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I thought I'd follow in the footsteps of some previously successful threads where posters admit that they aren't as knowledgeable or as appreciative of wildly acclaimed albums as they'd like to be. So, here is my entry in that series!
A friend from RateYourMusic sent me a copy of OK Computer, telling me that I simply had to have it. I've popped it in and listened to it maybe 4 times over the past few days. I've read up a bit about it, understanding that it stood in stark contrast to Britpop and "dadrock" (what a great term!) that was prevalent at the time, and that the band really aimed for the stratosphere with the album, inspired by dozens of disparate influences and given relatively free reign to create the music at their own pace. My knowledge of the album is pretty much limited to that and hearing the record. I'm not hip to the lyrics quite yet (I find Thom Yorke somewhat difficult to understand at times), but I'm becoming familiar with the sound of the album.
Upon hearing it, I would say that to me, it's a solid, but not yet great album. It seems I'm definitely missing something, in that case. There are definitely moments that have swept me up, such as the dazzlingly stark and visceral "Exit Music (for a Film)" which reminds me a bit of Ziggy Stardust's more poignant moments, the beautiful change in "Karma Police", the downright sinister "Climbing Up the Walls" and the elegant stardust of "No Surprises", which seems to owe a nod or two to "Sunday Morning" by the Velvets. The other songs are nice enough, but don't grab me as the ones listed have.
I do like the atmosphere that the album creates, and I like how unified it all sounds. It's definitely the kind of album that I feel that I can appreciate, but I'm not quite privy to the brilliance that garners this album mention after mention among the greatest albums ever made, if not the greatest. As 1997 albums go, I think that Björk's Homogenic does everything for electronic music (or screw it, music in general) that OK Computer is said to do, but it gets nowhere near the acclaim. While that could be attributed to a critical bias toward rock music and music sung by males, it doesn't deter from the fact that OK Computer is clearly a pretty special album. So, fellow AM posters, help me out! What should I know in order to appreciate this album better?
Thanks for making this topic Moonbeam. We sure do love our OK Computer, and I'm pretty sure lots of people will make provide detailed analysis of why it's brilliant. I'll do my best.
First off, the album is rather ambitious. There are a lot of intricate sounds, and the album is best listened to with good speakers. The guitar parts are very crisp and clean, and the accompanying strings are innovative, as in, not exactly like Eleanor Rigby. The rhythem section of Greenwood/Selway is spacier than most, but none the less keeps one grounded amidst the guitar and Yorke's feathery vocals. The band is in excellent form all throughout the album.
Though Yorke's lyrics are at times difficult to understand, they're rather well written. My personal favorite lines come from Subterranean Homesick Alien:
Up above aliens hover making home movies for their folks back home
Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits
Drill holes in themselves and live for their spirits
Many of Yorke's lyrics speak to fundamental truths of the human condition, even if they're rather grim. Let Down, No Surprises, and Lucky also have particularly good lyrics imo. Of course, part of what makes the writing so great is Yorke's singing. Some people cant stand it (Christgau for example) but I think in general it grows on you, or at least it has on me. That man has an exceptional set of vocal chords; he sings in a falsetto that is unimitatable.
The tracks are all very strong. There may be 3-4 tracks that are in general stronger than others, but the rest of the tracks are all very good. The word "filler" doesn't belong anywhere near a 10 mile radius of OK Computer. Even Fitter Happier, though I admit I often skip over it, is essential to the maintaining of a conceptual unity. Haven't we all at one time or another been overwhelmed by technology, and maybe sometimes we're afraid that science has gone too far. It's something easy to relate too, which is why it carries such big appeal.
Many great albums of the era suffer from at least one failing. Loveless is overwhelming. The second half of Nevermind lacks depth. Odelay is sometimes silly for the sake of ridiculousness. But OK Computer has no obvious flaws. From Airbag to The Tourist, the band's vision is perfectly realized.
