100 Greatest Albums of the 90’s: #2

Radiohead – OK Computer
Radiohead are the ultimate spokesmen for modern anxiety and dehumanisation; Thom Yorke’s voice is one belonging to a man who checks by every reflective surface to see if he still exists. Johnny Greenwood’s guitar can slink and sulk like a resigned Jack Russell tied to a lamppost just as well as it can jump on you, salivating and gnashing its ragged teeth like Oliver Reed outside a Threshers. Their third album pretty much always comes up as their best: ‘OK Computer’ is humanity’s tear-stained letter of resignation to the machines that run our lives. Yorke’s vocals either simmer with barely-contained dread and tension or else overflow with other emotions such as grief, relief, gratitude, gentle pessimism, cautious optimism, maybe even love. The lyrics he churns out are often obscure as if they’re some kind of future slang terms (“the unborn chicken voices in my head”), but certain words and phrases rise above others (“disappointed”, “today we escape”) alongside gorgeously poignant and poisonous wordplay (“a handshake of carbon monoxide”). It’s groundbreaking as well as awe-inspiring; the opener ‘Airbag’, using DJ Shadow-esque breakbeats and techno scratches and tweaks blasted apart the wall between electronica and rock. ‘Paranoid Android’ is almost the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of moody art rock: written from Thom Yorke’s experience of being in a bar full of people high on cocaine, the lyrics are a seething pit of neuroses and nuggets of bile. The “kicking screaming Gucci little piggy” refers to one woman who became violent after someone spilled their drink on her – “There was a look in this woman’s eyes that I’d never seen before anywhere. … Couldn’t sleep that night because of it.” Yorke told Q in 1997.  The words change suddenly alongside the music from pleading to hissing and spitting to sorrowful and back to ferocious again. While ‘Paranoid Android’ is the most easy to write about, in terms of quality, it’s no better than the rest of the album, which isn’t at all a bad thing. ‘No Surprises’ is a poignant pacifying manifesto that speaks to the part of us that just wants a peaceful, quiet life with “such a pretty house and such a pretty garden”. The closest it gets to standard rock is the clanging roar of ‘Electioneering’ which has just as much hopelessness as it does fearsome determination. ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ stems from Yorke’s experience in working in mental health institute and will send chills down your spine like a cold hand closing over your mouth. Overall, ‘OK Computer’ is misery a-go-go but it’s also one of the greatest musical statements ever made, equalling in tenderness and terror, stunning writing and riveting performance.

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