Design a site like this with
Get started

Radiohead: Beauty in Alienation

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been a music nerd. It was an escape from a troubled life, both at home and at school. I started playing guitar and singing when I turned 15 and have played in various bands since then for almost 2 decades (gah, I’m old!) And one of my biggest inspirations in music is the quintessential “music nerd” band, Radiohead.

Radiohead is the brainchild of singer/multi-instrumentalist Thom Yorke, an Oxford art student who formed the band with his high school buddies. Yorke was a shy kid, and was bullied because he was born with a paralyzed left eye. He suffered from anxiety and depression from a young age, but found an outlet through art and music. Influenced by an eclectic list of musicians, from avant-garde jazz to Prince and the Talking Heads, he began performing with Ed O’ Brien (guitar), brothers Jonny and Colin Greenwood (guitar and bass, respectively) and Phil Selway (drums). Amazingly, these five lads have been the core lineup for over 30 years: there is no public drama, and every musician’s contributions are important.

From left: Phil Selway, Colin Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood

Radiohead is one of those bands that a lot of people have heard of, but haven’t taken the deep dive into their music. The song most people recognize is their grungy 1992 hit “Creep”… which, honestly, I think is their worst song. It’s not bad, but it was written when the band was still figuring out their sound, and it pales in comparison to everything they did after.

Instead, I’d argue the best starting point is their second album, 1995’s The Bends. It’s their most accessible album, and fits right in with other 90’s “Britpop” bands like Oasis and Blur. The album is full of slick guitar jams like the title track and the sleeper hit, “Just”. But the highlights are slower songs like “Fake Plastic Trees”, a haunting ballad about trying to find love in an increasingly alienating consumerist society. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, the last track on the album, is an existentialist masterpiece about how the only way to cope with the pointlessness of life and the inevitability of death is to “immerse your soul in love”. Yorke said it was “our purest song, but I didn’t write it… it wrote itself.”

“Creep” put them on the map and The Bends made them critical darlings, but it was 1997’s OK Computer that gave the band its legendary status. Burned out from years of touring and record company pressure to make another hit, the boys retreated to the famous mansion of actress Jane Seymour (must be nice to be that rich…) to make music unlike anything that had come before. Capitol Records considered the experimental album “commercial suicide” before release, but thanks to word of mouth and critical praise, it’s now rightfully considered a classic.

OK Computer is a kaleidoscope of musical ideas, combining rock with trippy jazz (“Subterranean Homesick Alien”), Beach Boys-esque chamber pop (“No Surprises”) and even a song for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (“Exit Music for a Film”). Nigel Godrich, longtime producer and “sixth member”, helped them experiment even further with sampling, creepy string arrangements, and vintage electronic instruments. The album is about the perils of modernization – how technology can be used to control us and alienate us from our fellow human beings. It was way ahead of its time for the 90’s, and “Paranoid Android” is the best example of this. It’s a six minute epic that combines three songs into one, a mini-rock opera inspired by The Beatles’ classics “A Day In The Life” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”.

Radiohead fans were over the moon for OK Computer, but nothing could have prepared them for 2000’s Kid A. After another exhausting tour, Thom Yorke abandoned rock entirely and switched to experimental electronic music. He chopped up his vocals like a musical collage, and he taught himself how to program ambient synth tracks. The new direction caused friction the rest of the band, but they ultimately made some stellar contributions on bangers like “Everything in its Right Place” and “The National Anthem”. Kid A is bleak, dealing with themes of depression, mental illness, and suicide. The new sound, abstract lyrics, and obtuse musical structure put off some older fans. But Kid A is one of my favorite albums ever made because, despite the coldness of Thom Yorke’s vocals and synths, it makes me feel less alone in my own personal struggles. And even Radiohead’s darkest album has moments of beauty and fun, like in “Idioteque”, the boppiest post-apocalyptic dance track.

Oh yeah, and did I mention that Kid A is technically a double album? Radiohead recorded so much music in this period that they released Amnesiac a year later as a companion piece. Because of course they fucking did.

Can I just say, Radiohead music videos are amazing? They don’t always make them, but every single one is stylish and unique

Kid A also was also revolutionary in how it was released: through the internet. After the album leaked online, Radiohead released it on their website so listeners could stream it for free. This was when the industry was trying to take every middle schooler and their grandma to court over piracy, so the band’s more democratic solution was refreshing for the time. 2007’s In Rainbows continued the trend, with the band allowing fans to pay whatever they wanted for it. It was a great way to support the artist directly without pricing anyone out, and websites like Bandcamp later adopted a similar model to support independent musicians. Of course, the album itself is fantastic, a moody bridge between Kid A and OK Computer. The leadoff track, “15 Step”, is a total jam, using an unusual 5/4 time signature in its funky, off-kilter bass and drum grooves.

The trippiest anime that’s not FLCL

I’ve focused mainly on studio albums because I think Radiohead is an artist that deserves to have their work appreciated as a whole. But I’d be remiss not to talk about their hidden gems, the treasure trove of B-sides, bonus tracks, and songs that never got an official release. Only the nerdiest of music nerds will seek these out, but they’re often just as great as the “hits”. The best of these is “True Love Waits”, a mournful ballad the band has used to close out their set since the mid-90’s. It got an official release on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, but honestly, I’ve listened to the 2001 live bootleg for so long that I consider that the definitive version.

A lot of popular music these days focuses on trying to grab the audiences’ attention as quickly as possible, and milking certain trends over and over to create hits. But Radiohead carves their own path. Every album has unique musical and lyrical themes, and every song is important to understanding the album as a whole. They’ve experimented with so many sounds and styles that it’s impossible to pin them down to one genre. Their songs can be depressing, but they also can be funky, vibe-y, rockin’, and deceptively funny (in that dry British sort of way). I saw them live when I was in high school with my best friend at the time, and it was one of my favorite memories from a difficult time in my life. Paradoxically, although their music is all about loneliness and isolation, it sounds the best when shared with others.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: