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The Greatest of All Time: Episode 2 – Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke. Radiohead frontman, multi-instrumentalist, film score wizard, general bonafide British rock legend. He is the man coined with defeating Britpop and inspiring a new generation of uncertainty but finding strength in the form of artistic panache. He is without doubt a perfect fit for our next instalment of The Greatest of All Time.

 Born in 1968 in Northamptonshire, England, Thomas Edward Yorke wasn’t given the perfect start in life. He was born with a paralysed left eye, something which he underwent surgery for as a child; subsequently the surgery was botched and he is now widely recognised for having a slack eyelid. He gained musical inspiration in the form of Queen and particularly Brian May, the reason for Yorke getting his first guitar aged 10. During his school years at Ablingdon public school, he became friends and eventually band members with Colin & Johnny Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien; forming a band that would eventually be called Radiohead. 

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A car accident while on a gap year inspired Yorke to write songs of everlasting importance, determined to leave a mark on the world he walked. After graduating from Exeter University, Yorke and co. were signed to Parlophone and EMI Records under the name On A Friday, but were requested to change their name by label management; opting for Radiohead after the song of the same title by Talking Heads in 1986.

Pablo Honey (1993)

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While their debut release (Drill EP) wasn’t well-received and didn’t garner chart success, the band were still optimistic and had full backing of their label. A year later came Creep, the now infamous lead single from Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey. The song honed in on insecurities and spoke for a generation of misguided souls, offering solace to the “weirdos” of society. It wasn’t well received at all initially but in the most bizarre turn of events, it became a sleeper hit, particularly in America where MTV would play it religiously. It eventually soared up the charts globally and became the song it was initially intended to become.

The Bends (1995)

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Expectations were now suddenly high for Radiohead’s follow-up album. They changed their style entirely, becoming disinterested in the lifestyle of MTV and commercial glory; responding to this with the My Iron Lung EP, an EP in which the title track would eventually become a starring moment in their sophomore album The Bends. Released in March 1995, the album had quickly been noted for it’s moody but sadistically gorgeous atmosphere, with publications and listeners alike hailing Thom’s chilling vocals. The singles boasted from that album were stunning, with Fake Plastic Trees, Just, High And Dry Street Spirit (Fade Out) offering a smattering of subject matter while being just the right amounts of important and catchy. Much like Creep, it’s true successes weren’t felt until later down the line, when end of year lists began acknowledging it’s brilliance.

OK Computer (1997)

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There can be an argument to suggest that the reason you are reading this very post now and the reason we consider Thom Yorke to be a legend of the industry is because of this very album. Radiohead’s third effort took far more risks, it dared to be a layered concept album with sounds as eclectic as it’s themes. It takes a very brave man to consider any other Radiohead album better than this one, and most of them say it to try and be different. The reality is that this album killed Britpop, it took British music into another realm and helped shape the sounds of some of the major emerging bands we now know today. It’s a Grammy winner, was robbed of the Mercury Prize; and features prominently on just about every single publication’s greatest ever albums list. Paranoid Android became an overnight classic to rank amongst the great British rock anthems, while No Surprises and Karma Police moulded the downbeat but powerful Radiohead tempo we now all know and appreciate. Not to mention the fact that literally nobody had heard tracks like Exit Music (For A Film) and Fitter, Happier before. A concept album for the ages.

Kid A (2000)

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How do you follow one of the best albums of all time? What’s your next move after becoming Glastonbury headliners and the most talked-about band in the world? Well, clearly it’s to release an avant-garde electronic emotional gut-punch, right? Kid A was always going to signal a new direction for Radiohead but the timing and execution of this was utterly mesmerising. Replacing guitars with synthesisers, putting Thom’s voice through the rounds with an ondes Martenot, using drum machines and going full futuristic mode was the brave chess move of a band who were well aware of their significance. No singles, no warning, no bother. Kid A went platinum in the very first week of release, it was their first American number one album and has since been recognised as the turning point in music that the new millennium truly needed. This album has taken time to marinate, despite it’s huge commercial success; as can be seen by publications’ ratings of it. The Guardian gave it two stars on initial release but have since gone on to rank it the second best album of the 2000s. Go figure.

Amnesiac (2001)

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The most interesting thing about this album is that it could be perceived as a B-sides project, given that every song was written during the Kid A sessions, but Amnesiac manages to sound like it’s own project; such was the brilliance of this Radiohead run. Everything they touched turned to gold around this era and the fact that songs like Knives Out and Pyramid Song didn’t make the Kid A cut signifies that. Where Amnesiac was so solid and why it is seen as so important in the band’s discography is because it was a bookmark moment; it solidified the band’s post-millennium model and set them up for further experimentation down the line. It was never going to reach the levels of the two albums previous, but I feel that was never the intention. It was Grammy, Mercury and BRIT Award nominated; not bad for some B-sides.

Hail To The Thief (2003)

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Radiohead’s recording contract with EMI was running out, with only one more album left before the question would be asked of renewal. Obviously EMI wanted them to stay, but Thom Yorke was dreaming bigger; we will get onto that later. As for this album, it became apparent that Radiohead were flagbearers of a generation in touch with their emotions, Yorke wanted to release an album that addressed this point in the purest form possible; thus Hail To The Thief was born. It possesses some of the band’s most eclectic rock sounds and could be described as the band’s most aggressive release since their debut effort; just listen to 2+2=5 and Myxomatosis as evidence of this.  The lyrics took on personal demons but also saw Thom Yorke take on a larger-than-life figure as he spoke about the toxic resurgence of right-wing politics as well as the war on terror. The plan was never for this album to be a political standing point, but in the words of Thom himself: “it’s just fucking there, and eventually you have to give it up and let it happen.” 

