Radiohead’s most famous song is 1992’s “Creep,” which has become one of the definitive alternative rock songs over the past twenty years. (You can still hear it on alternative rock radio pretty frequently.) Yet the album that houses “Creep,” Pablo Honey, is easily Radiohead’s worst album, a mediocre debut from one of the bands (if not the band) that has defined Generation Y. Radiohead has gradually moved away from the straight up alt-rock of their debut, beginning with 1995’s The Bends, a panoramic masterpiece that exploded everyone’s idea of what alternative rock could sound like. Grunge was ebbing (Nirvana came to an abrupt end in 1994), nü metal was flowing (Korn’s first album was released roughly six months after Kurt Cobain’s death), and American alternative fans looked across the Atlantic for a new wave to alter the tide.
Luckily, Britain was experiencing a Sgt. Pepper-like zeitgeist over the 1995 release of Oasis’ excellent album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? in the Britpop craze of the mid-’90s. But Radiohead’s not usually included in the Britpop narrative, and for good reason — their sound was originally caught between grunge and what became known as Britpop, and eventually it veered completely away from both. They emerged in 1992 with a sound much closer to Nirvana than the Stone Roses or Blur, but they undoubtedly benefited from the Britpop movement’s popularity, since more attention than usual was paid to what was coming out of Britain at the time. The Bends had some classic songs like “High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees” and “My Iron Lung,” all of which charted nicely in the UK. (“High and Dry” is the only one that found its way onto the Billboard Hot 100 here in the US.)
The Bends, despite being so forward-thinking, was still guitar-based alternative rock at the end of the day. It was the watery textures that set it apart, giving the album an expansive, ocean-like feel. But their 1997 follow-up OK Computer pushed their soundscapes even further, fully dissolving those textures until it’s impossible to discern where the music “ends.” Most people don’t stop to consider what goes into forming a recorded song, the painstaking process of tracking, mixing and mastering. The edges of the sound “image” become clear (particularly in the digital era), usually in no time at all, at least to those who know what to listen for. But on OK Computer, those edges — which, it should be noted, are always there, it’s just a matter of how noticeable they are — shimmer so deeply into your subconscious that entire songs often pass by without my noticing.
I was reading on OK Computer‘s Wikipedia page — very academic of me, I know — about some of the album’s influences and two of them caught my eye: Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (1970) and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing..… (1996). Both of these albums are among my favorites and are truly exceptional works of art. (They’re both honorable mentions. Endtroducing..…, in fact, came very, very close to making the cut.) Bitches Brew is an avant-garde, jazz fusion double album that’s quite long — 94 minutes — but was way ahead of its time, as Davis and his producer Teo Macero rewrote the rules of recorded music by essentially playing the role of film editor, heavily editing together the performances to astonishing effect.
That’s just not the way they did things back then, especially not in jazz. Most jazz albums were recorded quickly, usually in just a matter of days, and then they were done. There was no — to continue the film analogy — post-production, or forming the whole out of pieces gathered during production. A decade later, rap music would rise as a result of the discovery of two things: using vocals rhythmically — which hadn’t been done before, surprisingly — and sampling, which let DJs isolate a piece of a recording and form a new one by combining other pieces (called samples, see) obtained the same way. There was quite an art to doing this well, and there was an absolute explosion of creativity during hip-hop’s golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Unfortunately though, artists weren’t happy that rappers were sampling their work without paying very much for it, and one of the reasons for the end of the golden age was a landmark court case in 1991 called Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. that raised the cost of sampling considerably.
The Beastie Boys’ amazing album Paul’s Boutique, for example, apparently used 105 samples, which in 1989 cost them a quarter of a million dollars. Time magazine, in their blurb for the album for their list of the 100 greatest albums of all time, joked that the only person who could afford to make another Paul’s Boutique is Bill Gates. Endtroducing….., released in 1996, was the first album to consist entirely of samples — inexpensive ones, apparently — from his obscure record collection, and it’s almost impossible to describe. It’s hip-hop, I suppose, but also electronic and very bizarre, stitching together tracks that vary in length considerably into a compelling emotional narrative. It’s not hard to see its influence on OK Computer, lending its electronica textures and abstract structure.
The Bends was always probing into the reaches of outer space, but the songs were always grounded here on planet Earth. OK Computer is when Radiohead started to become a lot more alien. They wouldn’t give birth to a full-fledged electronic album until 2000‘s Kid A, but OK Computer has always sounded like it takes place on flying saucer or something. Everything seems so blurry and out of reach.