Radiohead – OK Computer
Released May 21st, 1997 on Parlophone Records
First of all, I want you to look carefully at that heading section. Both of the sites I’ve used this year to glean “best of” rankings from – the two largest crowdsourced music ranking sites on the internet – rank OK Computer as literally the greatest album ever recorded. That uncomfortable feeling that’s washing over you? That tiny little intense bit of pain that’s set itself up in the centre of your brain, pulsing with madness and threatening to grow into some sort of blood-soaked brain tsunami? That’s fifty-plus years of music critic bullshit melding with Baby Boomer arrogance to tell you that this can’t possibly be the case. In fact, if you slap that ol’ Boomer lens on your face and look outward, such an idea is more laughable than anything else. Surely these people have forgotten about Pink Floyd, that amalgamated Rolling Stone-fueled smug critic machine cries out. Obviously the Beatles are objectively the greatest band ever and every single album they ever released is in fact the greatest piece of music ever recorded, hallelujah and amen, just as our forefathers and their magically mysterious Beatlemania intended. The Stones! Black Sabbath! Led Zeppelin! Any of these bands our parents grew up with and forced into our heads as collectively better than anything that came after, from 1980 onward; this, that shrill voice claims, is real music.
Increasingly, though, that condescending gate that Boomer mythology has put up across the history of modern popular music – the one that plants itself in around 1982-1984 and lets very little in if it came afterward – has been bereft of a keeper. The internet facilitated a lengthy, often nonsensical conversation about popular music, it’s hierarchy, and it’s relative worth across decades. That, in combination with the fact that the glory days of “alternative rock” are now (somehow) twenty years gone has led to a reevaluation of the music of Generation X and the oldest Millenials with regard to the self-interested myth-making of Boomer publications. The same has happened in other art forms. Cinemaphiles convinced that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made probably feel that same maddening itch and pulse in their heads when it turns out that a number of crowdsourced movie rankings place Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind in the #1 slot of the best movies ever made (or, failing that, the second-most popular option, The Shawshank Redemption). Changing demographics and the slow die-off of the Boomer generation has flipped the switch on their supposed stranglehold on real music, whatever that happens to be. People don’t read Rolling Stone and Melody Maker and NME like they used to. The gatekeeping paradigm shifted online around the turn of the century with the rest of print media, and so when it comes to popular music the tastemakers are far more likely to read Pitchfork and The Quietus than they are Rolling Stone.
Generational culture wars aside, though, is OK Computer the “greatest album ever made”? An examination of that has to begin with some definitions and explanations, for the pedantic and the curious. When we talk about “the greatest album ever made” we mean “the greatest popular music record released since 1963, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic and ushered in the modern era of blended pop and art.” While “Greatest Albums Ever” compilations like those found online or in the pages of Rolling Stone feature a few albums made in the 1950s, they’re mainly heavyweight bop albums that are the exception more than the rule. The temporal range of the “Best Ever” lists coincides with the development of the album as an art form. Popular music was, prior to the early 1960s, mainly singles-oriented. We don’t talk about “great Elvis albums” because they were spiritually just compilations of 45s anyway. Singles were important after Beatlemania as well (they still are) but from ’63 onward the album, as a singular piece of art, began to dominate the way people consumed pop music. If this seems Boomer-centric, it is, but it also reflects changes in technology and distribution of physical products that lend themselves well to a Marxist analysis.
