Michael and I were in the car yesterday and he accused me of “getting all judgy” because he was jamming to Brett Michaels—front-man of the 1980’s hair metal band, Poison and not exactly my poison when it comes to music (one play on words for me—cha-ching!) Now I don’t know if I can really support or refute this claim; what does it mean to be “judgy” after all (we’ll never truly know, because it’s not truly a word), and how does one express judginess in a given context? Planned ignoring, disdain, condemnation? I wasn’t condemning him for listening Brett Michaels, after all; I may have simply rolled my eyes or something similar to indicate my distaste for this particular brand of rather contrived 80’s rock. Michael’s response was twofold: First, he told me I was discriminating against diabetics, because Brett Michaels has juvenile diabetes like Michael. Second, he shot back with a gut-punch about my “pretentious” propensity for Radiohead music. He emphatically stated that he’s never heard a Radiohead song that he likes, that the band is “nothing” to him, and—as I stated—that only pretentious people listen to Radiohead. “Even me?” I asked. “Am I pretentious?” He paused for a minute, and we’ll let the reader infer where the conversation went from there.
Of course, Michael later claimed that he was joking about my pretension, but it’s easy to cast any insult off as a joke after you say it. (I’m not really mad; I’m just having fun with his assessment of my music tastes). And while I think art is highly subjective (Michael responded with the question, “Is Radiohead art” when I said this) as my Friday Night Video posts indicate, I tend to share what I like about specific music—why certain songs touch me and why I listen to them on repeat. And, as I was musing about resurrecting the Friday Night Video post after a long hiatus (an idea I stole from Michael, who borrowed the idea from Rob of My Side of the Laundry Room) I decided it would be apropos to deliver a gentle, loving “f*** you” to my dear boyfriend by writing about how much I love Radiohead. I had trouble settling on a theme for this entry, at first, but I landed on the following: my top ten favorite Radiohead songs. Alas, I anticipate a Brett Michaels post on My Comic Relief sometime soon, and since Michael will likely read this, I’ll be forced to read and listen to ten Brett Michaels/Poison songs. I’m still preparing for that reality.
Say what you will about Radiohead – the band of moody college sophomores, or something like that, according to Michael—but they’re incredibly versatile and undeniably prolific. For that reason, it was hard to choose my top ten favorite songs by a group that started putting out music in the late 80’s or early 90’s, depending on what internet site you consult (they actually started in the 80’s, it turns out, under a different band name). I’ll also preface this piece by saying I’m not exactly a “superfan.” I pay for Spotify premium instead of owning albums, and most of my Radiohead memories do harken back to my moody college days, when I’d cruise around the backroads of Greencastle, Indiana with friends, looking at the sky and listening to awesome music. Some of their songs I still listen to really frequently, and others have kind of faded into the backdrop of my life as I’ve gotten older and experienced random, inexplicable, unannounced cravings for things like Adele and The Carpenters. But Radiohead is a band that still plays a fairly salient role in my musical existence, and, like I said, now that Michael’s started his war on Radiohead, I have to come to their defense. So, here’s my manifesto: starting with my tenth favorite song, then narrowing things down to my favorite, here are my top ten Radiohead songs.
Ten: Morning Bell (Kid A): The mythos that we ascribed to in college was that Kid A was an album based off Dante’s Divine Comedy –or maybe based off the Inferno specifically. I never really listened to the album through that lens, nor have I read any evidence to support this supposition since one really musically inclined friend (think: saw Beck in a dream and marveled, “He was so nice” when he woke up wide-eyed) stated that he read it somewhere, but it’s an interesting proposition nonetheless. This is one of those angsty Radiohead songs with lyrics that are a little nonsensical; we get the feeling that a couple’s involved somehow, or, more specifically, that they’re splitting up—“you can keep the furniture,” and the more gruesome “cut the kids in half”—but the narrative definitely lacks fluidity and is pervasively interspersed with one singer desperately crooning, “Release me.” Contextually, he probably wants to be released from the relationship, since that’s what the song is about, but I always saw his plea as a little more desperate and existential. Have you ever felt like you wanted to escape, but you’re not sure why, or to where, or from what? I feel like that’s what this singer is feeling.
Nine: Karma Police (OK Computer): This is another at least vaguely brooding song that (ironically) requests the “Karma Police” arrest idiosyncratic people who disturb the status quo, like the man who “talks in math,” “buzzes like a fridge,” and sounds like an “untuned radio.” One thing I like about a lot of Radiohead lyrics is that they’re up for and open to interpretation, and I think this song definitely fits that generalization. The singer lapses into lamentation at the end of this song and bemoans, repeatedly, “For a minute there I lost myself, I lost myself.” These were always the most salient lyrics to me, and they pair (albeit probably coincidentally) with the concluding refrain from Morning Bell in which the singer begs to be released. The danger of being released, after all, may be losing oneself, and this song tells us just enough that we can infer what the singer’s talking about while filling in the contextual gaps of his situation.
