Top 12 Songs on OK Computer
By The Staff | 22 November 2005
12. "Fitter Happier"
There were those among the staff who thought that perhaps this should be made into a top 11 songs of OK Computer, saving anybody from having to write about “Fitter Happier.” These people overlook the fact that “Fitter Happier” is integral to the success of the album. Sure, it may not be a song, per se, and it’s sure a hell of a downer coming off “Karma Police,” but then again that’s sort of the point. “Fitter Happier” encapsulates everything that Thom Yorke is raging against on this album: computers, conformity, fascism, emotional emptiness, pragmatism over idealism, and the cruelty of modern life. Johnny Greenwood plays Mr. Wizard behind all of this, giving it an eerie combination of computer whirs and samples. Plus, c’mon, it’s a two-minute track of a computer talking nestled in the center of the best album of the ‘90s. That takes balls.-Peter Hepburn
This is probably my least favorite song on OK Computer, much in the same way that “Falling For You” is my ‘least favorite’ song on Pinkerton or Miss February was my least favorite playmate from 2002.
Rock nerds like to get drunk, and when they do, they often end up engaging in the seemingly never ending debate of: “who’s the most disposable member of Radiohead?” I always argue Colin Greenwood, but the posse usually ends up deciding on Ed O’Brien (“handsome dude whose contributions are non-existent save the death wail in the final minute of live versions of ‘Lucky’”) or drummer Phil Selway (“c’mon, he’s the drummer”). Fair enough. But Mr. Selway fucking owns “Electioneering.”
Granted, the song wouldn’t sound so utterly evil without Johnny Greenwood’s inexplicably crude honky-tonk riff, but no other song in the Radiohead catalog can boast a backbeat like this. Did Godrich get Janet Weiss to sit in? Selway pounds his cowbell to within an inch of its life, and he actually gets a rare chance to act out his Peart-ian fantasies with actual fills; like the thunderous bridge at the 2:50 mark and the series of skull-crushers throughout the tune’s final minute. I generally associate Radiohead songs with a whiny Thom Yorke and Johnny’s mastery, but the only thing I associate “Electioneering” with is drums. Big, fuck-off scary ones. Selway is God.-David Goldstein
10. "The Tourist"
At first, this song was a bit of an anti-climax for me – after the dazzling, multi-textured guitar assault of OKC’s first eleven tracks, a sleepy, simply-structured ballad seemed like a drab way to close it out. And while “The Tourist” is still far from being one of my favourites, I’ve developed a gradual respect for it, if only for the way it brings all of the album’s ruminations on capitalism, disillusionment, and the erosion of self to a desolate and even kind of shocking conclusion. Here, Yorke has completely divorced himself from his own body and being; barked at by dogs like a ghost, screaming at himself to stop speeding, made real only by the “sparks” of his own pointless frustration (or at least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted it…). While the music may not be up to snuff with the rest of the record (though the egg timer going off at the last second is a great touch), “The Tourist,” along with other non-favourites like “Fitter Happier” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” is one of the songs that make OK Computer an album album, and it ought not to be dismissed.
9. "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
The first few times I listened to Ok Computer in its entirety held a real sense of musical discovery. Fortunate enough to have stumbled upon Radiohead’s seminal work minus the whiff of hype or burdensome word of mouth, I was floored. There. No more hyperbole. We know the album’s transcendent / life-changing / frickin’ awesome, sure; but we’re here to talk about the songs, of which, “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is a personal favourite.
So, what to say. Hmm.
Well, it’s track three and has the unenviable task of following up one of the most, if not the most, perfectly insular opening singles of all time. Mediocre bands would complacently churn out some chaffing filler at this point but, hell, a mediocre band wouldn’t have written “Paranoid Android.”
But enough on “Android”; I’m too scared to write about that song and, come to think of it, maybe “Subterranean Homesick Alien” wasn’t a good choice, either. Could I pick anything from Ok Computer and try to maintain a distance air of suave cool, dissecting the notes and/or relating the song to its psychosocial environment? Well, I guess I’ll have to leave the philosophising to someone else, ‘cos there’s no way I can start talking about it in a detached, rational manner like the last couple of years of my life never existed.
