The Back Catalogue is a column that attempts to plug the holes in our pop-culture knowledge, and then write about the results. It is probably the column on this site with the least appeal to anyone besides its author. I will try not to write too many of these.
Every music dork has a weak spot, a band or even a genre they just know nothing about. Sometimes it's something well-established, so it's embarrassing, something you just try to ignore and hope it goes away. For me, that's Radiohead.
I'm not sure exactly what happened to keep me so thoroughly in the dark; most of my friends went through a serious Radiohead phase, worship OK Computer and Kid A and pay hundreds of dollars for shitty tickets in stadiums (ugh, stadiums) to see them live, even today. But I never really listened to them. I think I might've been going through a jazz fusion phase while my friends were listening to music that's actually pleasant to listen to. It took me longer than most to get really heavily into interesting pop music (indie or otherwise), and by the time I did, it seemed like everyone was already a long-established Radiohead fanatic. I just kind of let them go, listened to other stuff, and by the time I graduated from high school, just after the release of Hail to the Thief, I probably couldn't have named one Radiohead song.
For the sake of full disclosure, because such ethereal ethics are definitely important while writing a self-important article about listening to an album everyone likes, I listen to In Rainbows sometimes. I heard one of the songs on the radio or something and realized maybe Radiohead isn't as epic/angsty as I thought, because both "15 Step" and "Bodysnatchers" are pretty great pop songs. OK Computer still kind of made me nervous, because it's one of those intimidating career-making epic albums that I don't usually like for the same reasons I don't like hardly any of those sweeping Great American Novels, and also it's from 1997 and basically nothing from 1997 is any good. Still, I'm really curious about this thing I know nothing about that means so much to everyone who's my age and also white and upper-middle-class and from the suburbs, so here are my track-by-track impressions.
Track 1: "Airbag"
This is real alterna-rock sounding. Distorted power chords, simple 1-5 progressions, "I'm not trying too hard" vocals, slurred delivery. Seems like it's building but it never really goes anywhere--I was expecting some kind of anthemic chorus that never came. Pleasant enough but this is a very familiar sound to me and there's nothing about this song that really sets it apart.
Track 2: "Paranoid Android"
I know this riff. Where did I hear this riff? I feel like some other band played it in the middle of one of their songs and everyone around me was probably like "oh I get that reference, I will nod knowingly" and I probably stood there with my neck stock-still, like an idiot. Anyway this is okay. Better than the first track. Has that late-'90s thing that I always associate with Everclear where they play the riff kind of softly and acoustically and you just know at some point the guitarist is going to stomp on a pedal and all of a sudden that little acoustic riff will become a big rock riff, and then he does it and you're like yeah! and maybe you nod your head harder.
But I'm also starting to think that I wouldn't have liked this in high school very much. I'm still waiting for hooks; I know from my limited listening of In Rainbows that this band can write a hell of a hooky chorus, but I haven't heard one yet and it sort of sounds like that's not what they're going for. I can't imagine why someone would withhold hooks if they are capable of writing hooks. It's like a chef saying "No, this dish is experimental. That's why there's no salt."
Track 3: "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
Lololol at that track title. I like Thom Yorke's voice in this one a lot more. The wavering whiny thing is kind of grating and he's doing a lot less of that here. This sounds like an Eels song to me. That's a compliment; I like Eels a lot. Think it'd be better if E from Eels (my god, let's just lololol at the '90s in general. E from Eels!) sang it, though. If I don't get angry comments for that it'll definitely mean that nobody is reading this site.
Track 4: "Exit Music (For a Film)"
Sounds like Eels again. Which band came first? I guess Beautiful Freak came out the year before OK Computer, but Radiohead had certainly been around longer. Who here was not a basically a fetus in the early '90s and can answer the question of Eels vs Radiohead? I like the fuzzed-out bass in this song a lot, and I like the way it builds, but it peters out way too soon. I don't like this tendency to just elevate the volume and distortion but not really change the melody--it makes it sound like the song is going somewhere but it's ultimately not very satisfying.
Track 5: "Letdown"
I like this! This is a pop song! I could definitely have played this at night while 16 years old and thought about how terrible my pretty great suburban life was. It sounds like that band Keane decided to make an entire career out of ripping this song off twelve times per album.
Track 6: "Karma Police"
This is an important song, right? This is like The Song from this album, I think. It immediately sounds different than the other songs--tighter, more cohesive, not rambly. It's a thoughtful, structured pop song, which makes it way more up my alley. I know the chorus, too. I didn't recognize anything up until then but I know that chorus. It's pretty catchy. If "chorus" is even the right word; Radiohead isn't doing traditional verse/chorus/verse/break structure, but they're also not breaking it in any kind of experimental way, like Soul Coughing or even Neko Case does. They just kind of take an eight-bar snippet and repeat it, building in volume and instrumentation, then break, then do the chorus. I'm not sure I'm sold on that being a better way to do things than verse/chorus.
Track 7: "Fitter Happier"
"Hey guys I just found this tangerine iMac, let's make it say my shitty poem out loud. Now put that cat on the piano keys and hit record while it stomps around."
Track 8: "Electioneering"
Where did this song come from? It sounds like an electric La's song or a noisy Blur song or something. It's okay I guess but a song with that kind of classic electric guitar riff has to have a hell of a catchy melody and this one doesn't. Also somebody shut that fucking cowbell up.
Track 9: "Climbing Up the Walls"
I hate this song. There's not a single thing I like about it. It's everything that was wrong with amelodic alterna-rock: it settles into a painful screeching groove and repeats for the entire length of the song, with various distorted elements swelling and shouting and scratching behind it. If I wasn't trying to do this professionally I would have hit the next track button after 20 seconds.
Track 10: "No Surprises"
I know this song too. Again, sounds like an Eels song. It has that sweetness, that nod to classic pop, that makes Eels great, but the pacing and tones of the guitar and bass are total late-'90s, which is a good thing. Thom Yorke's voice is maybe at its best here. My favorite song on the album so far.
Track 11: "Lucky"
Mopey, man. This whole album is mopey. I was expecting it to be more, I dunno, sad/soaring, I think, than straight up mopey. A lot of people were depressed in the '90s, I guess. This whole album has a really low beats-per-minute rate, which probably contributes to the mopery. Really hurts the songs when they try to do a breakdown at the end, like in this song. Hard to rock out when you're stuck at like 80 BPM.
Track 12: "The Tourist"
This song is boring.
I'm sort of confused by OK Computer as a whole. I didn't really like it very much, to be honest; like a lot of music in the late '90s, it's got this slow trudging sadcore thing going on that I guess is hard to connect with outside of that era. I don't really know what else was going on in 1997; I was 11 years old at the time, so it's not like I was aware of broad shifts in alternative rock music, and that kind of thing is hard to rediscover afterwards. Maybe the fact that it sounds quintessentially '90s is testament to its impact.
In their review of Radiohead's followup album, Kid A, AllMusic wrote, "multiple plays are necessary just to discern the music's form, to get a handle on quiet, drifting, minimally arranged songs with no hooks." OK Computer isn't really quiet or minimally arranged, but I'm starting to understand why I never got into this band in the first place. There is nothing about that description that sounds like something I'd be interested in--it sounds like a demonstration, not an album that you want to listen to. There are a couple of nice pop songs on this album, but even if I had listened to it back in high school, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked it much. I'll just stick with my pop music, thanks.