I’m sure there’s some camps that would welcome this next statement, while others would have me shot for it: OK Computer was Radiohead’s last great rock and roll record. It’s not that they didn’t release great albums after it. While Kid A and Insomniac may not have moved me in quite the same way as OK Computer, I certainly grew to love them for what they were. And while others wrote King of Limbs off, I found it to be one of the most beautifully alien albums in recent years. But without a doubt, OK Computer was the last album Radiohead made where they sounded like a rock and roll band doing rock and roll things together in a studio. They broke from the shackles of the “Brit Pop” stigma and made an album that was equal parts Philip K. Dick and Can; Noam Chomsky and the Beatles. They took their noisy tendencies and melded them with their melodic ones and allowed Thom Yorke to put his paranoid, sci-fi nerd leanings to good use. It was a record of big concepts and grand sounds. As far as pivotal moments and rock and roll go, the release in 1997 of Radiohead’s OK Computer is a big one.
20 years on and the band have shape shifted into all sorts of musical beings. From electronic wizards to EDM booty shakers to solo artists to film scorers, Radiohead have dipped their toes in nearly every pool. There was a time 10 to 15 years ago where these Brits wanted to just walk away from that pivotal 1997 album, like it was staggering for them to even acknowledge it. But with the recent release of OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017 it seems these fellas from Oxfordshire are cool with their paranoid past once again. With the album’s 20th anniversary upon us OK Computer has been remastered from the original analog tapes and also includes 8 b-sides from the era plus 3 previously released songs. The result is a classic album seen and heard through new eyes and ears. It’s a proper celebration of a 20th century classic, with some incredible extras. It’s never sounded better.
OK Computer is the first Radiohead album I ever bought. It was the summer of 1997 and my wife and I were spending our first summer in our newly built house. I was working and spending my evenings watching MTV 2. A video that I had become completely enamored with was Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”. The animation, the gentle acoustic, the explosions of buzzing guitars all came together into this whole new sound to my ears. I’d liked Pablo Honey some, and I loved The Bends‘ “Just” and “High and Dry”, but I never dropped monies for an album. “Paranoid Android” and OK Computer changed all that. That record turned me into a devout follower of Yorke, O’Brien, Selway, and the brothers’ Greenwood. Hearing it 20 years on it’s just as good, even revealing new sonic layers in its newly remastered form. The songs are still there. They’re just as brilliant as ever. If you were a fan before you’ll still be one. I can’t review this album and give you anymore insight that you haven’t already found and dissected. What I can review are the b-sides included.
I’ve been a fan since OK Computer, like I said before. But one thing I never spent time with were all the b-sides these guys dropped over the years. Much like Pavement, Radiohead had enough b-sides to put out two albums with every record release. These songs have seen the light of day in various forms over the years(special edition releases, live bootlegs, etc), but they’re now conveniently included with the record. The songs are great here. I think OK Computer is perfect the way it is and the right songs were chosen to flesh out this classic, but hearing songs like “Lull”, “Melatonin”, and “Polyethylene(Parts 1 & 2)” you get a glimpse of a band in transition. For the most part these b-sides float along that space between The Bends-era pop sheen with hints of what was to come. In a lot of ways, these tracks are as well known to the hardcore lot than the album tracks. They all live in this state of grace. Perfect examples of what was and what never will be again.
Me, I hear these tracks and I think just how much bands like Muse, Coldplay, and a plethora of other late-90s/early 2000s British bands benefited from Radiohead’s ascent into electro/experimental music wanderers. They left quite a few fans pining for some serious Brit pop and Chris Martin was happy to oblige. Still, none of those bands have come even close to writing their “Palo Alto” or “A Reminder” or “How I Made My Millions”. And the 3 unreleased tracks(until now), “I Promise”, “Man of War”, and “Lift”, will only solidify the band’s stature as one of the greatest pop bands to walk away from mainstream success and indulge their freaky, blippy artistic tendencies.
I couldn’t imagine OK Computer in any form other than how it was presented to us 20 years ago. It’s perfect from start to finish. The remastering only brings that fact into perfect, stellar focus. The unreleased tracks and b-sides are the indifferent sprinkles on top of the dystopian sundae known as OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017.
9.6 out of 10