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Every Radiohead Album, Ranked

Pablo Honey is 30, but the eternal question is: OK Computer or Kid A?
(Credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Oxfordshire teenagers Colin and Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and Thom Yorke called themselves On a Friday when they first formed a band in 1985. Signing to EMI in the early ‘90s, the quintet rebranded at the label’s request, naming itself after the Talking Heads deep cut “Radio Head.” The grungy 1993 outcast anthem “Creep” remains its most recognizable single, but Radiohead subsequently established itself as perhaps the most revered album act of its generation.

In a series of increasingly abstract and unpredictable albums with co-producer Nigel Godrich, Radiohead somehow became critical darlings and more commercially successful than ever, despite often eschewing guitars and radio singles. Borrowing glitchy textures and icy minimalism from electronic music and instrumentation from jazz and the avant-garde side of the classical world, Radiohead constantly challenged its audience. Through it all, however, Yorke’s gorgeous voice and poignant, sometimes darkly funny way of looking at the world remain a connecting thread in Radiohead’s catalog.

Radiohead’s sixth album Hail to the Thief is 20 years old today. In a recent SPIN interview, Selway indicated that Radiohead will reconvene at some point this year to “start looking at ideas for what comes next.” With a potential 10th album in the works, we decided to rank the nine albums the band has released so far.

9. The King of Limbs (2011)


At 37 minutes, The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s shortest album. Though Yorke’s dancing in the “Lotus Flower” video spawned unlikely internet memes, the album’s fidgety rhythms and drily minimalist arrangements ultimately proved hard to love even for fans who’d followed Radiohead through every previous reinvention. Indeed, when music critics anointed 2011’s best albums, Radiohead largely ceded its perennial place on most year-end lists to newer acts such as Bon Iver and St. Vincent. Several acclaimed non-album tracks released later in 2011, including “The Daily Mail” and “Supercollider,” drove home the sense that The King of Limbs probably could have been better. Still, it contains moments of arresting beauty that shouldn’t be dismissed, particularly the acoustic “Give Up the Ghost.” “Listen to it enough times and you may convince yourself you love it. But let’s not kid ourselves that it’s up there with their best work. It just isn’t,” wrote Rebecca Schiller in the NME review.

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8. Pablo Honey (1993)


In 1993, Radiohead was just another Pixies-loving British band who happened to have an amazing lead singer, and three guitarists with enough noisy tricks up their sleeves to fit in with an alternative radio landscape dominated by American grunge bands. The thing that’s aged most poorly about Pablo Honey is its title, inspired by a Jerky Boys prank call skit, but the music here is a little better than it tends to get credit for. The band was already toying with unusual time signatures on the lurching, pseudo-waltz of opener “You,” while “I Can’t” and “Ripcord” feature the kind of soaring choruses the band would master on its next album, The Bends. “Creep” has a complicated legacy within the Radiohead catalog, but it has more or less remained in the band’s live repertoire for decades (unlike every other song on the album), and that chorus still rips. “The English quintet’s debut doesn’t really deliver anything you haven’t heard before, steering too close to Smiths-like melodies and trying ever so hard to be depressed in the way the Cure popularized,” wrote Mario Mundoz in the Los Angeles Times.

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7. Hail to the Thief (2003)


For those who miss the six-string acrobatics and live interplay of ‘90s Radiohead, Hail to the Thief is the 21st century album that most heavily features the full quintet playing together in a room. Drum machines and Jonny Greenwood’s beloved ondes Martenot electronic music instrument make appearances, but the joy of making a racket with drums and guitars courses through the album. Despite some undeniably great songs like “There There” and “Where I End and You Begin,” however, the 14-song collection can feel long-winded and at times exhausting. Hail to the Thief has received some of its harshest criticism from the band itself, and in 2008 Yorke posted a resequenced tracklist on the band’s website that dropped four songs from his revised vision of the album. “It feels more like a band playing to a multitude of strengths than the formal wrestling of Kid A,” Will Hermes wrote in the SPIN review of the album.

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6. A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)


Radiohead has always been seen as a serious artistic entity that meticulously crafts and sequences its albums with vision and care. So it came as a mild shock to realize that the band simply put the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool in alphabetical order – even more astonishing, it actually flows pretty well. Radiohead’s most recent album, nearly seven years old now, contains some of its most ambitious string arrangements to date on “The Numbers” and “Glass Eyes,” with Greenwood deftly drawing on his experience scoring Paul Thomas Anderson films with the London Contemporary Orchestra. It concludes with the first official studio release of “True Love Waits,” a legendary song that the band first performed live in 1995 and attempted to record many times over two decades, finally settling on a piano-based arrangement for A Moon Shaped Pool. “Throughout the album, Yorke’s everyday enlightenment is backed by music of expanse and abandon. The guitars sound like pianos, the pianos sound like guitars, and the mixes breathe with pastoral calm,” Jayson Greene wrote in the Pitchfork review of the album.

