25 Years Later: OK Computer


The album cover for Radiohead’s OK Computer (©1997 Parlophone/Capitol)

Brian Dyer, Reporter

There are many contenders for the greatest album of all time, but few are on as many lists as Radiohead’s OK Computer, which was considered one of the greatest albums of all time barely three days into its original release in 1997. It was a project that forever altered the course of popular music, shifting away from the fuzz-ingrained rock that had defined the genre for years and towards clean production with gloomy themes (inspiring bands such as Coldplay and Muse). In light of its 25th anniversary, I believe it’s time to look at OK Computer again, and find out what makes it incredible.

The album begins with the track “Airbag”, in which frontman Thom Yorke recalls a car crash that he survived unscathed. The lyrics detail how he felt he was “born again” after being saved by an airbag. The song was meant to illustrate how dependent modern society is on technology, by giving an example of how we invent new technologies (such as the airbag) to combat other technology humans have made (cars).

The next song in the track listing is “Paranoid Android”, which is also a consistent contender for the greatest song of all time. It’s a six-minute epic, inspired by previous through-composed songs like “Happiness is a Warm Gun” by the Beatles and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. The song manages to bind fuzzy electric guitar solos and choral arrangements together. It’s a diamond in an album of gems.

Afterwards is “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, which is a pristine song about Yorke’s feelings of isolation and alienation from others. In it, the narrator fantasizes being abducted by aliens because they believe they would be more accepted and/or comfortable in their world than on Earth. The track is a great example of the excellent production done by Nigel Godrich. Songs on OK Computer like “Subterranean” have such a clean sound, to the point where the song sounds like it’s from a different planet. This is exemplified when comparing Radiohead to their contemporaries (Oasis, Blur, Pulp, etc).

Next up is “Exit Music (For a Film)”, which was a track written for the 1996 film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. The band was shown the ending of the film, and was tasked with writing a song that would fit the ending. According to Radiohead, the track was what helped shape the direction of the rest of the album. I believe that the climax portion of this song is one of the best moments in Radiohead’s discography.

“Let Down” follows next, and is arguably the most depressing song on the entire album. The song is the embodiment of disappointment, discussing people “clinging onto bottles” with the “emptiest of feelings”. The song’s narrator believes that they will push through their problems, but still is worried that they will just be “let down”.

After that is “Karma Police”, which is about how people will judge others, not accepting blame, and then realizing how they’ve been acting. The song is one of Radiohead’s catchiest songs, exemplified by its commercial success as a single.

The album then goes into “Fitter Happier”, which acts as an intermission between the two halves of the project. It makes use of a robotic voice that mocks the perfectionist qualities that companies expect of their employees.

“Electioneering” begins the second half of the album with a song about the political world. To give some context, OK Computer was recorded in the lead up to the 1997 general election in the UK. It is the most rock-oriented track, with lyrics mocking promises that politicians make in order to get votes. One of the key lines is: “When I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet”, which is a cynical line about how supporting politicians make them wealthier and the general public poorer, while the politician tries to keep up the act that they’re an equal (“and somewhere we will meet”).

“Climbing Up the Walls” is next, and in my opinion, it’s one of the weaker songs on the album. Not to say it’s a mediocre track compared to every other song by any other artist, but rather that it’s mediocre when compared to the other songs on this album. It is a great track, but it doesn’t feel as bold to me as “Paranoid Android”, or as emotional as “Let Down” and “Exit Music (For a Film)”.

In contrast, “No Surprises” is one of my personal favorite songs on the album. It’s an unusually calming song, given the tone of the album. But it fits in regardless after taking a look at the lyrics, which describe how incredibly robotic the idea of an “ideal” life is. The narrator just wants to live a life with “no alarms and no surprises”.

Afterwards are the songs “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. They are both excellent tracks. “Lucky” is an optimistic track about getting up despite getting continuously knocked down (“I feel my luck could change”). “The Tourist” talks about people trying to rush through life when they should be slowing down, stopping to smell the roses in other words (“hey man, slow down”). They’re both great tracks that close out the project.

In conclusion, OK Computer is an excellent masterpiece, one of many by Radiohead. While many albums can be argued for being the greatest of all time, OK Computer should definitely be in the running. With excellent songwriting and pristine production paired with a unique sound, this is an essential listen for anyone who wants to learn more about music history.