pool’s underlying theme of romantic anguish: “Broken hearts make it rain,” Yorke repeats.
58. “My Iron Lung,” The Bends
The dramatic dynamic shifts on this back-catalogue staple, which can be seen as a reaction to “Creep,” portend “Paranoid Android.”
57. “A Reminder,” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
Yorke once said, “I had this idea of someone writing a song, sending it to someone and saying, ‘If I ever lose it, you just pick up the phone and play me this song back to remind me.’” It’s a lovely concept for a single song, from a time when Radiohead were better-known for album-scale concepts, and the execution is graceful and lush. “Start to talk shit,” you have Yorke’s approval.
56. “In Limbo,” Kid A
On a seriously stacked album, “In Limbo” is filled with musical “trapdoors that open.” An old theme recurs: “You’re living in a fantasy.”
55. “Palo Alto,” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
HBO’s Silicon Valley wasn’t even a glimmer in Mike Judge’s eye when Radiohead showed they could wink at “the city of the future / Where it is difficult to fall asleep.”
54. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” Amnesiac
“I’m a reasonable man / Get off my case,” Yorke asserts, and the clamorous programming (another “litmus test,” surely?) is stunning enough that you may almost believe him.
53. “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2),” OK Computer (Collector’s Edition)
Forget the Bends B-sides. What about the greatness of those OK Computer non-album tracks? This two-part song encapsulates much of the band’s aesthetic to this point.
52. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” In Rainbows
This taut single portraying doomed, drunken connections could fit pretty easily on almost any Radiohead album since OK Computer.
51. “Let Down,” OK Computer
Here’s where lambent acoustic strums pierce OK Computer’s pervasive dread. “Hysterical and useless,” perhaps, and definitely bleaker than it might seem, but still a keeper.
50. “Glass Eyes,” A Moon Shaped Pool
Yorke’s lyrics grow unusually conversational on what may be the new album’s most heartbreaking song. The narrator’s train ride is frightening, but what awaits him at his destination, he recounts in an atypically faltering voice over those millions-making piano notes, could be scarier still: “I feel this love turn cold,” he admits. Into the wilderness, then.
49. “2 + 2 = 5,” Hail to the Thief
George Orwell’s 1984 already got an implicit nod when the Thought Police became “Karma Police” on OK Computer, but this track’s intricate doublethink is worthy in its own right.
48. “Life in a Glasshouse,” Hail to the Thief
Say, what could cheer Radiohead up? How about a New Orleans jazz funeral? “Well, of course I’d like to sit and chew the fat.”
47. “Like Spinning Plates,” Amnesiac
Built around the backwards instrumental part that would become “I Will” (with backward-sounding vocals to match), this one’s dizzying electronics demonstrate yet again how Radiohead could create something distinctively mesmerizing out of practically nothing.
46. “Faust Arp,” In Rainbows
Yorke has shrugged when asked how much this might have to do with the legend of Faust, but its orchestral-backed acoustic reverie wouldn’t be out of place on A Moon Shaped Pool: “I love you but enough is enough.”
45. “You and Whose Army?,” Amnesiac
A deep breath and then a woozy “come on” en route to a rare OK Computer-like guitar song on Amnesiac, albeit one steeped with references to “cronies” and imperial Rome.
44. “15 Step,” In Rainbows
This delirious, beat-driven confidence boost (“Won’t take my eyes off the ball again”) benefits from a children’s cheer at just the right moment.
43. “All I Need,” In Rainbows
The crescendo that “Go Slowly” withholds comes full force here, on a song Yorke once hinted had to do with obsession.
42. “Spectre,” 2015 non-album single
Billed by Yorke as a song written for the James Bond film of the same title, this Christmas 2015 one-off in hindsight predicted the string-drenched, emotionally vulnerable trajectory heard on much of A Moon Shaped Pool.
41. “Just,” The Bends
Busy chords guitars blaze behind Yorke’s bitter unease (“You do it to yourself!”) on a song that, according to Setlist.fm, is among Radiohead’s five most-played live; the video’s Lost in Translation-like mysterious closing dialogue foreshadows the “what’d he just say?” clip for A Moon Shaped Pool’s “Daydreaming.”