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5. Amnesiac (2001)


Part of the mystique of Kid A’s arrival in 2000 was the promise of a companion album to come the following year. Many speculated that Radiohead had saved more conventional rock songs for the follow-up, at least until the band began previewing meditative, piano-driven material like “You and Whose Army?” and “Pyramid Song” in concert. Amnesiac ultimately did contain some great guitar-driven songs such as “I Might Be Wrong” and “Knives Out,” which is of course the only Radiohead song with a series of hit mystery films named after it. But the album is largely just as ascetic and elliptical as its predecessor, from the glitchy minimalism of “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” to the reverse tape effects of “Like Spinning Plates.” “Amnesiac strikes a cunning and rewarding balance between experimentation and quality control. It’s hardly easy to digest but nor is it impossible to swallow,” wrote Alex Petridis in The Guardian’s review of the album.

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4. In Rainbows (2007)


By 2007, the Napster-era disruption of the music industry was in full swing, traditional physical sales were on a sharp decline, and iTunes was king. Radiohead, which had completed its EMI contract and was a big-name free agent for the first time, declined to sign a new label contract and decided to go for a big gesture. In October, one of the most popular bands in the world announced it was self-releasing a new album in a week, with no advance singles or videos, via its website as a pay-what-you-want download. After the dust settled and the unorthodox rollout shook up the industry, the music on In Rainbows became its real legacy. “15 Steps” and “Reckoner” tumble and pop with adventurous new approaches to rhythm and percussion, and the simmering “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” has emerged over the past decade as the band’s most popular 21st century track. “There are even moments of near-romanticism, a strange injection for a band that’s examined clinical emotional distance so well. ‘All I Need’ uses an ‘80s synth vibe to explore love’s dreadful side, and ‘House of Cards’ gets almost sexy,” wrote Josh Modell in the AV Club review of the album.

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3. The Bends (1995)


You really had to be there. Indeed, it was a revelation that the band that made “Creep” was capable of opening an album with a song like “Planet Telex,” its atmospheric whooshes ushering in a drum loop and processed piano. From the swaggering “Just” to the haunting “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” The Bends is Radiohead’s influential peak as a guitar band. It may not be the reason Radiohead can fill arenas today, but it probably is, more indirectly, the reason Coldplay and Muse can. The Radiohead aesthetic as we know it truly starts to take shape on The Bends, the first album to feature contributions from cover art designer Stanley Donwood and producer Nigel Godrich. The album solidified the band’s commercial standing in the U.K., but in America, The Bends was a sleeper hit that was initially dismissed by most print critics. “Radiohead’s overwrought, pompous music makes them sound like alternative rock’s answer to the Moody Blues,” Kevin McKeough wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

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2. Kid A (2000)


In retrospect, it’s quaint how little Radiohead really had to depart from the alternative rock status quo to thrill and scandalize a generation of music listeners. The horns cutting loose over a rumbling bassline on “The National Anthem,” the entrancing 5/4 electric piano riff on “Everything in Its Right Place,” and the propulsive dance beat on “Idioteque” all offer sturdy, tangible hooks and riffs. But the most revered rock band in the world releasing an album without recognizable guitars until its fourth song was treated as a provocation that repelled as many as it attracted. Even Selway waiting until halfway through “Optimistic” to strike a snare drum feels like a moment of carefully calibrated restraint. The confidence with which Radiohead and Godrich leaned into those choices, creating minutely detailed ear candy that reveals new textures with every listen, made Kid A a compelling and charismatic event album even as it swung away from the pop zeitgeist. “Much of Kid A doesn’t sound like Radiohead at all. Songs float by on the faintest of heartbeat pulses, intergalactic noises streaking like comets across the melodies. Ecclesiastical keyboards gently nudge the songs along,” David Browne wrote in the Entertainment Weekly review.

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1. OK Computer (1997)


By the mid-‘90s, alternative rock had become pop music, and Radiohead spent a stretch of 1995 and 1996 on two of the biggest tours of the era, opening for R.E.M. in support of Monster and Alanis Morissette in support of Jagged Little Pill. Then the band went home and recorded a challenging and ambitious album that surely wouldn’t sell as well as The Bends, shelving some accessible songs like “Lift” and “True Love Waits” in favor of multi-faceted material like the six-minute lead single “Paranoid Android.” Instead, OK Computer was a global hit and became one of the most acclaimed albums of the decade, capturing all the beauty of Yorke’s voice with arrestingly unpredictable arrangements and eerie textures that didn’t sound like they could’ve been conjured out of guitars and keyboards. The robots, aliens, and dystopian karma police populating the songs moved many critics to place Radiohead in the pantheon of British concept album kings like Pink Floyd and David Bowie. OK Computer, however, isn’t a rock opera so much as a mood board of the kind of new sensations and familiar emotions that would shape rock songwriting in the oncoming digital age. “OK Computer is a high-wire act without a net. There is no obvious single, the lyrics don’t make immediate sense, most of the tracks are too slow, distorted, or weird for radio, and the whole thing sounds like nothing that sells. Yet this U.K. quintet’s audacious sonic sprawl is the most appealingly odd effort by a name rock band in ages,” wrote Barry Walters in the SPIN review.

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