Eight: Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors (Amnesiac): I am a fairly simple human being when it comes to music. I played this song one time and loved the surreal techno beat, the rhythmic sort of banging with the ring of computer-esque noises in the background. It was bizarre; it transported me into a sort of mental void that drowned out all the noise. If I ever start running again, I think it’d make a great running song. That was all enough, without analysis.
But here’s some analysis anyway: The foreground of this piece is definitely the music, which is probably meant to kind of symbolically emulate revolving doors. The fragmented lyrics about different doors and which ones we should choose fades into the background, lyrics that, according to one website, symbolize all of life’s choices and how those choices may be represented by different types of doors. The only nuance I would add to that analysis is that we need to pay attention to the fact that the instrumental is far louder and more pervasive than the lyrics—an attribute that suggests maybe life’s choices, even as they’re presented to us via door symbolism, aren’t as consequential as we think. We have very little choice, sometimes, beneath the noise of life. And yet, we need to cling to the choice we have, because the doors, even if we can hardly hear them behind the noise, do exist, nonetheless. I’m leaving the music video and the website that I borrowed from the analysis below these paragraphs; as an interesting side note, Radiohead has never played this song live.
Seven: Creep (Pablo Honey): I’m not sure you can make a playlist of your top ten Radiohead songs and not include “Creep.” Okay, well actually, you totally could, because they have so many good songs, and especially if you’re going for deep cuts. But this really beautifully done song—again, a song ringing, I think, with a lot of pain—really, as I understand it, was one of the songs (on one of the albums) that launched the band into stardom. The lyrics are fantastic – about a man who wishes he was “so fucking special” but feels like a “weirdo” and not commensurate in worth the girl he’s in love with. What made me appreciate the song even more was seeing this 90’s clip below of Johnny Depp and Charlotte Gainsbourg in a record store listening to music with the song playing in the background. In fact, I’m not sure if this is the official music video for “Creep” but I was pleased with this nice little find as I was looking for the music video on YouTube.
Six: Everything in its Right Place (Kid A): This is another song with a chaotic, frenetic beat that I think is totally ahead of its time. It rings with anxiety about then-contemporary culture, an anxiety that we still feel, I think, in the 2010’s (almost 2020’s) even if the album was released in 2000. I love the lyrics “yesterday I woke up sucking on lemons” because I feel like there have been times in my life when that phrase has made so much sense to me. I also love that Cameron Crowe used this song on his soundtrack for Vanilla Sky – one of his most unsettling movies by far and a re-make/American version of the Spanish movie “Abre Los Ojos” (open your eyes). The music video, which contains no references to Vanilla Sky, is, coincidentally, almost as excruciating to watch (maybe as excruciating to watch) as the incredibly macabre Crowe movie. I’m including it below, but beware (and, spoiler alert) – it’s really, really sad.
Five: High and Dry (The Bends): The Bends might be my favorite Radiohead album, and this song is certainly among the songs I love on that album. Sometimes, with Radiohead lyrics, I hear bits and pieces of words and have to look up the lyrics to really get the meaning of the song. Well, looking up the lyrics didn’t help me much, here, but I think they’re a beautiful commentary on (someone’s, random) life. Lyrics like “Drying up in conversation/You’ll be the one who cannot talk” have always really resonated with me—along with a lot of other lines in this song. I recall, quite vividly, sitting in the backseat of my friends’ little silver car while she drove through the backroads of Greencastle, Indiana with our third friend. The sky was a beautiful rainbow color, and it settled into darkness – the navies, purples, and blacks overtaking the reds and pinks—as this song came on. The music video is also fun to watch; I love the part where they’re playing their song in the rain.
Four: Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends): This is another song that is synonymous with my college career and the music I used to listen to with my friends – probably because on top of listening to Radiohead a lot, we listened to The Bends, specifically, a lot – so when I listen to it now, it’s with a sort of nostalgic fondness for the old days. On top of that personal bit, though, the lyrics here are fascinating. The song creates a sort of synthetic world (every line refers to “rubber” or “plastic” or “polystyrene” – a descriptor for a man who did plastic surgery on “girls in the 80’s”) but despite the seeming artificiality of everything, the speaker has an evident connection to the subject matter: “She looks like the real thing/she tastes like the real thing/my fake plastic love.” I adore those lines, and I think this song complicates the boundaries we draw between what’s “real” (the “real thing”) and what’s “fake” – it sort of self-reflexively questions our definition of what being “real” means and how we prize that sort of ambiguous, amorphous state. The music video is just a singing man being pushed in a grocery cart (which is a little displacing, in and of itself – especially when the whole band ends up in the grocery cart), but it’s still interesting, and pleasantly colorful to watch.