In addition to temporal analysis, there is unfortunately a racial filter involved as well. “The Greatest Album” is always something produced in the Global North. The Global South is completely left out of the picture, with the notable exceptions of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley. The music of the West is prioritized; music from eastern or southern Asia is only discussed in Western media when it fits into the pre-approved Western molds. Even within Western popular music there is a stark racial divide. Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Ever extravaganza features precisely one black artist in the top 10, Marvin Gaye. The crowdsourced efforts do even worse: BestEverAlbums features no black artists in their top 10 and neither does RYM. Tellingly, RYM’s chart has the first black artist coming in at #11 (Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue), which seems to say We’ll throw you a bone, but don’t think for one second that you really belong here to black American musicians. This, despite the fact that all of the key pillars of modern pop music draw their inspiration at least in part from three predominately black musical movements: the electric blues (from which rock ‘n’ roll sprang, and from which psychedelia gained it’s heft); Motown (soul, R&B, and later funk and hip hop); and jazz. Further, both RYM and BestEverAlbums prominently feature Led Zeppelin, who made their bones on the wholesale piracy of Willie Dixon’s back catalog. As such, any discussion of “The Greatest Album Ever” is immediately compromised by the inherent generational, cultural, and racial biases that are brought to the discourse. This is without even getting into a post-modern understanding of what the “greatest” album even means – to deconstruct the entire process of what determines greatness and near-greatness in an extremely subjective and emotionally-driven form of expression like music would take a lifetime in itself. To talk about it requires one to assume that there are greater overarching meta-narratives, that music is in fact sacred and driven, and that we can determine rankings of recordings on scales whose criteria make sense if you squint a lot and don’t think too much about it.
So, if we frame the discourse with an admittance that we are talking about a narrow spectrum of available music that carries with it unfortunate biases with regard to race, sex, and culture, is OK Computer the greatest album ever made? It becomes, at this point, a matter of comparison: what did the Boomers uphold as the greatest records, and how does OK Computer compare with them. If we look to the crowd again, there is some definite overlap in the top 10 of both RYM and BestEverAlbums. The Beatles show up, of course, with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon is there, as befitting an album that spent a legendary 420,000,000 weeks on the Billboard charts. The Velvet Underground & Nico is there, for reasons I went over several weeks ago. Led Zeppelin IV is there, because nothing goes better with a bong load than some Stairway, maaaaaaan. These are the usual suspects when Boomers and Boomer aficionados start listing the best albums ever made. The Beatles provide fey psychedelic weirdness backed with impeccable melodies and song structures that experimented but didn’t break the mold entirely. Pink Floyd crafted epic guitar-driven songs that were at once adventures into space and examinations of the dour nature of the English personality. The Velvet Underground made it okay to be messy and to let a lot of your mental anxiety shine through. Led Zeppelin glamoured listeners with the irresistible call of pure volume. Where does Radiohead fit in with this? Pretty much everywhere.
Right from the beginning, the thick, overdriven strings that open “Airbag” promise something different. It’s as though Loveless were reborn, cured of the opiated languor that permeates that album. The guitars take the experimental leads that people like David Gilmour and Robert Fripp imagined and plays with them, smudging and expanding and blurring until the guitar becomes an alien and interesting instrument all over again. Thom Yorke’s voice hangs haunting and sodden with deep existential dread over the viscous liquid that roils beneath it, summing up the horror and paranoia of modern life in the form of a story about the time an airbag saved his life in a car accident in the mid-1980s. And that’s just the first song. “Paranoid Android” ups the ante significantly. Johnny Greenwood’s guitar figure is unsettling – creepy, even – and Yorke’s vocals only amplify that. Written in four parts, much like John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, the song is central to the album’s mixed feelings about human existence and capitalism. Described by Yorke himself as “about the dullest fucking people on Earth”, the song has its roots in the time Yorke found himself in an L.A. bar surrounded by vapid rich assholes high on cocaine and themselves. There’s a sense of disgust with that sort – capitalists, and by extension, capitalism – that runs through much of the album. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” speaks of isolation and the feeling of being alien from one’s own culture; “Let Down” is about the hollowness of corporate-sponsored sentiment and the similarity of pop songs and advertisements. “Electioneering” summons a Chomsky critique of capitalist society, while “Climbing Up The Walls” turns that critique inward, examining the headspace of paranoia and distress. “No Surprises” combines the two, finds the soul-sucking job on par with soul-sucking politics, and whispers about the handshake of carbon monoxide in search of an exit. “Lucky” brings the album back around again, imagining a plane crash to complement the car crash that started the album. “The Tourist” is like a ghost in the wreckage of this suicide and loss of control, imploring the listener to stop rushing through life and take the time to enjoy or at least acknowledge the experiences around them.
