As the frontman of Radiohead, Thom Yorke has carved a unique and impressively sprawling career over three decades of high-quality output. The band rose to prominence from the obscurity of Abingdon School in Oxfordshire with a friendship spawned from a shared desire for sanctum. In the music room, the aspiring five-piece sought refuge from belligerent teachers and fellow students.
One song that arose from the high school’s gilded Dickensian walls was the 1990s loner anthem, ‘Creep’. Despite being later derided by both the band and its hardcore fans, the anxious misfit mood created in ‘Creep’ became their trademark and was taken on an unprecedented journey through Radiohead’s soaring 1990s catalogue.
This early, rock-orientated phase reached its pinnacle in 1997, and while many bands stick to the comfort of the beaten track, Radiohead have taken every opportunity to add something new to their sound. It is within these moments of daring experimentation that both Yorke and the band flourished into the creative icons we know them as today. The first and most significant sidestep came in 2000 with Kid A, a wholly unique album that benefited from Yorke’s interest in electronic music.
Since the millennium, Radiohead have continued through five further albums, maintaining an insatiable thirst for creative exploration. During this time, the five members of Radiohead have embarked on various solo projects and collaborations on the side that have been highlighted by Jonny Greenwood’s award-winning film scores and Yorke’s acclaimed solo career.
Today, we’re creating a list of ten songs that provide the perfect Thom Yorke starter pack, including some of his greatest moments with Radiohead, a couple of collaborations and a track from his current project, The Smile.
10 songs to prove Thom Yorke is a genius:
‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ – The Bends (Radiohead)
Following their uneven debut of Pablo Honey, Radiohead returned for their second album, The Bends, in 1995. The more refined sound established the band as a serious force in British rock music, and its maudlin cynicism perfectly juxtaposed the more enthusiastic Britpop wave of the time.
‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, released as a single in January 1996, is undeniably one of Radiohead’s early essentials. It reached number five on the UK Singles Chart, Radiohead’s highest position up to that point. Yorke once said the slow brooding ballad was inspired by R.E.M. and Ben Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road.
Radiohead – Street Spirit (Fade Out)
‘Paranoid Android’ – OK Computer (Radiohead)
Radiohead maintained an admirable creative trajectory as they entered actor Jane Symour’s mansion to record a third record. If The Bends carried a cloud of dread and cynicism for its loose concept, OK Computer took another step thematically. While still not a strict concept album, OK Computer evokes familiar feelings of dread and anxiety associated with the technological revolution and social incompetence.
OK Computer is often regarded as Radiohead’s finest album, and while it holds a dynamic spread of immersive music, ‘Paranoid Android’ stands out as its defining moment. The title alone appears to sum up the album as a whole, and thanks to its ambitious multi-section composition, it’s widely “considered the new ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ whatever that means,” as David Byrne said in his 2019 speech while inducting Radiohead into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’ – Psyence Fiction (UNKLE)
In the OK Computer track ‘Airbag’, Yorke made use of a programmed drum beat influenced by the pioneering work of DJ Shadow. This infatuation with electronic music would later take Radiohead’s sound by storm, but even before Kid A, Yorke was mixing with the burgeoning IDM scene of the late 1990s.
In 1997, the year OK Computer arrived, UNKLE, the project established by James Lavelle, recruited DJ Shadow to collaborate on his debut album, Psyence Fiction. For the project, UNKLE brought in The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, Badly Drawn Boy, The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown and Thom Yorke, among others, to perform on the tracks. For one of the album’s most memorable moments, Yorke co-wrote and sang ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’.
‘Everything In Its Right Place’ – Kid A (Radiohead)
By the end of the 1990s, Yorke and his bandmates found themselves completely worn out following an extensive OK Computer touring schedule. After chugging away on guitars for over a decade, Yorke found himself somewhat disillusioned with rock music as he increasingly welcomed cutting-edge electronic music by the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher into his listening habits.
The first song recorded for the groundbreaking post-rock masterpiece, Kid A, was its first track, ‘Everything In Its Right Place’. The track’s intro hears Yorke on the keyboard with sampled vocals blurting out, “Kid A, Kid A”. This track was the first step of a brazen deviation from Radiohead’s preconceived style and marked a pivotal moment in Yorke’s development as an artist.
