Radiohead - OK Computer: Album Of The Week Club Review

The album that truly splits rock fans gets our lowest rating yet…

ok Computer

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"The greatest album of all time?" asks the product description on Apple Music and you can see why. 

400 customer reviews on Amazon have given OK Computer an average score of 4.5/5 (with 80% of those reviews being 5 star). 

Metacritic aggregated the reviews of last year's 20th anniversary edition to give it a 'critics score' of 100%, and a user score of 8.9/10.

The New York Times recently called it an "album that saw the future – ours", recalling how this most depressive of bands carried its "worldview toward something like a concept album," on OK Computer, "pondering the ways that individuality can be smothered or surrendered, and considering the frailty of the body versus the power of machines."

The Album Of The Week Club? They, uh, they begged to differ, let's say.

"Poncey Indie music for art students," said one.

"About as classic rock as Bucks Fizz," said another. 

"Poor man's Marillion," said yet another.

Not that OK Computer didn't have its fans ("It's the greatest album of the 90s," was one comment), but it divided the group like never before and the result was the lowest rating of any album we've looked at so far. (And it's an understatement to say that Edgar Winter's They Only Come Out At Night hasn't quite been met with the same acclaim afforded OK Computer.)

Of course, some people loved it – but equally some people hated it. And it raised questions about what 'classic rock' actually is, in the first place.

To be fair, even Radiohead singer Thom Yorke is split on the subject of OK Computer. “The whole album is really fucking geeky,” he commented last year to Rolling Stone, and added that he would tell his younger self to "lighten the fuck up."

To quote the man himself, "This is what you get when you mess with us…"

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. Join the group now.

Here’s what happened when we discussed OK Computer…

OK Computer is the album that took Radiohead far into the mainstream, while retaining rockist cred – at least to some. Combining prog with alternative rock influences, said Classic Rock's reviewer, "they came up with a style that was supple, subtle and sensuous". This wasn’t Pink Floyd for the end of the millennium, it was original, visionary and brilliant. Songs like Paranoid Android and Karma Police cast a spell that propelled Radiohead into the stadium league.

OK Computer sold millions, turned Radiohead into global angst-rock superstars and today remains both a revered critical milestone and an oft-mocked symbol of pretentious overreach. In the words of member Daniel Claros, "The most incredible thing about this album is that is so weird, yet it became so successful."

It was an album that seemed to call time on the narrow colloquial nostalgia of Britpop. (“The whole Britpop thing made me fucking angry," said Thom Yorke. "I hated it. It was backwards-looking, and I didn't want any part of it.”) While their contemporaries were making Benny Hill pastiches and dreaming of the classic English pop of the Beatles and the Small Faces, Radiohead were resolutely making an album that reflected the age they lived in.

Dominic Grierson was 17, he wrote: "There was a bleakness and lack of optimism for kids my age at that time in the mid-late 90s Britain which seems disconnected from the way that time is often remembered in the media, with its nostalgia about Clinton and New Labour, the Lad nonsense that was peddled in British magazines and the music, which for the most part has not stood the test of time. 

"This record captures a darkness which mirrors my own memories of that time. I remember my own cynicism at the outset of the internet age, a dislike of 90s consumerism which, when contrasted with the troubled Balkans, seemed to prove to my teenage self that no lessons had been learned from history…"

History was also on the minds of older rock fans. The praise heaped upon the album by the (usually clueless) mainstream music press got some people's backs up. The Emperors were wearing new clothes, they sneered, and it had all been done before and better: "Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and Gentle Giant did this kind of thing in the early '70s," said Lee Jones. "And a lot more entertainingly."

To Lee Jones, the 21 years since its release didn't even qualify it to be considered 'classic rock'. "Just because an album is 'old' doesn't qualify it as 'classic rock'," he said. "The classic rock years are roughly 1966-1993. It is a defined period in musical history. Just as the classical, romantic and modern eras were for instrumental music. In popular music we have had the swing, blues, jazz, rock'n'roll, British Invasion, Psych, Prog, etc eras. We still have music influenced by these eras being produced today but they are pastiches of the originals."

OK Computer was no pastiche, though. While it's often referred to a a 'Dark Side Of The Moon for the 90s', the comparison only works in terms of the 'album-as-movie' or at least mood-piece – it sounds little like the Floyd classic.

In fact, it sounds little like anything. Airbag had a drum loop influenced by DJ Shadow, while guitars resonate like cellos and Yorke intones the story of a car crash ('In a fast German car/I'm amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life') – one of the few positive allusions to technology in the whole piece. 