Musically, OK Computer is an impressively dense album. The strings that herald the arrival of “Airbag” return in differing forms throughout the album, to greatest effect on “Climbing Up The Walls”. On that track, the theme of internal chaos is mirrored by a backdrop of sixteen violins, each tuned a quarter-note apart from each other and inspired by “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima”; Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements would, in the 21st Century, be one of the band’s most enduring strengths. Filtered and fiddled keyboards play a large role in the album as well, especially on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Let Down”, and the Beatles-referencing “Karma Police”. Greenwood and Ed O’Brien layer guitar in sinuous, overlapping ways, outdoing David Gilmour on the mournful wail of “Lucky” and drowning out Zeppelin on both “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering”. There are even post-modern (for the era) flourishes in the form of drum machine programming, dub approximations, and neo-classical arrangements. Few bands in history have ever been able to blend the sacred and the profane in a way that transcends both; none of them have made it sound as utterly seamless or integral to the human experience as Radiohead on OK Computer.
Part of that transcendence comes from the album’s influences, of which the band has been quite forthcoming. The initial inspiration for the sound of OK Computer came from Mile Davis (as seen above) and his 1970 avant-jazz Bitches Brew. Further inspiration came from Elvis Costello and the Beatles, as well as soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone (he of the indelible popular sound of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and Krautrock band Can, who were known to use the recording studio as an experimental lab. Another part comes from the surroundings it was recorded in. Like many English rock bands before them, Radiohead chose to record in an old English mansion, St. Catherine’s Court. The acoustics of the place can be heard especially well on “Exit Music (For A Film)”, which was recorded in a stairwell, and “Lucky”, which was recorded in a ballroom in the witching hour. Most of the album was recorded live, with the band unwilling to potentially destroy a good thing through retakes and overdubs; Thom Yorke went with a one-take-and-done approach to his vocals, fearing that he would start to doubt everything if he stood around and thought too much about it.
The greatest album ever recorded, though? I think you can make a strong argument for it – as I’ve laid out above. It out-Floyds Floyd. It doesn’t ride the swampy concerns of a minority artist, like Zeppelin. It paints a more accurate picture of 1997 (and beyond) than the Beatles ever did in 1967. It flows and carries on, without ever coagulating or getting bogged down in disappearing into the band’s own head. Thom Yorke, upon being asked about the critical explosion of goodwill that greeted the release of the album, protested that Radiohead didn’t set out to create art, they just wrote pop songs. The counterpoint to this of course is that the best artists never set out to create Art, with the capital intact and all the pompous weight that is loaded into the word present and accounted for. They set out to replicate what they’re seeing, reading, or hearing in their head, and if they’re good enough people will find some reflection of themselves or their lives in it, and embrace it accordingly. In the neo-liberal, corporate-driven, emotionally artificial and distant world of the Washington Consensus, there is a lot of reflection to be found in OK Computer, lyrically, musically, and spiritually. Many talk about tapping into the zeitgeist. OK Computer actually does it.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Released May 8th, 2016 on XL Records
Somewhere, probably in more than a few places, there are people whose sole exposure to Radiohead is “Creep”, the 1992 hit single that kicked off their peculiar career. That song, the millstone of Thom Yorke’s life, is one of the key pillars of alternative rock and the alleged “grunge movement” that captivated everyone at the dawn of the Clinton Era. It’s also quite unlike much of the music that came after, so that proverbial person who’s been living under a rock listening to only Top 40 nostalgia can be forgiven for wondering what the fuck latter day Radiohead has turned out to be. At least The Bends and OK Computer shared a certain basic DNA with that first hit single. Kid A and most of what followed were left-field reinventions, blends of Autechre and like-minded electronic acts with the moodier, more quietly intense parts of OK Computer.
