Friday, June 5, 2009

June 5: Radiohead, "OK Computer"

Artist: Radiohead
Album: OK Computer
Year: 1997
Label: Capitol

As the 1990's drew to a close, an over abundance of rap-rock acts began to fill the music scene. Alongside a few more straightforward rock groups, these rap-rock acts became the norm along with the horribly named "pop punk" sound. Music began to become stale again, and few artists pushed the boundaries on what was possible with popular music. One group that has constantly attempted to reinvent their sound is the world dominating U.K. rock band, Radiohead. With their combination of classic rock roots and modern technology, their music is never anything less than original. Their first two albums were rather contrasting in style, so it is no surprise that their third offering is a brilliant combination of the two. Easily their finest work to date, 1997's OK Computer stands as one of the most sonically original and amazing records ever released.

OK Computer goes well beyond the term "international success." The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as yielding three top 10 singles in "Karma Police," "Paranoid Android," and "No Surprises." The band takes the heavy guitar sound from their album Pablo Honey, and placed it over the sonic landscapes they perfected on their sophomore album, The Bends. It is this stunning juxtaposition of sound that gives OK Computer so much character and makes it an absolutely irresistible album. The album itself took well over a year to record, using a variety of non-traditional spaces (such as a mansion owned by Jane Seymour) for both rehearsal as well as the final recordings. It is perhaps this variety in atmosphere that helped the album itself to have such a wide range of sound, yet stay beautifully coherent as a single piece simultaneously. Truly an album that gets better the more you listen to it, there are countless layers and small nuances throughout OK Computer that make each listening a new experience.

The amount that the music on OK Computer varies is nothing short of amazing. Using a huge variety of instrumentation, the band flawlessly incorporates everything from drum machines to glockenspiels to the "voice" from the Macintosh "speech" program into their music. From the eerie, moody sounds of "Paranoid Android" to the spaced-out, meandering "Subterranean Homesick Alien" to the tripped out "Fitter Happier," the album is all over the board, yet stunningly coherent. The band has cited Miles Davis' Bitches Brew as a heavy influence on the record, and the somewhat scary sounds that the band presents clearly create a link between the two albums. On "Paranoid Android," Radiohead pulls out all the stops, and the multi-part, tempo and mood changing piece that results is nothing short of a masterpiece. The basic elements of rock music are firmly ingrained into each song on the album, with the most obvious appearance being on "Electioneering." It is this diversity that helps to make OK Computer the phenomenal album that it is, and the fact that each song is executed with such precision is a testament to the level of talent within each band member.

Obviously, one cannot talk about Radiohead without delving into a discussion on their lead singer, Thom Yorke. It goes without saying that Yorke possesses one of the most amazing voices that the world has ever heard. Able to sing softly or aggressively anywhere in the musical spectrum, he is nothing short of perfect on every song he sings. Even when he is wailing to a point that you can't understand the lyrics, his vocal performance is still absolutely stunning. Lyrically, OK Computer furthers the bands' musical dialog on things like social disconnection, consumerism, as well as what can only be interpreted as the bands' uneasiness with modern culture. Perhaps the most obvious of all of these is in the aforementioned, "Fitter Happier." The song, which Yorke himself described as, " a checklist of slogans for the 1990's" is disturbing, while at the same time, undeniably brilliant. "Electioneering" is an outright attack on artistic and political compromise, yet the song remains very passive aggressive in nature. Yorkes' voice and the music behind him is always so gorgeous and memorizing, that it is often difficult to come to grips with the somewhat angry, yet clever lyrics he is singing.

There is little question that Radiohead are one of the biggest rock bands in modern music. Filling stadiums across the globe, they continue to innovate new sounds and styles, all under the umbrella of traditional rock music. Straying from the "normal" rock themes of "women and wine," the group constantly makes astute social, political, and personal observations within their music. The sonic landscapes that the group has perfected gives their songs an amazing, often haunting quality, yet the same sounds make their music undeniably appealing. Combining this stunning musical background with the unmatched vocal skills of Thom Yorke make the music of Radiohead truly breathtaking. Entering their third decade as a group, the band has released eight superior albums, each honing their refreshing and original sound. Though each of these records is worth owning in its own right, the band produced an absolutely perfect record, showing all of their skills in the magnificent 1997 release, OK Computer.

Standout tracks: "Paranoid Android," "Subterranean Homesick Alien," and "No Surprises."

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