Best albums of 1997: #3 Radiohead “OK computer”

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.


Best tunes of 2000: #9 Björk “I’ve seen it all”

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The year 2000 was my last full year living in Toronto before moving to Ottawa the following year. At the end of the summer of 2000, I moved to an apartment in Roncesvalles village and fell in with the neighbourhood. It wasn’t quite as hip and happening as it is now but it had some cool shops and restaurants and also a repertory theatre called The Revue. I spent a lot of time in that theatre, being that it was only a block from my building and admission being only slightly more than renting a DVD. I don’t remember all of the films I watched there but I definitely remember seeing “Dancer in the dark”.

The film is one not easily forgotten. Indeed, it is a real feel bad movie.

Directed by Lars Von Trier, it features Björk as Selma, a nearly blind, factory-working, single mother who escapes her existence to a daydream world of Hollywood musical numbers. I’ve heard (but cannot confirm this) that Von Trier came up with the film’s concept and hand-selected Björk for the starring role after seeing her music video for “Oh so quiet”. She wrote all the music for the film and co-wrote the lyrics with Von Trier and Sjón. Björk then released the songs on a nine-song album called “Selmasongs”. The highlight number in both the film and the soundtrack is the breathtaking “I’ve seen it all”, a song for which she received an Oscar nomination for best original song. This, of course, led to an outstanding performance at the ceremony, where she wore the “swan” dress, which sadly, is more remembered than said performance.

On the version of “I’ve seen it all” on “Selmasongs”, she duets beautifully with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (singing the parts sung by Peter Stormare in the film) over a jarring rhythm line that morphs from the chugging of a train at the intro. Strings abound and you can almost see the technicolor images of Thom Yorke as Jeff, a man in love with Selma, as he tries to convince her to use her life savings to correct her vision. Meanwhile, Selma has long-since decided to selflessly use it to prevent her son from suffering her fate from the same degenerative disease. He pleads with her, listing the things she’s never experienced, “You’ve never been to Niagara Falls?” But Björk is unshaken. “I have seen water, its water, that’s all.”

Heart-breaking, much like her performance in the film.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.


Best tunes of 2000: #12 Radiohead “Optimistic”

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April 12, 1998. A date I will always remember for two reasons. First, it was the first and last time I ever worked on an Easter Sunday and second, it was the first and only time I ever saw Radiohead perform live. I remember it being a very quiet shift at the tool rental store at which I worked at the time, serving only a few customers, receiving more calls from other, busier store locations than actual customers, which all made for a very long wait before the show. It’s funny now remembering how much I was looking forward to it that day, considering the only reason I was going was that I loved the opening act and my friend Terry had an extra ticket. Björk was originally supposed to co-headline the show with Radiohead at the stop at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto but she had to cancel just prior to tickets going on sale and the vacant opening slot was filled by Spiritualized, who already had this job for the other stops along the tour.

It’s a point of fact that I had already seen Spiritualized at a small club called Guvernment the previous fall on their own headline tour in support of “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”, a show that I loved and will always remember for many reasons (but that’s a story for another time). And so, I jumped at the chance at seeing them again; Radiohead, for me, was just a bonus. As it would turn out, Spiritualized were phenomenal, doing an admirable job of filling a half-empty arena with their space rock noise, but Radiohead was the revelation. I don’t know what their live show is like these days but in 1998, it was electric and made me an even bigger fan of their music than I already was.

I mention this concert in connection to “Optimistic”, a track that appears on “Kid A”, an album that would come out two years later, because of a (likely unfounded) theory I later developed that it was this tour with Spiritualized that changed everything for Radiohead. When “Kid A” came out, I think a lot of people didn’t know what to think of it. Prior to this album, Radiohead was an excellent guitar rock band and though “OK computer” really pushed the proverbial envelope, it could be considered almost pedestrian when set beside “Kid A”. To me, it sounded like Thom Yorke had spent a load of time with Spiritualized’s evil genius, Jason Pierce, adopted his love of droning rock, free jazz, and experimental noise and leapt off the high diving board without a life jacket. The funny thing is that though I love Spiritualized and everything they produce, “Kid A” and pretty much every Radiohead album that came afterward have never really done anything for me.

Until recently, that is.

(And before I go further, I just want to say that I am not one of those people that slammed “Kid A”, only to much later proclaim it the album of the year. I’ve never hated Radiohead’s later works. I’ve just always preferred albums two and three.)

This week, while listening to “Kid A” in preparation for writing this post, I feel like I heard something there that I hadn’t heard before. “Optimistic”, in particular, got me going with its thrumming and aggressive guitars and pounding drums. These two forces create a palpable tension while Thom Yorke pleads and wrangles with his listeners come along with him for the ride. I listened to it over and over again, each time turning it up louder, the increasing volume making things even more clear. And while I’m not sure I’m sure I’m quite ready to retroactively crown “Kid A” album of the decade or move “Optimistic” further up this list, I think I might be ready to give post-“OK computer” Radiohead another chance.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.