Recently, I experienced a revelation that three important albums in my life—Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and U2’s The Joshua Tree—all reached anniversary milestones. The milestones being 10, 20 and 25 years old, respectively.
I turned that revelation into a kind of review story. What I failed to include in the list was another album that turns 15 years old this year and deserved to be on the list. Radiohead’s OK Computer shows a band at its creative heights, striking a chord that resonated with the moment.
It also served as a record that caught me in its spell. I listened to it on heavy rotation through much of 1998, particularly after seeing Radiohead at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C., that summer. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. joined the stage with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke to sing backup on a couple of songs from OK Computer. Mind. Blown.
The album came out in July 1997, around the time the whole Y2K issue came to light but ultimately amounted to nothing. Still, that paranoia about the computers that controlled everything suddenly not being functional brought anxiety.
So, the title OK Computer just seemed too perfect in that regard—not to mention we stood at the start of a millennium and uncertain future. The title invokes the reaction, no, it’s not OK.
The album is layered, futuristic, dark and beautiful, sometimes all at once. It’s like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds recorded as a soundtrack for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” At least that’s how it plays sonically. Throw in Yorke’s twisted barbs of lyrics about the modern world, and the wormholes of the album burrow into deeper ruminations on the modern human condition.
“The emptiest of feelings/Disappointed people, clinging on to bottles/And when it comes it’s so, so, disappointing” he sings on the stellar song “Let Down.” On the disquieting rock-out second track “Paranoid Android,” Yorke sneers the lines: “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking and squealing Gucci little piggy.”
What OK Computer pulls off stunningly as a first-song-to-last-song album is that adherence to being cinematic and story-driven. There’s a sense that each song is like a scene in a movie. And, each song plays off the last or informs it in some way.
The harmonic and ethereal “Let Down” slides into the piano and guitar work of “Karma Police,” one of the most fascinating conceptual songs to come along in years. “Karma” became the most popular song on the album, peaking at 14 on the Billboard modern rock chart. It helped the commercial success of the album.
Musically, the band had evolved miles from its debut album, Pablo Honey, and their 1993 hit “Creep,” still one of their better known songs among non-Radiohead fans. But the second album, The Bends, set up OK Computer much in the way Revolver set up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One album primed the other, readying us for the greatness.
One highly notable feature of OK Computer, for me, is how the last three tracks of the album close it out so beautifully. Sometimes, even the best albums open strong but falter in the final act. “No Surprises,” “Lucky” and “The Tourist” are each evocative and, in their own ways, discomfiting.
If I knew someone who had never heard a Radiohead song and I needed to introduce the band with just one song, it would be “No Surprises.” The music is sonically enriching, the pluck of strings, glockenspiel and tubular bells melodic. And the lyrics are sardonic and uneasy, where Yorke delivers lines such as “I’ll take a quiet life/A handshake of carbon monoxide” with a sweet-tempered lilt.
Granted, the third major studio album from Radiohead does not offer many songs suitable for a wedding day or to celebrate the carefree weeks of summer. Its design is more to echo the discordances of geopolitics, urbanization and—as our population grows—a foreboding sense of disconnection.
After 1997’s OK Computer, Radiohead suddenly found itself thrust into the upper echelon of great rock bands. They followed up with Kid A in 2000, a kind of compendium album to that with 2001’s Amnesiac, 2003’s Hail to the Thief, 2007’s In Rainbows and 2011’s The King of Limbs.
They continued to be daring while creating melodic and atmospheric music that many critics and fans of Radiohead consider a soundtrack of the times. However, nothing put out by the band since that watershed record of the late 1990s has matched it.
In fact, few other albums since its release have caught the spirit of this time just before and after the start of the new millennium. Radiohead dissects the melancholy of contemporary living and turns it into poetry.
Additional photos for this story:
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Photo by Steve Keros