The Eraser (2006)

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Thom Yorke ventured into the realm of solo work with The Eraser, his debut solo album in 2006, and it ranks as his most socially relevant and political album ever. Even the album cover depicts societal trauma, likening the picture to government attitudes to climate change; how unlike Thom Yorke to be that heavy, right? Harrowdown Hill, the album’s lead single, was written about and in honour of David Kelly, the man who committed suicide after reporting that the British government had falsely identified WMD’s in Iraq. These very strong attitudes from Thom Yorke were welcomed and embraced on Hail To The Thief and this solo material gave us all the feeling that Yorke’s finger was well and truly on the cultural button, ready to call out anyone in power for their shortcomings. There’s large beauty to the music and what makes this great is that it is utterly Thom Yorke, the songs sound nothing like Radiohead and don’t pretend to either.

In Rainbows (2007)

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To say this album is hailed and worshipped would be an understatement. Every single element of this project, from the artwork to the content, the inspirations to the independent release, made In Rainbows an absolute triumph in every sense of the word. It was released as a pay-what-you-want download and went on to sell over three million copies worldwide in physical form, as well as winning two Grammy awards. What made this album so great could well have been the fact that the proverbial shackles were free, there was no contractual obligation to release music; Radiohead were allowed to work at their own accord to their own agenda. In Rainbows was revolutionary for the pay-what-you-want download scheme, becoming the first album released by a major act under this method, but the music was also a landmark moment in British rock music as Radiohead re-affirmed themselves as the true kings of the genre. Front to back it was richly received, whether that be because of the gorgeous pacing of Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi or the brutal open honesty of House of Cards. This very much feels like the band’s most human release to date.

The King Of Limbs (2011)

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Thom Yorke described the album as “an expression of wildness and mutation” and that’s about as accurate as it gets when trying to formulate the aurora of The King of Limbs. The album was made through the process of chopping and sampling as Thom Yorke placed huge emphasis on the element of rhythm. It was nominated for five Grammy Awards and also became a UK Vinyl bestseller, a rather impressive resumé for a band who seemed eager to continue to push the musical envelope. The sound and inspiration came from the band wanting to do other things, they grew as tired of playing chord sequences on instruments as they had producing electronic sounds on a computer; so a middle ground had to be struck. Lotus Flower remains one of the band’s best ever songs and while it may not have the plainly obvious critical brilliance of previous albums, The King Of Limbs is yet another bookmark in Radiohead’s astonishing career.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014)

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One million downloads within six days of release. Thom Yorke was 47 years old when this came out, talk about moving with the times despite your advancing age. Blending Yorke’s voice and piano playing with electronic textures and beats, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes plunged even further into the experimental unknown and is perhaps some of the most eerie and neurotic work of the Radiohead singer’s career. When you are the front of one of the biggest bands ever you don’t really need to worry about second album syndrome when it comes to a solo career, but you especially don’t when the results are as progressive and forward thinking as this was. He released this thing on Bandcamp ffs.

A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

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When a band clocks in at nearly 25 years together, how do they manage to maintain interest, keep their sound fresh and also find the motivation to strive for the best possible music? Well, if you want the answer to that, then just ask Radiohead how the hell they managed to make A Moon Shaped Pool. This album is so unlike anything the band have done before, serving as some of the most cinematic sounding music this country has witnessed in a long time. The haunting ethereality of Daydreaming epitomises just how mellow but gripping Radiohead’s ninth studio effort is; twin that with the comeback single Burn The Witch, a sinister tale that was actually written years before the album’s release, and you have an incredibly atmospheric creation. The album was released almost in secret, with no interview rolls at all and no single release until five days before the album dropped, but that element of mystery did nothing but add to the album’s wonder. How fitting then that this was the album that made Radiohead the most nominated act for the Mercury Prize of all time; still no win though.

‘Suspiria’ Soundtrack (2018)

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In 2018 Thom Yorke was selected to be the brainchild behind the film score for Luca Guadagnino’s remake of supernatural horror film Suspiria. The soundtrack came after months of painstaking requests from the director and constant refusals by Yorke, but he finally accepted the offer and recorded his first ever film soundtrack; unsurprisingly to rave reviews. The lead single Suspirium has been shortlisted for the 2019 Academy Award for Best Original Song, with the collection as a whole being praised for it’s haunting but beautiful atmosphere. Thom Yorke’s style was tailor-made for film scores so it won’t come as much of a shock to here his venture into that world was a success.

Collaborations

MF DOOM – His remix of Gazillion Ear is incredible, it’s as wonderful as a Thom Yorke x MF DOOM song would expect to sound.

DJ Shadow – Working alongside UNKLE on this DJ Shadow cryptic banger, Thom Yorke delved deeper into the world of electronica.

Björk – Two of this generation’s finest artists and songwriters joined forces on this stand alone single and it’s bloody wonderful (obviously).

Flying Lotus – Thom Yorke has always had a respectable ear for some of the world’s true greats in production, so it comes as little surprise that he made a stellar guest appearance on this Flying Lotus cut.

 

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