The Emptiest of Feelings - OK Computer turns 20

I was having coffee with my editor recently and I was talking about the 20th anniversary deluxe reissue of OK Computer. He interrupted me mid-sentence to say, “You mean the most overrated album of all time?”

I believe I told him to shut his fucking mouth. We have a good rapport, my editor and I. And I know that despite 20 years of people telling him otherwise, he can’t bring himself to like OK Computer. He’s tried, I’m guessing. And he’s more of a Pablo Honey and The Bends kind of guy, so I get the impression he has ignored every subsequent Radiohead album released since 1997.

And that’s fine. I think he’s missing out, but I’m not young anymore, and I don’t have it in me to try and force him to like it. If I were in college, or even in my early 20’s, it’d be different. I’d be trying a lot harder. Yeah, I was that guy. I was that fucking guy who, when he found out that a person didn’t like something that he did, he was all over you about it, twisting your arm in an effort to change your opinion.

But I’m older now, and I’m worn out, and I’ve realized that nobody really wants you to be that guy. You either like something or you don’t; you can’t really force it, especially when it comes to contemporary popular music.

I started this blog over four years ago, and once I started easing into my retrospective/anniversary thinkpieces, there reached a moment when I realized that, in 2017, I’d have to write a 20th anniversary thing about OK Computer, and since then, it’s been something that I have been both looking forward to and dreading.

I turned 14 three days after OK Computer was released in America. I bought my first copy of it1 on CD at the Mall of America2. My mother and I were on vacation together in the Twin Cities area, and this was such a highly anticipated album for me, I had to make sure we’d be at the mall that day, and that I could go to a Sam Goody (long since closed) to purchase a copy.

I owe a lot to OK Computer. I hesitate to say that I owe “everything” to it, because that sounds so dramatic. But even at age 14, it was an album that taught me a lot about the way you listen to music.

From the very opening guitar snarl of “Airbag,” to the climactic and simple triangle chime that rings out at the conclusion of “The Tourist,” OK Computer was, for a while anyway, the kind of record where I would hear something new, or notice something different, every time I listened to it.

I say that it taught me how to actually listen to music because OK Computer taught me about depth, layers, textures, and just how intricate music can be. Sure, there’s instruments playing notes and a voice singing over the top of it, but this is the kind of album that informed me that there is more to a song—more to an album. It taught me about listening beyond that base level, which is a skill I applied to so many other albums throughout my lifetime, like Fantastic Planet, The Frames’ For The Birds, and Damien Rice’s O, just to name a couple.

Radiohead are my favorite band, and of their canon, I’d say OK Computer is my favorite album; I’d also say that it is my favorite album of all time. Some people may not believe that. I knew someone I college who simply just didn’t believe me when I said Radiohead were my favorite band. She presumed they were the kind of band you tell people you like in order to sound smart; not the kind of band someone actually sits down to listen to for enjoyment.

OK Computer is a nearly perfect album. I say “nearly” because it stumbles occasionally (“Electioneering” is not its best song, but it is by no means unlistenable.)

It’s the kind of album that is, somehow, able to be consumed as a whole, as well as enjoyed on a song-by-song basis; and, incidentally, it’s the album that taught me how to truly appreciate an album from start to finish. As a young adult, teetering on the edge of my teenage years, rarely was there an album I would sit down and enjoy as a whole. I was more of a ‘skip around to the popular songs or singles’ kind of guy.

That said, OK Computer is an album where you think you aren’t going to want to listen to the singles because they were maybe overplayed 20 years ago or whatever, but you know what? You’d be wrong. “Paranoid Android” (all six minutes of it) still slays, as does “Karma Police.”

Also, there’s “Let Down,” which may be one of the band’s most important and transcendental moments. Hands down the most emotional track on the record, “Let Down” walks a tightrope of being both playful in its instrumentation as well as being commendably earnest in the towering vocal delivery of Thom Yorke. It will never not give me chills when I hear it.

