Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”

This week marks the one year anniversary of the most bizarre music-related story I’ve ever experienced. In late May of 2019, it was announced on Reddit that somehow an individual had stolen eighteen MiniDiscs that belonged to the English rock band Radiohead. These discs allegedly held about sixteen hours of band rehearsals, demos of unreleased songs and studio versions of unreleased songs all recorded during the time the band was making their 1997 album OK Computer. It was stated that the alleged thief was asking for $150,000 from the band and in return this person would not leak the recordings. Rather than pay $150,000 to buy back what is effectively a twenty-year-old audio sketchbook, the band released the recordings themselves on June 11, 2019 under the name MiniDiscs [Hacked] by making them available for purchase on the site Bandcamp for eighteen days and donating all proceeds to The Extinction Rebellion, a grassroots climate activist group. 

This was a great day for Radiohead fans. The band is notorious for their reinvention and labored writing process. Throughout their almost thirty years as a band they have frequently played songs live or released clips on their website that don’t make it onto a studio album for years, or in a few cases decades. When an old rarity does show up on a studio album, it’s usually completely different than the first draft fans got a glimpse of long before its release. OK Computer is also perhaps their most celebrated album. These minidiscs seemed like an unprecedented look into the creative process of an unprecedented band—a rare opportunity to follow along with the writing of one of the most heralded albums of all time and connect dots for the songs left on the cutting room floor that would go onto have new life on later albums, or that remain there still. 

As it turns out, sixteen hours of audio a band never intended for release is not always interesting, even to me, a massive Radiohead fan. But don’t worry, I’ve whittled the sixteen hours and eighteen discs down to the top ten discs, which comes to a clean and concise nine-and-one-half hours. These are the top ten discs of Minidiscs [Hacked] by Radiohead:

10. MiniDisc 7

Honestly this one mostly makes the cut because at one point Thom Yorke, the vocalist and principal songwriter for Radiohead, says something like, “that sounds like [David Bowie’s] Station to Station,” after an uncharacteristically funky full-band improvisation. Yorke has the reputation of being an uptight grump at times, but this moment is such a pure expression from a young person having fun making art with his friends.

9. MiniDisc 13 

This disc is one of the shorter discs in the collection, coming in at seventeen minutes and fifty-two seconds. It features a lot of Thom Yorke recording with just an acoustic guitar and his voice, likely in hotel rooms or green rooms while on tour. Some of these are early versions of songs that were released, but there are also a few songs that remain unreleased, a couple of which I really like. Whether the band will ever go back and take another look at them is anyone’s guess.

8. MiniDisc 14

With a runtime of seventy-two minutes, this is one of the longer discs in the collection. In addition to a lot of early live recordings of songs from OK Computer, this disc is notable for having the most full-band versions of songs that nobody had heard until this release. These full-band demos sound more like The Bends, the album that preceded OK Computer, and perhaps provide insight into the band’s transition from the brit-pop influences on the The Bends to the singular blend of prog-rock, jazz and electronic music that would ultimately define OK Computer.

7. MiniDisc 2

This disk has most of my favorite sketches of unreleased songs with just Thom and his guitar. I particularly like a song called “Risk of Suffocation” that sounds like it could have become a great full-band song with quiet verses and loud choruses, which is not a dynamic Radiohead does very often. This disc also has a couple full band versions of “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” a song that was not officially released until Kid A, the band’s follow-up to OK Computer. The Kid A version is much more ambient than the spacey lounge-jazz found here, but I have yet to hear a version of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” that I don’t like.

6. MiniDisc 3

Speaking of Kid A, this MiniDisc challenges the narrative around that album a little bit. The story goes that after the OK Computer, the band became disillusioned with the narrow way rock music was talked about, written about and consumed in the late 1990s alternative-rock era, so they attempted to unlearn everything they knew about making music in order to make art that still interested them. They leaned more into rhythm and texture and relied less on guitar than past records, but MiniDisc 3 shows that they had an interest in using synthesizers and drum machines even before OK Computer. While they would certainly get much better at using these tools on Kid A, this disc shows that the band was capable of working outside their comfort zone even before they felt like they needed to.

This disk also has a full band version of a song that was called “Big Ideas” at the time but would later be released as “Nude” on the 2007 album In Rainbows. This is one of the more famous examples of Radiohead sitting on a song for multiple albums before making slight tweaks to turn it into a masterpiece.

