I am going to mount an argument that OK Computer by Radiohead is the best album of the last 20 years. However, I know that success or failure in this arena depends a lot on you, the reader. These are highly polarized times, after all, in which our minds are already made up on a variety of issues, including the legacy of a prog-rock album released in 1997 by a British band named after an obscure song by the Talking Heads.
I’m guessing that most people will judge this story based solely on the headline. A statement like “OK Computer is the best album of the last 20 years” is bound to elicit at least three types of responses:
1) Agreement, because you believe that OK Computer truly is the best album of the last 20 years.
2) Mild disagreement, because you like OK Computer but you think some other album is better. You might even believe that OK Computer isn’t even the best Radiohead album; maybe you like Kid A or In Rainbows more. Or you might stump for The Bends, because you forgot that it came out more than 20 years ago. (You are now suspended from all music conversations for the next month.)
3) Intense disagreement, because you dislike OK Computer, in part, because music critics keep insisting that it’s the best album of the 20 years.
If you belong in category two or three — I get it. I don’t agree with you, but I understand your gag reflex. Earlier this month, there was a round of fresh takes about the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the perennial choice for The Greatest Album Of All Time, in observance of its 50th anniversary. For decades, music fans have been torn over the narrative of Sgt. Pepper — is it a forward-thinking masterwork that revolutionized how pop artists use the studio to create self-conscious works of art, or is it a just-okay second-tier Beatles album about meter maids and circus workers? The answer is “both.” Sgt. Pepper is a watershed in modern pop history, and it’s also kind of overrated as a collection of songs. But Sgt. Pepper ceased being a mere album from pretty much the moment it was released in 1967– it was turned into a myth that people have tried to either build up or deconstruct ever since. Ultimately, the conversation about Sgt. Pepper is less about music than what that mythology signifies — the artistic greatness of the Beatles, the lasting influence of the ’60s, the cultural hegemony of baby boomers, and the aesthetic preferences embedded in rock music. How you stand on those issues likely informs how you feel about Sgt. Pepper.
Here’s what I suspect will happen with Sgt. Pepper in the years ahead — it will matter less and less as a symbol, until it is finally eclipsed as an argument-starter by OK Computer, the Sgt. Pepper of the last two decades. Just as music fans tend to reflexively laud or condemn Sgt. Pepper for reasons only tangentially related to the actual music, there will be loads of baggage affixed to OK Computer that will overwhelm the songs. Liking or disliking OK Computer will be a statement about how you feel about arty, grandiose music made by self-serious musicians with delicate cheekbones. It might also sum up your personal feelings about the ’90s, Gen-Xers, the prevalence of technology in our daily lives, and the use of “Orwellian” as an adjective.
Clearly, this is a heavy record.