Though I don't think it's the greatest album of all time, this board certainly does, and it's current fighting over 3rd or 4th with a few other albums on my personal list. I've derived a lot of joy from the album, and I hope you can too!
SR makes a great point when he notes that one key to OKC’s acclaim is its ambition. I doubt rock critics like anything as much as lofty ambition fulfilled.
I don’t have a whole lot to add, but as somebody who recently “got” the album, I thought I should testify (or something). If you’re already at least enjoying it, Moonbeam, you’re probably halfway there…as someone (I forget who) mentioned recently on the forum, it takes most people several listens before Radiohead really clicks for them. Took me about 11 years.
You’ve already mentioned many of my favorite bits from the album; I’d add the innovative (for rock, anyway) use of drum loops on “Airbag” and pretty much all of “Lucky,” which is absolutely gorgeous.
To appreciate OKC’s achievement, I recommend checking out the Radiohead albums that came before and after.
The Bends (’95) is a relatively straightforward, but brilliant, rock album—the last such album they made; I didn’t fully appreciate the leap forward which OKC made until I’d gone back and listened to The Bends. Kid A (’00) is as radical a departure from OKC as that album was from The Bends, and, knowing your tastes, ‘beam, I recommend it without hesitation. It’s something like Björk Meets Can at Oxford (he said, pandering shamelessly).
You might also check out Richard Footman’s book (if you can forgive the unwieldy title), Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album. Footman, btw, disagrees with SR, and me, on the “no filler” thing (he doesn’t care for “Electioneering,” partly because it’s the most straightforward rock track on the album).
My feeling is that the best albums take several spins to reveal their treasures. I remember listening to OK Computer, probably around 2002, for the first time. This, of course, was after its acclaim was well established. I was already familiar with and loved "The Bends." As I listened, I remember thinking something to the effect of "This isn't bad, but it just doesn't touch me the way "The Bends" does." "The hooks just aren't as strong." But, I left it in my tape player (I had burned it from CD to tape because my car didn't have a CD player) because each time I listened to it, it became a little more interesting.
I decided to rank it number 2 on my all time list(behind Doolittle) because after more than a dozen listens, it was still revealing things to me. And today, I don't think there's a single filler song on the album. The way I see it, if an album can take that long to reveal its worth (and it actually had worth) there must be something special about it. Plus, of course, there is the endless variety of sounds, the wonderful lyrics "When I am King you will be first against the wall," and the incredible hooks. So I'm with Schleuse, Moonbeam; I think your appreciation for it will grow with the passing days and weeks.
I can't really add to what others have said, although I was the exception in that I immediately loved OK Computer after the first spin. But yeah, I found more and more intricacies afterwards, of which there are a lot.
I agree with Moonbeam, however, that Homogenic is better.
This might not be helpful, as I rarely analyse music, to enjoy it, and all the musical brilliance of it has been dissected pretty much fully by the earlier posts - i'd describe myself as a listener, which is why I don't 'get' certain acclaimed albums...
But when I first started listening to music (which was when I discovered my library had CDs you could take out for free), there were only a few bands I knew, which I heard were 'good'(I didn't have the internet, and had no idea what music was considered excellent). So at the time, I generally picked albums completely based on their album art. I'd heard (must have been from TV - probably top of the pops!), that radiohead were good, and I found OK Computer (which I think I knew was their most acclaimed record) in my library, and listened to it, and wasn't sure exactly what was so good about it. (This was when I had no knowledge about music at all, and didn't really listen to much either). I gave it a few sporadic listens, and did sort of give up. But one day, I was on the bus on the (long) way home, and decided to listen to it (on my phone), and I think it was the first time I heard the album end to end, and something just struck me. I was completely captivated...not sure how i'd describe it, but it just felt like such a haunting, cohesive, ambitious but suddenly accessible piece of work and his voice was brilliant. That kind of experience has only happened with a few other albums (one i can think of is meadowlands), and that's the main reason why i love it so.
Oh no, Sean Pak, I loved OKC after my first listen. I was left in awe, but that's all there was. Successive listens revealed to me just exactly why I was awestruck after my initial listen.