5. MiniDisc 15

This disc is mostly unmastered versions of the final recordings of OK Computer and only makes the list because it features the definitive version of the song “Lift.” “Lift” is a song that was played live frequently before OK Computer came out that sounded like the perfect next step for the band after The Bends. It was right in line with what rock radio sounded like at the time, and there’s reason to believe it would have been a huge hit. The band opted to go a less accessible direction with OK Computer and “Lift” became a symbol for a path not chosen by the band. The song was finally released as part of the OK Computer remaster released in 2017 to mark the album’s twentieth anniversary, but that version lacked the much of the energy that made the song so desired in the first place. The version on this MiniDisc is a finished studio version that retains that energy. Why this version wasn’t released with the 2017 remaster is a mystery, but at least it exists here. I’ve never been a huge fan of “Lift,” but this version makes me believe that it would have been a very popular song had they released it in 1997.

4. MiniDisc 9

This disk has some more evidence of the band’s creative know-how outside of rock music even in the mid-to-late 1990s. It begins with an ominous piano instrumental that sounds like something that could score Ganon’s castle in a The Legend of Zelda game. This disc also has one of the rare moments of capturing the band goofing around—there’s a version of the band playing the OK Computer track “Karma Police” that is just dripping with sarcasm, with band member Jonny Greenwood playing a kitschy organ line that sounds like something one might hear at a baseball game. But the biggest boost for this disc is the full band version of the song “Life in a Glasshouse,” a song that was not released until the 2001 album Amnesiac. This “Life in a Glasshouse” is missing the New Orleans-style horn arrangement that marks the Amnesiac version, but lyrically and compositionally the song is almost exactly the same as its final version.

3. MiniDisc 10

MiniDisc 10 begins with “Last Flowers,” another song famous for being anticipated for every album after OK Computer. It eventually was finished and released on the B-Sides disk to 2007’s In Rainbows. They calmed it way down and moved it to piano for its official release, but it feels like a rare occurrence of a good idea that Radiohead weren’t able to turn into a great song. This MiniDisc also has a version of the Kid A song “The National Anthem” that sounds far more like U2 during their euro-dance music phase than the cacophonous, jazz-influenced final version on the Kid A. Moments like this show that Radiohead shed a lot of the more obvious imprints from their influences during the editing and arranging process of their work. The last notable piece of this disc is the inclusion of the title-track from The Bends in a much slower rendition by the full band. Why they decided to record a version of a song that they had already recorded and released is unclear, but it’s an interesting take on the song that shows a song is never truly finished even if it’s encased in a product that millions of people have purchased.

2. MiniDisc 4

This is the disc that best shows the progress made within the songs that ended up on OK Computer. There’s a lot of recordings of the multi-section, prog-epic “Paranoid Android” as well as the glitchy album opener “Airbag,” although I wouldn’t call these versions of the song glitchy. “Airbag” shows up a lot across the MiniDiscs and is maybe the best example of how much better the band got at composition and production during OK Computer, as each version seems to add another piece—the uneven, dub-influenced bassline; the space craft effect on the second guitar; the buzzsaw opening riff—that work together to make the song what it is on the album. Most of this disc feels like an inbetween time, where progress is being made but the finish line is a long way off. There’s a version of “The Tourist,” the closing song from OK Computer” that creates an uncanny valley with how close it is to the original but is still just not quite right.

1. MiniDisc 1

The first MiniDisc is the best one. It features the highest concentration of what makes a release like this at all interesting or worthwhile. It reveals that “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Life in a Glasshouse” used to be the same song, two legendary songs in the band’s catalogue that they had the wisdom to split up and keep both pieces intact. It has the intrigue of legendary recordings that have been long-rumored to exist but had never been released—like the full-band, Bjork-influenced version of “True Love Waits.” And it has a bunch of Thom playing acoustic songs alone sounding no more remarkable than any of the millions of people who record sketches and ideas as voice memos on their phones.

Masterpieces are fragile. Throughout this and all the other MiniDiscs are hundreds of versions of OK Computer and subsequent Radiohead songs that are far worse than the versions that the band released. So many decisions—from something as small as a particular guitar effect to as big as a dynamic shift within a song—had to be made to make the particular version of OK Computer that many know and love. The MiniDiscs reveal how unromantic the creative process often is and what a slog it can be to create something great. But they also put forth enough greatness to show why that work is worth it.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This is fascinating. Really cool to learn about the band’s process and see the connections to other artists.

    Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    The product is always more interesting than the work, but never as necessary. Posts like this always make me wish that I knew more about topics than I do (though I know that won’t be the case). So thanks for putting in the work instead!

    Reply

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