On the release of Radiohead’s ninth album and their two excellent new singles, I thought we should take a look back on some of the band’s best videos. They’re a cultural institution as much as any classic rock band, with one of the best singers and a pair of the best guitarists in modern music. They followed a legendary-status album with two more, and even their worst album is still a pretty solid rock record.
When you ask someone what they think the greatest music videos of all-time are, you may get some stock answers: “Sabotage,” “Thriller,” “Sledgehammer.” But it won’t take long to mention Radiohead. The difference from person to person is which Radiohead video they think is the best. This is because there has never been a band who has captured the meaning of their own songs in video form as well, and on such a consistent basis, as Radiohead. The sound, tone and emotion of their songs is delivered expertly in exciting and often surreal videos. This is not meant as a list of their best videos; far from it. I’m not even getting to “House of Cards,” “Paranoid Android,” “There, There,” or “Go To Sleep.” It’s a celebration of what makes Radiohead so damn good at their own visual arts.
“Daydreaming,” 2016 –
Radiohead’s newest video may also be one of their most direct, or at least directly related to the song. The video, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is six minutes of Thom Yorke walking through doorways into varying locales – kitchens, hospital rooms, the beach, and finally a frozen tundra. While maybe too reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine, the video has the look and feel of daydreaming. It’s nice that this is the video that came out right when I decided to make this post, because it has that direct music-to-video correlation that Radiohead nails almost every time.
“No Surprises,” 1998 –
If “Daydreaming” seemed minimalistic, then “No Surprises” seems downright cheap. Whether the video is a tense look at someone testing their own mortality, or just using the title to taunt the audience, it’s one of their best videos. If you haven’t seen it, it’s one long shot of Thom Yorke in some kind of chamber, water rising up to and over his head as he stares blankly at the camera. When he blinks, the water goes rushing beneath him and he gasps for air as the song continues playing. It’s alarming and a little scary, even if it’s one long, unchanging shot. The minimalistic quality matches the song’s tone, somber, even by the band’s standards.
“Lotus Flower,” 2011 –
This video is also minimalism pushed to the fullest (or emptiest?), but in an entirely different way. By 2011, Radiohead seemed to know that they had hit a legendary status and, as they grew older, felt like they didn’t have to prove themselves. “The King of Limbs” received pretty mixed reviews, but I love it because they’re not trying to make the artistic statement that all of their other albums strive for. That, in itself, is a paradoxical artistic statement. And to celebrate, the album’s only video is just Thom Yorke busting out his worst dad-dance moves in a big, empty room.
“Karma Police,” 1997 –
Arguably their best video, “Karma Police” is yet another work in fantastic minimalism. The POV shot follows a car moving down a pitch-black Southern road at night, catching up to some poor, unfortunate man, until he can make the tables turn. It’s an incredible slow-burner (pun intended), that adds tension by beefing up the mystery. And it’s one of their many, very Lynch-ian videos. I shouldn’t have to explain how the video relates to the song. Even though we have no context for the video, we can feel empathetic for the man being hunted, and the karma he delivers.
“High And Dry,” 1995 –
So if you’ve never seen a Radiohead video and you’ve just watched these four, you might think they’re the kings of understatement (and you might also think that Thom Yorke is the only member). But this video is downright cinematic. It is reminiscent of the then-recent Pulp Fiction, with the band sitting innocently in a diner while a key to a suitcase is passed through a pie to a different table but, unfortunately, the wrong table. This is maybe the only video that would probably benefit by the band not being there, but their presence does add some authenticity. It’s a beautiful but tense song, and it plays out perfectly in this Shakespeare-cum-gangster video.
“Pop Is Dead,” 1993 –
Speaking of cinematic qualities, Radiohead allowed themselves to slip into weirdness in their videos before they did in their music. Their first album, “Pablo Honey,” is easily the least exciting in their discography (even if it does have their only true hit). It’s a fairly standard early-90’s wannabe-grunge album, and although this song was a non-album single, it shows. The video even looks like Alice in Chains’ “Them Bones” video. But with Thom dressed up like a corpse, and a funeral procession moving in a serpentine fashion through a field, it has a strong David Lynch aura. They may have felt constrained on their first album, but this video shows it didn’t last long.
“Fake Plastic Trees,” 1995 –
On top of being one of the band’s most beautiful songs, “Fake Plastic Trees” has a certain childlike innocence to it. Thom’s vocals and the band’s music resemble a child learning the harsh realities of the world. The lyrics are notoriously cryptic – rumor has it they’re about abortion – but it doesn’t matter. The feel is captured perfectly in the video, with band members riding around like children in shopping carts and make a ruckus in a faux-grocery store filled with bright lights. This is a song that transports you back to your childhood just to make pain even worse, and the video emphasizes it even more.
“Burn the Witch,” 2016 –
Radiohead have had a love affair with animation – aside from this, their other new single, they also have the videos for “Paranoid Android,” “Go to Sleep,” House of Cards,” “Pyramid Song,” and “There, There.” All of them have animation of some kind, and all strikingly different from each other. Their new video continues this affair – with claymation. “Burn the Witch” is a pretty bleak video from the get-go, with an inspector surveying a town and seeing a witch being attacked, a hanging square and a massive effigy to be burned – only to be put in it himself. The strings in the song have a confusing impact, sounding equally joyous and shameless, and the video’s irrepressibly morbid tone plays off of both.
“Knives Out,” 2001 –
Michael Gondry hadn’t yet directed the as-previously-mentioned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he brings the same feel to Radiohead’s 2001 single. The video, done seemingly in one-take, details a woman being operated on and her lover sitting close-by, while their history plays out on a television. They love each other, but we also see them battling with axes. It’s surreal to the fullest – at one point, Thom’s head is replaced with a heart that opens and absorbs a picture of her – equal parts creepy and heartfelt. The video establishes a whole world within seconds, and makes a brief song feel like a whole movie.
“Just,” 1995 –
My personal favorite Radiohead video. “The Bends” provided some of the best (see above), this one being even better than the others. It’s another take on minimalism, with a middle-aged businessman walking to work and suddenly laying down in the street. A man, and then a few people, and then a crowd, try to figure out what’s wrong with him, even though he demands they just leave him alone. Eventually he tells them, but not us, and we see the whole crowd laying down. The song is not-so-subtly-but-poetically about depression, and having a man – an everyday man, but not the face of depression – suddenly take to bed on the sidewalk is a perfect encapsulation of how suddenly it can come on. The intercuts of the band playing in an apartment overheard are unexpected, especially since the members who aren’t Thom Yorke have become notoriously absent from their videos.
Radiohead have worked with some big name people, and here’s to hoping it continues. Some bands can make memorable videos, and some bands can make videos related to the song, but not all bands can do both – and Radiohead have been doing both since 1993. Their excellent new album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” is available now, and I cannot recommend enough that you pick it up.