Songs 50-41

Halfway there: Ranking Radiohead from "worst" to "first"

Halfway there: Ranking Radiohead from "worst" to "first"

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After taking on warhorses like the Beatles, the Stones, and Springsteen on the music site JamsBio Magazine, we've chosen Radiohead as the first modern band to warrant a worst-to-first countdown of their music, and the inaugural ranking on CultureMap.  Check back each week as our obsessive list-maker Jbev counts down all of the band’s album cuts and gives his reasons for the rankings, and also be prepared to tell him why he’s wrong in the comments section.  It’s "Everything In Its Right Place:  The Ultimate Radiohead Countdown."

Today's countdown looks at the rankings from #50-41. Tune in each Saturday as JBev continues his countdown to number 1!

Song 50: "Anyone Can Play Guitar"
Album: "Pablo Honey"

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The public spoke when this was released as a single in 1993.  Of course, “Creep” didn’t do much either when it was first released before becoming a phenomenon.  I’m not saying that “Anyone Can Play Guitar” would have soared to such heights had it been re-examined, but I also find it far batter than the “flop” status which usually hangs all over it.

Maybe people took the chorus too seriously, and thought that the band were a bunch of head-in-the-clouds megalomaniacs.  That refrain is a pretty airtight animal, and it’s easy to get carried away.  Of course, his future songwriting exploits would prove that Thom Yorke would never stand by strumming while London burns and that the band had far more on their mind than Rock and Roll Heaven, but who knew at the time, I suppose.  The truth is that “Anyone,” concise and sharp as singles are often meant to be, delivers its message with effective simplicity.

The band gives a tight effort, one of the better on "Pablo Honey," with Colin Greenwood’s creeping bass line in the verses coinciding nicely with Yorke’s derisive delivery, and Jonny G. and Ed O’ Brien keeping the textures of the electric guitars varied throughout, as if to argue against the title’s promise:  Anyone can play guitar, but few do it as thoughtfully and artfully as the practitioners in Radiohead.  Flops should all sound this good.

Song 49: "Just"
Album: "The Bends"

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One of the band’s most furiously fine performances underpins Thom Yorke’s tale of a sleazeball friend.  There can be no doubting Jonny Greenwood’s guitar wizardry after one listen to this track; I know he probably didn’t use that many, but the sounds that he produces in the short duration of this song sound like they could have come from about 13 different guitars. 

The complexity of the track never crosses over into inscrutability; the toughness of the music comes through first and foremost no matter how many chords the boys try to jam into the song.  It shows that the spirit of experimentation was already there on "The Bends;" it was just confined to basic rock instruments at the time.

Although the lyrics are spare, Thom Yorke spits them out as if he can’t stand their taste.  It reminds me of one of Elvis Costello’s more bilious offerings.  If I have one gripe with the song, it’s that the sneer of the lyrics and the unrelenting grind of the music is almost overkill; future offerings would find the band learning to contrast the musical sensibilities with the lyrical intent of an individual song, especially when the message is as severe as the one found on “Just.”

And my take on what the dude says in the video?  My lip-reading skills tell me that he says, “I buried Paul.”  Don’t quote me on that though.

Song 48: "Faust Arp"
Album: "In Rainbows"

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Any anti-melody bias that the band might have had in albums past seemed to have dissipated on "In Rainbows," and this gentle yet mysterious charmer is Exhibit A.  Using the arpeggio technique on acoustic guitar in concert with strings that complement the melody (as opposed to the strings on past albums that were meant to tear at the tune), “Faust Arp” sounds like one of the quiet offerings on the "White Album."

At least until you delve into the lyrics, which are Yorke at his most fascinatingly elusive.  I’ve parsed them many times.  Sometimes it feels like the lament of a relationship gone awry, at other times it seems like a plea to a loved one who’s heading down the wrong path.  Delivered in the mumbling monotone used to great effect also on “A Wolf At The Door,” Yorke’s vocal then opens up in the right places to embrace the melody.  It’s definitely a powerful switch when he moves from the imagery of household items and bureaucratic nonsense in the final verse into the directness of the line, “I love you but enough is enough,” caressing the tune in a delicate embrace.

Whatever he’s on about, the lonely beauty of the song is more than enough to make it memorable.  At barely over two minutes, “Faust Arp” is a portrait in miniature, a portrait no less moving for being somewhat obscured.

