AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #108 : RADIOHEAD

A GUEST POSTING FROM MARTIN

AUTHOR OF THE NEW AMUSEMENTS BLOG

After more than 100 ICAs, I was wondering which artist or band I could meaningfully submit a compilation for. So many of my favourites have already been done. And then it occurred to me – as yet, there has been no ICA for Radiohead.

Of course, when I sat down to try to draw up a ten track compilation it quickly became obvious why it hasn’t been done before: trying to whittle down the collected works of the Grand Old Duke of Yorke and his men to just ten songs, just one side of a C90, is practically impossible. Unless…

…unless there’s a scheme, a set of rules above and beyond those that normally go into drafting a compilation. It was at this point I realised that Radiohead have released nine studio albums. What if, I wondered, I were to limit myself to one track per album, plus a bonus closing track of my choice? That might work and, if I stuck to the albums in chronological order, it would also provide an accurate representation of how the band has progressed over the years.

Sounds a great plan, doesn’t it? Except that, in reality, even choosing just one track per album proved to be fantastically difficult (especially for The Bends, Ok Computer, Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows). Anyway, enough of my excuses, let’s get on; to assuage my guilt for omitting certain tracks, I’ll namecheck the other songs that were in contention but, for now, these are the chosen nine plus one.

Side One

1. from Pablo Honey: Creep

Sorry, it has to be. I know it’s been over-played, and certainly over-covered (if YouTube is anything to go by). It isn’t massively representative of the rest of the album, and I have even heard it described as “Radiohead for people who don’t like Radiohead”. But, and it’s a very big but, without this track there is probably a very good chance we wouldn’t be talking about Radiohead now, and certainly not in such reverential tones. The fact is that this song, aside from striking a chord with every disaffected and alienated person that’s ever heard it, every loner, every outsider, aside from all that it established the band in a way that the parent album never could. It’s quite possible that without Creep the only blog posts you’d read about Radiohead now would be of the “whatever happened to…” variety. And on top of that, it has that excellent crunchy guitar that kicks in at the start of the chorus.

Also in contention: Anyone Can Play Guitar and Lurgee.

2. from The Bends: Fake Plastic Trees

Of all the albums, choosing just one track from The Bends was the toughest choice of all. Fake Plastic Trees gets the nod though, as it brought Radiohead’s social conscious and environmental awareness to the fore, whilst also demonstrating that they could be musically subtle, delicate in a way that they hadn’t been on Pablo Honey. The clincher for me is more personal though, in that when I saw the band live in 2008 their rendition of this song gave me goosebumps on the night, and nearly broke my heart in the weeks that followed.

Also in contention: High And Dry, (Nice Dream) and Street Spirit (Fade Out).

3. from OK Computer: No Surprises

A lullaby for the suicidal, perhaps. And yet one that somehow manages to be uplifting, even in the unsettling video in which Thom looks set to drown (spoiler – he doesn’t). You can draw a straight line through Asleep by The Smiths to this song, and then… where? The parent album was, for a time, often held up as not just the band’s best but the best ever, by anyone, frequently troubling the top of the “best N albums of all time” lists that were very popular around the millennium. It is great, but I think The Bends shades it.

Also in contention: Paranoid Android (“Bohemian Rhapsody for Generation X”, as the music press all cried at the time), Karma Police and Lucky.

4. from Kid A: National Anthem

Given that The Bends are OK Computer were both excellent and successful, Kid A was always going to be a tough act to pull off. It remains the point at which Radiohead started to be non-essential, for some people. Not me though. It’s a great album, another where it is hard to choose one track. I’ve gone for National Anthem – very simple lyrically, but the music is the hook, an ear-worming loop that has, arguably, set the tone for most of everything that has followed. Like lots of the best Radiohead, this comes into its own in a car with a good stereo, in the small hours of a crystal clear night, on an open road…

Also in contention: Idioteque, Everything In Its Right Place.

5. from Amnesiac: Knives Out

As the band continued to push boundaries, willing to sacrifice transient fans to satisfy their own musical curiosity, the songs that were chosen as singles from each album became increasingly unrepresentative, and so it is with Knives Out. Led by twin guitar melodies, it’s a song that might have graced The Bends. It has brilliantly bleak lyrics too, to whit “If you’d been a dog they would have drowned you at birth.” I don’t know what it says about Radiohead (or the type of fan I am) but this and Pablo Honey were the albums it was easiest to choose only one song from.

Also in contention: Pyramid Song.

Side Two

6. from Hail To The Thief: Scatterbrain

On the face of it, a tough album to choose from, casually littered with brilliance as it is. In reality, an easy choice for me; the instrumental introduction to Scatterbrain has been my mobile phone ringtone for as long as I can remember. It is one of my absolute favourites songs, not just by Radiohead but by anybody, ever. Terrific lyrical story telling too, in which storm force winds are a metaphor for the blown apart nature of a failed relationship.

