Full disclosure: This is my favorite album ever (tied with Abbey Road), and I think it’s certainly the best album of the 90s. So I might get a little starry-eyed and long-winded. Honestly, this is the one entry that may not have much pretext for being “important” or “influential”, so I’m really gonna have to stretch to assert why I think it belongs here.
Essentially, OK Computer combined and synthesized a lot of 90s elements into a wondrous product that’s conceptually dense, musically inventive and capable, emotionally affecting, and extremely eclectic. Every melody on the record is strong, while presenting a different mood, style and arrangement than the last. There’s enough variation to never be remotely boring, but nothing is underdeveloped. Each line is either an honest, ingenious declaration, ambiguous emotional exploration, brilliant metaphorical poetry, scornful satirical sloganeering, or deeply ingrained cultural debris. The songs change and move and grow and diminish in countless unique ways, making a perfectly paced experience. Experimentation is used liberally and logically (with grounding in solid songwriting). Repetition and rewriting is never a problem, as the group was at their peak here, and every band member gets to show off their skills while never overshadowing the others.
The thing that makes OKC even more impressive is an oft-overlooked factor. Its sequencing is perfectly balanced and wonderful, making it seem more like a coherent whole whose parts wouldn’t be as effective on their own or out of order. They complement, contrast and evolve. This was a breath of fresh air in an era where CDs were getting longer and more belabored for no good reason, and the medium was being derided in comparison to vinyl. Here, the experimental but essential “Fitter Happier” serves as a buffer connecting the two “sides” of the album, making for an experience that could only work on a CD. Because of these factors, and its focus of melding the digital and analog, it sort of reflects the 90s in general. Like the best art from that decade, it refers back to the ideas of the 60s and 70s with the technology and experience of the 80s in mind.
The way I see it, this record is the golden middle and standardbearer of everything I like about music. Some pop albums have a lot of synths and beats to provide a more social focus; some concentrate on relentless crunch and dynamics to prove they can rock like the old legends; some are wistful, quiet and acoustic to reveal emotional complexity; some funky, trendy and electrified to dodge criticism and pretense; some symphonic, bombastic and gorgeous to reward patient listeners. You can find all that under one roof here. In contrast to numerous other grandiose, 70s-influenced pseudo-prog pretenders, Radiohead know when to show restraint and good taste (which is to say, frequently). Nothing goes to overly literary, classical extremes, and there’s not a whole lot of pompousness, except in one or two acceptable cases of well-used crescendoes.
As far as theme and mood are concerned, OK Computer covers a broad swath of topics relevant to the human condition and never once becomes pretentious. It exists in flux between angst, celebration, irony, bemusement, compassion and detachment. In brisk, emotional and very universal terms, it tackles such themes as neurosis, love, politics, paranoia, class, social interaction, technology and comfort in the modern age. It balances the cultural, political, personal, universal, and ineffable in perfect measure, essentially being everything to everyone depending on the perspective of the listener.
The album art is beyond compare, offering a detached yet illuminating look at modern cultural iconography and detritus. Even the cover itself is almost a blank slate on which to project ideas, feelings and opinions. But it’s not totally bare, and that’s important. There are signifiers and abstract images buried in the artwork, making certain insinuations about culture, politics and social mores in the late twentieth century.
There’s also a purpose to the visual whiteout – the band composed a lot of the art and sounds with dehumanizing technology, and could manipulate things to an uncanny degree, so they agreed to preserve some trace of the human spirit by not deleting any mistakes and simply whiting out any errors. This is the reason for Thom’s typo-ridden lyrics sheet and the plastered-over look of the booklet, which also serves as a potent metaphor.
It’s far from the cryptic, electronically distorted nervous wreck the band would become on the equally important Kid A. Here, everything (bar the avant-garde, aforementioned “Fitter Happier”) is presented with such clarity and unbridled imagination, it’s a wonder people only remember Radiohead for being enigmatic. Sure, it’s still a bit cynical and hurt, but it shines and is really quite beautiful in many ways. The band was still very much tethered to pop music here.
This polished and almost preordained brilliance is even more remarkable when one realizes that OKC was hashed out and haphazardly patched together behind the scenes just like the classics of old. Two songs were supposed to be included on one-off projects, but fit perfectly here. Immensely talented guitarist Jonny Greenwood contributes his sole primary songwriting credit in the band’s catalog, and it’s great. Tunes inspired by a residence as a hospital orderly, an upsetting incident at a bar, a DJ’s live set, and a vision of disinterested tourists become SO much more, taking on a life and meaning of their own. The album begins and ends with the same event, giving it a pseudo-conceptual feel for people who dig that kind of thing. This tech-savvy LP was mostly recorded in a remote old mansion, which lent some songs their echoey, portentous tone. There are a few instances of genuine humor and playfulness (!) which deflate the band’s typical seriousness. I could go on and on. I feel that after absorbing and enjoying the text itself, the subtext of a 90s band working at peak creativity is almost as cool.
This album didn’t necessarily inspire any musical movements, but it certainly captured the zeitgeist for a year or two. And in the confused 90s, that was quite impressive. On some days, it seems to me that every seemingly silly and thorny aesthetic decision Radiohead makes has at least a couple of different purposes, which is why they’re such an amazing group and I usually give them the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway, OK Computer is magnificent. It definitely fascinates and amazes me a great deal. I remember the joy I felt when I was first listening to it. I immediately tapped into what it was trying to do, and I realized I had been waiting my whole life to hear music that articulated such a thing. To me, it’s the best example of what art can accomplish; innovation, message, emotion and style in tandem. I love it a lot, and I don’t really have anything else to say. I just wrote a lot, but OKC speaks for itself.
Key track: “Paranoid Android” (But seriously, you need to hear the whole thing)
See also: The Bends – Radiohead (1995)