Also scheluse, Lucky is my favorite track as well. The menace in Thom's voice when he sings "I feel my luck could change" is incredible, and Greenwood's guitar is otherworldly.
First off just let me say that to me, OK Computer is one of my all time favorite albums. I like this thing more than Pet Sounds times Revolver plus London Calling. And if you know me, that mean a hell of a lot.
Let me explain why I love this album so much.
1. OK Computer is IMO the most cohesive album on the planet. Every song feels like it belongs next to the other song, no song feels out of place. I wouldn't even think about changing the track listing, moving songs around, or dropping or adding any song to it. Even Fitter Happier is a great breather, and a great transition, that somehow seems completely natural. From the opening guitars on "Airbag" to the microwave timer at the end of "The Tourist" every sound feels like it belongs.
2. The lyrics are simply mindblowing. I think I cried the first time I heard Fitter Happier, simply due to the lyrics. Thom Yorke tells it like it is. You've got to admire the albums blatant attack on consumerism, big business, government, and admire his descriptions of alienation, paranoia, revenge, and human contact, whether fake or not. Can you say "most existential album ever"? because I sure as hell can.
3. The songs just rule. Plain and simple. Every member is unbelievably talented at their respective instruments, and Thom Yorke is one of my all time favorite singers and songwriters. Not to mention that this album is one of the most influential albums over the last 20 years. And that Radiohead flawlessly draw from tons of styles to blend them together into one.
Thanks for the input, guys! I knew I could count on you. I definitely can hear what you describe, and I know that I should delve into the lyrics as well. The more I read, the more comparisons to Björk pop up. No wonder the two are often linked! I think one fundamental difference is that Björk's music still comes across as hopeful, while OK Computer transmits a more troubled, hazy tone. Nevertheless, based on what I'm reading from your messages, OK Computer and Björk (particularly Homogenic and especially Vespertine) seem to share ambition, nuance, unity, alienation, universal concepts, and atmosphere. While Radiohead employ guitars to narrate their message, Björk paints her stories largely with synthesizers, strings, and programmed beats. As an eternal optimist, I think I'll always gravitate toward Björk, but I can definitely appreciate the sentiments that you all describe and in a strange way, it's comforting to know that there are others out there who extract such emotion out of music as well. Perhaps I'm sounding a bit creepy now, but hell, this place is a community.
Schleuse, you recommended Kid A to me, which is funny. I know practically nothing about Radiohead, but Kid A always seemed to be the album that would interest me the most, based on what I had read and heard. I'll have to check it out.
There are quite a few other albums that I feel share a similar vision and scope as OK Computer in different genres. Such libraries of the emotional makeup of mankind are indeed special.
Kid A is my personal favorite Radiohead album, but it's also more love-it-or-hate-it. If you don't quite love OKC, not sure how much you'd enjoy Kid A. But then, maybe you'd like it more.
Yes, yes, I know what everyone is waiting for. Another fabulous Top Ten of “goose-bump” moments from Honorio!!
(so sorry Moeboid for not doing it with “Low”, sooner or later I’ll try to do it; however don't expect any Top Ten about "Psychocandy", the album is so monochord and monotonous that any given moment is endlessly repeated: hey! listen to that noise burst at 2'21"! why? is it not identical to the noise at 1'39"?).
But let's go with “OK Computer”. Only ten moments? Quite a difficult task…
10. “Airbag”: let's begin with the beginning. “OK Computer“ is somehow about humans against machines, organic against electronic, with a neat winner (the title of the album says it clear). The electronic textures permeate the sounds of what previously was a (quite typical) indie-rock band. The effects applied to the drum intro (0'15") gives the impression that your speaker is fucked up. But it's only the beginning, as the song progresses the noises invade more and more the scenario. By the way, Phil Selway is a great drummer, and there's something that usually nobody says.