40. “Planet Telex,” The Bends
The explosive, effects-swirled opening track from Radiohead’s second album brandishes a refrain that has grown unfortunately more, not less, timely in the intervening decades: “Everything is broken.” The original title was reputedly “Planet Xerox,” but that would’ve risked a trademark-infringement fight.
39. “I Might Be Wrong,” Amnesiac
With bluesy, insistent guitar at a time when Radiohead was noted for electronic experimentation, it’s probably no coincidence that “I Might Be Wrong,” a minor U.S. hit, also ended up as the title track from the band’s live album later the same year. The overall moodiness belies a cautious optimism: “I used to think there was no future left at all,” Yorke sings, channeling “no future” punk, but now “I could’ve sworn I saw a light.”
38. “Knives Out,” Amnesiac
The bossa nova-like bewitchment of this single hints at a direction Radiohead explored later on In Rainbows’ “House of Cards” and A Moon Shaped Pool’s “Present Tense.” Its cannibalistic menace, though, is all its own.
37. “Bodysnatchers,” In Rainbows
Radiohead’s highest-charting single on Billboard’s U.S. Modern Rock Songs ranking since “Creep” was a distillation of the band’s styles, with synth-smeared guitar distortion and a multi-part construction reminiscent of the OK Computer era. A howl of “I’ve no idea what I am talking about” gives way to acoustic-accented declarations that “it is the 21st century.”
36. “Lotus Flower,” The King of Limbs
Say what you will about dancing Thom Yorke. When the cat’s away, Radiohead slip into intoxicating polyrhythms and airy falsetto. As for “that fast-ballooning head,” well, might want to see a doctor about that.
35. “Burn the Witch,” A Moon Shaped Pool
Strings whirring like witches on broomsticks, this groupthink-indicting thunderclap was the new album’s instantly satisfying first single, and could well prove to be a grower, too (after all, it’s been floating around since early in the millennium). Don’t shoot the messenger.
34. “Videotape,” In Rainbows
Never mind the Mephistopheles allusion, a signpost of rock pretentiousness since Sting first had Police fans wrapped around his finger. This deeply moving song is another of Radiohead’s knockout album closers, and its vision of a dying farewell through videotape is a nifty corollary to “A Reminder” and its idea of a song to play someone over the phone anytime they need it. “No matter what happens now,” Yorke promises, “You shouldn’t be afraid.”
33. “How Can You Be Sure?,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
For as welcome as Radiohead’s evolution beyond basic rock tropes has been, this starkly beautiful campfire ballad Bends B-side — which originally dates to a 1990 emo tape — for me nearly ranks up there with, at least, prior single “High and Dry,” if not A-side “Fake Plastic Trees.”
32. “Talk Show Host,” The Bends (Collector’s Edition)
This Portishead-style trip-hop exploration, from the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet as well as the “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” single, may be the epitome of a Radiohead B-side too good to be left there. Then again: “You want me?” Yorke spits. “Fucking well, come and find me.”
31. “Morning Bell,” Kid A; “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” Amnesiac
Best to treat these two as separate takes on the same song, because that’s what they are.
The Kid A version, released first, is a stuttering electronic-rock highlight that’s as gorgeous as its Solomon-like view of divorce — “Cut the kids in half!” — is chilling. Radiohead’s habit for extensively reworking their songs also yielded a makeover an album later. At the time, fans impatiently waiting for their illicit downloads may have found the repetition disappointing, a sign that Amnesiac was somehow slight. But “Morning Bell/Amnesiac”—actually recorded before its Kid A equivalent—is even better, chiming and heart-tugging.
30. “Kid A,” Kid A
Ironically, the title track of the album where Radiohead most boldly moved into the post-rock future relies on a tool that predates the genre entirely, a 1920s electronic instrument called Ondes Martenot. That’s what cloaks Yorke’s croon as he intones lyrics he has said were “dedicated to the first human clone.”
29. “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” Kid A
Radiohead has a few requiems, but this one, with its flickering harps and funereal organ, truly ascends: “I will see you in the next life,” Yorke murmurs, as if from the future.
