Music criticism can seem quite arbitrary. When you agree with an album review, the words become scripture, a sacred text that reaffirm your beliefs about the world. When I read Rob Sheffield’s 4.5-star Rolling Stone review of Norman F—king Rockwell!, I felt how a boy in a [INSERT ALL-BOYS CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL NAME] sweatshirt must feel in Fulton. Yes, I am where I am supposed to be. Conversely, reading Ann Powers’ NPR review of the same album, I thought to myself, Why should we punish a woman for singing about love if that’s what is most important to her? No one punished St. Augustine for it in The Confessions. (Thanks, theology core.)
Some albums garner more of a consensus among critics. NFR! currently sits at 21 on the Album of the Year chart for 2019, so critics mostly agreed that it was a good album. (Powers praised parts of the album in spite of her criticism of Lana’s lamentations on “what [the singer] still guilelessly calls ‘love.’”) The consensus, of course, can be negative, as was the case with Lil Pump’s Harverd Dropout.
But if the consensus is positive, the album humbly begins its ascent to the land of the musical giants, where Nevermind and Rumors roam free. Now lingering in the presence of the greats, the album waits patiently as years dissolve into decades before a critic musters up the confidence to call it a “classic,” the most coveted, albeit vague title to be bestowed upon an album.
On occasion, an album is granted instant access to this lofty title. Such was the case with Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997. Barry Walters of SPIN lauded Radiohead’s “audacious sonic sprawl [as] the most appealingly odd effort by a name rock band in ages” when the album was released. OK Computer is ranked no. 2 on Album of the Year for 1997, and rightfully so: The masterful mashing of borderline bossa nova romance with chilling spurts of megalomaniac distortion on “Paranoid Android” announced the album’s arrival with dignity.
OK Computer remains a classic because of the ominous build of “Exit Music (For a Film)” and later raw desperation of “Karma Police.” As a whole, the album is operatic in its build and unrelenting in its refusal to provide any sense of catharsis. “Lucky” soars, like its predecessors, through stormy skies, and “The Tourist” plods along, beaten back by the sum of the album’s overwhelming sense of dread. Given individual inspection, each song has its own merits, although some more than others (“The Tourist”), but it isn’t a single bassline or string of words that makes an album a classic.
“When people declare Shakespeare the greatest author, they’re probably not double-checking Titus Andronicus before voicing that view,” Dai Griffiths wrote in his 2004 book 33 ⅓: Radiohead’s OK Computer—a book in which the critic considers the album’s “instant classic” status.
It is the memory of the chills, the shock, the immediacy associated with the first listen that makes an album a classic. Twenty-two years later I felt the same way about The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships that Griffiths and Walters felt about OK Computer—and so did a lot of other critics. That is, if I can call myself a “critic” after slogging behind the glow of run down desktops (ok computers, if you will) in a mouse-infested college newspaper office for two years.
Matty Healy, The 1975’s post-Instagram iteration of a new wave frontman, primed the album for comparisons to OK Computer early on.
“If you look at third albums, OK Computer or The Queen Is Dead—that’s what we need to do,” Healy told Q Magazine in 2017, according to NME.
A year and a half later, The 1975 achieved its moonshot vision. Following its Nov. 30, 2018-release, comparisons of 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships to OK Computer started popping up all over the Internet (perhaps ironically, for an album that is openly cynical about the Internet’s societal impact). Comparisons appeared in a SPIN “essential” review, a 5-star NME review, an 8.5-star Pitchfork review, and (with less buzz) a 5-star review in The Heights. The album remains the only album I have given a 5-star rating in my meager 2-year tenure, and the similarities between it and the iconic 1997 Radiohead album made the album an “instant classic” by the transitive property, which unquestionably applies to music as it does to math.
A year after the release of A Brief Inquiry, I still bop my head along to the glitzy ’80s pop beat of “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You),” croon the melancholic musings of “I Couldn’t Be More In Love,” and feel the familiar chill run up my spine when Healy ushers in his despotic vision of modernity with the punch drunk line, “We’re f—king in a car, shooting heroin,” on “Love It If We Made It.”
But, more importantly, a year after the album’s initial release, A Brief Inquiry’s cynical findings still hold true—and they’re likely to resonate as long as we live our lives between Instagram grids and document our history in Twitter moments. In 2004, Griffiths pinpointed “Fitter Happier,” a computer-narrated deluded dissertation with empty resolutions like “Will not cry in public” and the rank imagery of “A pig in a cage on antibiotics,” as the defining track of OK Computer. The obvious postmodern pastiche of A Brief Inquiry is most salient on “The Man Who Married A Robot,” a Siri-voiced track that stories the relationship between a man and “The Internet.”
It is from “The Man Who Married a Robot” that the album’s politics emanate. The lonely disassociation of “Be My Mistake,” the outright existential ambivalence of “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes),” and even the whole-hearted encouragement of “Give Yourself A Try” collide in just three minutes and 33 seconds. This is what it felt like to be alive in 2018 and 2019, and my guess is that the feeling will persist well beyond 2020. Music criticism can be arbitrary, but sometimes we get it right.
Featured Image by Dirty Hit