OK Computer, as an album, is a rare occurrence, simply for the fact that it was released on a major label that, for the most part, gave the band creative freedom during the recording process and only after it was turned in as a completed project were like, “Well, what do we do with this?” Some big, important albums are recorded as an act of desperation—a last gasp and final chance, like Born to Run, for example. OK Computer isn’t like that at all. Yes, the band felt pressure to follow up Pablo Honey, but for the follow up to The Bends, it was less about pressure or desperation, and more about growing as a band and grabbing a hold of what they wanted to become.

There is little, if any, shred of “Britpop” on OK Computer; by 1997, the movement had all but burst—best exemplified by the dead on arrival release of Oasis’ bloated and maligned Be Here Now. If The Bends was the sound of a band grappling with sudden success and feeling like they had something to prove, OK Computer is, at its core, the sound of a band not giving a shit at all whether you “get it” or not—pushing themselves to a creative point you wouldn’t have thought possible for them. Keep in mind that The Bends was released only two years before OK Computer. The word “growth” doesn’t even begin to describe the maturation in sound and depth.

Preliminary work on the record took place on what can be best be described as a dilapidated farmhouse, and a bulk of the record was put to tape in what the band reflects on as being a haunted castle owned by actress Jane Seymour. The supernatural, or dark energies, that may have still been within the walls of the property can be felt throughout the album—specifically during the tension shattering “Climbing Up The Walls,” a song that ends in cacophony, dissonance, and Thom Yorke’s anguished screaming.

In a recent oral history of the record, compiled for Rolling Stone, Yorke also recalls that ghosts spoke to him in his sleep, and that he felt like someone was standing next to him while recording the vocals for “Exit Music.”

It’s a dense record, one that juxtaposes an organic sound with something incredibly chilling. At times it teeters into minor psychedelia, or at least a loose, dreamy feeling, but it never ever loses its edge, or its razor sharp focus. Nor does it buckle under its own weight and ambition—and within that ambition, it still maintains (for the most part) a pop sensibility.

It’s claustrophobic, yet it soars to…dare I say it…great heights.

* * *

I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life reflecting on OK Computer every time I listen to it; but upon inspecting it closer for a commemorative look back, as well as putting it within the context of the reissue edition, dubbed OKNOTOK, the thing that is really striking me this time around is just how cohesive it all is, and how self-contained it can be. It could have really never been anything other than those 12 songs (well, 11 and one segue track if you think about it.) If it had been anything else, it may not have the same emotional weight that it has carried for two decades.

In 1998, the band issued the United States only How Am I Driving? EP, an effort that collected almost all of the OK Computer-era b-sides, alongside a single-edit of “Airbag” (it’s missing the countdown beeps that lead into “Paranoid Android.”)

Missing from the EP is the stark and muddled “How I Made My Millions,” as well as the various remixes that were included on the singles released in the U.K. These b-sides were all previously collected on the 2009 cash grab reissues, put out by EMI/Capitol.

OKNOTOK compiles all of the b-sides (sans the two remixes of “Climbing Up The Walls”), and also includes three previously unreleased tracks from the vault, left over from the OK Computer sessions—“Lift,” “Man of War,” and “I Promise”—all three of which are long sought after and much mythologized by fans.

The reason I bring all of this up in what has turned into more a retrospective or reflective piece, rather than a review, is that to understand how OK Computer works, you have to think about how it doesn’t work—or, rather, how the leftover pieces don’t really fit.

Even the strongest of the b-sides, the crunchy and noisy “Palo Alto,” or the 1970s rock leaning “Polyethylene,” or the slinky groove of “Pearly*”—none of them could truly replace anything on OK Computer. And if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be the same.

There’s something inherently special about the songs that made the final cut. They have a specific tone and feeling to them, and in revisiting these b-sides, you can tell that as a band, Radiohead weren’t quite there yet. There are still slivers of the Britpop sound that they were so desperate to escape. You can hear it in the tremoloed guitar waves of “Lull,” and in the downcast trudges of “A Reminder.”

Some of the b-sides don’t even seem developed—like the trance-inducing “A Meeting in The Aisle,” or the forgettable “Melatonin.”

That Britpop, very accessible sound is also present on the unreleased tracks—specifically “Lift” and “I Promise”; both of which were presumably recorded early on in the first batch of OK Computer sessions. Neither of them are bad songs. In fact, they are stronger than some of the officially released b-sides.

