What Does OKNOTOK Mean in 2017?

The cover of 20th-anniversary of Radiohead's OK Computer

On June 23rd, to mark the 20th anniversary of OK Computer’s original release, Radiohead reissued the album as OKNOTOK, a two-disc set including the remastered original album, eight b-sides, and three previously unreleased tracks.

Since 1997, OK Computer has received unanimous critical praise and attained platinum certification in eight different countries, so a 20th-anniversary edition seems warranted. But the album and its b-sides were already compiled in a Collector’s Edition re-release in 2009, so we’re driven to wonder: why do we need another reissue? Does OKNOTOK matter in 2017, or does it just cash-in on the album’s mythic status? Is this something just for collectors, or can the lay Radiohead fan enjoy it?

Well, to begin to answer these questions, one must listen first to the three unreleased tracks. “I Promise,” which was released with an accompanying music video on June 2nd as OKNOTOK’s first single, is a steadily marching ballad that sounds more like “High and Dry” (from Radiohead’s second album, The Bends) than anything from OK Computer. A synthesized string part adds a delicate richness to the track as it progresses, but musically speaking, the song doesn’t develop that much. However, there are certain details in the production—specifically the reverb on Thom Yorke’s vocals—that give it a certain spaciousness more reminiscent of the latter album than the former. Lyrically, Yorke paints a cynical picture of unhealthy domestic attachment and 21st-century suburban ennui most resembling the classic OK Computer track “No Surprises.” We’re left with a song that sits somewhere between Bends-era and OK Computer-era Radiohead, acting as a kind of explanatory link between the two sounds.

The second track, “Man of War,” was released June 22nd, also with a music video . Of the three tracks, this one’s by far the best. Its uneasy movements from major to minor key anticipate the kind of dark chord progressions they would latter explore on Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief (think “Morning Bell” or “Scatterbrain” in particular). The track’s heavy piano chords aren’t far from “Karma Police,” but when it rocks, it hits as hard as “Electioneering” and “Paranoid Android.” Again, pretty strings sweetly complement the song’s softer, more sublime moments—but they drop into lower, fuller registers at the beginning of the chorus, a cinematic technique we saw play out more fully on last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool. The song’s lyrics are reminiscent of the dystopian malaise found in Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead more than anything else. “Man of War” places itself somewhere at the center of Radiohead’s general sound so much that I would call this an essential track, and its video is worth a watch too.

The last unreleased song, “Lift,” got some media attention in May after the band’s guitarist Ed O’Brien said on a BBC 6 Music interview  that the track was left off of OK Computer because of its “infectiousness”—the band often shies away from the spotlight and didn’t want to release a “big, anthemic” pop song. Indeed, “Lift” has a catchy vocal melody and a big, sing-along chorus—not unlike The Bends’ “Black Star.” There are a few electronic elements that mark it as an OK Computer-era song—synth strings in the verses and an ascending synth organ in the chorus. The lyrics give the track a feeling of unsettling familiarity and hint at the kind of paranoid incredulity one might have after being traumatically trapped in an elevator. Overall, it’s a good song but certainly not of the same caliber as anything from OK Computer.

The b-sides, most of which were originally released on the Airbag / How Am I Driving? EP, lean toward the rockier side of the OK Computer-era style, but many of them wouldn’t sound out of place on the album itself. I’ve always been a sucker for the airport ambience of “Meeting in the Aisle” and the unfurling, methodical balladry of “A Reminder.” Most of these songs are necessary listening for anyone interested in Radiohead, even the most uninitiated fans will find at least one track to latch onto. Ultimately, the previous unreleased tracks mesh well with these b-sides, and together they fill in the transitional space between The Bends and OK Computer nicely. The band has clearly considered the arrangement of OKNOTOK’s second disc in the interest of continuity, and it almost feels like a separate album—to use an analogy, it’s not too different from The Smashing Pumpkins’ b-sides compilation Pisces Iscariot, which is considered by many fans to be a proper album. That said, there are a few conspicuous omissions from OKNOTOK, namely the excellent Zero 7 and Fila Brazillia remixes of “Climbing Up the Walls,” which are featured on the 2009 collector’s edition along with all the b-sides, some live recordings, and a DVD of the album’s excellent videos.

Thus the Radiohead completist finds herself annoyed—she needs the unreleased tracks but already has most of the songs on the bonus disc. It seems like a good compilation for the casual fan, but if he finds himself wanting more, he’ll have to get the collector’s edition with its many redundancies. In that sense, OKNOTOK may be a money-making reissue.

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