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Ten Years Gone: Radiohead’s OK Computer

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 17, 2007

Do not cry out or sound the alarm

Funny that the 10th anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer should coincide almost exactly with the leaking of the first new Radiohead material in months, possibly years. It’s twice the reason to get excited once more for the band that for a whole lot of people, and definitely for me, used to be the most exciting band in the universe. Every b-side, every live cover, every half-formed, near-unlistenable demo–I wanted to hear all of it, and when a new album of theirs was coming out, it would inspire bouts of devotion to make most religious leaders jealous. It’s cooled somewhat since–inevitable after a couple albums of, if not diminishing returns, at least diminishing newness–making it clear that even if they were one of the best bands in the world, they were still, well, just a band. But when I heard OK Computer was entering the double digits, it felt like spinning it (for the first time in ages) was the least I could do.

What’s most striking listening to it after so many years, is how low-key the album sounds. After all the hyperbole of a decade of critical praising has worn down a little, the songs still sound great, but they seem a little bit smaller than you might remember. That’s not an insult, though–it reminded me of the first time I heard the album, playing at random along with Green Day’s Nimrod and an INXS greatest hits. It sounded good to 11-year-old me, but it just sounded like a Radiohead album–a little weirder maybe, but clearly by the same band that did The Bends, or even Pablo Honey. It wasn’t until years later, when I started listening to it a little bit closer, that I realized how the album might’ve been on a plane or two higher than the others. It’s not the kind of album that’s really mindblowing in any way on the surface–the only thing that was so mindblowing was how good it was.

The appeal of OK Computer is mostly in the little things. The chimes going throughout “Airbag,” the whirring saw sound accenting “Exit Music (For a Film),” Yorke’s duet with himself on the last verse of “Let Down,” the endling crackle of “Fitter Happier” sliding into the tambourine and guitar distortion opening “Electioneering”…these are the things that really stand out listening to it now, not the innovative guitar work or the progressive song structuring or eveb the futuristic songwriting. In fact, two of the album’s classics–“Let Down” and “No Surprises”–sound more like modern-day versions of Cat Stevens than something actually that boundary-pushing.

But it’s still one of the greatest albums of all-time. because of how these moments stick with you, and how listening to it today brings with it a flood of unique memories and feelings associated only with this album–every music writer has their Radiohead story, even if it’s just about how annoyingly overrated they thought they were. It’s almost pointless to write about the album, since just about everything that could have been said about it has already been said, by people smarter, better paid and probably more attractive people than myself. But such an album beginning adolescense seems like an almost mandatory cause for celebration. Just wait till its Bar Mitzvah.

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