This is one of the greatest works of music ever made. OK Computer is beautiful, bleak, spiteful, expansive, soothing, overwhelming—a cry of panic and despair and anxiety in the face of burgeoning modernity. And now, nearly 25 years after its release, this confounding monolith continues to boggle minds across the planet. However, you can’t expect instant gratification. You can’t expect bangers to play at parties. You can’t even expect radio hits. Why? Radiohead never made music to satisfy audiences. I like to think of these guys as the Picassos of music, with art that is as ugly as it is pretty and as rugged as it is seamless. They don’t want you to listen and think “Wow, this is lovely.” They want to challenge you. They want to take your mind to another place, somewhere you’ve never been. OK Computer is a bold experiment that blends art rock and indie and alternative and electronica and ambient and other genre-specific sonic elements, coupled with a kaleidoscope of themes about society’s rapid acceleration of globalism, urbanism, technological growth, and increasing self-awareness going into the 21st century. Plus it isn’t just an album that directly inspired millions of artists; it is the one that inspired the bands and artists who inspired today’s bands and artists. Indeed, Radiohead is perhaps the grandfather of all modern indie, alternative, ambient, & arguably even electronic music—and this album is the grandest of the band’s many masterpieces.
We begin with the opening track, “Airbag.” Underpinned by a beat built from a recording of Philip Selway’s drums, the drum track is mixed with a sampler and edited by a computer—drawing inspiration from DJ Shadow. The bassline stops and starts unexpectedly while Jonny Greenwood rocks the electric guitar. A fun, rock-heavy track, “Airbag” is about the illusion of safety given by an airbag in a car (when in reality, cars are incredibly dangerous). After that comes “Paranoid Android.” An aggressive megahit, “Paranoid Android” is a brilliant musical rollercoaster with four unique sections, each blended together by Thom Yorke’s falsetto and serious guitar shredding (including multiple guitar solos) from Jonny Greenwood. Whether it is one of your favorites or not, this is the quintessential Radiohead song: a calculated, ever-changing explosion of ideas and sounds and idiosyncrasies. The chaotic energy of “Paranoid Android” and the sonically ambitious song after it, “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” then cools down in the fourth track: “Exit Music (For A Film).” One of the most mesmerizing songs I’ve ever heard, “Exit Music (For A Film)” is a tour de force of musical restraint. [Fun fact: It was written to be played in the end credits of Bazz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo & Juliet.] The first two and a half minutes of the song are very minimalistic—with Yorke’s vocals about what transpires in the play playing over the sound of an acoustic guitar, a haunting Mellotron choir, & other voices—but then the song explodes into a beautiful, violent crescendo in the last two minutes, coupling those sounds with the introduction of drums and bass, as well as Thom Yorke belting lines that conclude with “We hope that your rules and wisdom choke you… we hope that you choke” (in reference to the Shakespearean couple committing suicide as their families would never let them be together). It is eerie. It is powerful. Still, you must be patient.
The next song “Let Down” is a chill, somber one with multilayered arpeggiated guitars (a motif that lead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood uses throughout the band’s discography) and work from Greenwood on the electric piano and other digitized sound effects. Once “Let Down” cools things off, we then meet “Karma Police.” Quickly becoming one of the album’s alt hits, “Karma Police” is one of the tracklist’s milder tracks. It has two main verses that alternate with a subdued break, followed by a different orchestrated ending section. The verses center around the acoustic guitar and piano, with lyrics that are relatively self-explanatory in terms of the song being named “Karma Police.” After the next track “Fitter Happier”—a “musique concrète” interlude track with a devastating critique of modern society—comes “Electioneering,” the album’s de facto jam session. Here every member of the band cranks up the volume, with potent drums from Philip Selway and more memorable guitar from Greenwood. The song draws inspiration from the legendary Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent and serves as one of Radiohead’s most political songs. The following track is “Climbing Up the Walls,” a song about a mental breakdown whose sound unfolds accordingly. Once described as “monumental chaos,” the song is layered with a string section, ambient noise, and metallic percussion. Greenwood—one of the true geniuses in the history of music and a multi-instrumentalist who can play nearly 100 instruments—wrote the string section based on a classical piece. And yet, this track is not a pretty composition. It is another violent one that explodes into a monumental crescendo, with loud drums and Thom Yorke’s voice dissolving into screams while Greenwood utilizes “the sound of a million dying elephant voices.” The screaming is used to make us feel like we are the ones experiencing the mental breakdown.
The final three tracks represent a more subdued stretch that simmers down the heat of the previous stretches. “No Surprises,” which was allegedly recorded in one take, is arranged with electric guitar, acoustic guitar, the glockenspiel, and vocal harmonies—while the lyrics portray either a suicide or merely an unfulfilling life. Many critics elaborated on the latter by noting the apparent dissatisfaction with contemporary social and political order, which some described as “suburban imagery.” Though this track is a more relaxing, cathartic hit that has found immense fame, it is not one of my personal favorites. “Lucky,” the album’s penultimate track, was inspired by the Bosnian War, with a sound that attempts to capture the painful terror of the conflict. Centered around a three-piece guitar arrangement, “Lucky” assumes the theme of hopelessness that is often found in war and extends it to a metaphor about love, a concept that is subtly explored throughout the work (due particularly to Thom Yorke’s relationship struggles). Greenwood’s lead guitar work evokes the type of sound employed by guitarist David Gilmour from Pink Floyd. Finally, we then meet the final track: “The Tourist.” Whereas “Paranoid Android” is about a group that Yorke overheard at a bar and found annoying, “The Tourist” was inspired by a visit to Paris where Yorke observed tourists frantically trying to visit as many attractions as possible. In tune with its theme, “The Tourist” implores listeners to slow down and just take in the immense beauty of the world around us.
Needless to say, all 12 songs on OK Computer are worthy parts of this timeless magnum opus. You can analyze them in a trillion different ways. You can have completely different experiences with certain songs (or even the whole album) than mine; each individualized experience is valid. You might not even like OK Computer—but, at the least, you’ll respect it. You’ll respect its place in the history of music and how groundbreaking it was for so many different avenues of music that would later develop. Ultimately, Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows—one of my top three favorite albums ever—would prove to be a more commercially appealing and sonically delicious piece, but In Rainbows wouldn’t exist without OK Computer. Moreover, even after all of these years, the album’s influence continues to increase. I am curious to hear see what you readers think. I certainly don’t expect a conclusive reception; Radiohead has always been a divisive force, one that millions worship while others are apathetic. So I welcome any dissent if you feel inclined. This monolith warrants the chatter, regardless of the tone in which it materializes.