A daunting existential question resides deep in the psyche of every Radiohead fan: What would contemporary music sound like had the band never existed? Initially branded as just another one-hit grunge-pop wonder, the Oxford quintet led by Thom Yorke would go on to dismantle traditional guitar-rock, embracing ideas from the avant-classical, electronic, jazz, and world music communities. Over time, their vision of a technological dystopia under siege would come to serve as one of the definitive artistic representations of modern life. That Radiohead had such humble beginnings is what makes their lasting contributions that much more compelling. Ahead of the release of their OK Computer deluxe edition, we’ve trace the evolution of one of the most important bands in the galaxy.
Radiohead’s first-ever release is made up of four scrappy demos that reimagine the Pixies as moody British schoolboys. Thom Yorke discovers his defining whine in “Prove Yourself,” repeatedly moaning, “I’m better off dead,” as the band works warped guitars into a frenzy. Meanwhile, his balladry skills (and distaste for cars) are already starting to form in the gut-wrenching portrait “Stupid Car.”
Album Highlight: “Prove Yourself”
Most importantly, Radiohead’s full-length debut gave them a platform. Three tracks from Drill get cleaned up here, and their grunge rock aims for arena-sized grandeur, but it’s track No. 2 that hit Generation X where it hurt so good. Loner anthem “Creep” still speaks to the disenchanted teen in all of us, with Thom Yorke’s wail cutting through distorted riffs like a beacon in the fog. Elsewhere, traces of future experimentation glimmer through in the Sonic Youth fuzz of “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and the dreamy lounge-pop meltdown “Blow Out.”
Album Highlight: “Creep”
This EP of outtakes from their then-upcoming second album captures a band in the odd limbo of finding success and then immediately dreading it. The title track wriggles and writhes in a mess of guitars that almost reaches heavy metal status after Yorke cynically professes, “This is our new song/ Just like the last one.” Later, “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” trembles at a narcotic pace, showing the first stages of Radiohead metamorphosing into refined sculptors of ghostly ambiance.
Album Highlight: “My Iron Lung”
As early as album No. 2, you could already get away with calling Radiohead an art-rock band. Rich layers of spidery strings are guided by Jonny Greenwood, whose moves are both intricately refined and unpredictably primal. “Fake Plastic Trees” soars like U2, except way weirder when put under the spell of Yorke’s cryptic lyrics and withering howls. Closing track “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” hints at what’s soon to come, its hypnotizing arpeggio slipping seductively into a dark abyss. (Read Chuck Eddy’s original Spin review of The Bends.)
Album Highlight: “Fake Plastic Trees”
Powered by The Bends’ most potent ballad, this single release is arguably Radiohead’s most essential due to a few key B-sides. “Talk Show Host” sizzles on the back of four warped, menacing notes as it creeps along a trip-hop beat. They then rip through gnarled feedback on “Banana Co.” and seal it with a Beatles-esque shimmy.
Album Highlight: “Talk Show Host”
On the band’s most celebrated album, Yorke turns his inner angst outward and the band follows suit, smashing musical influences like atoms in the service of expressing pre-Y2K angst. The Beatles remain a prominent inspiration—at least Lennon’s eeriest provocations—as swarms of buzzing guitars and layers of atonal distortion and ambient noise channel our darkest collective fears. Yorke’s addled yawp and Greenwood’s arpeggiated guitars coil around each other, working as the rope that lashes together elements of avant-garde jazz, electronic, trip-hop, and classical music. (Read Barry Walters’ original Spin review of OK Computer.)
Album Highlight: “Paranoid Android”
The B-sides from OK Computer show the band starting to pull further away from rock music—and maybe even Earth itself. There’s a freaky prescience in the punk-y “Palo Alto,” written before Facebook was even a glimmer in Zuck’s eye: “In a city of the future/ It is difficult to concentrate,” Yorke slyly intones. The woozy Rhodes of “A Reminder” thickens into a claustrophobic drone that would underline much of the soon-to-come Kid A, while “Melatonin” lulls pre-millennial babies to sleep in a churchly blanket of synths.
Album Highlight: “Palo Alto”
The only logical way Radiohead could follow up OK Computer was to completely destroy any semblance of it — to disappear completely, as Yorke puts it on track four here. Armed with archaic electronic instruments like an ondes Martenot, old computer-music samples, and a formidable collection of Warp Records albums — echoes of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Autechre can all be heard here — Radiohead capture social malaise and alienation by alienating themselves. Yorke’s vocals sound transmitted from a nearby planet, looking down at human life with sorrow and pity. Nothing expresses pre-millennial tension better than the chilling, skittery “Idioteque.” (Read Simon Reynolds’ original Spin review of Kid A.)
