Thursday, June 19, 2008

Radiohead: Nick's Greatest Hits

This post was created in reaction to the recent Radiohead Greatest Hits. I don't know why it angered me so much, but it was probably because I so loved the band and the whole realease had no class. These songs were created for individual albums, and to slop them all on one release felt wrong. So Austin and I decided to make a better one. We'd pick at least one song from every album and reconstruct this failed collection.

A week later both of us failed. No matter how you try to arrange things, a song from Pablo Honey will always butt heads with an Amnesiac number. So we scrapped those plans, and just decided to compile a 10 song Radiohead album that would best showcase our favorite album. It would not only include a bunch of their best songs, but would flow like their albums always do.

I had two competing criteria. One is that these were my top 10 favorite Radiohead songs. And two, that the 10 songs had to fit well together. There is a noticeable lack of songs from Kid A on this list, which happens to be my favorite of their albums. But those songs don't like to break away from each other, and tossed in amongst the rest of their cannon, things didn't feel right. The same could also be said about the Bends. It's an album I do like, but none of it's big powered riffs felt right cutting their way through these ones.

What I finally decided upon, was that if someone were to ask why I love Radiohead, this is what I would hand them. A retrospective of (most) of their career, it nonetheless is highly subjective, and long on the gorgeous Radiohead I love so dearly.

1. Airbag - OK Computer
I tried all kinds of different songs, b-sides, live songs, and all of them failed. As introductions to albums go, Airbag is unparalleled and I just couldn't tear it away from that spot. I'm not completely sure why. Perhaps it's that after 10 years the song still sounds off kilter and confused though impossibly perfect. Radiohead never made a song like this before Ok Computer, and they never really returned here. It's the right introduction to collection of songs that constantly surprise and never do as they are told.

2. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi - In Rainbows
After Hail to the Thief I kind of jumped ship. I figured that Radiohead's best years were behind them and that I should move on. Then I heard a live version of this song and quickly realized I was wrong. The album version manages to be even better than those early raw tries, replacing the repetitive ending with a skate around a gloomy ice rink. Like the Weird Fishes of the title, the song just keeps diving further through the strange world below.

3. Let Down - Ok Computer
By now, I hope, my intentions are clear. My Radiohead is a complex subdued one. There is nary a distorted guitar on these 10 songs. No, my Radiohead is bewildering and mysterious. And no song sums up my love of Radiohead more than this song. 10 Years on, I still can't figure out how they created a song like this one. It's a relatively plodding tempo, there aren't many crazy chords, and while there are a few dozen guitars or so, what is surprising is how they make all the normal instruments sound so completely alien. What always get me is how triumphant it sounds, how oddly empowering the music is compared to the small insignificant lyrics about being crushed like a bug.

4. Worry Wort - Amnesiac B-Side
To end the trilogy of the gorgeous, I picked this Amnesic b-side. It's one that I somehow missed when it came out, and discovered it a few years later along with Cuttooth (another b-side that almost made the cut). It shares many of the same characteristics as the previous two tracks, but this world is completely insular. It isn't of this earth. I suppose it wouldn't have fit on either Kid A or Amnesiac, but it remains one of my most listened to tracks. This little trilogy showcases what I hold most dear about Radiohead. The odd dynamics, the use of shading and the slow build. There isn't any release to these songs, just a long burn that's beautiful to watch.

5. Kid A - Kid A
My love of this song borders on the bizarre. I still don't really have any idea what they are doing, or whether there is a melody, chorus, or a structure at all. My favorite album by Radiohead is Kid A, and the title track sums up everything I love. I remember listening to this song for the first time on tinny computer speakers a few days before the album was released. It was the most anticipated record of the day, and no one had any idea what it would sound like. They had released some blips to advertise, but nothing like a whole song. We knew it would experimental and that it wouldn't have guitars. But how can you ever expect anything like this? Instead of being scared of this new strange world, I just dove right in. It's the centerpiece of an album I still can't get over. And on any album claiming to have the best of Radiohead, I can't imagine this song not being present.
By now, I hope you can tell I love the downbeat, experimental Radiohead.

6. Gagging Order - Com Lag
But wait! Com Lag is the worst thing Radiohead ever put there name on, and that includes Pablo Honey and all their early singles. It's heavy on some of the worst electronic impulses they ever had. There is hardly a melody to find. Except this song, which dates from Ok Computer and sounds as simple as Thom Yorke could possibly be. It just has an acoustic guitar and voice. If this were stuck on some album I'd probably have grown tired of it years ago. But since I had to find this one stuck amongst their worst songs, I feel oddly attached to it. I'm not one of those guys that wish Radiohead would stop playing with computers, but it's just impossible to deny this guy's power. It doesn't sound like any bit is missing, or that the drums would really make this move. It took Radiohead so long to realize they didn't need distortion to move people, and this acoustic piece showcases that better than any song.

7. Karma Police - OK Computer
Of course it's on here. As I get older and start to really admire the more electronic side of Radiohead, I move further and further away from the Bends and from half of Ok Computer that has a regular structure. But I'll never get over this song. It's the one that got me into Radiohead for the first time, and it's the one I sang when drunk in college. It's a first love and one that won't die.

8. Knives Out - Amnesiac
My love of Kid a is only tempered by a strange infatuation with this song. I know Austin doesn't understand it, sometimes I can't even figure it out for myself. It's distinctive guitar part is lifted almost note for note from Paranoid Android, and unlike that epic it has no shift in tone, no bridge, and no guitar solo. But for some reason I adore those muffled guitar strums before every verse, and the way the third guitar enters the during the instrumental break so quietly that you'd be hard pressed to realize it was even there. The song seems so effortless. It's like Thom was born to be able to crank out these minor key songs without really thinking about them. This is him at his most unguarded.

9. Street Spirit - The Bends
The only song more depressing than a song about cannibalism, it remains the black hole of Radiohead despair. That it's also oddly beautiful and hypnotic is beyond question, but why would ever want to subject himself to this pain? The Bends is usually the fan favorite Radiohead album, but it's not mine. I have no animosity to it like I do for Hail to the Thief. It just doesn't even seem to be the same band. Dynamic is built on distortion and screaming, where they would later learn restraint. This is the one exception. It could have easily fit on Ok Computer, and even, oddly, on In Rainbows. The use of background vocals to ratchet up the tension is brilliant, and that repetitive guitar line can float in your head for days on end without getting boring.

10. Nude
But Radiohead for me is not about depression. I don't identify with that. What I love is sweet release, and no song has anything quite like the ending to Nude. But lets back up for a moment to Meeting People Is Easy, the VHS (!!) release that chronicles Radiohead's Ok Computer tour and showed them completely losing their minds. After an hour and half of them trying to answer stupid questions from journalists and doing sound checks on songs they couldn't get right, we hear them end with a song called Big Ideas (Don't Get Any), which has a xylophone, some beautiful vocals, and a smashingly loud guitar at the end. It sounded like the best song they had ever done. I was sure it had to be on Kid A or at least Amnesiac. But nothing. They played it live a few times, but it didn't appear on Hail to the Thief. It wasn't until In Rainbows, where it showed up with a dub influenced beat, a choir of back ground vocals, and that glorious high falsetto. It's odd that anything so perfect in my head would turn out so different and yet better, but Radiohead seems to have done it.

1 comment:

medina said...

Admittedly, yours flows together better. I can't believe we only have two (two!) songs that are the same. Com Lag? Oh by the way my album has a hidden track which is "Climbing up the Walls"