This Year’s Quarantine Radiohead Covers, Ranked
We all had to find ways to fill the time in 2020. Most of this year could not travel; we could not see friends and family we were used to seeing. Some of us experienced real-deal long periods of lockdown, while watching the rest of the country piss away that progress. As difficult as the last several years have been, 2020 brought us new levels of anxiety, fear, and anger. You have to combat that somehow.
Maybe you found solace in the new music that came out and, somehow, contextualized the unprecedented experience of 2020 even if that music was written before the pandemic. Maybe you took up new hobbies, baking bread or replacing our isolated real life with the wholesome facsimile of Animal Crossing. Maybe you turned to art that has helped you through troubled times before. Maybe, like a lot of artists, you listened to some Radiohead.
There are other reasons Radiohead could’ve been on the collective mind this year. Their groundbreaking flashpoint classic Kid A turned 20, and more and more it feels like we are living in the late-capitalist digital-era hellscape that album depicted. Maybe refrains like “I’m not here/ This isn’t happening” felt more relatable than ever in 2020. Or perhaps, four years since the band’s last album, the late-career high point A Moon Shaped Pool, it was time to revisit their work a bit in hopes that something new was on the distant horizon.
Whatever it was, Radiohead was in the air in 2020. As musicians found themselves stuck at home, working on something to keep themselves busy or embarking on livestream series to maintain some kind of contact with fans, they also sprinkled in all kinds of covers. Something special for strange times. Whether it was someone at home on a guitar or an album that happened to come out in 2020 (or, in the case of Car Seat Headrest’s “Scatterbrain,” a contribution to our fundraising compilation Save Stereogum), there was an unusually prevalent amount of Radiohead covers this year. We collected them here, ranking them from the unfortunate to the transcendent.
G-Eazy - "Creep" (Feat. Ashley Benson)
We have all suffered enough in 2020. Some people, like G-Eazy and Michael Bay, did not read the room.
Sam Neill - "Creep"
Here are some reasons Sam Neill's "Creep" is better than G-Eazy's version:
1. Sam Neill was in Jurassic Park, and G-Eazy is G-Eazy.
2. Sam Neill was in Peaky Blinders, and G-Eazy is G-Eazy.
3. Sam Neill had a fun cameo in Thor: Ragnarok, and G-Eazy is G-Eazy.
However, as gracious as Sam Neill's online quarantine presence was, this is still a cover on a ukulele. You lose some points for that.
Hayley Williams - "Fake Plastic Trees"
Hayley Williams covered a lot of songs through her Petals For Armor era. She waited until August to try out "Fake Plastic Trees." At least speaking on a Northeastern timeline, August was, like, one of the only parts of the year I felt alright going outside and seeing people. I didn't want to hear "Fake Plastic Trees" then!
James Blake - "No Surprises"
This far into James Blake’s career, some people witness him singing "No Surprises" solo at a piano and hear a hymn, and others hear a kind of aimless mewling where one song sounds just like the other. Anyway, James Blake covering "No Surprises" makes a lot of sense, quarantine or no, and it sounds just like you'd expect.
Ben Gibbard - "Fake Plastic Trees"
For a while there, Ben Gibbard was the king of quarantine livestreams. He took to YouTube again and again, and each time he dug up old Death Cab requests and delved into covers. It's a straightforward acoustic reading of "Fake Plastic Trees" — by nature, all of Gibbard's stuff was solo acoustic and stripped back given that this was at the height of initial lockdown — but Gibbard got to the song before it started to feel overplayed through the rest of the year.
Marika Hackman - "You Never Wash Up After Yourself"
Marika Hackman recorded a whole quarantine covers album, and it had some bold and/or intriguing choices — from taking on Beyoncé's "All Night" to offering her interpretation of stuff like Sharon Van Etten's "Jupiter 4" and Grimes' "Realiti." You gotta give Hackman some credit for originality: When you heard there was also a Radiohead cover, "You Never Wash Up After Yourself" had to be the furthest candidate from your mind.
Even speaking as someone who has spent their fair share of time obsessing over Radiohead’s catalog, I couldn't quite remember what "You Never Wash Up After Yourself" even sounded like. That is, to some extent, because "You Never Wash Up After Yourself" is barely a song. In terms of picking a Radiohead song to cover, is that cheating? I don't know, but Hackman managed to take it and turn it into a wispy, evocative prologue to an album where she successfully brought some of her favorite songs into her own world.