28. “Nude,” In Rainbows
Born in the late 1990s, “Nude” could’ve called it a day after its opening lines: “Don’t get any big ideas / They’re not going to happen.” Instead it unfurls, with a dub bass line and understated strings, into the band’s first Top 40 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 since “Creep,” and a cornerstone of the catalogue.
27. “The National Anthem,” Kid A
An irresistibly stubborn bass line, the Ondes Martenot again with its retro sci-fi wail, and a bit of free-jazz squall? Worth taking your hat off for at the next human-clone hunger games.
26. “Give Up the Ghost,” The King of Limbs
The King of Limbs may feel like a quirky detour upon the release of A Moon Shaped Pool, which more clearly connects Radiohead to its millennial heights, but don’t overlook this quiet stunner, with acoustic strums and electronic undertow. “Don’t haunt me,” Yorke softly pleads. Too late.
25. “Daydreaming,” A Moon Shaped Pool
It’s early days yet, but this pensive, pastoral expanse, released as the second single from the new album, looks like it could be one of Radiohead’s definitive statements. Yorke’s laconic observations about dreamers and damage done imply interpersonal tension, until he opens it up by proclaiming, “We are just happy to serve.” Then the orchestra and — true to decodable-Radiohead form — backmasked messages about love take over.
24. “House of Cards,” In Rainbows
For an indication of the unfussy melodic prettiness Radiohead indulged in with In Rainbows that marked the album as a step up from Hail to the Thief, try “House of Cards,” with its soft-jazz strums and unguarded romanticism (“I don’t wanna be your friend / I just wanna be your lover”). Why, it could almost touch the heart of Francis Underwood. (Almost.)
23. “The Tourist,” OK Computer
If the bots are going to take over anyway, why not waltz peacefully into the AI apocalypse? Jonny Greenwood allegedly got the inspiration for OK Computer’s graceful coup de grâce while watching a horde of rushing tourists in France.
22. “How to Disappear Completely,” Kid A
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe reportedly advised Yorke to handle the stress of touring by telling himself, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.” The Radiohead front man gifts this mantra to the masses on Kid A’s deepest dive into soothingly immersive melancholy.
21. “Optimistic,” Kid A
Prefiguring “I Might Be Wrong” on Amnesiac, “Optimistic” drew extra attention at the time for being a rare rock-oriented brooder on its Aphex Twin- and Autechre-aspiring album home. If the rest of Kid A looked to expand Radiohead listeners’ boundaries, “Optimistic” was the band’s way of showing what it could already do within the old ones.
20. “Exit Music (For a Film),” OK Computer
Of several Radiohead songs with cinematic titles, this soaring escape fantasy reigns as the surest bet to leave theatergoers with goosebumps.
19. “High and Dry,” The Bends
When Radiohead’s Britpop anthems were still jangling and contemplative enough to befit a band opening for Alanis Morissette and R.E.M., “High and Dry” was one of the best. There’s an innocence here a more experienced band could never get back, but on certain days that’s exactly what’s needed.
18. “Harry Patch (In Memory Of),” post-In Rainbows non-album single
The undulating symphonic grandeur of this ode to the last surviving World War I combat soldier felt like a dazzling one-off when it arrived as a loose track in 2009. It feels less so now after “Spectre” and the more string-laden moments of A Moon Shaped Pool, but it’s still a triumph, an ideal listen for early mornings, an evocation not of war or foreign affair but rather, quite literally, peace.
17. “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” OK Computer
Yorke’s man-who-fell-to-earth observations of “uptight” life on the third planet does justice to the title’s nod to Dylan — one of the few artists whose music thrives more on inscrutability than Radiohead’s.
16. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” In Rainbows
“Arpeggi” was one of the first signs of new Radiohead music after Hail to the Thief, debuting in an orchestral form that, come to think of it, might better suit their current mood. But the gloriously bittersweet version that appeared on In Rainbows, retaining the subtle textures but adding a propulsive backbeat, was one of the surest reasons to appreciate the album for more than its creators’ business acumen. “I’d be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead,” Yorke implores, and in the moment, the feeling seems mutual.
