#3: U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987) vs. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)

Well shit. How am I supposed to pick a winner out of these two? Welcome to what I consider the real #1. These are giants that loom large in my musical journey. They are Event Albums from the days when those were still were still a thing. Albums that people lined up to buy. Albums that everyone you knew were listening to, puzzling over, talking about. Albums that, in retrospect, help define their era for those who were there. For a much more eloquent description of such things, check out Spill’s review of the 30th anniversary edition of Joshua Tree.

I considered declaring a tie. I really did. Alas, that would be a cop out, so let’s do this thing and try to decide which of these awesome collections of awesomeness is more awesome. Let me pour some observations onto the page and see where the process takes me. A Q&A with myself:

Q. Any overarching thoughts about this pair of bands/albums to kick things off?

Well, both bands were the biggest/best/most important band in the world when these albums came out – and you can feel that Magnitude in the music. Neither band is American, though one of them seemed to wish they were (hint, the one posing in the California desert). And both bands are true bands; they share songwriting credit and listening to their music you hear how impeccably they construct songs together — each player’s contribution integral to the whole.

Q. What are the albums about?

OK Computer is about the perils of technology, and warns that we are losing our humanity and ability to communicate. Joshua Tree is spiritual and political, seeking higher truth while railing against injustice and suffering in the world. OK Computer is digitized rock that sounds like it came from space; the finest headphone music since Pink Floyd. Joshua Tree sounds both earthy and epic, inspired by American landscapes. OK Computer bends the mind; Joshua Tree tugs the heart. OK Computer is more challenging; Joshua Tree is more enjoyable. OK Computer was prescient. Joshua Tree breeds nostalgia.

Q. And how do they make you feel?

Joshua Tree has its share of sadness and outrage, but is ultimately optimistic. To say “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” implicitly means the search continues. OK Computer, however, is just bleak, bleak, bleak – a dreary dystopian future. Even when the music sounds like a lullaby, the lyrics cut your soul (I’m looking at you, “No Surprises”).

The outlook is matched by the singers. Thom Yorke’s voice is haunting and otherworldly. Bono’s voice is big and commanding (a cynic might say bombastic), reaching for the rafters on almost every tune. I find Yorke’s voice is often just part of the sonic soundscape, and sometimes I barely notice he’s actually singing words. Not so with Bono. With Bono, the words are the point.

Q. But which album is better?

Well, Joshua Tree opens better. Let’s face it, the 1-2-3 punch of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You” is ridiculously good. Possibly the strongest opening in rock history. We’ve all heard those songs so much you may be sick of them. Get over it and try listening to them like it’s your first time. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

(To assist in this exercise, may I suggest listening to the live version of “Where the Streets…” on the 30th anniversary edition? It’s hard not to get caught up as 70,000 ecstatic fans positively lose their shit during that extended opening, the song building bit by bit, hitting one new crescendo after another until Bono’s vocals finally kick in: “I want to run, I want to hide…” Woooo hoooo!)

OK Computer ends better, with “No Surprises”, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. Trippy, surreal and gorgeous, all three. They transport you (as does just about every other song, for that matter). And, having dragged us through hell for most of the album, Radiohead even toss in a little optimism near the end, beginning with penultimate “Lucky”, in which Yorke tells us “it’s going to be a glorious day/I feel my luck could change”. Even better, on closer “The Tourist”, he offers us some very sound advice: “Hey Man, slow down…Idiot, slow down.” Word (too bad the world didn’t follow it).

Q. So what’s the deciding factor? Quit stalling already!

Well, I will say this – at its best (“Karma Police”, “Let Down”), OK Computer is probably better. But Joshua Tree has no weaknesses, while Ok Computer has two: “Electioneering” and “Climbing Up the Walls”. This is not to say these are bad songs, it’s just that they are not quite interesting enough to make up for their unpleasantness. (I’m also not super keen on “Fitter, Happier”, but that’s mostly because I feel that creepy robot voice judging me – I must confess it’s a brilliant concept.)

Q. I sense where this is going – you sure you want to go there? The hard-core music aficionados will judge you fiercely.

I admit I’m a bit surprised. Going in, I suspected Radiohead was going to take this one, but having now listened to both records about a million times, and talking it through, I see where I’m being pulled. Maybe I’m getting old, so I’m starting to favour comfort over cynicism.

Or maybe Joshua Tree is just a bit more timeless. It’s certainly a more inspiring listen amidst the dreary politics and social conflict that surrounded us in 2020. OK Computer may have predicted the disconnected, troubling world we’re now living in, but Joshua Tree is the sort of balm we need to endure it.

WINNER: U2, Joshua TreeĀ (5 points)


80s: 23

90s: 24

80s: 72
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #2: Prince, ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) vs. Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’ (1992)