I’m sure for many others out there, Radiohead’s “OK computer” would be the clear cut number one album on their lists for 1997 and in any other year, it would’ve been for me too. And it was super close, my top three albums for 1997 are amongst my favourite ever, the distance separating them is minute. I knew immediately when I started putting together this list (for the rest so far, scroll to the bottom of this post) that these were easily the top three but ordering was not so much as simple. In the end, I went with the amount of time I figured each spent in my CD player over the years and how often each still gets put on my turntable platter these days.
I saw Radiohead live for the first and only time in 1998 for the tour in support of “OK computer” and it also happened to be the first and only time I saw a concert at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. It was my friend Terry that convinced me to go. He was a huge fan of the band. He was convincing in his praises of their live show but there was another reason that helped my decision along that I will get to later on. Anyway, I was very glad that I had procured a ticket for that Easter Sunday because Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, Colin and Jonny Greenwood, and Thom Yorke did indeed put on a magnificent show. Their huge sound filled the famed hockey arena, a worry I had, given that it was likely the largest show I had seen to date. The energy and euphoria carried on afterwards and infused every time I listened to the album thereafter and I remember that night.
For me, “OK computer” is Radiohead at their pinnacle. Many others may argue this point but I feel like the band lost a little something after this album. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted them to go into the studio for the next album and record another one just like this but “Kid A” and the albums that followed took them further and further from the band I loved. I still enjoy them but by comparison, I still get wistful when listening to their newer material.
“OK computer” might have been the band’s reaction to 1995’s “The bends” but it still carried along in a similar vein. It was guitar rock that flirted with experimental sounds to just the right degree and effect. The songs had structure still, though they were loose and sprawling. And despite the band not calling it a concept album, it all feels cohesive, a complete unit, rather than singles to be taken separately. So I’d love to present all twelve songs below for your enjoyment but if I’m to stick to my own rules, I have to limit myself to picking the three below.
“No surprises”: “A heart that’s full up like a landfill. A job that slowly kills you. Bruises that won’t heal. You look so tired, unhappy.” Cheery thoughts, no? It’s funny that when Radiohead set out to record the follow up to “The bends”, they did so with the determination that it would be a more upbeat sounding record than its predecessor. I suppose this mission was accomplished but it did nothing for the bleakness of the lyrical content. “No surprises” is not a prime of example of the upbeat sound, instead it’s slow, plodding, and dreamlike. This sound was created by the band playing the acoustic and chiming electric guitars and glockenspiel at a higher speed and then dubbed at a slower speed with the vocals. I love how it sounds like a lullaby at the beginning and it seems to build as Yorke seems to get more and more menacing.
“Paranoid android”: “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly, kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy.” It was a weird choice for a lead single, another example of a decision that shouldn’t have worked for Radiohead but did. At six and a half minutes, it’s one of the longest, if not the longest, of Radiohead’s studio recordings. It was influenced by The Beatles, The Pixies, and Queen in that it has four distinct movements, a result of it being multiple unfinished song fragments fused together. The band originally saw it as this funny joke, which it why it was named after a character from “Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”, but nobody’s laughing now. This here is the imprint for what the band would become. It’s risky and convoluted but really, quite the masterpiece.
“Karma police”: “Karma police, arrest this man. He talks in maths. He buzzes like a fridge. He’s like a detuned radio.” Here’s another song that started off as an in-joke within the band, constantly ribbing each about calling the “karma police” on each other while on tour. It’s also another song that doesn’t end the way it starts. Halfway through, the pace and energy change completely, from a haunting, threatening dirge to outright rocking mania. For me, this is Radiohead at their best. A band at the crossroads between rock and roll and art house experimentation, taking a step in each direction while walking in place. The effects are beautiful and frightening. It’s a song worth exploring over and over again for hearing something new and at the same time, one that you can shut off your mind to and just close your eyes to everything. Not bad at all for a hit song that received oh so much airplay everywhere.
Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”
You can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.