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.
If you want to argue that OK Computer is the best album of the 20 years, a good place to start is the critical consensus on this record going back to virtually the end of the ’90s. In 2003, Pitchfork named OK Computer the best album of the ’90s, boldly proclaiming that it represented the end of the album as we know it. (Little did Pitchfork know that predicting the end of the album would become an semi-annual tradition among music critics in the 21st century.) Two years later, Spin declared OK Computer the best album of the last 20 years, dating back to the magazine’s founding in 1985. Spin had actually opted for Nevermind as the best album of the ’90s back at the turn of the century, but in the ensuing five years the magazine shifted to Radiohead’s magnum opus because it seemed more prescient, which is a succinct way of saying that life in 2005 seemed precisely as depressing and oppressively tech-addled as it appears in the futuristic world set forth in OK Computer eight years prior.
Funny enough, OK Computer dropped down Spin‘s anniversary lists in 2010 (when it placed fifth) and 2015 (when it fell to sixth). You might think that a bunch of masterpieces came out in those years to displace Radiohead, but in fact the editors decided that albums that were significantly older than OK Computer — including Nirvana’s Nevermind, U2’s Achtung Baby, Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, and The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead — were suddenly better. In a weird way, that only made OK Computer seem more prescient — as we’ve advanced deeper into the 21st century, we’ve clung harder to reminders of a simpler, non-connected world. Much like Thom Yorke around the time of Pablo Honey, we’d rather ape the melodramatic posturing of Morrissey than embrace the digital chill of modern life.
It’s clear that critics tend to go for a certain kind of album — a so-called Important Album must, for lack of a better phrase, “look the part,” exhibiting the essential qualities of importance. It must feel big (but not bloated), it should be challenging (but not obtuse), and it needs to make a statement (without being pedantic).
Perhaps it’s more accurate to label it self-importance — the idea is that the albums in this weight class typically started out as conscious attempts to make all time classics. As much as artists and bands are pilloried when they shoot their shot and miss — obligatory shout-out to Sam’s Town — there’s an undeniable energy and excitement that derives from a gang of would-be geniuses who throw caution to the wind and reach for immortality. As members of the audience, we yearn for nothing more than to witness greatness, perhaps even more than artists, who are all-too-aware of all the extra-musical factors that go into creating the perception of greatness.
OK Computer is hardly the only album from the last 20 years that fits the Important Album bill — what makes it unique is that it is both grandiose aesthetically and a game-changer historically. Most of the albums that compete with OK Computer for “best album” status are either just grandiose (Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, OutKast’s Stankonia) or just game-changers (Beyonce’s Lemonade, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, The Strokes’ Is This It, Radiohead’s Kid A), but rarely both.
The only other album I can think of that has both qualities is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Is To Pimp A Butterfly better than OK Computer? Let’s revisit this question in another 10 years, so we can see how well all of those spoken-word interludes on Butterfly age. For now, I’m sticking with OK Computer.
On Friday, Radiohead will put out OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2007, which reissues the original album along with B-sides (many of which were released domestically in 1998 as the Grammy-nominated Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP) and three unreleased tracks: “The Promise,” “Man Of War,” and “Lift.” These songs are already well-known among Radiohead obsessives, especially the surprisingly poppy “Lift,” which by itself has inspired a rash of recent thinkpieces.
Like many of the songs that made it on OK Computer, “Lift” was played live at least a few dozen times as Radiohead continued its endless tour in support of The Bends in 1995 and ’96, including a leg where the band supported Alanis Morissette at the peak of her Jagged Little Pill fame. Since few people in Morissette’s audience seemed all that familiar with Radiohead’s catalogue outside of its lone hit single at the time, “Creep,” Radiohead stuck with mostly new songs, including “Let Down,” “Climbing Up the Walls,” “Paranoid Android,” and “No Surprises.”
“We had a song called ‘Lift’ that didn’t make it,” guitarist Ed O’Brien recently told Rolling Stone. “They responded really well to that one night. It had a really killer groove. It kind of got them rocking in the aisles.”
In the realm of Radiohead fan message boards, “Lift” has long represented a road not taken for Radiohead, a seemingly surefire hit single in the mold of Radiohead’s MTV smashes from The Bends that the band perversely (though not unwisely) chose not to develop for OK Computer. But for me, the unreleased songs are fine but hardly spectacular, particularly when measured against the album that Radiohead made without those tracks. The main purpose, in my eyes, of the unreleased tracks on OKNOTOK is to act as a comparison point for OK Computer, with their flaws highlighting the album’s corresponding strengths.