Hundredth - “Idioteque”
Radiohead is at once a massively popular and influential band that many musicians admire and might want to cover, and also an artist that has often been elevated to the level of sacrosanct. It’s no wonder most people choose Bends tracks; they are more traditionally rock-structured, and how in the hell are you supposed to approach some of Radiohead’s more idiosyncratic and (arguably) more iconic work from a bit later?
Hundredth, then, made a daring choice in picking "Idioteque." Out of any 21st century Radiohead track, "Idioteque" seems like it'd be one of the hardest to crack open. Hundredth did an admirable job replicating the bones of the original, while dialing down the paranoia. Bonus points for ambition and execution, but you have to wonder if they could have found something new and revelatory in "Idioteque" in a year that felt like the apocalypse the song first described 20 years ago.
Rosie Carney - The Bends
A lot of people covered songs from The Bends this year. Rosie Carney covered the whole damn album. Battling a wave of depression as lockdown hit, Carney threw herself into the work of reinterpreting music that had helped her in the past. Much of it still has the hushed, stripped quality of quarantine performances, but Carney’s comes with a different weight and emotive impact.
Phoebe Bridgers & Arlo Parks - "Fake Plastic Trees"
I know some people hear the whispery confessions of a Phoebe Bridgers album and they’re leveled immediately. I get it, and it hits me sometimes too. But my favorite Bridgers moments are when she counteracts that by really letting loose live. I'm talking about the ghostly howl in this version of "Me & My Dog." I’m talking about how she indulges just a few emotional wails in the back half of her performance of "Fake Plastic Trees" with Arlo Parks. Anchored just by Parks' piano, this is no less sparse than other quarantine-era covers, but it’s the only one that really uses the climactic sweep of Radiohead's original.
Amanda Shires & Jason Isbell - "High And Dry"
Perhaps because it always seems endearing to spend any amount of time with Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, they sometimes felt like the heroes of lockdown. With Shires' "I So Lounging" livestream series, the couple got together with a few friends and often dug into some covers. Usually, it was stuff you might expect from them: Neil Young, John Prine, "Layla." So it felt special when they busted out Radiohead's "High And Dry." With Shires' twang, they took one of Radiohead's mistiest Britpop-adjacent compositions and turned it into something more rustic, like a classic folk lament.
Skullcrusher - "Lift"
As you are probably aware by now, Skullcrusher is a bit of a deceptive name. Helen Ballentine makes autumnal folk indie under the moniker, not the kind of heavy music suggested by caving a person's head in. Her own music already ranked her amongst our list of this year's best new bands, but her take on the hallowed OK Computer outtake "Lift" is also something very special. Shimmering synths, hiccuping banjo notes, Ballentine's lilting take on the gorgeous sigh of the "Lilt" melody — it all combines to turn her version into something that's still wistful, but also a comforting, amber-hued daydream. To hear a young artist come into their own is a gift any time it happens, but alongside Ballentine's own songs there's also this, a masterful articulation of a lost Radiohead classic in her own vernacular.
Kelly Lee Owens - "Arpeggi" & Lianne La Havas - "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"
Both of this year’s best Radiohead covers were interpretations of the great In Rainbows track "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," one of Radiohead’s best latter-day songs. Both are entirely different, and both actually reinterpret the song in some recognizable but meaningful way. I can’t decide between them; they are both beautiful.
The first is Kelly Lee Owens' "Arpeggi," an instrumental rendition of the song that serves as the scene-setting opener on her great sophomore album Inner Song. (Which, as it happens, was also one of the best albums of the year.) Owens' version begins as an aqueous gurgle, eventually teasing out that immortal, cascading progression from the song into something a bit more cosmic. For an album that delved deep into a person’s own mind and emotional landscape, there actually felt like there was some thematic heft: The dreaminess inherent in "Weird Fishes," recontextualized as a digital memory echo.
Lianne La Havas' "Weird Fishes" begins with a fakeout: that other immortal part of "Weird Fishes," the drumbeat, suddenly breaking down as La Havas transforms the first half of the song into warm, watery funk. The second half of "Weird Fishes," when the band keeps layering on new parts and heightening the beauty of the song rather than letting it spiral out of control, is always a transporting experience. The way La Havas rearranges it makes that second half powerful in a new way, a long-awaited release.
Given, both Owens and La Havas' covers weren’t quarantine performances. They were songs recorded for albums that happened to come out during quarantine, and they naturally have a different scope to them. But they aren't just the best Radiohead covers of 2020. They’re high-water-mark examples of what people can do with this band's music, in this year or in any other.