Entirely unblemished and equally as important today as in 1997
Christopher Connor
16:43 20th May 2022

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Radiohead had never been a band to shy away from the norms of a rock alternative group incorporating elements of house, jazz and electronic music across their albums and sounding incredibly distinct at all times. They have proved to be one of the more influential British groups of the last 30 years, with their experimentation and musicianship a clear point of reference for many contemporary acts. Nowhere is this more true than on OK Computer, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.

The group’s third record — following the breakout success of 1995’s The Bends — OK Computer helped cement the group at the forefront of the British alternative movement—which at the time was moving out of the midst of Britpop and Cool Britannia. 1997 also saw the first of the group's three headlining slots at Glastonbury. Tackling hurdles of technical issues and torrential rain, the Pyramid set still went down in history as one of Glasto’s most iconic performances.

Before even that, on 21 May 1997, OK Computer dropped, marking a turning point for the group as it moved away from the more traditional rock sound of their first two records. While they kept this element present, it was now coupled with something different, adding in electronic influences which would go on to be a prominent feature on the group's later work, particularly on follow-up record Kid A and 2007’s In Rainbows. Perfectly paired with the lyricism that held a heavy focus on consumerism and the rise of new technologies, many have noted Radiohead's eerie foresight into the 21st Century. If OK Computer isn’t always the most straightforward or enjoyable listen, it is the clearest sign of Yorke, Greenwood and co.’s talent—and the first glimpse at their radical departure from form.

As a testament to the album’s staying power, it gets a fresh celebration every new decade, half-decade and year. Only five years ago for its 20th anniversary, the album was revisited through OKNOTOK, which provided a bonus disc of B-sides including 'I Promise', 'Man Of War' and 'Lift', instantly pushing the album back onto the UK and US charts. Showing alternative directions the original album could have taken, the B-sides were a rarity, reaching a rare gold standard of actually holding up to the quality of the original material. Constantly hearalded as one of the best albums ever made, the public reaction to OK Computer never seems to wane, being greeted with a strong wave of love and admiration on each and every birthday.

Upon its release, OK Computer was almost instantly labelled as one of the most acclaimed albums since The Beatles' Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not even needing a year for the genius to settle in, the album managed to be both experimental and also widely successful, becoming a commercial hit as well as a cult-y favourite. Debuting at Number 1 in the UK and going on to sell millions of copies in the 25 years since its release, it’s a testament to the power of stepping outside the norm. Taking a clear risk to move away from more palatable, easily digestible rock that still dominated the decade, OK Computer somehow did it all. Spawning live set staples and some of their most beloved and recognisable tracks, it’s hard to shout loudly enough about the album that gave us ‘No Surprises’, ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ in its 53-minute play time.

OK Computer remains a master work in balancing the disparate elements of Radiohead’s sound, nodding to the group’s more traditional roots and laying clear groundwork for the radical experimentation that was to come. Split between out-and-out rock tracks and more subdued, dark tones, the whole album feels like a captivating fight between the band’s origins and the strange future to come. Creating an entirely genre-escaping sound, there’s everything from strong guitar riffs to clever samples, including a Stephen Hawking feature on ‘Fitter Happier’.

It’s all this and more that makes the case for OK Computer being Radiohead's biggest achievement. Opening up the door and allowing the band to branch out further on future records and solo projects, much of it started here. Laying the foundations for what was to come, albums like Kid A are about as far from The Bends as you could get, a move that would likely have entirely flopped without the bridge built on OK Computer.

Regardless of past or future, in the present now as in 1997, OK Computer is a remarkable sonic achievement.  Cementing Radiohead as one of the most distinctive acts working today, both on record and on stage, its themes and sonic textures have held up remarkably well after 25 years. Further radical departures on later records that employed elements of jazz, ambient, classical and house make OK Computer all the more important a launching pad for it all and a safer place for new fans to start out, coming to discover and appreciate this timeless record and its imprint on the musical landscape.

Whether or not it has been eclipsed by the likes of Kid A or In Rainbows is up for debate, but what is unquestionable is the legacy of the record and its ability to condense its themes and disparate elements into something that feels radical yet consistent. This is a record that was the product of artists at the top of their game, light years ahead of the competition. And that still has the power to awe a quarter of a century on.

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