Song 47: "Lucky"
Album: "OK Computer"

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I’ve always had to chuckle when I’ve read this song described by the band as one of their “happy” tunes.  I suppose it’s all relative, but happy?  Robert Smith might have thought twice about recording this song for fear it might break up the chipper mood of all those Cure albums.

But this is yet another example of the way that Radiohead turns expectations upside down, and then just when you’re standing on your head to catch up, they flip it all over again. “Lucky,” if just read as lyrics on a page, does indeed sound like a moment of personal triumph, although mentions of the “head of state” and an “air crash” throw some shadows into the mix.  The music, though, is another matter entirely.

Beginning with Jonny Greenwood’s guitar effect that sounds like a spaceship touching down, “Lucky’s” music is all tension, the guitars simmering along as if ready to explode.  In the second verse, a vaguely spooky sampled chorus enters the mix.  It all comes to a boil in the crashing, claustrophobic chorus, with every one of the instruments seeming to rise along with Yorke’s voice, as if they’re all fighting with each other for a way out of the darkness.

“Lucky” was actually recorded two years before the release of "OK Computer," but it fits in seamlessly as the penultimate track on the album.  If you want to read the album as one long story, I’ve always seen this as the moment-of-truth song, where the character who’s been buffeted about by all of these external forces for the entirety of the album has to choose whether to give in or resist.  The last line, “We are standing on the edge,” leaves us all hanging, never quite resolving itself.  It’s anything but a “happy” ending.  More like a “to be continued.”

Song 46: "Morning Bell"
Album: "Kid A"

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Another song that defies easy interpretation, “Morning Bell,” at least the bulk of it, is performed by a trio:  Thom Yorke on Fender Rhodes and vocal, Colin Greenwood on bass, and Phil Selway on drums.  The lead guitars don’t really show up until the chaotic climax of the song, save for a brief part where one in the background sounds like a violin tuning up.

The simplicity of this approach seems almost jarring after all of the digital wildness that precedes it on "Kid A," but there still remains a chill to “Morning Bell” which fits in with the rest of the album.  Perhaps it’s the way that the warmth of the Rhodes is set against the clattering, almost martial beat.  More likely, it’s the set of lyrics which get more and more harrowing the closer you inspect them.

You can take them about a hundred ways if you choose, but these lyrics do seem to be set right in the middle of a marriage’s disintegration.  The gallows humor of lines like “cut the kids in half” and “clothes are on the lawn with the furniture” gets even blacker when sung by Yorke is his zombiefied falsetto.  Only when he gets to the refrain of “release me” does he seem like a human being asking for sympathy.

The cacophonous outro seems to bring the animosity simmering in the first parts of the song to the surface, all hell finally broken loose with the friendly facades torn away.  Far superior to the version on "Amnesiac," this “Morning Bell” is a death knell for all of the vows this couple once made, ringing in rancor and bitterness that seem likely to echo for years.

Song 45: "The Tourist"
Album: "OK Computer"

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Perfectly placed at the end of "OK Computer," “The Tourist” is one man’s dialogue with himself amidst all of the surrounding clamor and din.  If it seems like it’s tailor-made for the sensibilities of Thom Yorke, you might be surprised that it was Jonny Greenwood who wrote the song, inspired by frantic Americans trying to see all of the scenery in Paris in as little time as possible.

Of course, Yorke’s heartfelt vocal drives this song, because the music is hauntingly spare for much of the way.  Ed O’Brien comes aboard on harmony in the second verse with Thom, as if providing moral support, and it’s a moving little passage, his lower vocal grounding Yorke as he threatens to soar off into the ether.

The message of the song is pretty clear from the refrain:  “Idiot, slow down.”  Seems simple enough, but the whole point of "OK Computer" is that the world that surrounds us does everything in its power to keep us in a constant state of upheaval, making such moments of tranquility damn near impossible. 

It’s fitting that the last sound heard on the song, and therefore the album as well, is what appears to be the ting of a triangle, the instrument that we all grabbed as kids in music class because it was the easiest to play.  It’s a moment of grace and simplicity to close out this marvelously complex and sprawling masterpiece, a message to all of us tourists on this foreign planet that we should slow down ourselves every once in a while.

Song 44: "Electioneering"
Album: "OK Computer"

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Satiated with the writings of media critics and economic and political authors and frustrated with the constant gladhanding that goes along with being in a hit band, Thom Yorke let it all spew forth on this blistering track.  He then handed it over to his band, who play with unhinged glory that elevates his diatribe from pissy rant to cathartic yowl.

