At last week’s Spotify press conference - the one where Lars Ulrich revealed that Metallica’s full discography would be made available on the streaming service – Frank Ocean took the stage for a brief performance.
Oh, but Ocean is hardly alone; loads of artists have accepted the challenge of interpreting Radiohead’s catalog. We’ve sifted through dozens of covers to bring you 12 of the best. (All acoustic YouTube covers of “Creep” have graciously been omitted.)
1. Punch Brothers - “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box”
Punch Brothers, an acoustic quintet led by mandolin phenom Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, look like a bluegrass band. But are they a bluegrass band? Well, sort of. Their albums are littered with folk tunes old and new, but the band really shine on their diverse, unpredictable covers. These include, but are certainly not limited to, The Strokes’ “Reptilia,” Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus,” and Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.”
It was basically inevitable that a group with such an intrepid spirit tackle Radiohead, and they’ve done so on numerous occasions. Their take on “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,” the opener to 2001’s Amnesiac, is performed with hypnotic precision – and in a testament to their technical talent, they accurately reproduce the original’s skittering electronic groove in a live setting with acoustic instruments.
2. Gnarls Barkley - “Reckoner”
Never ones to shy away from more experimental material, the duo took on Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” from In Rainbows, at a London show in 2008. Theirs is a pretty straight cover but for one exception - Cee Lo’s voice. On the original, Thom Yorke occupies a delicate falsetto throughout; Cee Lo belts the whole thing, bulldozing over the other instruments. It’s not a particularly nuanced performance, but it is an impressive vocal display nonetheless.
3. Regina Spektor - “No Surprises”
The diminutive Russian songstress packs a gargantuan voice in that frame of hers, but she isn’t afraid to drop it down until it’s nearly whisper during the softer moments. On her chilling live cover of OK Computer’s “No Surprises,” she does just that. Trading in her typical concert grand for a tiny electric keyboard, Spektor makes the band’s 1997 lament for suburban complacency so immediate it’s almost claustrophobic. That sustained fragility renders the one moment of zeal - “this is my final moment / My final bellyache” - heartbreaking:
4. Weezer - “Paranoid Android”
Weezer and Radiohead may seem like strange bedfellows, but Rivers Cuomo and his gang replicate “Paranoid Android,” the OK Computer behemoth, with aplomb. Their spin doesn’t add much to the composition, per se, but the song is so complicated - it changes tempos and time signatures numerous times - that playing it at all is impressive enough. Cuomo’s nerd-whine is the single most noticeable difference. For all his rock star posturing, he’ll always be that dude from Harvard with the glasses.
5. Amanda Palmer - “Idioteque”
The former Dresden Dolls frontwoman and Kickstarter poster child released an entire album of Radiohead covers called Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead with her Magical Ukelele. One standout: her down-home rendition of Kid A’s “Idioteque.” It sounds like she recorded it in her living room, transforming the electronic freak-out into a lo-fi footstomper.
6. Deadmau5 - “Codex”
The Canadian superstar DJ is often lumped in with the over-saturated field of fist-pumping electro-house producers, but Deadmau5’s albums are surprisingly thoughtful – at times leaning more toward IDM than its meathead cousin, EDM. It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to learn that Zimmerman covered “Codex” from 2011’s The King Of Limbs. He strips the song of its vocals, leaving in tact a moody, ambient instrumental. His version sounds more like a film score than anything else, something about which Radiohead bassist Jonny Greenwood knows a thing or two.
7. The Arrogant Sons of Bitches - “My Iron Lung”
In 2003 at an event called SKAlloween in Farmingdale, NY, ska-punk outfit The Arrogant Sons of Bitches recorded a set that consisted exclusively of Radiohead covers. They released that set as the live album This Is What You Get. Some of the tunes are downright unlistenable, but when the band pulls it together long enough to eke out a solid track, the results are electrifying.
Chief among them is “My Iron Lung,” already one of Radiohead’s punkier songs, which becomes a delirious, shout-along maelstrom. You can practically smell the sweat dripping from lead singer Jeff Rosenstock as he throttles the mic stand and presumably uses it to bash someone’s head in.
8. Sia - “Paranoid Android”
Australian songstress Sia Furler struck party anthem gold this year with David Guetta and Flo Rida, but back in 2006 she put out a ghostly interpretation of “Paranoid Android” for the Radiohead tribute album, Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads. Her tormented vibrato floats gracefully above a haunting array of strings before being joined by an equally ethereal choir.
Her version has all of the original’s atmospheric melancholy without the concussive aggression; which, in this case, lends it an air of meditation. And dread. Lots of dread.
9. John Mayer - “Kid A”
Say what you will about his romantic conquests, his performance face, his tabloid rep, and his O-face - John Mayer can play a guitar. In this oft-overlooked B-side from the 2003 single “Bigger Than My Body,” Mayer channels Radiohead’s quirky futurist tome through his signature breathy croon. All of a sudden it’s an acoustic love song you’re adding to your “third date” playlist:
10. Easy Star All-Stars feat. Toots & the Maytals - “Let Down”
At first I was skeptical of Easy Star All Star’s Radiodread, in which the New York group cover OK Computer in its entirety as a reggae album. They’ve applied similar treatment to Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which can easily just come off as gimmicky.
But a look at the guest credits on Radiodread dispels that skepticism - in particular, reggae icons Toots & the Maytals turn up for a revisionist adaptation of “Let Down.” But I don’t mean that disparagingly; I mean that in their hands, the tale of defeat and despair becomes a song of triumph in the face of adversity:
11. Vampire Weekend - Exit Music (for a Film)
Where the original track from OK Computer is nothing but eerie electronic menace, Vampire Weekend’s cover is a mesmerizing post-punk dance tune á la Gang of Four and “Death Disco.” The minor-key anxiety is still there, but in place of the somber pacing is a locomotive rhythm adorned with razor-sharp harmonies and plenty of…flute. Yeah, there’s a lot of flute. The crazy thing is, it actually works.
12. Carrie Manolakos - “Creep”
I tried my best. I really did. I tried my best to get through this without any “Creep” covers. But this one’s so good I’d be crazy not to include it. Chances are, you already heard it when it went viral and got picked up by Gawker. It’s by Carrie Manolakos, a Broadway star (Mamma Mia!, Wicked) who performed the 1993 hit at her record release show in New York in April this year. And man, she just crushes it. There’s really not much to say besides: God Almighty, that climax!