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Taking stock of 20 years of Radiohead’s Ok Computer

< now for something completely different.

In just over one week, one of my favorite albums of all time will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Radiohead’s masterpiece, OK Computer, was first released to the world on May 21, 1997. The alternative art-rock album quickly received heavy press, high sales and generally positive reception. Many musicians in the then-blooming alternative rock scene took the album’s then-unique dark, dense, brooding sound as an influence, leading to a revitalization of atmospheric rock music in the last years of the nineties.

But all this is prologue. You can read about OK Computer’s influence anywhere. I don’t need to regurgitate twenty years of music journalism to gush about this album. And gush I often do.
Instead, I’d like to address the deeper significance this album has, not to popular music, not to Radiohead’s own later work, but to me personally. You see, it was just about a year and a half ago that I first listened to OK Computer, in my senior year of high school. As a matter of fact, it was my birthday. I had been planning to get the album for a while, as a way of expanding my what were then very limited musical horizons. And so, for my birthday, I picked up a CD of the album (I’ve always had a distaste for streaming) at a local music store that has since closed. Rest in peace, El Camino Rasputin.

I have never had a reaction to music similar to my first experience with OK Computer, before or since. The experience can only be described with loaded, vague words—it was what we in my American Studies class would call sublime. Fearful, awe-inducing, intense, claustrophobic…and yet peaceful and almost beautiful. Or perhaps beyond beautiful.

This is all made possible because OK Computer is not easy listening. It is challenging, layered, angst-ridden, melancholic, and impenetrably dense. It is the kind of record that you do not listen to on a regular basis, but sometimes, when the mood strikes you, you pick it up and give it all your attention. More so than most music it has the power to absorb your entire consciousness. I have spent many hours in rapture from its layers of sound—or walls of sound, as Phil Spector would say.

The many levels of OK Computer, sonic and lyric, add to its depth. I have already mentioned how much goes on musically in the album. It should come as little surprise, then, that Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis was a key influence on the album’s sound. This extreme density—opacity, even—makes OK Computer the sort of work that one can listen to many times and always discover something new in. One reviewer online listened to the song “Paranoid Android,” dozens of times before noticing one single breath Thom Yorke took between lyrics.

Thus OK Computer hides its secrets. I have found I enjoy it more when I accept this mystery. It is easy to get lost in the thick texture of each song and forget about the individual parts. I see nothing wrong with this. Like a band, each sound adds its own part to the songs and creates a much more detailed whole, the discrete parts of which are hardly meaningful.

The sounds of OK Computer have proved prophetic. Even the album’s title evokes the passive ambivalence of the digital age. I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, so perhaps I see these technological undertones in the album more than other people. Yet there is something to the electronic beeps of “Airbag,” the Macintosh robot voice of “Fitter Happier,” the shrieks of “Climbing up the Walls,” that smacks of alienation.

And the lyrics—they all reflect this point too. Once you begin to understand the meaning of Thom Yorke’s soaring wails the album becomes even more haunting. He sings of car accidents, plane crashes, corrupt politicians, alien abductions, bar fights, suicide, insanity, existential dread, and many other horrors of the modern age. I still cannot listen to the album without feeling some depressive kindred spirit in the music.

As a product of the Internet age, a careerist upper middle class background, a technocratic hometown, and capitalist alienation, OK Computer sounds like a hyperbolic soundtrack to my life. I daresay many others would feel the same way. We are all products of the Internet, of technology, of global capitalism itself. OK Computer speaks to all of this.

In the end, it is a nihilistic album, but one made all the more beautiful by that bleakness. Its angst never feels obtrusive, despite its pervasiveness. Instead, by airing the grievances of our modern world through the conventions of popular music, OK Computer takes on a special importance to me. It is post-modern life set to music.

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