Thom Yorke, the lead singer of the British rock band Radiohead, turns 50 on October 7. This is something to celebrate, especially for hardcore fans. Beyond the fact that it’s just decent and humane to wish someone many happy returns, those of us who love Radiohead want Yorke and his four bandmates to keep doing what they do for as long as possible.
Over the past quarter-century, Radiohead has achieved a level of consistent greatness that no other band of the same time period has come close to matching. They’ve done so by constantly pushing their sound in new directions, from guitar-oriented alt-rock to more experimental styles influenced by electronica, ambient music, jazz, and more. The band’s evolution from “Pablo Honey” to “Kid A” to “A Moon Shaped Pool” is astounding.
At the same time, the spirit of Radiohead’s music has basically remained the same: in overgeneralized terms, lots of doom and gloom. As a result, there’s something incongruous and even a little amusing about the idea of Yorke arriving at this stage of his life.
For years and years now, he’s written songs loaded with heavy themes: alienation, self-loathing, existential dread, corrupt systems of power, global catastrophe, etc. The underlying notion seems to be that we as individuals don’t control much about our lives and disaster is bound to strike in one form or another. Yorke has devoted considerably less of his creative energy to songs about the rewards of family life or the secrets to aging well. Yet here he is on the doorstep of 50 and seemingly in a very positive place. Three cheers for that.
In honor of Yorke reaching the mid-century mark, below is a list of ten times that he thought it was all going to end. I’ve only included songs by Radiohead here (there’s nothing from Yorke’s solo work or Atoms for Peace), and each of the band’s nine studio albums is represented. Think of it as both a thematically unified playlist and a career overview that highlights a handful of Radiohead’s greatest songs.
1. “You” (“Pablo Honey,” 1993)
It’s fitting that the first song on Radiohead’s first LP features a line about the end of the world and concludes with Yorke crying out, “You, me, and everything/Caught in the fire/I can see me drowning.” While it could just be slightly overheated relationship talk, the fact remains that Yorke was doomed from the start.
2. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (“The Bends,” 1995)
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is the ‘90s alt-rock “Dust in the Wind,” only much darker and significantly better as a song. There may not be a bleaker lyric in the Radiohead catalogue than “Cracked eggs, dead birds, scream as they fight for life / I can feel death, can see its beady eyes.”
3. “Airbag” (“OK Computer,” 1997)
I’m cheating a bit because an airbag saves Yorke’s life here and he emerges feeling superhuman, but it was a close call. “Airbag” is actually one of several Radiohead songs that’s rooted in Yorke’s deep distrust of automobiles (see “Stupid Car,” “Killer Cars,” you get the point).
4. “Idioteque” (“Kid A,” 2000)
An icy dance track about multiple global calamities (“Who’s in a bunker,” “Ice age coming,” etc.) is something close to “peak Radiohead.” Yet you don’t have to share Yorke’s progressive politics, agitated emotional state, or dire secular eschatology to be swept up by the song’s urgent vision.
5. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” (“Kid A,” 2000)
Between the opening line about “red wine and sleeping pills” and Yorke’s closing proclamation, “I will see you in the next life,” this elegiac finale seems to depict the end of something. It’s beautiful too, with the organ, harp arpeggios, and eerie background effects combining into a unique, otherworldly texture.
6. “Pyramid Song” (“Amnesiac,” 2001)
Yorke swims with “black-eyed angels,” observes the cyclical nature of time, and travels to the afterlife on this ghostly, spellbinding classic. There’s an almost comical moment of dissonance, though, when you hear the famously anxious leadman assert, “There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.”
7. “Where I End and You Begin” (“Hail to the Thief,” 2003)
Yorke may already be dead here or he’s playing the part of a creator deity who regrets his handiwork and might just cut his losses in doomsday fashion. Either way, the song’s shift from ominous to sinister is striking, as Yorke signs off by repeating “I will eat you alive” and “There’ll be no more lies.”
8. “4 Minute Warning” (“In Rainbows Disk 2,” 2007)
A lovely gem buried on the “In Rainbows” bonus disc, “4 Minute Warning” borrows its name from a Cold War-era British public alert system that would’ve been used to announce a nuclear attack. “This is just a nightmare,” sings Yorke, trying to convince himself that death isn’t bearing down on him.
9. “Give Up the Ghost” (“The King of Limbs,” 2011)
Unlike the other entries on this list, “Give Up the Ghost” is the sound of someone who’s ready to expire, perhaps even with a spiritual destination in mind. Against a hushed acoustic backdrop, Yorke strikes an almost prayerful tone as he pleads not to be harmed and repeats the phrase, “into your arms.”
10. “Decks Dark” (“A Moon Shaped Pool,” 2016)
There’s so much about “Decks Dark” that is vintage Yorke: the way he merges the personal with the apocalyptic, the alien invasion imagery, the line about “trapped rag doll cloth people,” the mocking suggestion that it was all “just a laugh.” By the time Yorke coos “Sweet darling, sweet times” at the end, it’s hard to know what exactly just happened.