Monday, September 24, 2007

No. 162: OK Computer

Band: Radiohead
Album: OK Computer
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Considered by many to be Radiohead's opus, "OK Computer" was the turning point for the band. Instead of being lumped in with britpoppers Oasis, Blur and Pulp, Radiohead was now being elevated to "voice of a generation" status. Still built around four-piece rock, "OK Computer" ventures into stranger tape effects, more complex song structures and darker lyrics than previous Radiohead record. In short, it's brilliant.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There certainly is an argument to be made that "OK Computer" should come before "The Bends," but they're great for different reasons.
Best song: The fantastic "Karma Police" is a slam on the judgmental and powerful. It features Thom Yorke's best falsetto.
Worst song: "Fitter Happier" isn't a song, per se, but it does have the robot voice. It's awesome,but I can see why people don't like it.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

"OK Computer" is a wonderfully complex album that encapsulated a lot of what those of us coming of age in the mid-late 1990s felt: Isolation, depression and a growing uncertain fear that this is all there is. Technology was bearing down on us, outside pressures in an increasingly distant world and the ways to deal with it are all present themes on "OK Computer." In essence, it's a modern day "Dark Side Of The Moon."

It's kind of funny the classifications that "OK Computer" gets. It's certainly not mainstream rock; There's too much going on for it to be totally mainstream. It doesn't fit into any easy genre descriptions, as it's not punk enough to be punk, not hard enough to be metal, not soft enough to be mom rock. It's certainly got tinges of prog rock in it, but that genre as presently constituted (or, as it was constituted in 1997) consists mostly of Dream Theater, whatever Bundy K. Brown is doing these days and a million King Crimson knockoffs.

It is, a prog-rock record, though, in that it thematically apes "Dark Side." The alcoholism that peppers "Let Down," the quasi-religious "Paranoid Android," the speed-of-life anthem "The Tourist," or the checklist of slogans in "Fitter Happier." Maybe it's the obtuse economic/political commentary (written based partially on Noam Chomksy) of "Electioneering," the fright of mental health institutions of "Climbing Up The Walls" or the scariness of everyday life and conformity of "No Surprises."

(Ironic, considering Jonny Greenwood hates progressive Pink Floyd.)

Like "Dark Side," "OK Computer" takes the pressures of modern life and boils them into song. The isolation felt by listeners is constant and easy to identify with. It's strikingly beautiful in the same way Guernica is; Negativity is scary, but universal.


As's Ryan Schreiber says in his review, "OK Computer" is the first of its type.

OK Computer is the first album to intelligently express vehement hatred toward the corporate world's replacement of human emotion and personality with robotic behavior in their attempt to be "more professional."

In an increasingly distant world, "OK Computer" is an anthematic album. While Radiohead's later work built on this theme, "OK Computer" was the first to scream it from the mountaintops.


Outside of lyrics, the progressive thing remains in some of the music. There are tons of changes and strange sounds used musically. The lead single, "Paranoid Android" builds off a strange time signature, no chorus and a video that is as trippy as videos get. Part of the draw, though, is the post-modernism of the record. Referencing several genres and themes, the band redigests that which we grew up with. The feedback/single note guitar in "Exit Music (For A Film)" rings of "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" while the bells and keyboards of "Let Down" could come out of "The Bends." The band has acknowledged that "Airbag" is a tribute to DJ Shadow. The feedback the ends "Karma Police" is downright Glenn Branca-esque, leading into the old Mac voice software voice going with the themes on the album.


Maybe a testament to an album's greatness is the amount of tribute albums? If that's the case, certainly "OK Computer" is great. In addition to reggae tribute to the band, "OKX" was released this year, as a ten year anniversary situation. (It's available free to stream here.)


One of the better critical reviews of "OK Computer" tries to settle the argument as to whether the album or "The Bends" is a better record.

For all its ambition, OK Computer is not, finally, as impressive as The Bends, which covered much the same sort of emotional knots, but with better tunes. It is easy to be impressed by, but ultimately hard to love, an album that so luxuriates in its despondency.

Robert Christgau doesn't like it, either, but he doesn't like prog rock. He calls "Dark Side Of The Moon" a "snoozefest."


Still, "OK Computer" is genius. My own opinion is that it wasn't even the best record to come out of 1997 (Elliott Smith's "Either/Or," Daft Punk's "Homework," B.I.G.'s "Life After Death" and Mogwai's "Young Team" all vie for that title). Still, "OK Computer" is a fantastic update of "Dark Side Of The Moon." There's nothing wrong with copying the classics.

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