Radiohead: “The Tourist” (OK Computer, 1997)
When I filled out my People’s List for Pitchfork last week, I didn’t have to think too hard about what I’d put at number one. I knew it’d be OK Computer. I didn’t put it there because I think it’s the best album of 1996-2011 (it’s absurd to claim that anything is the definitive best of any time period) or because I particularly care about its overall importance as a landmark record (though it is a landmark record in many ways). I put it there because it’s the album that makes the most sense at #1 on my list.
Participating in a list like this always makes me think about the idea of canon, and specifically about collective canon versus personal canon. There is a real possibility that my #1 could wind up being the collective #1. It could also land at #25—I don’t know what will happen, which is part of the fun.
I think in this digital age, there’s a real case to be made for collective canon. Everyone has to start somewhere on the path to becoming an engaged listener, and the final result of this list, taken together with other compiled lists, can help give someone a starting point in an environment where nearly everything is available all the time.
The collective canon can become self-reinforcing, though, so I think it’s important that Pitchfork’s People’s List feature lets everyone who fills out a ballot share their own list, their personal canon, with whomever they choose. Because once you’ve got a sense of the music that a lot of people agree is really good, it’s up to you to start figuring out how to branch out from there. Finding people who share your listening sensibilities is one good way to do that.
When I was young (dinosaur alert), we found about this stuff from books and magazines, and from sharing within a usually very small group. When you found something you really loved—hardcore punk from the 80s, say—you might seek specialized publications that could clue you in on what the specialized sub-canon was, and it was easy in your small group to find your tastes coming together. Subculture was incredibly powerful.
Now, though, you’re not limited to a small, in-person group of peers who will recommend things to you. The group is much larger now, a combination of those same in-person people and people you find online. And because the group is so much bigger now, I think it’s harder to become boxed into limited listening habits, where you identify strongly with a certain genre or subculture because that’s what you have available. Your circle is much more likely to be breached by someone who loves what you love and can turn you on to something you never thought twice about. And then you can easily go get that thing.
I wonder what this means for subcultures. The internet can, of course, abet self-reinforcement, but you have to really try to limit what you’re exposed to, because all the feeds in the sidebars of the sites you visit, and the reblogs you didn’t expect from the person you just started following, will find you. Most of the personal canons I’ve seen feature quite a bit of variety, and I think that’s the wave of the future. You might dress goth or put your wallet on a chain and slick your hair back, but it won’t reflect the music you listen to, necessarily.
Anyway, my personal canon for the range of years in question here is actually quite a bit more expansive than my list of 100 albums might suggest—if we were to break it down to tracks, it’d be much more all over the place in terms of genre. There are, for me, certain types of music that lend themselves to the album format better than others, so the medium skews my list.
Radiohead makes it to #1 on my list for many reasons. I love the record, which is the most important reason, but it also came into my life at a certain point where it was bound to loom large over other albums. When I bought it, I listened to very little other new music, and it, more than any other album, opened a door for me to what was going on in music now, rather than before I was born, which was the era I’d gravitated toward naturally (and honestly, I still listen to more music from prior to my birth in 1980 than I do from after I was born).
It took me a long time to notice the two songs stuck way at the end of this album. Maybe it’s just that the arrangements of “Lucky” and “The Tourist” aren’t quite as novel as the ones before them, or that they’re more subtle, but they came into focus much more slowly than everything else. “The Tourist” almost seems designed to be out of focus, with its drifting rhythm and guitars that hang in the air like seed pods on a windless day.
Is the “slow down” refrain prophetic? Did this band see how fast our lives were going to get when instant communication became the norm and try to warn us to take things easy? Probably not. But sometimes it reminds me to get up from my computer and say OK to something else.