But again, they really just wouldn’t have fit on the album. It had to be those 12 songs.

* * *

Listening to OK Computer always provides reminders of why it’s my favorite album and why I love Radiohead in the first place. It’s still an exciting album to listen to, and it’s an album that I have carried with me through time—and, in turn, it has carried me. It comforted me during my angsty days in high school. It soundtracked my late nights with reading assignments in college. And I have brought it with me into adulthood.

Not only did it shape how I listened to and thought about music, but it has worked its way into other aspects of my life—quoting the “It buzzes like a fridge” line in “Karma Police” when firing shots at contemporary “alternative” music, or sharing the video for “No Surprises” and referencing the melancholic “A job that slowly kills you/bruises that won’t heal,” on social media whenever I am leaving a toxic work situation.

My wife is not as huge of a Radiohead fan as I am, but she likes them more than some of the other music I have subjected her to over the course of our relationship. However, she has a fondness for OK Computer—we regularly insert phrases from “Fitter, Happier” into our lexicon, and we used the Christopher O’Riley piano arrangement of “Let Down” during our wedding ceremony.

OK Computer is, arguably, one of the most important records of the last 20+ years. There are few others that have withstood the test of time the way this has, and there are probably only a handful of additional contemporary records I can name that are so influential and held so close to so many the way this is.

It’s transcendent of the nostalgia associated with it. Yes, it takes me back to that summer in 1997 at the Mall of America, or to listening to it on my ancient Discman, but it was so ahead of itself that it remains fresh and vital whenever you listen.

I think one of the reasons that a lot of people struggle with Radiohead in general, and specifically OK Computer is that it seems inaccessible or difficult. People want to know what it’s about—the same way people need to know what “The Wire” is about, or Infinite Jest. One of those is about how the drug trade is hurting West Baltimore; other is about tennis and rehab. But that is selling both things dramatically short.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy of David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, his final collection of short stories, that exclaims reading him is “like listening to the best kind of rock music.” And I guess, given some time here, I can see a lot of similarities between my love of Wallace, and my love of Radiohead—specifically OK Computer.

Both can be intimidating, both can be challenging, both can be looked at as pretentious, both operate on a number of different levels and can be hard to follow at times; but both are incredibly rewarding, and to someone like me, there is very little to find intimidating or difficult. I find them both to be accessible, just maybe not for everybody.

The Bends is really the final time you can hear Thom Yorke writing directly personal lyrics. OK Computer is personal, sure, but it’s dressed up in stark, atmospheric fragments. The lyrics are evocative and are less of the focus and more a part of the whole. It’s about paranoia and tension; fear and alienation; and based on the title, and the old Apple computer Text Edit voice used on “Fitter, Happier,” it’s probably about the growing dependence on technology as well.

But within all that is cold and mechanical and dark, there are glimmers of hope and triumph. There are glimmers of life. And for all its inaccessibility, I see it as a personal record, and it, for me, has always been a truly personal listening experience.

For me, OK Computer is like what David Foster Wallace said about fiction—“It’s about what it means to be a fucking human being.”

The 20th anniversary edition of OK Computer, OKNOTOK, is available now digitally. It will be available as a 2xCD and 3xLP on July 7th, via XL Recordings. The deluxe boxed set, including expanded artwork and a cassette tape of demo recordings, begins shipping 'in July.' A full review of the remastered album and additional material from the reissue will be written once the boxed set arrives.

1- The second copy of OK Computer was given to me as a birthday gift from the girl I was involved within college; it’s the original Parlophone vinyl pressing, purchased at a long shuttered record store in Minneapolis. The third copy I bought was another CD, probably in 2007, because the CD I had bought so many years before that was too scratched and did not play very well.

2- It was also on this trip that I saw the movies Face/Off, and Men In Black. Truly, a very formative time spent in Bloomington, Minnesota.


  1. one of my favorite albums of all time for sure. I remember the day the BBC announced Princess Diana's death they played Karma Police on loop on BBC Radio One'. (I was living in Oxford at the time... which coincidentally is where Radiohead hails from)


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