For the most part this path has been a success. Parts of Hail To The Thief dragged a little, and the hype surrounding Kid A is perhaps a bit overblown, sixteen years later. In Rainbows, though, is easily one of the best albums ever made, a gorgeous collection of eerie melodies, lush arpeggios, atmosphere for miles, and some clattering breakbeat moments to get the blood going. King Of Limbs, the followup, was almost the exact opposite, a languid, lazy album that seemed shockingly as though the band was finally running out of gas. For most bands that would be understandable, given that Radiohead had broken into the mainstream just as grunge was cannibalizing Sunset Strip hard rock. Almost all of their contemporaries had run their course and burned out by the time Radiohead made their original left turn, except for artists like Bjork, the Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney, and P.J. Harvey. The gilded run of excellence can’t last forever.
Radiohead is a bit different, though. There are many places where OK Computer is considered to be the best album ever made: better than Sgt Peppers, better than The Beatles, better than Exile On Main Street. People still give Kid A the nod as the best album of the 2000s, as though Funeral and The Moon And Antarctica don’t exist. They aren’t just survivors, they’re legends, the unlikeliest collection of rock ‘n’ roll gods to ever grace the world. When it looks like they’ve stumbled, it shakes more than just a few core fans. So the outcome of all of this legend-building is that there was a lot riding on A Moon Shaped Pool, an album that, following The King Of Limbs, the band expressed doubt about its ever existing. “I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to making regular albums” they said, and thankfully they decided better.
Every Radiohead album is it’s own creature and so from the beginning it can be a bit hard to get a handle on A Moon Shaped Pool. “Burn The Witch” seems like nostalgia for OK Computer, with its butterscotch strings and it’s low-flying panic attacks (and it’s bizarre, unsettling animated video). “Daydreaming” is evidence that Johnny Greenwood’s foray into producing scores and soundtracks for films is paying off in subtle dividends. “Decks Dark” and “Desert Island Disk” both mine grooves until they’re tapped out, reminiscent of the sounds they carved out on Hail To The Thief. “Ful Stop” rides a grinding bass line much like Kid A’s “How To Disappear Completely”. “Glass Eyes”, “Identikit” and “The Numbers” compress the soaring soundscapes of 1997 into a very small area and let Thom Yorke’s eerie voice haunt them. “Identikit” has a coda that sounds as though Greenwood is playing a guitar made of broken glass, and his string arrangements on “The Numbers” are equally thrilling and terrifying. The inclusion of “True Love Waits” – a song that has been batting around the band’s live sets since The Bends – makes for a stellar closing number although in a way I would have preferred seeing “The Daily Mail” committed to disc. Perhaps LP10.
The subtle way the band brings out the elements of each song is both a blessing and a curse. If they had done it in the same sort of room-filling, brash fashion that they’d managed on Kid A, it may have sounded out of place from a band entering into their third decade. At the same time, the quiet creep of the songs doesn’t quite bring out the more hypnotic, exciting moments that made Radiohead the Most Important Band Ever. There’s no “House Of Cards”, no “The National Anthem”, no “Lucky”. Instead, there are songs that are in the same league, but not at the top of that league. Maybe “Burn The Witch”, but the others are stalking through the woods behind your house rather than riding out in front of it, torches in hand, murder intent on their minds. I mean, can you imagine any of these songs soundtracking the intro to Incendies? I can’t. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, but it’s also a step away from what I like to come to Radiohead for. As far as it goes it’s a lesser album than Kid A, Ok Computer, or In Rainbows, but better than Hail To The Thief or King Of Limbs. That puts it on the level of The Bends, I suppose, and that’s better than any band their age really has a right to achieve.
AND THE REST…
04/01/2016 on Ehse Records
The warmth and crunch of Courtney Barnett with the slow-burn torchlight anthem writing of Angel Olson. Recorded in one day, which is impressive in and of itself.
04/01/2016 on Mute Records
An electro-pop collaboration that manages to succeed where so many have failed before. The use of glitched-out trap sounds pushes it over the edge from good to very good.
04/01/2016 on Temporary Residence Records
Mogwai takes a soundtrack and makes it sound like Mogwai. About as tired as it sounds.