We can't believe Radiohead's OK Computer is turning 20 this year.
Originally released in the summer of 1997, the album was a landmark triumph for the band, one that established them as a real force in pop rock. It was a far cry from when they came out with Pablo Honey in 1993. Many dismissed them as English grunge wannabes then, and the release of the crunch guitar-laden "Creep" did nothing to change their critics' observation.
Of course, it should be said, the album was good enough to warrant the band considerable attention. It also bolstered their confidence as musicians, making quite an impression with their follow-up, The Bends—a more ambitious output that many hailed as the band's coming-of-age. Main songwriter Thom Yorke made marked developments in his songwriting style, incorporating social and global themes in his lyrics, something that would dominate their future work.
At that point, many didn't expect them to come out with something so brave as OK Computer for their third effort.
Where Pablo Honey and The Bends simply meant to impress, OK Computer saw the band putting great effort in creating something immortal. It was a path they haven't braved before and they could have failed miserably...but ultimately they were lauded by critics.
To this day, the album is mentioned among the greatest releases of this century. But is it, really? Well, let us count the ways.
The album's great because it was different, particularly as it came out at the time when the industry was seemingly obsessing itself with songs as trite as "Unbreak My Heart" and "MMMBop," among others.
It is great because it was quite influential with many musicians, including Coldplay's Chris Martin, who singled out OK Computer as the record that changed their life.
It is great because it was the first album where Radiohead sounded less derivative and more like how we know them now.
Where they used to mine the stuff of their heroes, including The Smiths and R.E.M. in obvious ways via their first two releases, with OK Computer they were doing their own take on rock—one that was fresh, raw, dark, but still accessible.
A lot of people, practically those who want simple, catchy pop jams, deem OK Computer a difficult listen but only because they missed the point, refusing to see its true value as an album.
Like the band's earlier works, OK Computer has great pop singles. There's the angular "Paranoid Android," which many hailed as an epic for its ambitious melding of different textures and emotions; "Karma Police" a haunting ode to the Beatles' psychedelic era; and fan favorite "No Surprises"—but it is not about that. OK Computer has to be taken as a whole and not in snippets.
As with other albums, OK Computer took a while to grow on us. Apparently, we were listening to it the way others did—the wrong way—letting it waft in the ether as we busy ourselves with daily
monotonies. It was only when we sat down and gave it our full attention, listening to the whole thing from start to finish that we realized its potential.
Yes, OK Computer is great because it's a cohesive whole, with everything, from the lyrics, the imagery, the sound, the artwork, working together as one great statement, something that resonates today, more than ever.
But, of course, others would say, "Hey, it couldn't be that perfect." Well, yes and no; it actually depends on how you look at it.
One could point out that Thom and his vocal style make for strained listening, or that "Fitter Happier" is indulgent at best, or that concept albums are so prog-rock '70s, but like we said, it all depends on how you look at it.
Best of all, OK Computer is great because it is a win-win for all: the band, their record label, the fans.
Rare is the album that satisfies everyone; either it's something that the artist loves but the record company hates; or something that the band hates but the fans love.
With OK Computer, Radiohead made their grand artistic statement and got it to sell—all while having fun and stretching their limits as musicians.
It was a moment unlike any other.