‘Life in a Glasshouse’ – Amnesiac (Radiohead)
Kid A arrived in 2000 as a shock to the system as Radiohead began to welcome influences outside of rock, namely electro and jazz. A year later, they released Amnesiac, another similarly sprawling set of pioneering tracks mostly collated from the Kid A sessions. Amnesiac boasts a varied sound, but jazz-style drumming and brass instrumentals remain the most memorable thread.
‘Life in a Glasshouse’, the album’s closing song, brought one of the album’s finest and most all-encompassing moments. Yorke’s stellar vocal performance builds with suspense through a dramatic build-up that reaches a brass-infused climax as he sings: “Well, of course, I’d like to sit around and chat/ Well, of course, I’d like to stay and chew the fat”.
‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ – In Rainbows (Radiohead)
After the impressive yet less progressive Hail to the Thief arrived in 2003, Radiohead left fans waiting for four years before their seventh studio album, but it was worth the wait. 2007’s In Rainbows marked another peak for Radiohead as Yorke and the group gifted fans with another diverse set of alt-rock hits.
The album ebbs and flows through upbeat moments like ‘Bodysnatchers’ and Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ and sentimental, downbeat areas like ‘Nude and ‘Videotape’. In many ways, ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ marks the album’s finest and most representative moment, as the enveloping arpeggio sends us to some strange subaquatic environment with the “weird fishes” and lets the listener dive into the purity of the Yorkian oceans.
‘Ingenuine’ – AMOK (Atoms for Peace)
In 2009, Yorke formed the supergroup Atoms for Peace to perform songs from his acclaimed debut solo album, The Eraser. The band consisted of the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Radiohead’s longtime producer Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M., and the percussionist Mauro Refosco.
After a successful tour in 2010, the group decided to hit the studio to record an album. AMOK was the dazzling product of combining Yorke’s electronic musings with the supergroup’s jamming sessions. The album’s most memorable moment was ‘Ingenuine’, a strange concoction of electro sounds that somehow tesselate seamlessly as Yorke gives a characteristically angsty vocal performance.
‘Decks Dark’ – A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead)
Seven years ago, Radiohead treated us to their ninth studio album and the first since 2011’s uneven The King of Limbs. The album boasts a fine sonic balance with ambient orchestral soundscapes and intense beat-driven climaxes. David Byrne is one of many admirers of the album and described it as “cinematic” during his speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
The album is undoubtedly one of Radiohead’s finest discographic entries; with such a diverse collection of equally enchanting tracks, it’s difficult to pick just one to get stuck into. However, ‘Decks Dark’ feels like a great place to start with the album as it’s the most representative of the collection as a whole. Its quaint atmospheric build up morphs into something eerier as the beat rises and the guitar and choir textures enter the fray.
‘Suspirium’ – Suspiria (Solo)
In 2018, Yorke was commissioned to provide a score for Luca Guadagnino’s modern reimagination of the classic Dario Argento horror movie, Suspiria. The Radiohead frontman initially declined the job, but after Guadagnino’s persistence, he consented. The critically revered soundtrack was released in October 2018 alongside five singles.
The album was Yorke’s first-ever film score, and in keeping with the mood of the film, it’s almost totally void of upbeat energy. Instead, the tracks meander through the eerie and sentimental realms of ambient and melodic piano music. The soundtrack’s defining moment is its lead single, ‘Suspirium’, a beautiful piano-driven piece and an essential of the Yorke catalogue.
‘The Smoke’ – A Light for Attracting Attention (The Smile)
Radiohead have been on hiatus since concluding their A Moon Shaped Pool touring commitments in 2018. In a first glimmer of hope for Radiohead fans, Yorke joined forces with Jonny Greenwood and the Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner to form a side project, The Smile, in 2020.
After releasing a sporadic run of singles, the trio released their debut album, A Light for Attracting Attention, in May 2022. As Radiohead fans have grown to expect, the album delivered a broad spread of music from the riotous punk-derived ‘You Will Never Work In Television Again’ to the beautifully mournful ‘Free In The Knowledge’. For The Smile, Yorke has opted to play the bass guitar as his primary instrument, and no song represents this era better than ‘The Smoke’.