9. “Subterranean Homesick Alien”: the sound of the guitars is an outstanding feature on the album, the work with effects and textures expanded the language of guitar-based rock. As a brilliant example I can point to the effect on the guitar playing triplets from 0'10" (it sounds so "alien" that I'm not sure if it's really a guitar), combining/collapsing so well with the warmer Fender Rhodes. And what about the spacy sound of the guitar at 2'36"?
8. “Exit Music (for a Film)”: and, ending with the technical department, I can't think of a better equalization of a lead vocal that the one in this song. Listen at 0'24" the haunting reverb, the deepness, the proximity. Many parts of the album were recorded with their mobile equipment in a Victorian mansion formerly property of actress Jane Seymour, using the natural reverb of different rooms, halls and corridors.
7. “Lucky”: Thom Yorke is the quintessential ever tortured artist, when he sings “I feel my luck could change” over a sound like crickets at 0’34” you can feel, even touch, his anguish. We can’t blame him for the legions of bland singers that came after him, with Chris Martin at the front. He was genuine.
6. “No Surprises”: that glockenspiel at 0’13”. This is how heaven sounds.
5. “Paranoid Android”: the awesome chord sequence that begins at 3’34” (Cm G/B Bb A Dm Dm/C Bb Am Gm F E A) creates an eerie and dramatic atmosphere, along with the choir-sounding synth and the two intertwined melodies (the “that’s it sir you’re leaving” part is directly sublime).
4. “Paranoid Android” again: Johnny Greenwood as the ultimate indie guitar hero. His guitar solo beginning at 3’03” is simply fabulous, without unnecessary virtuosism but with epic intensity, beginning with a high note repeated fast and ending with a bizarre but fitting guitar plucking. And he strikes back at the end of the song!!
3. “Karma Police/Fitter Happier”: someone said it previously, the sequence of the album is perfect. I like particularly the connection between these two songs, a strange high-pitched sound coming from nowhere at 3’43” that slowly comes to the front hiding the music, going lower and lower till it mimics a power break down immediately followed by the neutral voice of the computer: “Fitter / Happier / More productive / Comfortable / Not drinking to much”. OK, OK, computer.
2. “No Surprises”: the message. 2'55": "Such a pretty house / Such a pretty garden / No alarms and no surprises, please". The renunciation that comes with middle age, the midlife crisis at 30. I was 33 years-old when "OK Computer" came out. And this song kicked me strongly. I’ll copy my comments for the 2007 songs poll: ”Morrissey said in his song “Panic” that we should hang the DJ “because the music that he constantly plays it says nothing to me about my life”. Songs are pieces of other people lives that only gets its true sense when are integrated in yours. That’s why I’ve decided that “No Surprises” talks about my life. About my job that slowly kills me. About my pretty house and my pretty garden. About my life with no alarms and no surprises”.
1. “Let Down”: if the last minute of “God Only Knows” is my favourite minute of music ever, the half minute from 3’55” to 4’25” is my favourite half minute of music ever, at the risk of sounding really freaky. If there is a “goose-bump” moment in music is this one. Thom Yorke is singing the second melody of the song and at that moment he raises his voice while a second Yorke voice takes up again the same melody. Then the first voice cracks in a falsetto that doesn’t stop until the chorus comes back in an exultant manner that vividly contrasts with the lyrics: “Let down and hanging around / Crushed like a bug in the ground”.
Now I only need to find my favourite second of music ever!
I might have to vote for Lucky 2:20 to 3:20 as the best minute of music. It's otherworldy. First you the darkness in Yorke's voice beats you deep into the ground, then you're lifted to the stratosphere by the guitar hook.
That's an awesome list, Honorio! Thank you so, so much for posting it. I'll listen to the album again with what you've pointed out in mind. Brilliant!
It's funny that you mention your favorite "half-minute" of music ever. It's not creepy at all- well not to me at least, as I did the same thing (only upgrading it to 40 seconds) on my Prince vault thread.
Many many thanks, Moonbeam. And, yes, Chris F, I agree: “there are just so many of those moments on this album”