15. “No Surprises,” OK Computer
This heavy hitter from an album that’s a murderer’s row wasn’t Yorke’s “final bellyache,” as he insists here, but it’s among his most gently lyrical, weaving together unexpected turns of phrase (“A heart that’s full up like a landfill”?), visions of workaday ennui (a line later, “a job that slowly kills you”), and the band’s anti-establishment tendencies (two lines after that, “bring down the government”) with ruthless and rousing efficiency.
14. “Climbing Up the Walls,” OK Computer
On an album that was an outlier for 1997, “Climbing Up the Walls” was an outlier in itself, with bass like monsters under the bed and unsettling Penderecki-style strings. Then it tears itself apart in a distortion-swallowing maelstrom. If it no longer sounds quite so out of left field, then its meticulous chaos has just become that much more ripe for sheer enjoyment.
13. “There There,” Hail to the Thief
Not all of Hail to the Thief has proved as enduring as some of Radiohead’s other work, but “There, There” is an exception. Its percussive rumble and guitar-led attack might tie the song to either of the band’s next two albums, while that quavering chorus could stab straight to the heart in just about any context: “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.”
12. “Airbag,” OK Computer
The first track on OK Computer is a welcome into the album’s universe. The fractured DJ Shadow-style beats, the spaciously dubwise bass, the winding guitars, and Yorke sounding just about as in dread of automobiles (“Killer Cars,” “Stupid Car,” remember) as World War III: It’s the kind of moment a band can’t consciously recreate. Bonus points for interpolating the title of Indeep’s “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” and then driving it home safely.
11. “Pyramid Song,” Amnesiac
In case there’s any lingering doubt, no, string and piano ballads aren’t new for Radiohead. The claustrophobia of this single with an odd time signature stands in contrast to the more open-air feel of A Moon Shaped Pool, but its place in the Radiohead canon seems secure: “There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt,” Yorke tells us again and again, and we want to believe.
10. “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” The Bends
The epochal closer of the first album glimmering with Radiohead’s potential finds Yorke ruminating on “cracked eggs” and “dead birds” that “scream as they fight for life,” material suitably morbid to ballast a resonant, almost utopian final rallying cry: “Immerse your soul in love.” An early indication that Radiohead weren’t as depressing as they wanted you to think they were.
9. “Lucky,” OK Computer
This one’s optimistic: “I’m on a roll this time / I feel my luck could change,” Yorke begins, hinting at the type of maybe-but-who-knows epiphany that later shows up on “I Might Be Wrong.” But this sinewy ballad really sells it, with heads of state and air crashes and Yorke as a superhero who’ll “leave you standing on the edge.” It’s a showstopper from the opening high-pitched hum to the crashing crescendo, and it’s all the better that the song originally appeared not on OK Computer, but on a compilation benefiting war-stricken children.
8. “Everything in Its Right Place,” Kid A
Time once dubbed Kid A “the weirdest album ever to sell a million copies,” and that, rather than comparisons to Radiohead’s Warp-label electronic influences, is the best way to approach the album’s sleekly gliding opener. The unusual time signature, lack of conventional rock instrumentation, and computer-mangled backing vocals (with surreal abstractions like “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon”) may not have been new to the already enlightened, but they unlocked the code for a whole new mass of listeners who heard this in mainstream forums like Saturday Night Live. May it open doors still.
7. “Reckoner,” In Rainbows
There’s so much about this In Rainbows peak that would also make it a great candidate for being considered the pinnacle of the band’s career. Its transformation into celestial soul from rugged krautrock predecessor “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” later a Yorke solo track, epitomizes how the band tirelessly revises its own work. The lyrics’ avowal that “this is dedicated to all human beings” and “you can’t take it with you” manifests a musical generosity that will no doubt be especially celebrated on that (hopefully distant) day when Radiohead eventually call it quits themselves. And, in a bizarre but perfect Easter egg that typifies how Radiohead indulge their cult, the backing vocals can be heard singing the album title at the point on the song that apparently lines up with mathematics’ aesthetically pleasing “golden ratio” for In Rainbows. When someone quotes you the “we are just happy to serve” line from A Moon Shaped Pool’s “Daydreaming,” feel free to reply, “Dancing for your pleasure.” Nearly as old now as OK Computer was upon In Rainbows’s release, this song feels due for a fresh moment of reckoning.
