Spin just came out with a list of the 100 greatest albums of the last 20 years. Their number 1 is OK Computer by Radiohead because “it not only forecast a decade of music but uncannily predicted our global culture of communal distress.” And while the last thing that anyone needs is another essay on the brilliance of Radiohead, there is an important point here.
I have been thinking recently about modern music and trying to determine the current trends in music and what separates the music of today with the music of the past.
It seems to me that the best music today thinks critically about every instrument on a song. I have noticed a rise in the importance of drummers (think Bloc Party and Q and not U for example) in a song. Drummers use to just support a song, banging out eighth notes on the high hat, hitting the snare on 2 and 4, and put in a fill when going from one part to another so everyone knows when the changes are coming. Today, drummers create melodies and hooks in their beats and really pushed themselves to the forefront.
The roles of other instruments have also changed. Bassists no longer support songs by playing the root of the chord, but color chords and create melodies on their own. They are also using distortion and other effects to texture their songs in ways that were not done in the past. Keyboards are casting aside triads and adding melodies and hooks all their own.
With other instruments increasing their importance, the guitar is languishing. I can't think of another time in music when guitars have been as unimportant as they are now. We have no real guitar heroes, and are better for it. In fact, when I thinking about writing a song, I start with the drum beat and bass line then add the guitar part. The guitars are always last in my mind, adding something extra or creating dynamics but I don't think a guitar part can make a song on its own anymore. I can't think of a riff that makes a song in the way that the Keith Richards made “Satisfaction.” When was the last time you heard a new rock song that made you want to play the air guitar?
To get an idea of what I mean, think about Nirvana's Nevermind. I think this album is the last great album in the older vein of rock music. The songs are fantastic, but the instruments basically just support them. The bass just plays the root of the guitar line, following it almost exactly. The drums have some interesting beginnings, think “In Bloom” but mostly just play it straight in the verses and choruses. The strength of Nevermind is in the songs, and the songs only.
I contrast this with OK Computer. OK Computer is a great album because Radiohead took the time to think about every single part. Just listen to the opening to “Airbag” to get an idea. The way the guitars work together, then the drum beat comes in. The bass comes in later, and loud up front playing single staccato, funky notes. A cello then plays a lovely melody in the beginning of the second verse. Just the whole progression of the song, each part is unique and adds to the song in ways that were not done before. In the first minute of the first song on OK Computer you know that Radiohead is thinking about music differently.
There are better odes to the genius of Radiohead out there, my point is the album started a new trend in music, and a new way of thinking about rock music. Understanding what made this album unique is important to understanding what is going on in music today.