Beginning a series on the classic albums from 1997 with a record that could realistically fit into the conversation about the best album ever released may seem a little obvious, or a little too easy. Radiohead have received enough plaudits. They were, for a time, the biggest band in the world. They may be the last rock group to transcend their industry. The music business isn’t dead yet, but mainstream rock bands most certainly are, and Radiohead were the best of the last of them. Or maybe the last of the best of them. Or just the last of them.
And that’s a fine narrative, especially as Radiohead released one of the few rock records of the last few years that was able to capture even a hint of the zeitgeist. May’s A Moon Shaped Pool was an album that everyone had to comment on, which is a testament to the value that Thom Yorke and his band still hold among the tastemakers. But that necessitates the belief that there was ever a monoculture to begin with. It’s easy in hindsight to assume there was one before the Internet was omnipresent, but there were always pockets of counterculture that weren’t covered by the mainstream trades.
Radiohead, who sounded like a fairly conventional alt-rock band when they broke out with The Bends in 1995, are the best argument against the existence of a monoculture both then and now. The Bends was an easy record to like, because it sounded of a piece with a dominant genre at the time. Their follow-up in 1997, OK Computer, was a harder sell, because at that time the album sounded like nothing else.
That’s an easy fact to forget now, after everyone from Coldplay to Kanye has mimicked their sound. Indeed, the minor-key, anti-catharsis melodies on OK Computer were a new kind of rock music. They were creating new guitar landscapes on otherworldly songs like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and reinventing old ones on songs like “Exit Music (For a Film)”, which is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from an alternate dimension.
It’s tempting to pigeonhole their brand of abstract introspection as depressed, white-boy music. But this isn’t the math-rock of Muse or the empty pop rock of Keane. The syncopation on “Electioneering” begs retrospective comparisons to a Run the Jewels beat. And the crunch of the guitars and the disruption of the drumbeat are the same kind of subversive as anything from Yeezus. Indeed, while it’s a softer, even warmer, record, OK Computer’s rebellious themes fit easily alongside any of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘90s albums.
It’s strange now to look back and think of the ‘90s as a prosperous time, yet a time that birthed music known for its angst. OK Computer is no different in this respect. The quarter-life crisis is in full swing on OK Computer, and it reveals a certain amount of privilege on the part of Radiohead’s songwriters. The band would go on to make politically conscious music (Hail to the Thief) and even to address their own vaulted economic status (Amnesiac’s “Dollars & Cents”). But OK Computer is frozen in a self-centered youth. And that may make it all the more relatable.
Radiohead defied conventions that were in place before OK Computer and, in retrospect, upend the norms that have fallen into place since. Kid A is seen as their revolutionary, experimental record, and it deserves that reputation as a genreless monolith. But OK Computer played in rock’s own backyard, and still managed to break down the fences and become something totally different.