6. “Fake Plastic Trees,” The Bends
The best explanation for Radiohead turning away from songs quite as frankly yearning as this one is that they couldn’t do it better than “Fake Plastic Trees.” What the string-draped acoustic balladry here lacks in the modernist subtlety of the band’s later work, or what the Holden Caulfield-isms about realistic phonies may now seem to say a bit quaintly, the song makes up for in pure feeling, which may (shh, don’t tell anyone!) be part of why we listen to Radiohead anyway. When Yorke lilts about “if I could be who you wanted,” the ache is our own.
5. “Karma Police,” OK Computer
What Radiohead could do instead of yearn, though, was the greater adventurousness to be found on OK Computer. And nowhere did the album’s textural richness and queasy ambivalence toward technology lead to a more sing-along-friendly rock single than “Karma Police.” Later covered by the Bad Plus and John Vanderslice, Panic! at the Disco, and a very young Kesha, here’s where Radiohead allowed us to tell all the guys who talk in maths, “This is what you’ll get / When you mess with us.” And by the time the deceptively somber piano gives way to the dive-bombing guitar distortion at the end, for a minute there, we’ll have lost ourselves.
4. “Idioteque,” Kid A
The biggest crowd-pleaser from what was at the time Radiohead’s least crowd-pleasing album is an “ice age coming” freeze-out of unpredictably percolating drum patterns and Yorke’s seasick harmonies, repeating “women and children first.” That the song includes samples from 1970s computer music is, like the title track’s use of the decades-old Ondes Martinot, an irony most delicious. It’s okay not to know what you’re dancing to; Yorke’s appeal has rarely depended on being literally understood.
3. “Creep,” Pablo Honey
Radiohead reportedly haven’t played their biggest hit live since 2009. They used to call it “our Scott Walker song,” and the chords’ similarities to the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” mean they had to share the songwriting credits. And, true, it came from a period in Radiohead’s development when their influences were more widely familiar and less absorbed. Plus, of course, the “you’re so fucking special” / “I’m a creep” dichotomy of putting romantic interests on pedestals (where they’ll slow dance with someone else at the prom) more properly belongs in a prior era’s teen movies. But try to deny Yorke’s voice when it climbs to the creepily cobwebbed rafters at the anguished climax. Better yet, try to deny Prince’s.
2. “Paranoid Android,” OK Computer
The mythic status of OK Computer’s second track almost makes it harder to hear why it’s so successful. A multi-part opus that could once have been earnestly compared to a 1990s “Bohemian Rhapsody” hardly seems like a selling point. Receive it, then, as testament not to Radiohead’s grandiosity but rather to their generosity. They were escaping unborn chicken voices, fuming at us for not remembering their name, and warning us about panic and vomit, all while the “Fitter Happier” robot was asking some replicant about his psychological state. It all works today as a celebration of what a five-piece band, with some ingenuity, can make happen on a record. It’s not the stuff of camp for some late 2010s Wayne’s World reboot (though that could be fun, too!) just yet. “God loves his children, yeah,” the way all creators admire their best work.
1. “True Love Waits,” A Moon Shaped Pool / I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
Before A Moon Shaped Pool, “True Love Waits” might have been a contender for Radiohead’s No. 1 track in spirit, but it would have been hard to argue for in practice. How could you go to bat for a song the band had been playing live since the mid-’90s but never officially released, except on a live album — and there in an earnest-sounding acoustic rendering that left out so much of the sonic questing and general elusiveness that make Radiohead “Radiohead”? (Adding insult to injury, no less an authority than Radiohead’s longtime producer, Nigel Godrich, referred to the song’s only release as “that shitty live version.”)
The wearier, sadder recording that caps Radiohead’s latest album, set to a reflecting pool of synth tones where lesser artists might’ve gone full troubadour, actualizes the band’s captivating appeal to make a wounded relationship last in a beautifully unexpected way. The basic sentiment (as well as the possibility of a real-life subtext, given Yorke’s separation from Rachel Owen) is familiar enough, but just as “True Love Waits” itself never had a finished version before Moon Shaped Pool, the difference between the studio cut and its various predecessors floats over the proceedings like a ghost in the machine — a multiverse of opportunities not taken, whether personally, politically, or technologically. How Radiohead.