Album Highlight: “Idioteque”
Recorded during the same sessions as Kid A, Radiohead’s fifth official album clinks and clatters, moans and throbs in much the same way, yet there’s a greater sense of dread and urgency here. The restless, jangling guitars splicing through “Knives Out”; the ominous piano pounding through “Pyramid Song”; Yorke’s lethargic mumbles exploding into a thunderous howl on “You and Whose Army?”—it’s as if it the band were readying us for some world-altering event. (Read Sasha Frere-Jones’ original Spin review of Amnesiac.)
Album Highlight: “Pyramid Song”
Lest we forget Radiohead are indeed a full-fledged band with, like, real guitars and drums and everything, they give us a taste of how their live show plays out with some of Kid A and Amnesiac’s more demanding cuts. It all comes off a lot scrappier than the recordings, reminding us of their formidable rock roots. Closing track “True Love Waits” is the lone acoustic ballad, a live favorite since 1995 and a song that would continue to evolve some 15 years after this release.
Album Highlight: “True Love Waits”
Post-9/11, there’s a decidedly different type of terror lurking within the collective consciousness—enough to inspire Radiohead to bring back some raw, climactic rock. Greenwood’s guitar sheds some of its effects and Yorke’s songwriting is at its most direct, too, targeting politics and religion with Orwellian fervor. Flickering electronics and creeping drones still simmer underneath, just enough to add an extra layer of gloom. (Read Will Hermes’ original Spin review of Hail to the Thief.)
Album Highlight: “There There”
This ramshackle collection of B-sides, live tracks, and remixes shines mostly in its freakier experiments. Yorke’s IDM tinkering starts to bully its way through, with remixes from Four Tet and Cristian Vogel, the latter throwing Hail to the Thief’s “Myxomatosis” into a tin can and shaking it to oblivion. “Paperbag Writer,” which rides on a funky bass line and slithering strings, plays out like an outline for future album The King of Limbs.
Album Highlight: “Paperbag Writer”
Radiohead successfully averted the middle man on this pay-what-you-want self-release and all hell broke loose within the music industry. At the time, this clever move ended up overshadowing what may be the band’s most cohesive and romantic album to date. The icy electronics of Kid A and Amnesiac quickly start to liquefy here—in searing guitar grooves like “Bodysnatchers”—before it all flows like lava into moody love songs that bubble under Yorke’s blistering falsetto. (Read Mikael Woods’ original Spin review of In Rainbows.)
Album Highlight: “Bodysnatchers”
A few of In Rainbows’ outtakes could have very well slipped into the proper album seamlessly: the chiming, ethereal reverie “Go Slowly”; the stripped-down piano elegy “Last Flowers”; the eerily shuffling nightmare “4 Minute Warning.” Others—like the groovy, glitchy “Down Is the New Up”—sound like playful sketches for what would become The King of Limbs.
Album Highlight: “4 Minute Warning”
The warm, roomy melodies of In Rainbows collide with loops, samples, and syncopated rhythms on album No. 8. Those who decried the record’s lack of guitars weren’t listening hard enough—they’re just softened and baked in deeper, then encrusted in broken-up beats. The slippery grooves climax with “Lotus Flower”—which is only outdone by Yorke’s flailing limbs in its mesmerizing video—before slipping into the cavernous echoes of “Give Up the Ghost,” which bridges their digital trickery with raw, emotional beauty. (Read Chris Martins’ full Spin review of The King of Limbs.)
Album Highlight: “Lotus Flower”
The King of Limbs’ electronic infusions offer an excellent template for remixers of all stripes. And so here you get Yorke’s phantom quivers slithering through Caribou’s buoyant minimal beats and glistening harp, and then floating away in Four Tet’s infinite drones — though nothing quite gels like the originals.
Album Highlight: “Separator” (Four Tet Remix)
“Wake me up,” Yorke dreamily chants at the close of The King of Limbs. And five years later Radiohead sounds roused, even enlightened, bookending A Moon Shaped Pool with two dusted-off tracks and filling in the rest with intricate, ambient soundscapes as haunting and dystopian as Kid A, just more…human. Jonny Greenwood’s string and choral arrangements wrap everything in a rich, protective cover until Yorke strips down completely—more than he ever has before—to find chilling new meaning in his decades-old song, “True Love Waits.” (Read Raymond Cummings’ full review of A Moon Shaped Pool.)
Album Highlight: “Burn the Witch”