Three: Idioteque (Kid A): My favorite memory associated with this song is a memory about being lost in Downtown Houston—the “medical center” to be specific. I don’t know why I was driving through the medical center area; perhaps I hadn’t even intended to go to the medical center. But I got lost in the maze of streets, big, white, glistening buildings and parking garages that is the Houston Med Center and this song blasted through my little Hyundai Elantra’s radio system as I drove around, trying to find out where to go (why I never had a GPS when I lived there is beyond me, since I don’t think I was living there before GPS’s were “a thing.”). The repeated lyrics “women and children first” always made me think of the sinking of the Titanic, even as the full lyrics conjure up images of “bunkers” and seem to decry some more general, catastrophic albeit unnamable disaster. I love the line “this is really happening” for the frantic fear it seems to invoke, and I love the “electronic, dance-oriented” style (as google puts it) that deviates so much from the “guitar-driven” style of albums like The Bends, in a way that underscores the band’s versatility.
Two: (Nice Dream) (The Bends): Since this song is off The Bends, it’s another one that reminds me a lot of college (The Bends came out well before I was in college, but it’s the Radiohead album my friends and I listened to the most), and while it may seem like an arbitrary choice for a #2 spot on a top ten list, I particularly like the melody of this one. The lyrics are also very surprisingly executed, with a tonal shift. The first stanza details a “nice dream” (words repeated frequently after the first stanza) to suggest that some of our ideals can’t come to fruition in daily life (“They loved me like I was their brother/They protect me/Listen to me”). At the same time, even the nice dream seems to go awry when, in the second stanza, the speaker’s friend isn’t available and she portends electrocution for them all (“She says she’d love to come help but/the sea would/electrocute us all.”).
Okay, now some of my interpretations of Radiohead music are a bit bleak, but hear me out: the reality seems to be that not only are some ideals of existence impossible in the real world; the real world might be so jarring, so difficult to navigate sometimes, that even a “nice dream” is intercepted by images of distant friends and imminent electrocutions. The lyrics, in this regard, stand out against the backdrop of a consistently soothing melody, but it’s a disjunction that enhances the song, in my opinion. On top of that, this video of Thom Yorke playing an acoustic version of the song in a studio while people outside gather around and watch is pretty awesome, though a little fuzzy.
One: Black Star (The Bends): This song, again, may seem like an arbitrary choice for a #1 spot, and it actually has very little to do with my college career, though again it’s off “The Bends” and I did listen to it while riding around Greencastle, IN backroads as a college sophomore or junior. I actually re-discovered this song last summer when I developed an addiction to a Spotify “made for you” playlist that essentially presented a lot of songs by Natalie Merchant and Sarah McLachlan that you’d have heard in the 90’s at the Lilith Fair. Among my many delightful Lilith fair songs was “Black Star” – a cover done by Gillian Welch, and I loved it immediately. When I realized how much I loved it, I re-visited the initial Radiohead song, looked up the lyrics and the music video, and became obsessed with this particular song – both the original Radiohead version and the Gillian Welch cover.
This song has a fairly straightforward narrative that you can follow easily if you carefully listen to, or look up, the words. A man comes home from work to a wife/girlfriend who’s “standing in [her] dressing gown” and he contemplates all “the things inside here head” that are “eating” at her. He bemoans the status of their relationship, and sings, “What are we coming to? I just don’t know anymore.” There are also specific lines about love that are especially beautiful, I think: “I keep falling over I keep passing out when I see a face like you.” The music video tells the story of the song well, and for some reason, for a straight year, it’s been a song I can’t get enough of. Which is why when it didn’t show up on my Spotify 2018 playlist, I gave up on the Spotify yearly “what you’ve listened” to playlist in general and considered it a sham. So here, at the number one spot, “Black Star” by Radiohead.
In conclusion, when I told Michael that I hoped my list of top Radiohead songs would foster his appreciation for the band, he replied, “Well, it’s good that you have other goals in life, too.” His comedic timing was impeccable, and his stubbornness was, might I say, a bit predictable? Whether or not Michael “accepts” Radiohead as a sort of “band of merit” is, of course, besides the point, and I made this list partially in good fun. On the other hand, it gave me a chance to get even closer to some of the songs and lyrics that I love, to ride down memory lane and express why I enjoy some of the songs that I do so much. To that end, it’s been a delightful personal project, too. Thanks for reading. I’ll write about horror again soon—really!