Radiohead is a restless bunch. Throughout their career, they have seemed reluctant to stick with one style or set of aesthetic trappings for very long, often shedding them entirely once the tour for the latest album is finished. This was clear right from the start, when they abandoned the po-faced angst and grunge-lite sound of Pablo Honey for The Bends, a rock album that owed more to Britpop and stadium rock than to anything happening in Seattle in the early ‘90s. But even this wasn’t enough for Thom and the boys; they had made a great rock album, sure, but that’s all that The Bends really is when you get down to it. OK Computer is, itself, a great rock album, but not in the way that The Bends was. Whereas Radiohead had previously made an album that could be considered great in comparison to peers attempting the same accomplishments, OK Computer was – and still is – peerless.

Historically, Radiohead is defined by creative dissatisfaction. At their start, they felt retroactively embarrassed by an album that seemed too slavishly devoted to the heroes of their youth. And even for all the success that The Bends had, they seemed to realize that continuing down that traditionalist, introspective path wouldn’t lead them anywhere new. In creating OK Computer, Radiohead went down paths that one wouldn’t have expected a band of their stature to head down. They turned down the opportunity to work alongside proven alt-rock hitmakers like Scott Litt, opting instead to work with a then-unknown Nigel Godrich. They handed a song off to Baz Luhrmann for use in his adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, only to ask him not to include the song on the film’s soundtrack. At the time, these seemed like unnecessary career risks from a band that hadn’t quite broken through to the mainstream. Now, though, it’s clear to see what Radiohead were doing: they were looking to create the sort of statement that isn’t grounded in a specific time and place. They were looking for timelessness rather than easy financial success.

That quest for artistic fulfillment comes across in “Paranoid Android,” the album’s debut single. The song is tremendous in the context of its release, coming as it did from a band previously best known for making a fluke hit out of a Nirvana knock-off. Even out of that context, though, “Paranoid Android” is a tremendous piece of work. Nervy and foreboding, it artfully introduced the themes that would become most associated with OK Computer and Radiohead as a whole from that point forward: distrust of authority, discomfort with the conveniences of modern technology and despair over having existed without truly knowing life.

Negativity dictates the themes of OK Computer, enough so that it turned famed rock critic Robert Christgau off of the band completely. (Nirvana, by his estimation, at least tried to be funny sometimes.) However, Christgau’s dismissal undersells the complexity of an album like OK Computer. Sure, Radiohead aren’t singing about sunshine and happiness here, but OK Computer is anything but a dour slog of a record. It has moments of euphoria, such as the final verse/chorus of “Let Down” when Yorke’s multi-tracked voice might fulfill his promise to grow wings and escape. It can be sinister and scary, as on the cacophonous ending of “Karma Police” and…well, the entirety of “Climbing Up The Walls.” Radiohead even temper their sadness with sweetness with the moving “No Surprises.” In comparison to what came before, the musical growth demonstrated on OK Computer is astonishing. They essentially moved beyond traditional rock as a form of expression, relying on new instruments and ideas to elaborate on the album’s core concepts.

Despite that, OK Computer still has the grandiose, epic sweep that the best rock albums strive for. This isn’t an outright rejection of guitar music as a creative path (that would come later); rather, the album pushes the idea of the rock album to its breaking point. It’s telling that there’s arguably only one really traditional rock song on the whole album (“Electioneering”), and it more or less serves as a palate cleanser for the song performed by the SimpleText voice. Elsewhere, Radiohead only see tradition as something to subvert. Whether they’re recasting Shakespeare’s famous doomed lovers as embittered figures or contemplating the peaceful aspects of alien abduction, Radiohead’s combination of brainy prog and biting punk attitude opened up new avenues for rock music to explore.

There are aspects of OK Computer that are reactionary. Only a few years before, the Britpop movement that Radiohead were lumped into became the hottest thing in pop music, and it was music that was slavishly devoted to tradition. From Elastica’s post-punk posturing to Blur’s New Wave tendencies and the classic rock devotion of Oasis, Britpop was ultimately about celebrating the past and present at the expense of the future. Radiohead were sort of guilty of this themselves, crafting their debut album around the well-worn stylings of American college rock acts like The Pixies and R.E.M. In contrast, OK Computer concerns itself largely with the anxieties of the future, and it refuses to be comforted by the hedonistic indulgences of Britpop. It’s fitting, then, that this became one of the albums that signaled the end of Britpop’s heyday. Amidst the excess and raucous celebration of the wonderful present, Radiohead crafted OK Computer as an anxious, nerve-wracked possible answer to the question of what was supposed to happen next.

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