The case of Radiohead: concept albums 90s style

I’ve been reading a 2006 paper investigating the ‘canon of pop and rock albums’, by Von Appen and Doehring. In their paper, they provide a ‘meta-list’ of the greatest albums of all time, which compiles the results of 38 lists of ‘top albums’ from all over the world published between 1985 and 2004.

From their ‘meta-list’, it is interesting to observe that while the study was compiled using data from the ‘CD era’, the majority of records considered to be ‘classics’ were released in the ‘vinyl era’ before the 1980s. Maybe its just how ‘canons’ work? But no, i think there’s more to it.

Artists that feature in the canon are described by the authors as those who “produce records that are judged as innovative, original, expressive, diverse but also full of ‘well-written songs”. The appearance of numerous concept albums by artists such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Marvin Gaye suggests that concept albums carry an ‘innovative’ status that constitutes classification much like that outlined above.

British 1990s alternative rock group Radiohead are desribed here as an “artistically advanced band” – The authors argue that if Radiohead continue to release albums of the calibre described, they would soon find their works categorised by “white males of higher education and income, aged mainly twenty to forty” as ranking among the top albums of all time within the canon of pop and rock albums. Radiohead’s third album, OK Computer, provides an important discussion point in the development of concept albums, as it challenged previous understandings of concept albums by featuring many key characteristics (both musical and non-musical) of the concept album artform, despite the band actively denying the album’s reputation as being conceptual.

Close investigation of OK Computer will be important to include in my thesis discussion, as it offers a further understanding of Letts’ categorisation system, the importance of which is becoming clearer to me each week. For instance, how does OK Computer classify as a ‘resistant’ concept album, rather than a ‘thematic’’ or narrative’ form? And did the album contribute to the ongoing development of concept albums?

Letts explains that there are parallels between Radiohead’s OK Computer and the progressive- rock genre, particularly the use of the Mellotron keyboard, and the album’s “hypermetric complexity in cross-rhythms and time signatures”. Letts also suggests that Radiohead’s association with progressive rock for the release of OK Computer can be attributed to the album’s concept; “a musically unified depiction of man’s alienation in modern society”. Furthermore, Letts likens OK Computer’s lyrical topic to such progressive rock albums as Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) and Animals (1977) and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung (1971) and Thick as a Brick (1972).

Similar themes are explored in a sinister fashion on David Bowie’s 1995 concept album, 1.Outside. It seems that the 1990s era had more conceptual madness to offer than initially met my eye.. It’s an era worthy of much more investigation this week, as it will help me shape my further discussions of concept albums, technology, and ‘the now’.

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About simonwoodhonours

Simon Wood (Honours in Media and Communication) is an RMIT student whose specialist discipline is in the 'contemporary music industry'. For his honours study in 2013, Simon will be researching the ‘concept album’, and its significance within the contemporary music industry.
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