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Ranking Radiohead's OKNOTOK B-Sides

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Ranking Radiohead's <i>OKNOTOK</i> B-Sides

Friday saw the release of Radiohead’s OKNOTOK, a two-disc deluxe reissue of their ‘90s-winning art-rock landmark OK Computer that turns 20 this year. But many of the B-sides included are fan legends in and of themselves; entire think pieces have been written about the trajectory of say, the rare concert favorite “Lift,” while the quasi hit known as “I Promise” has just been waiting for the vaults to be unlocked.

The most notable thing about these songs is how much more stripped-down they are than the parent album from which they were excised. There’s more guitar that’s easily identifiable as rock ’n’ roll, and most of the programmed textures sound like they were jamming on a keyboard from the attic rather than some expensive sequencer in a high-end studio. They’re charmingly low-tech.

Many of the old inclusions, like the grandiose, two-part “Polyetyhelene” have been part of the peripheral Radiohead universe and celebrated as such for decades, but it’s worth relistening to all of these now that the entire family of orphaned tunes from the era of the quintet’s third album is together again. Below, we’ve ranked all 11 of those B-sides.

11. “A Reminder”
Over an uneasy beat, the simple strumming on “A Reminder” gives way to what sounds like distorted organ swell (although it could be a guitar trick) and echoing vibraphone. In fact, this muted, pretty, rudderless jam sounds like an early track from Tortoise if it had been half-molded into a rock song instead of a post-rock ink blot. But Thom Yorke doesn’t murmur anything special until you hear “Knock me out, smash my brains / If I take a chair, start to talk shit,” and then it’s kind of unclear what that has to do with “If I get old, remind me of this / The way we kissed and I really meant it.” Guess they’re all reminders? It’s about as memorable as a Post-It note.

10. “Melatonin”
This song could be the prequel to “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” as Yorke sings lovely nothings for two minutes over striking, Gary Numan-esque synth strings and shuffled, poorly-mixed drums. Everything in the tune fights for space. Everything in its wrong place. But it’s cool that it exists, definitely an interesting interlude that obtains most of its power by helping the surrounding tracks congeal into a collection that’s not quite an album.

9. “Pearly”
Of all the B-sides you remember from 20 years ago, this surfy garage rock-tango has probably aged the least well. Yes, “surfy Radiohead garage-rock-tango” is a fun description that the song lives up to; no, there isn’t much else to it for the next three minutes after that’s been established. It’s a bit one-note, slower than you recall, and Thom’s vocal boils down to the moan that it usually transcends.

8. “Man of War”
The most notable thing about the disturbing widescreen epic “Man of War” is that it’s likely the most blatant Beatles tribute that Radiohead ever recorded, drawing particularly on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The lyrics are surreal and disturbing; you’re not getting “When you come home, I’ll bake you a cake / Made of all their eyes” out of your head anytime soon. It climaxes with some serious George Harrison riffage around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, which is in turn matched by symphonic bluster and generous drumrolls that bish-bash it to the whimper, not a bang, of its ending. It’s almost there, but Radiohead never managed to make it the showstopper it might have been.

7. “Meeting in the Aisle”
OK Computer itself was a very electronic album for something that wasn’t actually full of electronic music. This clacking trip-hop instrumental is an actual electronic music song, though. It’s catchy, too, with a clever main motif that modulates calmly over various swells in the background—from fake keyboard orchestras and processed guitars that eerily bend like pages in the wind. Surprisingly “Meeting in the Aisle” is one of the catchiest things on OKNOTOK.

6. “How I Made My Millions”
“How I Made My Millions” is not exactly Thom Yorke’s most finished-sounding solo piano ballad. There’s a charming vérité feeling to the recording quality, in which you can hear the various brushings and clickings of the room he’s in. Plus, there’s a part where the recording accidentally cuts out at the end. It would sound fit to open (or close) a 67-minute Wrens album if not for the mashed potato vocals, of which not a single word can actually be understood. But the arresting piano, particularly on the chorus, makes the OKNOTOK closer a grower of the subtlest order.

5. “Lull”
“Lull” is a cool one and actually sounds like one of those sketches from Amnesiac recast as a psychedelic rocker. Drumless guitar lines hovers in circles with glockenspiel acting as percussion. The guitars falls in and out of the beat, as Yorke projects enough over the mix that he actually appears to be singing fully formed words. When the brushed drums kick in, you can actually feel a somewhat of a jolt. It’s a good lesson in big dynamics formed out of minimal means, all in less than two and a half minutes.

4. “Palo Alto”
Forget the iMac dystopia of “Fitter Happier,” here’s Thom Yorke gargling blood in Silicon Valley: “With a beautiful bombshell / I throw myself into my work.” The raging guitars on the chorus even sound good when they drop out for the picks to squeak against the strings, and they’re appropriately one-note for a pretty shallow rant against shallowness itself, a Nerd vs. Nerd battle the band decided to wage after performing in the offices of one too many tech companies. What does he mumble over them? “But I’m okay, how are you? I hope you’re okay too.” It’s one for the great tradition of anti-California songs.

3. “Lift”
Colin Greenwood’s mix-thickening bass and a characteristically funky beat from Phil Selway (even with tambourine!) drive this track into bigger and fuller territory than the song could probably do unarranged. Then again, the mournful-jangly guitar line from Jonny Greenwood, mumbled vocals and melody that sounds a bit like the deeper deep cuts from Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream all have a vaguely comforting feeling, further adorned by a tea-whistle synth and artificial strings. It has one of Yorke’s most emotionally engaged vocals on OKNOTOK, even sounding like Taylor Swift at certain climaxes, and the actual ending is their humor at its most British: “Today is the first day of the rest of your days / So lighten up, squirt.” Is “Lift” worthy of its legend as a “lost classic” being restored on OKNOTOK for the first time? Maybe not, but it is a very good song without being saddled with such baggage.

2. “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)”
The beautiful, disturbing chord sequence of “Part 1” is the most written-through, least-tossed-off segment of OKNOTOK, but then it’s interrupted by a count-off and a tidal wave of a riff that was too straightforward for the spidery structures and glass architecture of OK Computer. The way that “Part 2” never stops climbing makes it the ultimate highlight of the original, previously-released rarities from the era. Both clever and thunderous, “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” represents former sonic hallmarks of the band that are nice to hear again, even in less sophisticated forms.

1. “I Promise”
“I Promise” is so simple, so pretty, so clear and ascendant in its single-minded mission to exchange those two exquisitely strummed acoustic chords until the whole band levitates up into the sky or everyone’s lighters burn out in the stadium. Phil Selway’s drums are so stiff they’re almost military, and Yorke’s glacial high notes are perhaps his most uninterrupted in facile beauty since “High and Dry.” Why did they never put this easy, breezy, beautiful thing on an album proper? Well, probably because Yorke hates “High and Dry,” too. Regardless, we’re glad it’s here.

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