Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 8)

OK Computer

Who: Radiohead
What: OK Computer
When: July 1, 1997
Why: The single best album of the last quarter century.

If The Bends had been Radiohead’s great leap forward from their uneven debut, then OK Computer was their great leap over the moon. A purported concept album dealing with the dystopian aspects of technology, the true thematic continuity of the album is one of musical tone, not lyrical topic. Very few albums (Exile On Main Street comes to mind) have such a degree of tonal coherence from one song to the next. As with any such album, OK Computer demands to be listened to and understood as a whole. As such, it does not lend itself to the randomization of iPods and CD shuffles. Not that the songs are incapable of generating interest on their own, its just that their full power only becomes apparent when they are listened to one after the next, in the order in which they were programmed by the band.

Side One (i.e., “Airbag” through “Karma Police”) would have been worn right through in the vinyl days. There really hadn't been anything as good since Side One of Remain In Light 17 years earlier. “Airbag” establishes the musical tone immediately, Colin Greenwood’s bass taking a lead melody role over a rhythmic figure from Ed O’Brien’s guitar, Phil Selway’s iconoclastic drumming and Jonny Greenwood’s space-age squawks. This inversion of the standard roles of the strings went a long way towards establishing the unsettled atmosphere of the entire album, and represented just one of the band’s steps forward from The Bends.

“Paranoid Android” (shout out to Marvin, there) throws the forward movement into high-gear, though. Still the iconic Radiohead song, it borrows a tip from The Beatles and ‘70s prog-rock by welding three songs into one to take the place of verse/chorus/bridge. Song one (verse) features a ghostly guitar figure (and an equally ghostly vocal) over a melodic bass line and limited percussion. Song two (chorus) features a bit of mellotron over a hyper bass line, until all is overtaken by a pair of guitar squalls the second time through and Selway’s drum kit bursts into action to take it to the bridge. Song three (bridge) returns to the realm of ghosts, featuring an ethereal chorus tracking the chord changes down, down, down (with Jonny providing a haunting keyboard harmony), until the chorus’ guitar squalls return to close out the album’s haunting centerpiece.

“Subterranean Homesick Alien” is dominated by celesta-like keyboards, keening guitar figures, and Thom Yorke’s plaintive, aching vocals in the guise of a down-and-outer yearning to be taken away by the aliens with which he’s certain he would finally find the happiness and acceptance so far out of reach in his town “where you can’t smell a thing.” Yorke’s lyrical persona takes another empathetic turn on “Exit Music (From A Film),” as he inhabits the shoes of a nervous young mother ready to finally make a break from an abusive marriage. While the song initially features soft acoustic guitar chords, it eventually builds to the point where another melodic bass line enters to push the song to its climax.

“Let Down” features tour de force double- and triple-tracked vocals from Yorke, pushed by Selway’s drumming to build to the most ecstatic, unfettered singing of his career as the song explodes into the final chorus. “Karma Police” closes the side with one more spectacular song. Colin’s bass again pushes the melody forward, this time in chorus with the first appearance of Jonny’s distinctive piano and more ghostly background vocals.

The computer-voiced “Fitter, Happier” provides the palate-cleansing break before Side Two, which continues the vibe, if at an ever-so-slightly lower level of impressiveness. A perfect album in almost every respect.


Who: Portishead
What: Portishead
When: September 30, 1997
Why: Portishead came on the scene in 1994 with Dummy, and in particular with “Sour Times,” the aptly-named hit that made their name. The Portishead m.o. was set on Dummy: unearthly melodies from Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons’ Annie Lennox-like vocals, overlayed with a slathering of sci-fi effects and found sounds, all driven by trip-hop beats. Portishead kept the formula, but amped up each aspect and increased the consistency from song to song. The result was an improvement over a terrific debut. The album’s centerpiece is the haunted and haunting “Undenied,” but the foreboding atmosphere stays uniform throughout. A great album from a duo that I’d certainly love to hear from again.

The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 7)
The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 6)
The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 5)
The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 4)
The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 3)
The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 2)
The Top 26 Albums Of The 1990s (Part 1)
The Top 19 Albums Of The 1980s
The Top 16 Albums Of The 1970s


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