Upon its release, journalist Nick Kent of Mojo Magazine said, "Others may end up selling more, but in 20 years time I'm betting OK Computer will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song-structures from an earlier era." And now, here we are. Almost 20 years later, and Radiohead's seminal third album 'OK Computer' has been granted all those accolades and more. Not just a reinvented sound of the late 90s, but some may argue that it is the greatest album of all time. Now of course this is all opinion. There can't be any actual greatest album ever, but time and time again, 'OK Computer' always seems to make itself to the front of the debate. So with the band about to commemorate the release with a 20th anniversary reissue, we thought we'd explore what impact the record had over the industry in the last two decades.
Breaking the stride
Before the release of 'OK Computer', Radiohead only had two other albums in their catalogue, 'Pablo Honey' and 'The Bends'. Both of these records were released during the height of Britpop, and added a more bleak tone to the otherwise commercial sounds of much bigger bands. But listening to both of those albums back, you begin to hear just how formulaic Radiohead used to be. While the quality of their music was undoubted, all their material seemed to show a very 2-dimensional perspective. We were either treated to loud, unabashed grunge-inspired anthems or more melodic instrumentation. And while that had always been the case for themselves, as well as many of their peers, 'OK Computer' showed that the band could be more than just a one-trick-pony. Not just an adventure into their experimental nature, that has served them well ever since, but also displaying the idea that a song could have more than one personality. Tracks like 'Paranoid Android' and 'Exit Music (For A Film)' finish in a very different way to how they begin, giving us an insight into how modern music needn't follow a straight path.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the 'OK Computer' sound is just how different each one of the songs are performed. The guitars and even drums on each track have their own unique quirks to them. This showed that while they obviously had their own sound from their formative years, they really began to try out new ways to perform their music. Simply cracking the distortion pedal every time the band wanted to create a bit of impact was no longer their only option here, and instead they tried new ways to create a bold atmosphere. This is mostly highlighted by the use of pitched-up backing vocals during the climax of 'Karma Police'. Those now iconic harmonies stick out so much over the track, they became one of the most spine-tingling moments on the release, and still give us the chills to this day.
Less care for opinions
During their formative years, Radiohead had an obvious reputation for being depressing. It isn't really much of a surprise given that the band themselves are fully aware of their morose creations and it is something their fans fully engage with. But just like any strong opinion, it soon became more of a reason for non-fans to avoid them. People who weren't as inclined to switch on to them for the first time would probably not start with 'OK Computer' either. But it was that strong assertion not to bend to large public opinion that helped them create such a wonderful work of art. While other bands are always looking to find new ways to reach out to a bigger audience, Radiohead stayed true to themselves and gave their fans exactly what they were hoping for and more.
It probably seems weird to think that there was a time when Radiohead were not one of the biggest bands in the world. And until 'OK Computer' came along, that was certainly the case. But seeing their fortunes go from just another rock band to one of the biggest musical juggernauts in the world from just one album, is inspiring to say the least. In fact, numerous bands including Foals and Vampire Weekend have cited the album as an inspiration both musically and as a persuasion to embark on a career in music.
Will it be beaten?
The last point offers up the idea that by simply naming it the greatest album of all time, would therefore inspire other artists to try and beat it. Obviously there will come a time when the mantra will fall to someone else. But this may of course be a generational thing. If you look back over the years of stand-out albums like 'Dark Side Of The Moon' or 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', most of those alive to experience these works in their peak will probably prefer those to 'OK Computer'. But since the beginning of the 21st century, there haven't been many records to test the sheer tenacity that 'OK Computer' had when it was first released. Arcade Fire have certainly come close with 'The Suburbs', and maybe even Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly' may become seen in the same light twenty years from now. But at the moment, 'OK Computer' sits in that comfortable region of being both classic and modern at the same time. And one day, it'll be dated too. But for now, long live Radiohead.