Album Review: Radiohead - OKNOTOK 1997-2017 | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Album Review: Radiohead – OKNOTOK 1997-2017

Music editor Luke Charnley revisits one of the most revered albums of all time with the reissue of Radiohead's magnum opus

OKNOTOK is a potent celebration of the band's legacy and music that offers a glimpse at the band that could have been
Since releasing OK Computer 20 years ago, Radiohead have existed in a near-permanent state of critical acclaim, appearing incapable of doing wrong (although Roger Waters may say otherwise). This sterling reputation has been tested a little in recent years, most notably upon the release of 2011’s more esoteric effort The King of Limbs, where those who were not convinced by the band’s focus on rhythm expressed through samples and loops began to ask the question: ‘Is this band really that great?’. And while last year’s tender and evocative follow-up A Moon Shaped Pool proves that the band still has it in spades, their reissue of OK Computer is a reminder of what made Radiohead such a force to be reckoned with in modern music: a potent celebration of the band's legacy and music that offers a glimpse at the band that could have been.

OKNOTOK takes us back to a time where Thom Yorke and the gang were still interested in writing anthems. Fresh off a tour with Alanis Morissette, and facing a year that would take them to Pyramid Stage headliners, the Oxfordshire quintet set to work on their third album in a Britain still held in the clutches of Britpop. The end product could not sound more unlike the straightforward guitar pop of Radiohead’s contemporaries; Jonny Greenwood’s guitar licks at the start of album opener ‘Airbag’ seem to lack any melody and grace, and the electronic drum beat feels far more DJ Shadow than Damon Albarn (in the 90’s, ok?), as Yorke wails lyrics about a car crash: ‘In the next world war / In a jack-knifed juggernaut / I am born again’. A certain prog-rock influence creeps in during ‘Paranoid Android’, a six-and-a-half-minute epic that switches seamlessly from hyper-melodic anthem to distorted guitar-thrashing and back to melody again. It might be something in the remastered audio, but you can almost hear a young Matt Bellamy taking notes.

Perhaps more importantly than any overt musical influence is OKNOTOK’s reminder that music can be a deeply expressive piece of art: entrenched in every second of this record are feelings of melancholy, dread, alienation and hope, as Thom Yorke develops his own feelings of depression and paranoia into sweeping universals that touch on the concerns of a life within capitalist consumer culture in the 21st Century e.g. ‘No Surprises’: ‘I’ll take a quiet life / A handshake of carbon monoxide / With no alarms and no surprises’. On the track ‘Let Down’, Radiohead marry musical complexity with cathartic lyricism; a wall of polyrhythmic guitar arpeggios swells as Yorke compares his protagonist to an insect: ‘Let down and hanging around / Crushed like a bug on the ground’. The result is probably their best song.

More importantly than any overt musical influence is OKNOTOK’s reminder that music can be a deeply expressive piece of art

And yet, the second disc of OKNOTOK offers what could be seen as an alternate future for the band through the 3 previously unreleased songs recorded in the OK Computer sessions: ‘I Promise’, ‘Man of War’ and ‘Lift’. The former is a straightforward acoustic ballad in the same vein as the bands previous album The Bends, suggesting a more commercial, Britpop-oriented direction was considered for the record. This is reinforced by the anthemic, fist-in-the-air chorus of ‘Lift’, a song that contains the first hints of the band’s future preoccupation with (and fear of) technology through its focus on entrapment in the titular lift: ‘You’ve been stuck in a lift / we’ve been trying to reach you’.  Both of these tracks, plus the dramatic middle song ‘Man of War’, hint at a Radiohead focused on producing hit songs as opposed to cohesive albums. Looking back on their post-OK Computer innovations and the influence they have had on some of my favourite bands, I’m glad that this direction amounts to just a footnote in this reissue and nothing more.

As Yorke muses on ‘Let Down’ (last Thom lyric, I promise): ‘Don’t get sentimental / It always ends up drivel’. With that in mind, reissuing an album may seem strangely out of character for a band with a long history of giving the middle finger to the practices of the mainstream industry. However, the continued relevance of OK Computer both lyrically and musically perhaps implies a message behind the move beyond supposed sentimentality, and the addition of the new tracks goes a long way to justify the collection’s existence. OKNOTOK serves as both a perfect jumping on point for those who don’t know where to start with Radiohead, and a love letter for the established fans. A universal record.

Final year English student. Music editor and pretentious nerd. (@lukechazza97)


30th July 2017 at 11:00 am

Images from

Jim Steinfeldt