To guitarist Ed O'Brien, Paranoid Android "sounded like Queen meets the Pixies" and Yorke admitted that the inspiration "was 50 percent Bohemian Rhapsody, if I could ever get that many vocals together, and 50 percent Happiness Is a Warm Gun."

Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, meanwhile was channeling peak Genesis: "There's a Mellotron on it. I remember hearing a Genesis record and thinking the Mellotron sounded amazing, so I stole it. It was either Nursery Cryme or Selling England By The Pound."

Now that we know how deeply Radiohead would delve into artfully deconstructed jazztronica on later albums, it is striking now just how much of a guitar-centric rock unit they still were in 1997, from Jonny Greenwood’s wrenching avant-punk convulsions on Paranoid Android to the luminous filigree arpeggios that shimmer through No Surprises. While the lyrics – impenetrable at times – still offer up some amazing turns of phrase. 'When I am king, you will be first against the wall'. 'This is what you'll get/When you mess with us'. 'Bring down the government/They don't, they don't speak for us'. A language of hate and spite to complement the music.

Even an independent could concede that it's not all genius. Songs like Electioneering and Climbing Up The Walls haven't aged too gracefully and, even at its best, the album is an acquired taste. 

To those who weren't convinced, this was a chance to right perceived wrongs and have their say. “I think the media are now clued up enough to know they can no longer tell us what's good and what's bad,” said Nicholas John Payne.

This is the new dynamic of reviews. There are more readers than writers, and many of them are as informed and opinionated as the writers who used to be seen as the “tastemakers”. This was the thought behind Album of the Week Club in the first place - to give the readers a say in the writing and rating of classic albums.

To those who love it, OK Computer sounds rich, beautiful, mysterious, romantic, anguished, baroque and thrillingly experimental. To those who don't? It's a miserable, over-hyped, unmusical mess that doesn't deserve a space in 'the canon'. The two sides will never agree. And so we're left with an album acclaimed everywhere but here…

They said...

"A landmark record of the 1990s. 10/10” – NME

"There are moments on Paranoid Android when Yorke sounds as though he's conjuring the spirit of Queen's Freddie Mercury. On several other tracks, Radiohead also draw from the past for inspiration. Yorke's throwaway words to Karma Police ('This is what you get when you mess with us') are rescued by the layered, Strawberry Fields Forever vibe of the music." (Rolling Stone)

What you said...

James Southard My formative musical years were the Nineties. Britrock, Grunge, Industrial Metal. Hundreds of bands releasing ROCK albums that being over twenty years old can now be classed as "classic" Radiohead? Poncey Indie music for art students.

Moira Hook Greatest album of the 90's. Up there with Out Of Time, Mezzanine, and Automatic For The People.

Neil Wilson About as classic rock as Buck Fizz 

Dominic Grierson It's a very strong record which will not appeal to some people at all – particularly in this forum. It is classic rock though. There have been few albums on here that were so divisive. The amount of 1/10s has given me a chuckle.

Tim Roughsedge Loved Powerage last week. This album i am equally fond of. In the same way I love Marillion and Queen and Machine Head and an endless list of fantastic life-changing music out there. Still if you prefer to hate so be it

Jamie Laszlo Calling it a modern classic 21 years after its release is like calling Lep Zeppelin IV a modern classic in 1992.

Ben L. Connor Geez. Lots of triggered snowflakes in this group.This is the kind of crap that gives rock fans a reputation as pathetic old geezers. You can tell from the comments that all these people rating this 1/10 have probably never even listened to it.  They’re just like “Someone has the audacity to think that a recent album is as good as the music that came out when I was young? REEEEEE! Can’t have that!!” It’s just sad.

Che DeBoehmler The last great rock album to impact the mainstream.

Tony Kilbane Poor man's Marillion.

Malcolm Emery Spawned Coldplay and subsequently Snow Patrol so can’t condone any notion that this is a classic.

Marcos Bello Pérez Great album indeed, a perfect follow up to The Bends – which in my humble opinion it's their best – showed maturity, good songwriting and musical evolution.

Alan Duggan All the young geeky kids of the 70s and 80s aligned themselves with bandsike Rush in the 90s they found Radiohead and this album was their pinnacle. It had angst and vulnerability. It's a melting pot to produce a sublime musical journey.

Joe Cogan This has some of their best songs on it, especially Paranoid Android and No Surprises, but I don't think it's as great an album overall as its predecessor, The Bends, which is probably the greatest British guitar rock album since The Beatles put out Revolver. It's also, to me, their last great album, before descending into navel-gazing obscurantism.