For anyone interested in the mysterious alchemy that makes some great albums seem a little more towering than other great albums, the bonus tracks on OKNOTOK will make OK Computer seem fresh again. All of the new songs have their charms: The arresting, spaghetti western-style march of “I Promise,” the perfectly tortured mope-rock chorus of “Man Of War,” the sweetly inspirational quality of “Lift.” But they don’t have that… thing that the songs on OK Computer have. I liken it to an electrical current, which I can feel running through the songs on OK Computer even after approximately 1,000 listens. And I don’t feel it in the outtakes, as good as they are.
I can’t quite put my finger on what that thing is. Maybe I’m simply projecting something on to the music that’s not there, a byproduct of an overly familiar experience that I’ve repeated ad naseum. But I don’t think so.
When a band makes a monumental record, it’s tempting to buy into the sentimental idea that something almost supernatural was involved. In the case of OK Computer, this is true even for the members of Radiohead. “It was a time of magic,” O’Brien told Rolling Stone. “I really believe the stars were in alignment for us.”
But what I sense on OK Computer isn’t so much magic but the kind of insanely focused artistic vision that comes when a band is fully immersed at all times in the creative process. It can only happen at a certain time in a band’s career — for Radiohead, it occurred right after the band finished one of the most exhausting but rewarding tours of their career, and before they were rich and famous enough to take a break. Making a record as good as OK Computer wasn’t just something to desire, it was necessary for Radiohead’s continued momentum.
OK Computer is the moment when Radiohead’s hunger to be great aligned with experience. And, sure, maybe some magic was involved too: They could play live with minimal overdubs, and still produce a breathtaking cathedral of sound. It wasn’t easy to make this album, but Radiohead would have to work much harder on subsequent albums to hit the benchmarks OK Computer set.
Of course, none of these arguments for the sanctity of OK Computer have anything to do with how this album makes me feel. Thus far, I’ve posed a strictly intellectual argument, which plays directly into the hands of those who dismiss OK Computer as an overthought exercise in pretension.
I’ve never understood this criticism of Radiohead, where people pretend that you have to be really smart or nerdy to like them. I was a 19-year-old guy when I first heard OK Computer, and even I understood it — I bought the album at Circuit City, and immediately understood that it was about a dystopian future in which Circuit City stores did not exist. (Again, prescient.) Since 19-year-old guys are probably the dumbest people on earth, this makes me think that OK Computer ought to be accessible to anyone.
There’s not much to decipher on OK Computer. The closest thing it has to a literal, coherent “message” is “Idiot, slow down.” The rest of the album is pretty straight-forward. “Airbag” is about a car accident. “Karma Police” is a rather simple-minded actualization of the golden rule. “Paranoid Android” is about an android who is paranoid. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. At heart, OK Computer is a bunch of tender songs sung by a man with a high, beautiful voice — for a scathing indictment of the technocracy, OK Computer sure does pull ruthlessly at the heartstrings.
OK Computer for me has always primarily been a viscerally emotional experience. For the first few years, it was often enhanced by drugs. In the summer of ’97, I remember getting high with my friend Marc, playing him “Subterranean Homesick Alien” for the first time, and watching his eyes bug out when Jonny Greenwood’s guitar did a supernova in the chorus. With my friend Joe, we got really drunk one night and debated whether “Electioneering” detracted from the whole of OK Computer or offered the required “rocking” digression. (I argued the latter, and still do, even when I’m sober.)
These days, I’m no longer a lush but I still feel moved whenever I play OK Computer. I still love thinking about it, and arguing about it, but the main reason OK Computer towers over every other album released in the past 20 years for me is that it touches me the deepest. I still get chills during the “rain down” section of “Paranoid Android.” I get weak at the end of “Let Down.” The harmony part on “such a pretty garden” at the the climax of “No Surprises” still wrecks me. (OK Computer is the greatest “song outro” album of all-time.)
The way OK Computer melds blood-splatter guitars and lush acoustics was dazzling then, and it’s still dazzling now. I’m still bowled by how beautiful and immaculate this album is. And, really, this shocks me, given how many times I still play OK Computer. When it comes to this album, I remain an idiot who can’t slow down.
Get OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2007 here.