It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? This one has been a long time coming but the unfortunate thing about college is that you spend so much time wasting time that when you actually have something you want/need to get done, you can’t get it done because real life gets in the way.
For those of you that don’t already know, I’m no longer studying at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville — I’m now at MTSU. So if I’ve got any readers in the Boro, let me know! I’m missing way too much live music just by virtue of the fact that I hardly know anyone out here and I need someone to go to shows with.
But on to the music, right? That’s what you came here for anyway I’m assuming. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:
Album: OK Computer Artist: Radiohead
OK Computer. One of the greatest albums of the 90s? One of the greatest albums ever? The album that made Radiohead? Some say yes, others no. While Radiohead might be the music gods of the 90s to some, they’re simply an overrated band to others.
Let me explain how I moved from the latter category to the former:
I used to be really into Muse (I swear this is related). In fact, I’m still into Muse (despite how weird they’ve gotten), and my Muse Pandora station has been a favorite for years. I’m pretty sure it’s been a favorite since I was like 11 or 12 (because of course I lied about my age to create a Pandora account). Anyways, on that Muse Pandora station, I heard a lot of Radiohead. Of course, I knew about Radiohead — or at least I knew of them, and I knew that they were hailed as this amazing revolutionary band. In short, I was completely underwhelmed. I thought they were weird, I hit skip, I moved on.
As I got older I came to appreciate the big Radiohead hits out of the 90s: “Creep,” “Karma Police,” “Paranoid Android.” Again, I never really listened and while I thought they were good songs I failed to really see the significance.
THEN I read an article about how Dave Matthews is a huge Radiohead fan. Actually to be honest, it didn’t change my opinion of them, but it maybe it did make me listen closer — so thanks again, Dave Matthews! — because now I finally realize what Radiohead did and why everyone should listen to them.
And so here I am, at age 19, having finally gotten the memo, and hoping to give you some insight. Which is why I chose this album to write about, rather than their debut or their sophomore efforts.
So, for those of you who were like me and wrote Radiohead off the first time, let me introduce you to the band. Radiohead is a five-piece, post-Britpop, experimental rock band out of Abingdon, Oxfordshire. They actually formed in the ‘80s while in school, but they didn’t really make it on the big stage until their first album debuted in the early 90s. Most of you might recognize their hit single “Creep” which was one of the singles off that album.
While I would give both of their first two albums positive reviews, many view OK Computer as Radiohead’s most important album and I think I would be inclined to agree — this is the album that made them artists rather than just another 90s band. The album was released in May of 1997, though it didn’t hit the States until July. Though this was only their third album, the band elected to self produce with the help of Nigel Godrich, who has worked with artists such as U2, Beck, and R.E.M. The album was released by Parlophone Records in the UK and by Capital Records in the United States. Their previous album, The Bends, was super successful in the UK, so OK Computer was met with a lot of anticipation — it debuted at number one in the UK and held that position for a couple weeks.
But now that we have the cold hard facts out of the way, let’s talk about the music. Radiohead’s sophomore effort was sort of the melancholy, personal and emotional material you’d expect from a tortured artist — it was the bands way of coping with the stresses of their newfound fame. But OK Computer was more of a reaction to the material found on The Bends. It would have been really easy for Radiohead to churn out the same material that was found on The Bends — it would have been good, even. But maybe not great.
Instead, the band set out to produce a new album that had different material — so different that the labels were a little nervous with the finished product. Most of the album was recorded in and old mansion known as St. Catherine’s Court; the band didn’t have a deadline for this production so they took advantage and went creative ham on it. Recording in an old mansion allowed the band to use different acoustic styles and I think that OK Computer wouldn’t be the same if it had been created in a studio.
But I think what makes OK Compter so fascinating is the material on the album. The lyrics are highly impersonal but very emotional. Thom Yorke himself described the lyrical content as snapshots of what was going on around him — reactionary almost. Subject matter ranges from highly political statements to aliens to schizophrenic social climbers, while the overall sound is almost celestial in nature. I would say this album is what launched the sort of electronica era, though all the sounds on the album were made with guitars and synthesizers. It’s a montage of layers and layers and layers, played with undeniable skill, that peel back to reveal Yorke’s tortured falsetto. It’s pretty impressive, really, because it sounds like there should be too much going on.
Take for example the lead single from OK Computer, “Paranoid Android.” It’s not your typical single in that it’s six-and-a-half minutes long and involves about three distinct changes, but several people have regarded it as the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of the 90s. While I wouldn’t necessarily go that far (and neither would the band, since it was sort of a gag song), I would say it’s a pretty good sample of what the album has to offer. Lyrically it explores the mind of someone who’s clearly insane: lines like “Please can you stop the noise/I’m trying to get some rest/From all the unborn chicken voices in my head,” start the song off on an interesting foot while layers of both acoustic and electric guitars combine with synthesizers, a voice box, and Yorke’s haunting vocals.
OK Computer takes it’s listeners on a musical ride. Tracks like “Karma Police” and “Climbing Up The Walls” are constantly building tension and others like the hard, political “Electioneering” release it in a way that makes the album flow like one continuous piece of work. All the while, lines like “For a minute there, I lost myself,” found in “Karma Police,” and “Show me the world as I’d love to see it,” found in “Subterranean Homesick Alien” leave the listener empathizing with the singers sense of solitude and loneliness. And to tie it all together, the track “Fitter Happier,” found in the middle of the album gives the listener the sense that the world is fast-forwarding before his or her eyes while the voice of a robot rattles off life advice.
Sure, it’s not a concept album, but OK Computer has a concept. Maybe I wouldn’t describe it as “positive” — though I think that’s the comparative vibe the band might have been going for in relation to The Bends, but in 1997, Radiohead released an album that was way before their time. Hundreds of bands have tried to go for the same thing, but Radiohead pulls off the chaotic layers and sci-fi sound with an artistry that hasn’t been matched in a long time. No wonder critics loved it.
Requests? Leave them here, Facebook, or my Twitter page! I lost my list of suggestions, so seriously throw some out there. Who knows when I’ll write again, but until then, keep listening. And seriously, listen to this album. It’s excellent.
Honorable Song Mentions: Airbag, Subterranean Homesick Alien, Electioneering, Lucky — just listen to the whole thing really. It’s that good.