Radiohead are pretty good at keeping secrets. In 2006, Thom Yorke posted a mysterious set of lyrics on the band's website that read in part: "six the song of sixpence that goes burn the witch, we know where you live." Fans were expecting to hear a corresponding song on their 2006 North American and European tour, road testing songs that would later become In Rainbows. They'd yell for it, and the frontman even teased it a few times, but the band would never play more than a few chords. After almost a decade, this week the group released the mythical "Burn the Witch," a tense and atmospheric return that marks their first proper single since their 2011 album The King of Limbs.
"Burn the Witch" demonstrates what many forum-dwelling obsessives already know: underneath the glassy exterior of their studio albums is a stormy, mysterious world of rarities waiting to surface at any minute. While the general public is eating up the "new" Radiohead song, diehards are still fixated on are many other songs that are held in quieter regard, even those underappreciated gems that have already been released on EPs, stray singles, and bonus discs.Plenty of these tracks are better than most bands' A-sides, so it's easy to see how they'd inspire such devotion. For years, fans on sites like Atease and Mortigi Tempo have spent countless hours debating the best, while laymen have been listening to OK Computer for the hundredth time. So here's a peek behind the curtain before the release of their ninth studio album (due Sunday May 8 according to an announcement this morning alongside another new song called "Daydreaming"), ten of the Radiohead's very best non-album songs, recounted in chronological order.
On "Burn the Witch," Thom Yorke pauses to profess that the song is a "low-flying panic attack," echoing the sort of paranoia they've been known for since their early days. Early on, the singer had a fascination with the terrifying possibilities of automobiles, but unlike the famous "Airbag", a song with hope and second wind, "Killer Cars" is a little more bleak. The life-saving technology is absent here, instead Yorke describes brakes giving out and deranged drivers overtaking the road. He offers a disturbing solution to his problems: "wrap me up in the back of the trunk." Radiohead have many morbid lyrics, but when he sings "I'm going out for a little drive, and it could be the last time you see me alive," you sort of start to believe him.
1. Killer Cars (from "High and Dry" single, 1995)
Recorded after The Bends' release, this track appeared as a nice counter to the album's largely confessional, emotive songs. It's a purely carnal song, both in lyrical content and musical structure. Colin Greenwood plays one of his most driving basslines, while Ed O'Brien's dizzy wah chords, and Philip Selway's skittering drum performance back Yorke's casual come-ons of "you want me? Well fucking come and find me." The placement of this song in Baz Luhrmann's Shakespeare-for-the-MTV-Generation 1996 adaptation Romeo + Juliet shows what a strangely sexy outlier this is in the band's catalog. What other Radiohead song could soundtrack a boyish Leo DiCaprio lounging on a beach at sunrise?
2. Talk Show Host (from "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" single, 1996)
It opens with something out of a dream, contextless and surreal—a field recording of an announcement from a Czech train station—immediately transporting you there too, thinking about your past while surrounded by rush-hour commuters all doing the same, sulking with headphones in. Like the Beatles' maudlin "When I'm Sixty-Four," it's one of the better songs about self-reflection ever, one for all of those regrets, lost loves, and things we did wrong that we'll never get the chance to correct. Some day you'll have to reckon with it all, and "A Reminder" will be the soundtrack.4. Meeting in the Aisle (from "Karma Police" single, 1997)
3. A Reminder (from "Paranoid Android" single, 1997)
Radiohead rarely offer up instrumentals, but the moody, space age "Meeting in the Aisle" shows they can master just about any form they try. It's a clear homage to the trip-hop and electronic LPs that were starting to invade Radiohead's world in the late 90s (DJ Shadow is noted as a huge influence on "Airbag"). While they would wait until Kid A to fully indulge their Warp Records fandom, "Meeting in the Aisle" blends swelling strings and guitar work alongside sleepwalking beats, a delirious, dubby bassline, and a pre-natural understanding of the late 90s electronic music's sterile atmosphere. The band didn't debut the song live until a 2012 concert in Miami, a city as good as any to match the big, bright, and hospital-like environs of the track.
The title may seem like a studio in-joke, but the song itself is deadly serious. "Orgy" launches you right into a world of destruction, an apocalyptic landscape setting itself up for the impending doom of the world's collapse. Featuring otherworldly percussion and reverberating bass, the instrumental's disorientingly grey backdrop to Yorke's dead-eyed croon: "So glad you're mine." There were rumors to suggest "Orgy" was initially intended as the lead-in to the similarly romantic and dystopian world of Amnesiac, and it would've been a good fit; it's their best song about love at the end of the world.
5. The Amazing Sounds of Orgy (from "Pyramid Song" single, 2001)
"I will lead a wallpaper life", Yorke declares on the opening to another Amnesiac era song, offering a strikingly depressed statement of intent. This one submerges itself in paranoia and dread too, "Cuttooth" relies on the Orwellian anxiety that those around you know everything about you and you are being watched at every moment. With multiple layered pianos and a driving beat, Ed O'Brien (in his diary for the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions) called the song "a Neu thing"—but Neu! never got so compellingly self-lacerating, or relatably terrified.
6. Cuttooth (from "Knives Out" single, 2001)
7. Up on the Ladder (from In Rainbows disc 2, 2007)
"Up on the Ladder" debuted during a tour of the Iberian Peninsula in 2002, showing up alongside other material that would later become Hail to the Thief. The 2002 version was a high-energy rocker with Zeppelin heaviness, and though it didn't make Thief, the band pulled it back out of the vaults for the In Rainbows era, matching it with a much slower tempo, heavier emphasis on interstellar atmospherics, and a more relaxed vocal take. In a period where many of these blissed reworks were inferior to their original live versions, "Up on the Ladder" is a testament to the beauty that can happen when you just slow down.
There are many Radiohead songs that draw on their fascination with krautrock icons Can, but what makes "Go Slowly" so special in this regard is its parallels to the German group's 1968 song "Thief," which Radiohead even covered live. Originally called "Can Stylee" in the studio, "Go Slowly" takes basic structures from "Thief" and strips them down to a haunted lullaby, much "Nude" off In Rainbows. With Yorke's gorgeous vocal beckoning "I've been waiting patiently," you can hear the longing in every single word.
8. Go Slowly (from In Rainbows disc 2, 2007)
Opening with a gorgeous instrumental piece, Yorke comes in about a minute and a half into "4 Minute Warning" to declare "this is just a nightmare." Much like on "Burn the Witch," they offer stunning contrasts between harrowing lyrics and more placid music, with lyrics about impending nuclear catastrophe. Whether or not these are metaphors about running from a negative situation in your life is unclear, but the juxtaposition is similar to the end of Dr. Strangelove, as everything turns to dust and Vera Lynn's recording of "We'll Meet Again" plays. Everything feels calm, but isn't.
9. 4 Minute Warning (from In Rainbows disc 2, 2007)
Leaked to the internet and released as a stand-alone download in 2009, "These Are My Twisted Words" came out in-between In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, but as a rhythmically-gnarled krautrock attack it wouldn't have been an easy fit on either record. Like "Burn the Witch," which was attempted during several sessions before seeing completion, the band chose to wait until they could master the song before letting it out into the world. They're master editors with tricks up their sleeves, always ready to bestow something good on those who are willing to wait.