“Subterranean Homesick Alien” is just that: alien. The guitars seem to float over a hovering bass, the drums rolling into some fourth dimension, lyrics bleated in paroxysms, the bubbling chorus diffusing into airy verses. And even with Thom’s voice almost buried under a cataclsmic surge of fluttering guitar lines, “uptight! UPTIGHT!!” manages to sound both haunting and sincere. Perfect.-Alan Baban
8. "Exit Music (for a Film)"
Track four’s a tricky spot to fill. In theory, you’ve grabbed their attention with the opener (“Airbag,” check), wowed them with the follow-up (“Paranoid Android,” double-check), and impressed them with your songwriting nerves on the third (“Subterranean Homesick Alien,” triple-fucking-check). Track four necessitates something somber, right? Obviously it’s the best album ever (or so this list’s existence would imply), so Radiohead’s gonna bring on the acoustic guitars, a wilting little line that dangles like a broken neck. The lyrics are an intensely humanized “Romeo & Juliet,” although beneath these inhuman synthlines it sounds like they’re murmuring sweet nothings to one another from cages hanging in a warehouse, the stench of intestines rising up from the sleek floor below.
Also: they undo the track four clichés by bringing the bluster four minutes in, proto-“Myxomatosis” fuzz flying furiously and the robot choir rising in calamitous celebration, a grotesque hymn of praise, a declaration: “And now, we are one, in everlasting peace!” And then the elation wears away, the breathless comedown of a teenager on whippits, the floor comes back in focus, and Yorke sobs, “We hope that you choke” over and over again, a horrifying realization that the bad dream might not be a dream after all. Helluva fourth track, at least.
My personal sublime Radiohead moment came at one of the worst concerts I’ve ever been to. In the summer of 2001, I went to see Radiohead perform outdoors at Suffolk Downs, a horseracing track outside Boston. The show was full of towering jocks (I’m 6’1”, these guys had to be at least 6’5” and there were about 10,000 of them) and miniature college girls all shoving and giddy and doing various drugs.
So anyway, Radiohead came out and started playing assorted songs from Amnesiac and Kid A and my friends and I couldn’t see a thing because of all the jocks, so we were watching mainly on the video screens off to either side of the stage. The music sounded okay, but vaguely detached and not really loud enough to quiet the din of college students who were all like, “Radiohead fucking rules, maaaan.”
But, then, about ten songs into the set, I noticed the opening guitar effects from “Lucky.” “Lucky” had never been one of my favorite songs from OK Computer, but Thom and co proceeded to absolutely nail the song. Like, nailed it so well even the jocks shut up for a minute to appreciate it. Even now, I’m hard-pressed to explain why exactly this song effected me like it did. Sure, it has one of the richest bass lines of any Radiohead song; sure, it’s got a seering, moaning, otherworldly lead guitar riff; sure, it’s got the Thom Yorke thing going on where he turns being depressed and the possibility of not being depressed into the transcendent melodrama it really is when it’s happening inside your head instead of stringing together a bunch of bullshit clichés like most people do to try to express it. Whatever the case, that performance of “Lucky” demonstrated Radiohead’s full power and made it one of my favorite songs on the album.
6. "Climbing Up the Walls"
For a long time “Climbing Up the Walls” was my favorite OK Computer track. In retrospect it’s probably a bad choice (and with the rest of the herd I’ve moved back toward “Paranoid Android”/”Karma Police” territory), but there’s nonetheless something undeniably great about it.
It’s all about that sense of a suffocating proximity and deep-seated paranoia; they just seem to be able to find a new way to express it every time. Rather than play it psychotic (“Paranoid Android”), angry (“Electioneering”), or resigned (“No Surprises”), here they go for the darkest, violent core of the feelings. First off, we get Radiohead’s first dabbling in big old drums, later to be nailed home with “There There” but still sounding pretty bad-ass and grandiose here. Yorke’s creepy-as-hell maniacal wails sound great behind that layer of distortion and Greenwood’s sinister echoes and guitar torturing. The string section during the first half of the song has always sounded misplaced to me, but then when everything comes crashing in on the band as Greenwood and O’Brien just destroy the song starting at the 3:08 mark, it all makes sense. It’s just Radiohead showing us that psychological unraveling comes in all shapes and colors.