Hai Kixmiller I also enjoy all genres of music. But my favourite "genre" is what I call Classic Rock. My definition of Classic Rock is pretty much the same format as what I hear on American classic rock radio stations. In my opinion, A.O.R. bands are Classic Rock. Although I enjoy the music of Radiohead and other Alternative Rock bands. Alternative Rock had it's own sound, that's why it got its own genre. Is R.E.M. Classic Rock? Are the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Jane's Addiction? I would argue, no. They are not Classic Rock. Their music was never played on Classic Rock stations. They were, are, and will always be great Alternative Rock bands. 

Gavin Norman Whatever era it’s from, whatever label you put on it, that album is fully deserving of all the accolades it receives. Superb production, performance , concept, artwork, lyrics. It really is a masterpiece

John Davidson I bought this 21 years ago when it was released and played it a few times before setting it aside. It's telling that it is one of the few CDs in my collection that I had never converted over to mp3. I can understand it as an artistic endeavour, delivering a counterpoint to the laddish Britpop and Britrock of the era and applaud the band for evolving out of their indie rock roots into a more experimental music. As a work of art I can appreciate it but I still don't enjoy listening to the album as it neither moves nor entertains.

The music is top notch, both in terms of composition and performance. The lyrics are interesting, but sadly the vocals just ruin it for me. I get that they are a deliberate choice and intended to evoke a mode/tone for the album, but 10 tracks of mournful/tortured atonal droning just doesn't do it for me.

It has its place as a rock album, but scores a 5/10 for me. Part of which is for creating a sub-genre for the likes of Porcupine Tree and (latterly) Anathema to explore in more enjoyable ways .

Mike Knoop It's not as bad as I remember. How's that for damning with faint praise?It's a pretty inscrutable and difficult album to warm up to but there are parts I really like. Like most albums of the CD era, it could probably be trimmed by ten to 15 minutes. It is good and undeniably influential, however, and I think I am paraphrasing C.C. Deville of Poison here, "I can appreciate bands like Radiohead but it doesn't seem like a lot of fun to be in them."

Classic rock is a moving target. It used to annoy me when classic rock stations would play U2, INXS, or Billy Idol along with Judas Priest, Rush, or the Scorpions. I liked those first three bands, but they didn't fit my definition of rock like the other three. When the late great KZEP (how about those call letters?) added Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam to their playlists, I felt an equal sense of unease. But what are you going to call them? Classic grunge? That would imply there is new grunge. I'm sure the White Stripes, Green Day, and the Killers will someday be classic rock for somebody – if they aren't already. And I'm cool with that.

Ed Brown Radiohead ugh. I really had to force myself with this one and it was horrible the whole time. Obviously, opinions vary but I never understood the love this band gets. Just a bunch of pretentious art clowns.

Marcio Reyero I loved this album since the first time I listened to it, I bought it as soon as It was released and played it over and over for quite a significant amount of time and never got tired of it. I consider Paranoid Android to be one of the best songs ever written, and as far as the entirety of its composition as a musical piece, it can easily be compared to the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody..

Roland Bearne The production is dryer than one of the more arid parts of Death Valley and the vocals, whilst stylistically striking, are rather like chewing on cotton wool! There are great songs here, there are dull songs here. I definitely know No Surprises with its distinctive chiming riff. I can't say that i "enjoyed" the whole thing per se but I'm not going to knee jerk and join the 1/10 club. Is it Classic Rock ? I think so. Not to my taste and its revered status in certain quarters smacks of The Emperor's New clothes but I gather it was a game-changer in it's niche and if it turned some Brit-poppers on to a more prog-tinged world then, splendid.

Lewis Griffiths I bought it at the time, but haven't listened to it in ages until now. I was worried it might have suffered the same fate as the other big disappointment of 1997, Be Here Now (which has somehow managed to get crapper with the passing years). However, OK Computer is a pleasant surprise on a re-listen. The album holds up really well, and hasn't aged at all. The classic rock influences are clear (Beatles and especially Floyd) without the songs ever descending into pastiche. There's never any doubt you are listening to Radiohead. And Paranoid Android is still an absolute belter of a track.

It's a good album, and I'm very grateful for the prompt to give it another listen. However, I'm not convinced it's a great album.

Final Score: 4.9 ⁄10 (328 votes cast, with a total score of 1608. 108 people gave it 1/10, 54 people gave it 10/10)

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