There's no way Pablo Honey or even The Bends could have prepared us for OK Computer. This isn't a new thought, but it is worth mentioning that in just over four years Radiohead graduated from "Creep" to visionary status. It's startling, too, realizing OK Computer was released a decade ago: June 16, 1997 in Europe and July 1, 1997 in the U.S. Very heavy summer listening, no?
To celebrate the anniversary we've asked some of our favorite musicians to participate in a song-by-song OK Computer covers compilation. Indicative of the album's continued importance, each invitee jumped at the chance; the results are personal, intense, tellingly various.
Some folks honored the original "sturdy" design. Others looked to add difference. A couple wanted to flat-out shatter. None sound like Coldplay. Because critics have written more than enough about OK Computer's influence, we also asked each contributor to write a response to their take. But first, more from the critics…
Radiohead has spoken about attempting to overlap DJ Shadow and the Beatles on OK Computer (remember this was pre-Danger Mouse, wasn't meant so literally), but what the quintet created – existential dread, paranoia, and technophobia set to a lush, icy soundscape – has an entirely unique sound and feel, something our generation could grab onto and own. Yorke intones, "ambition makes you look pretty ugly" before one of "Paranoid Android"'s guitar-roar ascensions, but not here, Thom, not here… OK houses a post-everything guitar rock made fleshy and skeletal with spiraling pop arrangements, arty progressions, and complexly ingenious/uncompromising recording techniques. As those of us haunted by its melodies know, OK Computer's often as important for its sound as for what the band wanted to say. In fact, it's safe to say quite a few fans know said melodies more than the words (anyone care to belt out an acapella "Electioneering" or "Climbing the Walls"?) Regarding "The Tourist," Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk comments, "I'm sure the words are amazing and mean something, but … it's always the melody for me first and I find this one just like an attic space full of opium and air-conditioning." (This coming from someone who tours with Colin Meloy…)
While Yorke's shimmering falsetto could likely exhale a shopping list and conjure tears (to be honest we haven't tried this yet), OK Computer's themes are equally ambitious: There's that existential dream world, a need to escape empty feelings, and a wish/dread to find transcendence beyond "a heart that's full up like a landfill, a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won't heal." As Twilight Sad drummer Mark Devine notes, "the fear of modern society evident in every corner of OK Computer." All that said (and placed on infinite repeat), we embrace the irony of releasing OKX as a series of MP3's sent to us by their makers via email and enjoyed by you on a computer. Kissing might still include saliva, but putting together and playing a record no longer requires human contact. In our over-documented, blogged, reality televised, YouTube/MySpace realm – "a town where you can't smell a thing" – OK Computer's sense of vacuum-packed alienation remains presciently relevant. "Yuppies" are busy networking in "Paranoid Android"; now it's everyone (yeah, even you kid). Now more than ever we need to heed "The Tourist"'s request to slow down and look at the scenery (unless, of course, your scenery's an iPhone "touch" screen).
Analysis aside … the record's also just flat-out beautiful. Songs can't always keep you warm, but goddamn if OK Computer doesn't usually do the trick. OKX's contributors know this: My Brightest Diamond "votes Radiohead favorite band of all time"; John Vanderslice votes "Karma Police"'s bridge "the best bridge ever." Or, David Bazan recalls being "instantly moved" by "Let Down"'s "first depressed/hopeful (now classic) guitar line," adding "by the end of the second verse I was choking back tears, undone." And Cold War Kids' Nathan Willett sums it up perfectly: "OK Computer is the single most important album to be released during my youth … it was a rite of passage … I have never had an emotional connection with an album quite like I have with this one." Hopefully some of that (or that or that) magic has made its way onto OKX. Slow down, dig in.
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