There are things that I don’t like to talk about late-night in bars because of the polarizing, intense discussions that are bonded to them. There’s politics, religion and what’s better: Radiohead’s OK Computer or Kid A. Like it or not, the band is one of the most celebrated by fans and critics alike, and looking back on their catalog alone shows all the proof you need that they’ve released eight incredible albums. After our staff voted, argued, apologized and then argued some more, we’re taking a look at all of them today and ranking them from best to worst (although a bad Radiohead album trumps many other bands’ good albums).
Sometimes praising a band’s “early stuff” isn’t the safest bet. Radiohead proves that with Pablo Honey, the band’s early-’90s debut that also sees them at their most awkward—just take a look at Thom Yorke’s hair in any performance from the era to see proof of that. And although it spawned a classic in “Creep,” and “You” can still be an incredible listening experience, it’s not a mystery as to why the band doesn’t rehash any of these tracks live anymore, especially considering what they’ve put out since.
Like any album Radiohead’s put out since Kid A, we sat down with The King of Limbs, gave it many, many hard listens. Unlike Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief or the absolutely majestic (but definitely equally jarring) Kid A, this one never grew on us. Sure, there were great moments (the danceable single “Lotus Flower” and the pretty “Codex”) and yes, this is a good album, but not by Radiohead standards.
Maybe Hail to the Thief’s scattered, schizophrenic artwork should have acted as a warning to fans. Although the album saw a return of the roaring, electric guitar to the band, it also saw the band at its most inconsistent with songs that sprawled all kinds of territory. “Myxomatosis” boomed speakers with its fuzzed out, heart-thumping synthesizers, “There There” lulled listeners with layered toms and “2 + 2 = 5” kicked it all off, psyching out first-time listeners with bleeps and bloops before launching into a distorted guitar attack. After all, we were at the dawn of the internet age, shortly after the reelection of Dubya. Maybe this lack of focus was exactly what we needed.
Less than a year after the highly acclaimed Kid A, Radiohead delighted fans in 2001 with the release of Amnesiac, and although it was recorded during the same sessions, the album shouldn’t be misinterpreted as Kid B. It offers a similar sound, but Amnesiac is more of a reaction to its predecessor than a grab-bag of b-sides. Standout tracks such as “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out,” “Morning Bell” and “You and Whose Army?” showcase the band at its best, proving that these are a far cry from Kid scraps.—Shaina Pearlman
The cover art of The Bends captures lead singer Thom Yorke as a pixelated medical dummy covered in sterile electrodes. It’s a fitting metaphor for a band on the cusp of escaping the corporeal restraints of traditional music to explore an uncharted sonic wilderness that would make them modern audio deities. But for a fleeting 12 songs, the Oxfordshire quintet not only paid homage to the psychedelic alt rock they once idealized, but nearly perfected it. The title track’s serrated guitars and soaring vocals christened the new theme song for teenage alienation while “Fake Plastic Trees” is still an emotional tour de force guaranteed to make anyone with a soul cry in less than five minutes. There’s a subset of devotees who say that Radiohead hasn’t released an album as good as this seminal masterpiece. Listen to Yorke’s angelic falsetto eulogize “fake plastic love” and it’s hard to disagree.—Sean Edgar
Radiohead fans had to patiently wait for the release of the bands seventh album, In Rainbows, and by the time it was released, fans didn’t have to pay a high toll for the listening experience. Well, they didn’t have to pay anything, if they didn’t want to. The album is maybe best known in our culture as the birth of the “pay-what-you-want” model. But if you read too much into this, you’ll overshadow one of the band’s finest pieces. The lyrics on the album reflect Yorke’s fear of mortality on “Jigsaw Falling into Place” and “Reckoner.” The sound of In Rainbows is classic Radiohead (if there is such a thing), pushing the limits of expectations and experimenting with sounds that any person (besides Yorke) couldn’t ever imagine.——Laura Flood
No other album from the ‘90s left such a lasting legacy, marking a clear transition from hook-oriented Britpop to more experimental, prog-friendly rock. Sonically, it’s atmospheric and uninhibited, allowing room for themes like paranoia and self-doubt to find their way into the lyrics without beating listeners over the head with the concept. It’s a record you can revisit as many times as you need to, an old friend to call up whenever you’re feeling a little inadequate. It more than holds up to repeat listens; it’s such a complex, unique album that it demands them. OK Computer effortlessly tapped into the introspective, tortured energy of Generation X, and in doing so, it became a landmark record, proving there was a place on the charts for non-traditional song structures and emotionally vulnerable lyrics. In short, it was a weird record for weird times.—Bonnie Stiernberg
It’s a lush, beautiful 40-something minutes of electronic blips, whirrs, synths and mumbles, and yes, it’s better than OK Computer. It’s an age-old argument that’s had Radiohead fans up in arms since the decade that’s followed Kid A’s release, but Radiohead’s biggest, boldest move in the recording industry (and that includes In Rainbows’ pay-what-you-like stunt) remains their best work. Although OK Computer is filled with undeniable fan-classics like “Paranoid Android,” “Let Down” and well, pretty much all of the other songs, Kid A sees the band at their most confident, beautiful and convincing.