Monday, 2 September 2013

Favourite Album: 'OK Computer' by Radiohead

The fifth of a series of articles (originally published in the ‘Fight Club’ issue of Portsmouth Point magazine) exploring favourite music albums. Today, Ben Wallis explains why Radiohead's 'OK Computer' is his favourite album.

Radiohead are a band who will always divide opinion, comparisons with Marmite come to mind. Having released their first album twenty years ago in 1993 and remaining active to this day, the band have explored a wide range of styles through 8 albums, any of which are worthy of praise and critical analysis, but it is the third album 1997's 'OK Computer' that just manages to stand above the rest, defining Radiohead as one of the most innovative bands of the modern era. The album's brilliance comes from the combination of musical excellence, artistic commentary on modern life and cultural significance. Through his lyrics, Thom Yorke explores themes of consumerism, social alienation and modern isolation, with a penetrating degree of emotional honesty that makes OK Computer a stark and unforgiving commentary on the state of modern life, that is as meaningful now as it was 16 years ago.

Ok Computer is an album that refuses to abide by convention, in contrast to the simplicity of britpop at the time, the album is ambitious using unconventional song structures, such as the six minute long 'Paranoid Android' and focusing on irregular chord progressions. Similarly the guitar work of Jonny Greenwood is exceptional; solos are innovative and aggressive in defiance of tradition and tear songs apart and build them up again. Guitar is also used to express the emotions of particular songs, for example in 'Subterrarian Homesick Alien' the guitar takes on an airy and otherworldly feel that perfectly reflects the subject matter of the song. Usually instrumentation is also seen in 'Climbing Up The Walls' where strings are used to create a dark and tense atmosphere, rather than their typical use in a pop song. Showing once again the album's adventurous and experimental nature, that it pulls off so convincingly.

Lyrically OK Computer is the Radiohead album when singer Thom Yorke was at the height of his powers. It's full of striking, beautiful and thought provoking imagery, an example that stands out is found on 'No Surprises' where Yorke sings, "A heart that's full up like a landfill" comparing the centre of the human body and emotion with a place for disposing waste is a tragic image and is an example of the imagery that fills the album.

Significantly, the album is a commentary on the modern lifestyle, track 7 'Fitter Happier' is not technically a song, as there's no singing, instead a computerised voice reads a series of goals for modern life, "Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much" and so on. As the list progresses contradictions and ironies emerge, "Concerned, but powerless. An empowered and informed member of society." The whole piece is worthy of analysis equal in length to this article; it is a criticism of the ideal lifestyle presented to us and the conformity that Thom Yorke feels so oppressed by.

Often described as 'The first 21st centaury album' OK Computer stands as a great album due to it's far reaching influence. It signalled the end of the Britpop era ruled by Blur and Oasis by being something completely different and sounding truly cutting edge. After this Radiohead spawned a host of imitators and they have been cited as influence by many of the most successful bands of the next decade, such as Muse, Coldplay and Bloc Party. The calm and moody characteristics of much modern 'indie rock' can be attributed to the impact of Radiohead on the music industry.

So what makes an album the greatest ever? In my opinion: musical excellence, innovation, lyrical depth and influence; OK Computer does all of these. It is an album of an exceptional band at their best; experimental enough to be interesting and not scared to take risks, but still a commercial success, charting at number one in the UK, and with a depth of meaning that sadly absent in much of the music industry. 

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