Few rock singers of the alternative era were as original or as instantly unforgettable as Thom Yorke, and his band, Radiohead, became one of the biggest acts of the 1990s and 2000s for their challenging and unpredictable music. Early on, Yorke rarely worked outside the band, but he steadily collaborated with a variety of artists, released a pair of low-key solo albums, and briefly led another band, the Afrobeat-inspired Atoms for Peace. Throughout, he worked closely with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich.
Yorke was born on October 7, 1968, in Wellingborough, England. His left eye was paralyzed from birth and remained shut until the age of six. He underwent a total of five operations; the last operation was botched and he almost lost all sight out of that eye. Only after wearing an eye patch for a year was he able to see, albeit slightly. His family moved often, since his father worked as a chemical-engineering instruments salesman, and by his teens, he had turned to music as an inspiration, namely Elvis Costello, Queen, and the Beatles. After his family finally settled down in Oxford, Yorke was sent to an all-boys school, where he met future Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien and bassist Colin Greenwood, soon after discovering such '80s alternative bands as the Smiths, R.E.M., and the Cure. The seeds of what became Radiohead were planted at this point, as the trio jammed with a drum machine before replacing it with another friend, drummer Phil Selway, and inviting Greenwood's younger multi-instrument playing brother Jonny to join up, too.
The group's original name was On a Friday, before being changed to Radiohead, which they'd swiped from the title of a song on Talking Heads' True Stories. By late 1991, the band was signed to Parlophone in the U.K. and Capitol in the U.S., as an EP, Drill, came and went without much fanfare. Released in 1993, the band's full-length debut, Pablo Honey, appeared to be suffering the same fate, until American radio/MTV made a surprise hit out of the Nirvana-esque alternative anthem "Creep." Radiohead's fan base grew considerably over the course of their next two releases, 1995's The Bends and 1997's OK Computer, the latter being voted Greatest Album of All Time in the British magazine Q shortly after its release. One of the world's top rock bands by this time, Radiohead attempted to alienate their newly found Top 40 audience with their next release, 2000's abstract Kid A, but instead found it debuting at the top of the U.S. charts (despite the absence of a video or single being released from the album).
While Radiohead remained his top priority during the '90s, Yorke also found the time to guest on other bands' recordings as well. Some of these cameo appearances included the songs "El President" by Drugstore (off the album White Magic for Lovers), a cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" with Sparklehorse, "Rabbit in Your Headlights" by UNKLE (Psyence Fiction), Björk's "I've Seen It All" (Selmasongs), and PJ Harvey's "This Mess We're In" (Stories from the Cities). Yorke also appeared as part of the ad hoc alternative supergroup Venus in Furs for the soundtrack to the 1998 glam rock film Velvet Goldmine, lending his vocals to the tracks "2HB," "Ladytron," and "Bitter-Sweet."
In May 2006, Yorke announced an imminent solo album on Radiohead's weblog. The Eraser, made with extensive assistance from Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, was released on XL in July. It debuted inside the Top Ten in the U.K. and U.S., and was also nominated for Britain's Mercury Prize and a Grammy Award in the category of Best Alternative Music Album. Radiohead also surprised fans with a new album when they announced the making of In Rainbows roughly a week before it was released in 2007.
A few years later, Yorke formed the band Atoms for Peace, recruiting Godrich for keyboards and production, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers for bass, Joey Waronker for drums, and Mauro Refosco for percussion. The band played several live dates around the U.S. during 2009 and 2010, and began recording for an album, Amok, that eventually appeared in 2013 (but not before another surprise Radiohead album, 2011's King of Limbs). Upon release, Amok performed well on the charts across the world, although the members' more pressing commitments meant that a successor was not immediately forthcoming. Yorke also provided vocals for tracks by Flying Lotus and Modeselektor, and collaborated on recordings with Burial, Four Tet, and SBTRKT.
Yorke's second solo album arrived as a surprise, much like the first. Following a series of cryptic clues dispersed through social media, Yorke released Tomorrow's Modern Boxes in September 2014. Initially, it was distributed through the torrent service BitTorrent, and then it was made available on vinyl. The eight-song set was another concise, subdued, yet tense set from the Radiohead frontman. ~ Greg Prato