We’re midway through the year in music and liking what we’ve heard so far. We’re excited for what’s to come, but here at the midpoint, we’re taking pause to talk about our favorite releases of the first half of 2017.
Here’s Chad’s picks, followed by some words on Radiohead and a playlist for an imaginary OK Computer double album:
1. Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017
2. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens
3. Thelonious Monk – Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960
4. Prince – Purple Rain Deluxe Expanded Edition
5. Sneaks – It’s a Myth
The breath of the morning I keep forgetting
The smell of the warm summer air
I live in a town where you can’t smell a thing
You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement
My best friend was the first to buy it … “Have you heard the new Radiohead?!” No. By 1997, they were barely on my radar. Pablo Honey had come and gone, traded back to my local record shop quicker than you can say “I don’t belong here.” I completely ignored The Bends (my bad). But then OK Computer. Summer. The Midwest. Hot. Humid. Stuck back home on my first long break since leaving for college the previous fall. What a weird exhale it was. Alternately comforting and discomforting. I was working two jobs — full-time grunt in a sweltering factory, part-time counter jockey in an air-conditioned shoe store. I was saving for a car. I didn’t sleep much. I scowled a lot. Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.
The Midwestern summer air is simultaneously static and stagnant. Crackling with energy, heavy with fatigue. It’s strange, disorienting and near-hallucinatory. Shuffling around on gooey suburban asphalt, sneering at the insistent sun overhead, Thom Yorke proved an ideal companion. It took a couple listens for the album to sink in. I hadn’t heard anything like it and I wasn’t alone, because at that time there wasn’t anything like it. That’s hard to imagine now given how many bands heard this record and tried to be Radiohead, but in 1997 — perhaps the first year to accurately be described as “post-grunge” — “alternative rock” was in a goofy transitional place. The next-Nirvana gold rush was over and the weirdo bona fides were retreating back to the underground; in their absence, we were sold Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray and “Semi-Charmed Life.” What airtime remained for videos on MTV was shifting toward nu-metal, boy bands and, briefly, electronica.
It was a big year for UK music, and not just abroad. Blur, Oasis and the Verve (huh-huh, Britpop) all had huge albums in the States, and the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin and uh, Chumbawamba also made waves that reached our shores. But none more than Radiohead. Much has been made of how prophetic OK Computer was in foretelling the emotional vacancy of our shiny modern life. Twenty years ago, the Information Age was a creeping come-on in the form of bulk-mail AOL trial discs whispering sweet nothings about a better world, a connected world — no walls, no borders, arms outstretched. The Internet was to teach the world to sing; meanwhile, OK Computer with its “pig in a cage on antibiotics” and Thom Yorke warbling cautionary dystopian tales of total technological mind control. Did we heed its warning? Hardly. OK Computer is the soundtrack to our willful submission (no alarms no surprises, please), an album for staring into the mirror in the morning, every morning, wondering what the hell we’ve done to ourselves and feeling powerless to do anything about it. For a minute there, I lost myself.
I always loved the OK Computer b-sides, particularly those on the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP released in 1998. Rarely has a set of castoffs functioned so well as a continuation of an album’s narrative. OK Computer could have been a double album, and not just one of those hit-or-miss double albums begging to be whittled down. Radiohead did too good a job of editing here. Maybe they were leery of the dreaded double-album bloat. They were definitely leery of turning into Top 40 hitmakers, which is why they deliberately left the radio-ready acoustic ballad “I Promise” — one of three unreleased tracks on this reissue — off the original album. Think of how many wannabe-Goo Goo Dolls would kill for a song like “I Promise,” and here’s Radiohead throwing it onto the pyre like a bad omen. In an alternate universe, they anchor the album with “I Promise,” race through 10 tracks of let’s-get-this-over-with filler material and go minivan-mom megaplatinum quicker than you can say “Creep.” Aren’t you glad they didn’t? OK Computer went multiplatinum regardless, and anyway, the moms already had their “Name.”
For the hell of it, I imagined what OK Computer might have looked like as a double album, and I’ve included the Spotify playlist below. With sonic and thematic elements in mind, all the b-sides and unreleased tracks were woven into the original to create a four-part double-CD/triple-LP OK Computer of my mind. I spent more time on this than I should have, but I had fun doing it — “for novelty purposes only” and all that. Squint your eyes, cock your head and give it a listen. And if you decide to make a double-album version of your own, I’d love to hear it. Cheers.