Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Best Rock Album of Our Time

Being music month at this side of sunday and all, I'm going to make a bold statement here:

Radiohead's OK Computer is the greatest rock album of my lifetime (post-1975).

I would say it is the best rock album of all time, but I don't feel equipped to make such a call. I can appreciate the Beatles and Dylan albums of the past (and do, immensely) but I don't know if I fully get how awesome and ground-breaking they were in their time; how mind-blowing they would have been for their first listeners; how epically they spoke to their time and brought their hearers to new levels of sonic enchantment and excitement.

But I put Radiohead's OK Computer on again about a week ago and have not been able to stop listening to it. It is just an unbelievable album. It sounds like a concept album but every song can also stand alone as a masterpiece of its own. Of course the music industry is too spread out and demographic-ized and genre-riddled for us to ever have another Beatle-mania, but I think that on a musical level Radiohead is our generation's Beatles. Just when you thought every chord-progression had been tapped out and rock n' roll had reached the point of perpetual recycling, in 1997 Radiohead took you to new places you didn't know existed. I didn't actually listen to this album until 2001 or so, but you get the point. It is never too late to have your life changed.

The 53+ minute, 12 track album begins with Airbag, Paranoid Android, Subtarranean Homesick Alien, and Exit Music (For a Film)---and by the time Exit Music is over one gets the feeling that had it been a 4 song EP it still might be among the best rock albums of all time. I'm not sure if Exit Music was ever the closing-credits-song for a particular film or not, but just listening to the song makes a person feel as if they've just seen an amazing movie. Listening to this song alone would be a better movie-going experience than most movies you actually have to sit through.

Though these first four tracks could stand alone, the album is just getting going. Let Down just might be one of the favourite songs of my life. There are two guitar parts played on different time signatures which catch up to one another every once in awhile and the overlapping effect gives a unity and diversity to the song that just keeps you coming back for more.

This is followed by Karma Police, which is just as musically moving, and includes the intriguing lyric "Karma Police, arrest this man, he talks in maths He buzzes like a fridge, he's like a detuned radio." It then moves into a chorus which gladly always get stuck in my head on my way to a soccer game: "This is what you get, this is what you get, this is what you get, when you meeeeeesss with us!" This is balanced by the other chorus, which says: "For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself." I just love this song.

Fitter Happier is what seems at first to be a throwaway spoken-word track (in a computerized voice), but which deserves the label of poetry in the highest sense of the term. I can honestly say that I've never skipped this track. It is vital to an album which, as wikipedia puts it, exposes and "emphasises common themes such as consumerism, social disconnection, political stagnation and modern malaise." But it does it with a seemingly random assortment of words, instead of that academic sounding mumbo-jumbo.

The rest of the album is exceptional, at times even beautiful, and I won't go into each track. Probably the only song I don't like all that much is Electioneering, but having said that I think its lyrics quite poignant. Almost inevitably, by the time I've come through tracks nine to twelve---Up the Walls, No Surprises, Lucky, and The Tourist---I am literally shaking my head with amazement at what I've just heard and am more than likely compelled to start it all over again. Think I'm exagerrating? Set aside an hour, turn off the lights, put on some headphones or crank it up, and hear for yourself.

Sure, albums can get old, and this one gets put on the shelf for a time like any other. But if its been awhile, or if you've never heard this album, give it a go again and tell me if I'm wrong. Best rock album of our time.

(By the way, I was thinking of doing a top ten list to go with this, but it kind of dissolves into subjectivity after two or three selections (and who can pretend to have heard them all). Nonetheless, I'd love to hear other suggestions for best rock album of all time, besides OK Computer of course!)


Anonymous said...

While it's pre-75 and more pop than rock, I've often heard it said (and I agree) that the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" is one of the greatest albums of all-time. Along with OK Computer, I think that it really succeeds in being more than just a collection of good songs - the whole things seems to flow together into such a fantastic experience. I'm always amazed how some musicians can string their work together in that way.

Dale H said...

Great album. Funny, Electioneering was the stand-out for me. No accounting for tastes, I guess.

On "Q" (CBC Radio), Jian Gomeshi (sp?) interviewed this classical pianist who had done a bunch of piano reinterpretations of Radio Head songs. Really amazing stuff. He said that he felt their's was probably the most significant music of our time.

Dave M said...

I think there are always albums that come out at just the perfect time. What makes OK Computer different is the overwhelming commercial success that it achieved.

