A Dummy’s Guide to Thom Yorke’s Many Collaborations

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The latest Thom Yorke side project — a joint effort with UK dubstep mystery man Burial and excellent producer Four Tet — is out this week, adding another entry to an extensive and eclectic list of collaborations. Indeed, it’s gotten harder and harder over the years to keep track of all the projects to which the Radiohead singer has contributed — so if you want to investigate his extra-curricular activities further, here’s a round-up, organized (roughly) from the best to the worst.

Drugstore feat Thom Yorke — “El President” (1998)

Often overlooked in favor of Yorke’s more well-known works, this collaboration with Brazilian band Drugstore is an absolute gem. The song deals with the 1973 coup in Chile that ousted democratically elected Salvador Allende and replaced him with murderous CIA-backed thug (and best mate of Margaret Thatcher) Augusto Pinochet. Unfashionable subject matter, perhaps, but the duet is a triumph, Yorke’s mournful falsetto conveying all the helplessness and despair the events of 1973 must have evoked.

UNKLE feat Thom Yorke — “Rabbit in Your Headlights” (1998)

1998 was a good year for Mr Yorke. Q readers voted OK Computer (released the previous year) the greatest album of all time, and Radiohead’s singer seemed to be just about everywhere — as well as his appearance on “El President,” he turned up to provide vocals on the best track from UNKLE’s killer debut record. And of course, it just happens to come with one of the best videos ever.

Flying Lotus feat. Thom Yorke — “And the World Laughs With You” (2010)

It’s no surprise that Yorke and Stephen “Flying Lotus” Ellison get along so well, given the Radiohead singer’s love of esoteric electronica and Ellison’s penchant for producing some of the most sonically intricate productions you’ll hear anywhere. Ellison raved to the NME and various others earlier this year about how Yorke was his cosmic soulmate, and his influence is writ large on both Yorke’s solo album The Eraser and Radiohead’s new album The King of Limbs (the first single is called “Lotus Flower,” for Chrissakes). Yorke also lent his vocals to “And the World Laughs With You”, from Ellison’s amazing album Cosmogramma . As with pretty much everything else on the album, it’s a triumph.

REM feat. Thom Yorke — “E-Bow the Letter” (1998)

As with FlyLo, Yorke found a kindred spirit in Michael Stipe — Radiohead supported REM on the latter’s 1995 Monster tour, and have been tight ever since. While Stipe and Yorke have never done a formal collaboration, they’ve done impromptu guest spots with one another’s bands over the years — particularly at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998, when Stipe sang with Radiohead on “Lucky,” and Yorke reciprocated by taking the Patti Smith part on “E-Bow the Letter.” Oh, to have been there.

Modeselektor feat. Thom Yorke — “The White Flash” (2007)

And again, it’s no shock to find Yorke turning up on a track by Modeselektor — the influence of glitch/IDM artists on Radiohead from Kid A onwards is well-documented, and Yorke has been bigging up this German production duo for years. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that his collaborations with such artists have been more successful than his own experiments in such arenas: while Radiohead’s glitchy tracks have occasionally felt like The Clash doing reggae — well-intentioned but a little clunky — this song has an easy, fluid grace to it.

PJ Harvey feat Thom Yorke — “This Mess We’re In” (2000)

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was pretty much PJ Harvey’s career low point, which is hardly surprising since it allegedly deals with the end of a remarkably unlikely relationship with überknob Vincent Gallo. Still, the duet she performs with Yorke is excellent, especially since it involves Yorke singing, “Night and day I dream of making love to you now baby/Love making on screen.”

Björk — “Náttúra” (2008)

Yorke and Björk had worked together previously — he sang on one of the songs she wrote for the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack — and they collaborated again on this song, a charity single released a couple of years back. Yorke’s vocals are buried way back in the mix, lending atmosphere more than anything else, but they work well enough. Apparently Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale also contributed to the track, which might explain its demented percussive aspect.

Burial, Four Tet, and Thom Yorke — “Ego” (2011)

Eclecticism isn’t always a great thing in collaborations — as we discussed yesterday, sometimes unlikely combinations work against the odds, but as often as not things don’t quite mesh. In this case, “Ego” sounds like three artists with strong aesthetics watering down their sounds in order to meet in the middle – this track certainly isn’t as ominous or atmospheric as Burial’s usual output, nor as abstract as Yorke and Kieran Hebden’s. All in all, then, it feels like decidedly less than the sum of its parts, although perhaps it’s a grower.

The Venus in Furs — “2HB” (1998)

A supergroup formed as a fictional band for the film Velvet Goldmine, The Venus in Furs featured Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, along with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, wetbag singer/songwriter David Gray and Roxy Music multi-instrumentalist Andy Mackay. They did a decent job Xeroxing the Roxy Music tracks they covered for the soundtrack — Yorke manages to sound remarkably like Bryan Ferry — and doubtless had a blast doing so, but it’s still kinda lightweight compared to both the original and the rest of Yorke’s output.

Thom Yorke, Bryan Ferry, Mark Ronson, Bob Hoskins, Andy Murray & David Cameron — “Two Minute Silence” (2010)

In which Yorke and celebrity chums revisit the idea of John Cage’s “4:33” — i.e., releasing a song that contains no music at all — for charity. It ranks this low because Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s name is associated with it. Ewwww.

Atoms for Peace — “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (2010)

Yorke’s well-publicized “other band” — basically formed to tour his solo album — drew attention because it was a supergroup of sorts, with Flea on bass, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on guitar and drummer-about-town Joey Waronker behind the kit. The group did a fine job of rendering the complex structures of The Eraser in a live setting… but a version of one of the most over-covered songs in history? Really? There are some songs where covers can never really do justice to the original, and this is one of ‘em.