Or, as Chet Betz so aptly puts it, “To convey the excellence of this song, my favorite track on OK Computer, exceeds the reach of my writing capabilities and my paltry human mind. I’ve only come up with the following: ‘Climbing Up the Walls’ > Mom.”
5. "No Surprises"
You know how when you first read No Logo and first found out what a sweatshop was and then you decided you’d never buy Nike any more or Polo or Calvin Klein and would only wear ponchos as the official uniform for your crusade to Chng Wrld fr Bttr but then you graduated from your undergrad program and realized you couldn’t get a decent-paying job in your small little city with just an English Lit degree so you went back to school and did something like Accounting or Law or Accounting Law and your friend who was fascinated with Human Rights realized he could never pay off his student loan practicing Human Rights Law before he and his girlfriend were too old to have kids so he also did something like Tax Law and the last you heard about him he was a tax lawyer somewhere in Sweden but you don’t know where for sure because you’ve been too busy busting your ass at your new job to keep in touch with him and even on Fridays you don’t have time to sit down and e-mail because you have to iron your new Polos in the morning on newly-CHRISTENED Casual Fridays which Polos you’ve justified by saying that you bought them at a factory outlet for dirt cheap and they are therefore the cheap-yet-acceptable Casual Friday or Golfing outfit at your Accounting or Law or Accounting Law firm which pays you enough money to pay off your student debt and still buy nice clothes but doesn’t always afford you the time to collect your thoughts and organize them in such a way as to express them carefully and considerately in the absolute most perfect way that your old friends in Sweden deserve for even remembering you after all this time so you never finish that draft e-mail and slowly, every day, get further out of touch, but somewhat closer to paying off your student loan, at which point you will dedicate the surplus money you earn to Chngng Wrld fr Bttr or a new suit, but you don’t know which because you’re not sure when you’re getting your promotion which will necessitate the suit so you just invest your money and Watch. It. Slowly. Grow.? This song documents that. Especially if you hate golf.-Aaron Newell
4. "Karma Police"
“Karma Police” is often unfairly snubbed in critical discussion of OK Computer. Mention it to your friends and you’ll get nervous shrugs or arguments that it’s no “Paranoid Android” (granted) or “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (huh?). Perhaps this is because of the goofy video for the song, or maybe it was because “KP” was one of the few Radiohead songs off OK Computer that was …gasp… widely played on the radio! We’re not talking internet, podcast, blogcast or college radio either —- we’re talking honest to god Clear Channel good(evil)ness.
Shit, can you imagine your high-school aged self driving along with your mom to the grocery store, listening to the classic rock radio mainstays the Who and the Stones and suddenly the DJ blindsides you with “Karma Police”? As you’re pinching your thigh trying to hold back the tears of joy/confusion/angst during the sublime opening piano/acoustic guitar riff, your mom asks, “Is this Pink Floyd or something?” And while you really want to explain to your mom that you think Pink Floyd sucks ass and could never approach the melodic richness or emotional resonance of “Karma Police,” you’re still trying to blink back those tears and muffling the urge to start yodeling along, “Karma Police! Arrest this man! He talks in maths! He buzzes like a fridge! He’s like a detuned RADDDDIIIOOOOOO!!!”
By now, your mom has started giving you a weird look, she knows something’s up, she can tell you’re on the verge of something odd, that you’ve just turned into the parking lot for the local supermarket and you think you might be okay. But then the final crushing blow comes in at the 2:34 mark when the piano rushes back in and you start chanting along, “FOR A MINUTE THERE I LOST MYSELF phew FOR A MINUTE THERE I LOST MYSELF!” Your mom parks the car, looks over at you, starts to say something and then just gets out of the car, saying, “I’ll…uh…be back in a few minutes.”
