Autobiographical Order No. 631: Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017

I often find albums like OK Computer intimidating to write about because they present a sort of no-win paradox: There’s so much to be said, and so much you want to say about them, but so much of it has already been said. Four years ago, when the album hit its 20th anniversary, most of the ground left uncovered had already been claimed. In fact, there was something of an oversaturation in anniversary thinkpieces, and I doubt anyone read all of them—you probably didn’t need to. Technology, paranoia, robots, Thom Yorke holding his breath, etc. You get the gist.

I’m not necessarily going to go into the historical precedent of the album or anything like that, because while this is in part an exercise in critical music writing, it’s mostly just my personal thing, and besides, what can I say here that I didn’t already say in my Kid A post?

Perhaps it’s best to start with why this album—a masterpiece of a record—only found its way to my collection by 2017. There are at least three good, solid reasons for that: 1. When I began buying records, I mostly avoided stuff I already had on CD, and since I already had OK Computer on CD, that sorted that; 2. Once I eventually threw that rule out the window (I still have all my CDs but no CD players anymore) I still didn’t put this high on the list, perhaps because I took it for granted and eventually just figured I’d get around to it eventually, like I did with Beatles albums or whatever; and 3. I got distracted with a combination of albums I’d buy that were new releases, albums I bought for DJing, and albums that were just there, right in front of me.

But OK Computer is a massively important album to me, in spite of all this. I’ve stuck with Radiohead for 28 years. I bought Pablo Honey when it came out (on cassette!) based on hearing “Creep” on the radio, and while that album was more good than great (and more “kind of OK, I guess” than good), they pulled me in deeper with The Bends, which is a huge album in terms of their development if not necessarily their impact. So just the mere announcement of OK Computer was enough to have me on board. I bought the CD the day it came out—which I would have done regardless, but I caught the video for “Paranoid Android” on 120 Minutes the weekend before its release, and I knew I was in for something mind-blowing. And I was.

As a teenager, this album turned my perception upside down. I mostly had been listening to loud, grungy stuff up to that point, but this weird, spacious, epic art rock album shows up and everything I thought I understood about music had been challenged. I imagine people who were teenagers when Dark Side of the Moon came out probably said something similar, and the parallels are certainly there. When I was in college, I wrote for my school’s newspaper at the arts desk, and I was in the office when a new applicant was being interviewed and asked about pitches he had. He started off with something about how Tool was the greatest contemporary rock band, and then he mentioned a second idea about an article exploring which band is the new Pink Floyd. My friend, who was doing the interview, said “Oh yeah, I’ve had this conversation with friends of mine. I’m inclined to say Radiohead. Who’s your choice?” Tool. Obviously. They were all about Tool. (I wish this guy well, we all had terrible ideas in college.)

I won’t get into the songs here necessarily because you know them all, but I will say it’s a good idea I held out until the album’s 20th anniversary, because it was reissued as a 3xLP set with all the b-sides and outtakes from that year, and honestly, they’re some of the best b-sides anyone’s ever recorded. Some of them are as good as anything on the album, and I even put together a suggested tracklist order as a whole second album. “Man of War” is the Bond theme they recorded before they did an ACTUAL Bond theme (which was rejected, but still). “Pearly” is the song that proved their louder rock elements could coexist with haunting melody, and “Palo Alto” was pretty much just the huge rock anthem. (Incidentally there was a band called Palo Alto that borrowed a lot of tricks from the band; one or more of the members was also in a band called the Din Pedals that literally used the bridge from “Lucky” on one of their songs.) The showstopper might well be “A Reminder,” though, which despite its mundane title is one of the more emotionally charged songs here, and features some of Thom Yorke’s best vocal performances. It’s gorgeous.

I understand why a band like Radiohead would ultimately choose to leave these songs out of the album, and that they didn’t fit into the album they had written. But it says a lot that the leftovers are better than most bands’ best.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

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