If I was trying to pick other contenders post 75, I would suggest maybe Power, Corruption and Lies from New Order. Or maybe the often over-looked Marquee Moon in 1997 from the band Television. Or the critics darling, My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless.' I think that those three would have to be considered timeless in my book.

It's interesting to wonder about what will last.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

best album post-1975?

I dunno. Springsteen's 'Nebraska' comes to mind. My personal choice -obvious though it may be- is 'Kid A.' A little less obviously I nominate Steve Reich's 'Music for 18 Musicians.'

Yeah, 'Music for 18 Musicians.'

All-time best album?

Something, anything, by the Beatles post-1966. It goes without saying (but here I go anyway) that nobody can come even close to touching them.

To paraphrase and twist a review of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' I once read: If you think someone's better than the Beatles, you're just trying to be cool -and you need to try harder.

For me though, the musical pantheon is pretty well-documented, and I'm more interested in the stuff that falls outside it. But 'OK Computer' is still never far from my stereo.

jon said...

some greats i need to listen to. i've always meant to sit down and give "pet sounds" an afternoon, but never have.

Kid A is great too, but somehow my ear likes OK just a bit more.

New Order, Television, My Bloody Valentine and Steve Reich are not names I expected to hear. But that's why i love you guys. i need to find a way to hear all these. why did you have to move away Dave?

I have been realizing lately that I need to get a Springsteen album or two, and this is not the first time Nebraska has been the suggestion I've been given.

Thanks for the suggestions.

Obviously the "greatest albums" lists usually take popularity into account with artistic brilliance. I'm okay with that to some degree, but it means letting in a lot that i'm not very interested in. so i love hearing about the unpopular greats. those i want to hear as well. so much music, so little time (and money).

Dave M said...

The library fixes the money part.

Trev said...

My top ten (in no particular order):

-Nevermind (Nirvana)
-The Bends (Radiohead)
-Weezer (Self titled '94)
-Test for Echo (Rush)
-Six degrees of inner turbulance (dream theatre)
-Collective Soul (Self titled '95)
-The Decline (NOFX)
-Creature (Moist)
-Dookie (Green Day)
-Smash (The Offspring)

I would also give the following honourable mentions:

-down on the upside (soundgarden)
-melancholy and the infinite sadness (smashing pumpkins)
-el cielo (dredg)

jon said...

dave: the library, yeah, that's a great thought. i tapped out my local one already and need to head into the city.

trev: i like your first three, maybe not as all time greatest, but i like them. i really remember loving the bends. i don't know why thom yorke hates it so much, except maybe that it was popular and was what they were going to get nailed down to if they weren't careful.

i can't stand rush. if i hear rush i feel the need to flee. similar feelings for offspring and soundgarden.

like dale said, no accounting for tastes.

even if i was to attempt a top ten list i'd be torn between doing my favourites, or the greats. but even if you do favourites, how do you account for changes over the years? i think this year for my "top 34" list on the blog i might do albums, and if i do i'll do it like i did movies, i'll try to pick the albums that have been with me most in my life. that means i'll have to include some christian alternative albums from my college years (which I still like, i guess, but don't necessarily listen to anymore) and even some albums from high school and before that, even though i'd consider few to none as all time greats.

but i think a top 10 favourite list all time for me would have to include at least these:

OK Computer - Radiohead
Achtung Baby - U2
Rush of Blood to the Head - Coldplay
Love is Hell - Ryan Adams

oh, jon, thanks for lending me the beach boys' pet sounds. it is very pop-sounding, and maybe not something i'd go back to again and again, but it is great. especially Sloop John B. That is an awesome song I've always loved. I also really liked "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." Good stuff.

Dave M said...

Strange coincidence...

A deluxe edition of OK Computer, along with the Bends and Pablo Honey are being released tomorrow.

I suppose in honor of music month on This Side of Sunday.

Wazzy D. said...

Hey Jon, long time no talk. I hope you've had a chance since March to hear Pet Sounds and Nebraska because they ARE fantastic albums. OK Computer and Kid A would be up there for me, but I'd have to side with Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer by Of Montreal for best album since 1975. A strange choice, but a rock solid album for listening to all the way through and almost every song stands alone brilliantly too. pre-1975?... Definitely The Beatles- Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Abbey Road. But I might actually put Odyssey and Oracle by The Zombies ahead of them. I'm always going back to that one. Anyways, I loved hearing your thoughts on Radiohead and I'm really impressed with your taste in music and movies. I never thought it'd be so close to mine.