Radiohead - OK Computer
Capitol Records Inc.
Alt. Rock
12 songs (53:27)
Release year: 1997
Radiohead, Capitol Records Inc.
Reviewed by Goat
Archive review

Depending on your perspective, Radiohead are one of the best bands of our time, or one of the most overrated. They've been hailed in mainstream circles as The Beatles or Pink Floyd of the 90s, a band that so changed the surrounding musical landscape that people will still be marvelling at their impact in three or four decades' time, and really to appreciate this you have to understand the background to their emergence. The late nineties in Britain were an era of pessimistically hopeful change, the dying days of the Britpop phenomenon coming to a head as the 1997 general election gave the British public what seemed like the last possible chance to unseat a government set in its ways after two decades of Conservative rule. The "New" Labour party, headed by Tony Blair, famously won a landslide result in the end, yet Radiohead's singer Thom Yorke expressed doubt at the time that Blair's "corporate-controlled" party would bring real change, and this despairing attitude was seen by critics of the time to be reflective of public opinion. Yorke has been proven right, of course, and OK Computer has become part of the decade's history, yet it has also been a gamechanger for British popular music, influencing countless terrible copycat bands like Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Keane, even nu-Proggers Muse starting out under its long shadow.

Still, you can't really blame Radiohead for this - their formative sound is interesting and worthy of everyone's time, if not quite up there with The Beatles and Pink Floyd in my view. Disparagers describe them as 'dadrock', being aimed at 40-year-olds suffering a midlife crisis, and whilst I've always seen a fair amount of amusing truth in that, Radiohead have a lot more to offer than superficial cool status for the desperately aging. They're one of the least superficial bands of the mainstream, never quite fitting in with the star wattage of the U2s and R.E.M.s that make up their peers, their lyrical themes of social alienation seeming almost to drive them - without a doubt, they've managed to laden their music with more atmosphere and genuine emotion than U2 ever have, and coming from a U2 fan like myself that's admitting a lot! In general, I tend to flitter in and out of bed with the mainstream, embracing the good and positive when I can find it before having to dodge back to avoid the large quantities of dreadful negative, yet Radiohead have been a constant love affair ever since I, like so many others, heard about this album, brought it and then spent a good few years trying to appreciate it.

Musically, OK Computer is difficult, make no mistake, but it's a good difficult rather than a frustrating one. Even before the songs make sense, you're gripped by the atmosphere, the melancholic loneliness which is expressed so perfectly by Yorke, one of the most underrated vocalists ever in my books for all the praise he receives. He sings high, but never seems to fall into that annoying falsetto which usually manages to put me off the fruitier Power Metal bands, switching between styles and even screaming at certain points, always sounding endearingly vulnerable and fragile, quite in contrast to the music, which I always remember as being near-ambient but which always surprises me with its organic sound and loud drums. It's a complex and heavy album, but you have to listen many times to truly appreciate it, from the hidden synth melodies to the time changes, recognition of which make the listen all the better - think of OK Computer as a living lesson in musical appreciation, if you must.

Yes, give it time, and appreciate it you will. I'm not sure if OK Computer is my favourite Radiohead album, but it's certainly the first one that truly clicked for me. Doing online research for this review, it seems that I'm in a minority in this regard; most people seem to bypass it and then return when other albums have given them an appreciation of the band. Music has never been a casual love for me - very few of my favourite albums that fail to entrance me when I put them on as background music, and OK Computer is no exception. The opening chords of Airbag, sounding somewhere between a guitar and a cello, soon turns to Yorke's vocals amidst an upbeat drum beat and groovy bassline, distant melodies growing more real as the track continues before bowing out in a funky mixture of beats and wails. First single Paranoid Android, at over six minutes long a risky move at the time, is a mini-prog masterpiece, acoustic guitars and Yorke's vocals sliding together like honey and chocolate before the instruments collectively fade into the background, a squealing solo introducing almost a capalla melodies and a sudden jump into hard rockin' riffage takes the track to a close.

Those are just the first two tracks, but if you're anything like me you'll be hooked by then, and moments like the jazzy Subterranean Homesick Alien's mixture of spacey and sparkly electronic piano and wistful vocals longing to be abducted from the planet Earth are just as heartstopping and enjoyable. Successful art-rocking is as much about the art as the rock, and Radiohead balance things perfectly, knowing exactly how to bring their various strengths together to achieve the best and most compelling results. Exit Music (For A Film) lives up to its name, being the closing piece for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, anyone?) and hitting Brian Eno-esque ambience with its voice and guitar-dominated sound, subtle ambience increasing until the drum beat enters. Yorke's vocal abilities are always used to their best by the band, notably on the grumpy Let Down which in any other band's hands would be filler but which Radiohead turn into the sort of anthem that Sigur Rós would later be famous for, albeit not so much life-affirming as complaining.

Although you can pick and choose your favourite songs, OK Computer is undoubtedly best when taken as a whole, as it was intended. Karma Police's weary refrain of 'I've given all I can' sounds great by itself, but so, so much better when compared and contrasted to the tracks before and after, Yorke seemingly duetting with himself with stadium-rock ambitions that are pre-dashed before the song ever hits your ears. Whether it's Fitter Happier's robotic voice or the almost Countryfied rocking of Electioneering, the songs sound better together than apart, and as much as I love the dramatic Climbing Up The Walls and the mock-cheerful non-aggression of No Surprises, they work much better as parts of a greater whole than they do as individual pieces of music. OK Computer is ultimately not an album that rewards casual listening, but it's exactly the repeated, intense listens which you find yourself drawn into that really bring the rewards, and make you appreciate this for the near-masterpiece it is. I'll be listening to this for most of my natural lifespan before I have an opinion on it which is set in stone, but for the moment I can certainly declare it one of my favourite non-metal albums.

Killing Songs :
Airbag, Paranoid Android, Subterranean Homesick Alien, Let Down, Karma Police, Electioneering, Climbing Up The Walls, Lucky
Goat quoted 93 / 100
Other albums by Radiohead that we have reviewed:
Radiohead - The King of Limbs reviewed by Crash and quoted 90 / 100
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