Also in contention: Go To Sleep, 2+2=5, Myxomatosis.

7. from In Rainbows: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi

That straight line I mentioned earlier? Maybe its third point is here, I don’t know. For a band who have increasingly forsaken guitars (to the consternation of a good proportion of their fanbase), here’s proof that they can still overlay complementary guitar motifs better than just about anyone. And few bands give percussion a voice, rather than just rhythm and timekeeping duties, as well as Radiohead. Also, even fewer songs could hint at escape at the end and yet be so ambiguous as to whether that escape is a good thing or not.

Also in contention: Reckoner, Jigsaw Falling Into Place.

8. from The King Of Limbs: Morning Mr Magpie

The intro to this makes me think of The Police. No, wait, come back! Here’s a song that again sits at the accessible end of the recent Radiohead spectrum, and ends with the lament that “you’ve stolen all the magic, took my melody”. A proportion of the band’s fans may have thought the same thing… but this is a perfect example of a Radiohead track that rewards repeated listens, rather than chases immediacy.

Also in contention: Little by Little (for similar reasons), Feral.

9. from A Moon Shaped Pool: Burn The Witch

In which Radiohead go all Camber-wicker Green. A genuinely great song and one that is, even without the video, genuinely disturbing, with its lyrics of low-flying panic attacks, red crosses on wooden doors and, most ominously, “we know where you live”. Add the sawing, minor-key string backing and this isn’t going to pack the floor at your local indie disco in quite the same way as Creep. A song for these times, where Washington has become Summer Isle or, perhaps, Salem.

Also in contention: Daydreaming, Present Tense.

10. bonus track: Street Spirit (Fade Out)

What better way to end the album? If ever a song was made to close an LP, this is it, lyrically, musically and thematically. Yes, it hankers back to a period when the band were at the peak of their commercial powers (doesn’t Thom look young in the video?) and yes, it features plenty of guitars. But not the crunchy guitars of Creep and Anyone Can Play Guitar, but beautiful, overlaid arpeggios that repeat, rise and fall to hypnotic effect. And there’s a lyrical counterpoint to some of the less cheerful themes found elsewhere on this ICA, and even in this song – for every row of houses bearing down on Thom, there’s the more positive (albeit slightly defensive) “be a world child, form a circle” and the haunting outro refrain of “immerse your soul in love”. Best of all is the way the song ends – it doesn’t fade out, of course, but the guitar arpeggio loops round and ties itself in a neat bow. The perfect finish to this or any compilation.

And there you have it. There are probably as many Radiohead ICA combinations as there are fans, and my own selection would probably be different next week (maybe even tomorrow). But, for now, I think this compilation works. What do you reckon?

Cheers,
Martin
New Amusements

7 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #108 : RADIOHEAD

  1. As someone who loved The Bends and thinks Hail To The Thief is the second-best Radiohead album, it’s difficult to argue with a proper fan. For me, little after HttT is even vaguely listenable, though to be fair, Burn The Witch is a really good track. Personally, I’d have had Just from The Bends and There There from HttT, and maybe Idioteque from Kid A. But that’s just me…

  2. I’m with you, @therobster71, on Hail To The Thief. Think it is the most under-rated Radiohead album and, for me, stands up there with The Bends, Ok Computer and In Rainbows.

  3. This is an excellent little compilation. I like the ‘in contention’ bits because it contains most of the best of the rest choices. Apart from ‘How Can You Be Sure’ and ‘Lucky’ that is. I also have a soft spot for ‘Permanent Daylight’ from the ‘My Iron Lung’ EP.

  4. I had to resist the temptation to delve into the EPs, brilliant though they generally are (the My Iron Lung EP especially so), because the task of ten tracks was already hard enough. Lucky was an “in contention” track for Ok Computer.

  5. This was a beautifully written and argued post. I especially appreciated what you said about ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. This track, like few other Radiohead songs to be quite honest, just floors me every single time I hear it (especially live). I think it’s down to Ed’s harmonies as much as the guitar parts and Thom’s lyrics. I also first heard it at a rather difficult time in my life and it resonated so much (‘everybody leaves, if they get the chance’). Anyway, enough of all that, thanks for compiling this and a great job! x

  6. As a Radiohead fan who has no problem in discussing their flaws more than their triumphs, I thinks this is a very insightful ICA – well done Martin. I went through some of the same road blocks with my ACR:ICA recently and I was given the pass (thank you JC) to fill it out to a “Baker’s Dozen” which went some way to keeping me from tearing out hair from my goatee (as it’s the only hair left on my head). In the end, I was very happy to see Scatterbrain make the final cut!

  7. @Colin, I know what you mean, certain tracks are amplified by resonating with your personal circumstances. Fake Plastic Trees is greater than the sum of its parts for me, for similar reasons.

    Cheers @Echorich, appreciate that. And Scatterbrain was never in doubt!

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