While OK Computer is important in its own right, The Bends transformed Radiohead from being a potentially indistinguishable Alternative Nation contributor to a band who has redefined the term "rock" for the past two decades.
Most people have played the "music association" game with their favorite bands. In the '80s and early '90s, I heard plenty of "R.E.M. is this generation’s Beatles" comparisons, partly because of how each of their mid-to-late career albums saw them undergoing an evolution. For at least one glorious album in the late '80s, the talk was that Guns N’ Roses were going to be the next Rolling Stones.
One comparison that frequently came up during the '90s and early '00s was how Radiohead were this generation’s Pink Floyd. The basis for this comparison primarily involved two albums: The Bends and OK Computer. The former represented the band at their most focused, while the later represented them at their most ambitious. If you believed the Pink Floyd comparison, the general consensus was that Dark Side of the Moon was to The Bends what The Wall was to OK Computer.
Today, the popular "which is better?" debate usually focuses on Kid A versus OK Computer, but before 2000, that spirited argument belonged to The Bends versus OK Computer. And for those who loved both albums, a cop-out argument (which I used repeatedly) was that while OK Computer was a better album in terms of overall ambition and concept, The Bends was a better "front-to-back" listen.
Judging by its initial album sales, many outside the UK discovered The Bends retroactively through OK Computer. When it came out, The Bends was an easy album to overlook; it was released at a time when the bands that became popular during the alternative music explosion of the early ‘90s were releasing their follow-ups. Some were artistically successful (Nirvana’s In Utero), some were commercially successful (Pearl Jam’s Vs. or Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple), and some were casualties, destined for one-hit wonder status (Blind Melon’s Soup).
In the mid-'90s, Radiohead were already saddled with "Nirvana-lite" accusations stemming from their hit single "Creep". Determined not to let that single define them, Radiohead butted heads with each other, their label, and their producer during the recording sessions. Just as their peers were embracing a more dance-oriented sound (see Blur or Pulp), or inventing a new sound altogether (see Tricky or Portishead), Radiohead was rooted in the goal of making a rock album -- albeit one that was designed to sound like what a rock album should sound like in the new millennium.
A song-by-song comparison between The Bends and OK Computer is futile, because each album was created to accomplish vastly different goals. In terms of an opening track, "Planet Telex" set out to be nothing less than a reintroduction to the band. If an average radio listener could have mixed up Radiohead with another MTV Alternative Nation favorite with "Creep", "Planet Telex" made sure that mistake wasn't repeated in 1995. The shimmering, echoey feedback lead-in of that song from guitarist Johnny Greenwood blurred the lines of what keyboards and guitars were supposed to sound like. Thom Yorke's voice sounded far more confident and angelic than anything on Pablo Honey, but the chorus was anything but uplifting: "everything is broken," he sings, "everyone is broken".
In order for OK Computer to work properly, a single song had to have multiple "suites" ("Paranoid Android") and a disjointed interlude ("Fitter Happier") had to separate its sides A and B. The opening track "Airbag" didn't have the burden of having to reintroduce the band to a fickle audience. "Airbag" instead served to prepare the listener for the next hour. From the title to the repeated flight imagery, "Airbag" was the musical equivalent of a plane takeoff. The song rarely makes the top of peoples' "Best Song on OK Computer" list, but no other song on that album was better suited for a leadoff track.
With The Bends, listeners were given an appropriate balance of rockers ("My Iron Lung", "Just"), ballads ("Fake Plastic Trees", "Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was"), and arena-ready epics (the aforementioned "Planet Telex", "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"). In each case, though, each of these genres was given a modern makeover. When ranking the best albums of the '90s, Rolling Stone memorably wrote that U2 "would have sold crack to nuns to make this record". (The publication ranked The Bends number 21 while OK Computer landed at number three).
The most common divide between The Bends and OK Computer, for both fans and critics, is that The Bends is a phenomenal connection of songs, but OK Computer is considered Radiohead's magnum opus. The Bends is a great album, but OK Computer is a concept album. It isn't a concept album in that there's a storyline laid out like Pink Floyd's The Wall or the Who's Tommy; instead, the overarching theme of dread of losing your sense of self in world that is becoming more and more connected is a recurring theme in most every track on the album. And for many music fans, there is a knee-jerk reaction to want to favor a concept album in a band's discography over other works, primarily because pulling off a concept album is a far more challenging task than creating an album's worth of songs that don't have a necessary connection.
On the other hand, there is also a reflexive reaction of other music fans to reject that very impulse to favor a band's concept album over their other works. OK Computer is saddled with tags like "Best album of the '90s" and "undisputed classic". The Bends, meanwhile got the luxury of flying under the radar (again, at least outside the UK) for a few years. Like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, the record enjoyed the luxury of radio outlets not overplaying any of its tracks. With the exception of a tossed-off line in Clueless, The Bends enjoyed a healthy, organic word-of-mouth popularity instead of it being anointed an instant classic like its little brother. The critics may have been right about OK Computer, but people tended to love The Bends because of the songs they heard on the album, or from other people who insisted they give Radiohead another listen, not because it was on everyone's "best of" list.
True to the spirit of the album, Radiohead dedicated The Bends to Bill Hicks, another artist who relished in the challenge of putting a definitive stamp on the familiar. Radiohead took full advantage of the artistic freedom gained on The Bends and created their own grand artistic statement with OK Computer. From that album, they used all of their artistic and financial capital to deconstruct what an album truly means in the 21st century with Kid A. Awarding any of these albums the title of "best Radiohead album" is a moot point. Each is a classic in its own right. But a strong case can be made for the album that transformed Radiohead from being a potentially indistinguishable Alternative Nation contributor to a band who has redefined the term "rock" for the past two decades.
Splash image from the music video to "No Surprises" (OK Computer, 1997).