Keep in mind that at the time that "OK Computer" was released, British rock was in the hands of the lad-rock bands like Oasis and Blur, bands who reveled in reckless rock and roll that often seemed like little more than tough-guy posturing.  “Electioneering” has all of that toughness with the weight of Yorke’s complex worldview behind it.  Not to knock the quality of those other bands, but some of their rock songs now seem tame by comparison.

That first line is a grabber:  “I will stop, I will stop at nothing.”  If you take it as Yorke singing about the rock lifestyle, there is more than a hint of self-loathing to it.  If you look at it from a political point of view, it’s a searing critique that cuts through all of the more complex issues at hand to the very simple and very human foible at the heart of all political misdeeds:  The need for power at the expense of all else.  Either way, “Electioneering” is a sledgehammer of a song that leaves little in its wake besides dazed awe.

Song 43: "Bones"
Album: "The Bends"

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I have a feeling that this track off "The Bends" gets overlooked when people inspect the Radiohead canon.  I’ve got it squarely in the middle of the pack, which I consider high compliments, considering that middle-of-the-pack Radiohead would be top-of-the-line for most bands.  (Also considering some of the great songs which fall below it.)

The thing that gets me about “Bones” is the subtle pop sheen that glazes the song.  It’s got no flab on it, and it has more than a few hooks to grab you, from Colin Greenwood’s rumbling bass that takes center stage in the verses, to the churning guitar crunch in the refrains.  The song also has an understated upbeat vibe to it, which is, needless to say, relatively rare for these guys.

And yet the song is about the creeping maladies that accompany old age, so it’s not exactly shiny and/or happy.  Thom Yorke can feel all of those aches and pains already, and he can’t bear the thought of where it goes from there.

The song produces a chill-inducing moment after the second refrain, as Thom soars up into another register to sing, “And I used to fly like Peter Pan,” backing vocals joining in to accentuate the point.  It’s a really blissful instant of nostalgia, something in which the band rarely indulges.  It makes “Bones” instantly memorable, and, if you ask me (I know you didn’t, but I’m tellin’ you anyway), this somewhat forgotten track deserves some acclaim.

Song 42: "Sail to the Moon"
Album: "Hail to the Thief"

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This lovely, melancholy number was written by Thom Yorke as a kind of lullaby to his son Noah (which would explain the lines about ark-building).  But unlike other rock-song lullabies that seek to comfort their children or give advice, “Sail To The Moon” is an almost desperate plea from a father to a son to avoid the mistakes of the past and forge a better future.

“Maybe you’ll/Be president/But know right from wrong,” Yorke sings, the implication of what he thought of the then-current leadership crystal clear.  As he sings, “Sail to the moon” over and over again at the end, Yorke imbues each refrain with more and more feeling, as if trying to will this wish into existence somewhere down the road.

The main section of the song features music that you wouldn’t normally associate with lullabies, all downcast chords (not unlike those of “Pyramid Song”) and querying guitars.  The brief instrumental passages featuring the echoey guitar effects do have a dreamlike quality to them, not unlike "Out Of The Blue"-era ELO (Heavens to Betsy, am I dating myself there.)  But overall, they’re just a brief respite from the inexorable pull of the bulk of the song.

If you choose to get sappy, you can close your eyes and concentrate on Yorke’s voice, and imagine the fragile falsetto cooing his child off to slumber.  I’m not sure whether “Sail To The Moon” would produce good dreams, but I’m sure it gave the little nipper plenty to think about.

Song 41: "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box”
Album: "Amnesiac"

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My Spell Check just kicked me square in the balls after typing in that title, but that’s the price you gotta pay sometimes when you do these lists.  Maybe it’s fitting though, because Radiohead manages to make all of the computer trickery come to life in ingenious fashion on “Packt,” the opening track on "Amnesiac."

It’s ironic of course that one of the dominant sounds on the song is Phil Selway primitively banging on a kitchen pot, which gives the song a vaguely Asian feel, at least until the digital beat kicks in.  After that, it’s a brave new world of compressed loops, which the band varies enough to keep things fresh all the way through.

That doesn’t enliven Thom Yorke any though, as his voice never gets much above a monotone in the instantly memorable (and oft-repeated) refrain, “I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case.”  Listen to this song in a car, in traffic, sardine-like, and you just might find it hard to keep yourself so level-headed as you sing along.  At the very least, “Packt” will give yourself something to bob your head to, even as you find it hits way too close to home at that point.

<<SONGS 60-51

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