But this happened to everyone, surely. This is why we’re sheepish about acknowledging the simple brilliance of this song, right?
Think about the monumental task of turning a five chord rock song into this.
The sweeping, propulsive intro that opens the album and beautifully dissolves into the ringing A chord that carries the verses, only to (gloriously) reprise at the end. The "recorded, sampled with an Akai S3000 sampler and then laboriously edited and manipulated over two days on the band’s Macintosh" drums, lovingly inspired by DJ Shadow (Thom’s namedrop, not mine), that add a distorted jitter to the melodic warmth that pushes the whole thing over the top. The fractured bassline that perfectly compliments that beat, pounding in and out of the song, focused —- like the layers of surrounding effects and guitar leads —- more on atmosphere than merely playing along, also playing into Godrich’s spacious, elastic production that masterfully ties it all together. And I think Thom Yorke did some stuff, too, probably.
The more attention you start to pay a track like this, the more you start to understand why this is one of the few albums music geeks the internet wide can openly agree on. It’s the kind of obsessive and obsessed over attention to detail that a) is really hard to not respect, even when you’re not assuming the role of the miserable and joyless Music Critic; b) left so many of us trying to find ridiculous layers to this record (links to 1984 and Hitchhiker’s Guide! What the hell those numbers in the booklet mean!) because, hey, if they go through that much trouble with their music...; and c) has allowed OK Computer, and its opening track, to age so well. Eight and a half years later, I’m still floored every time I hear that riff.
2. "Let Down"
It twinkles to life; a bass pulses and withdrawn drums patter stately undercurrents. Lyrics of colloquial nothings and kick universal pebbles: “Transport. Motorways and tramlines. Starting and then stopping. Taking off for nowhere.” Oblique understatements; smashed bugs; the rush of machines and the deadly churn. All we can hope is to grow wings, they’re saying—perhaps we’ll end up windshield fodder but at least we got off the fucking ground, right?
It’s the most “perfect” song on Ok Computer—and by that I don’t necessarily mean that it’s the best, just that it’s the best utilization of “formal” “rock” structures.” A verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus, an interlude, an outro, all of it wrapping together an impossibly constructed feeling. It’s not necessarily sad (although it certainly kind of is), but obviously a song called “Let Down” isn’t happy, either. Between those spidering guitars is an awful lot of empty space, and hope creeps its meek head through, a feeble grin spreads. And then the soaring, impudent, unregistered, hysterical closing cracks its skull on the subway floor, and the universe twinkles on, unaware and unremorseful. Ready for my big, argumentative declaration? No song in the history of pop music captures the feeling of being a blip on the radar screen better than this one. It’s not the best song Radiohead has ever recorded, but it is the most perfect, and, to this critic, the most emotionally resonant.
1. "Paranoid Android"
I mean, I don’t know where to start. I can’t explain that giddy combination of exhilaration and dread I always get when “Airbag” fades out and those four digital beeps (which sound exactly like the noises made by the microwave in my old house) count in “Paranoid Android’s” dizzyingly complex opening arpeggios. I can’t explain how much the detached rage of Thom Yorke’s vocals inspired my gradual politicization through high school, or why as recently as yesterday I caught myself trying to hum the brief white noise breakdown before the “rain down on me” segment of the song.
“Paranoid Android” has been called the “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the ’90s, but fuck that – nothing before or since has ever, ever sounded like this song. OK Computer is the perfect marriage of prog’s forward-thinking sonic textures and punk’s righteous anger, and “Paranoid Android” is its musical and thematic centrepiece, a brutal Thom Yorke fever dream where some unwelcome noise from the next loft quickly morphs into delusions of grandeur, beheadings, empty ranting against materialism, torrential downpours, and eventually, armageddon. And dudes, this was the first single, and it actually got decent airtime. Proof positive, if any was needed, of Radiohead’s supremacy over all mainstream rock in the late ’90s, Generation X never sounded as eloquently pissed off as it did with “Paranoid Android” and OK Computer, and I doubt we’ll ever see their like again.