Musicians have grappled with role of technology in our lives and society since folk singers penned songs about railroads and the cotton gin, and probably even before that. When computers entered into the societal landscape in the late ‘70s, naturally rock n’ roll artists responded, penning some awesome records dealing with computers’ effect on mankind. Here are the 10 best by our estimation.
Honorable Mention: The Who, Lifehouse (1978)
Intended as the follow-up to Tommy, Pete Townshend would eventually abandon this rock opera in favor of recording Who’s Next. Lifehouse began as a story similar to The Matrix, post-apocalyptic with drone-like humans consuming programmed experiences through test tubes in a mainframe grid. Townsend even envisioned an interactive concert experience, but succumbed to a nervous breakdown when he couldn’t pull everything together.
#10 Datarock, Datarock (2005)
The Norwegian dance-rock outfit generated its name combining their native word for “computer”—datamaskin—and their preferred genre of music, a garage-y approach to rock n’ roll. The album single “Fa-Fa-Fa” received early exposure in an ad for the iPod Nano, and sounds exactly like their name suggests, with thumping digital drum beats and funky, percussive guitar. This became the indie-rock template for 2005-’07.
#9 Billy Idol, Cyberpunk (1993)
Billy Idol did his homework with this record—his research included reading Beyond Cyberpunk! by Gareth Branwyn (on HyperCard!) and consulted with bOING bOING zine founder Mark Frauenfelder to guide his foray into hacker culture. This inspired Idol to release the album as a multimedia digipak, one of the first of its kind, though critics ultimately panned the effort at the time.
#8 Granddaddy, The Sophtware Slump (2000)
Songwriter Jason Lytle’s juxtaposes mopey, pastoral indie rock against Y2K technological mythology in his storytelling, which centers around a recurring android named Jed. It’s an ode to technology-induced alienation and disposability, a recurring theme in music from the turn of the millennium. This example happens to be an exceptionally beautiful mish-mash of acoustic sounds affected by various digital filters and squelch.
#7 Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (2013)
The French electronica duo has always incorporated futurism themes into their recordings, but their latest offering is a sonic throwback to the past, with vintage sounds from the ‘70s and ‘80s supplied by Chic guitarist Nile Rogers, custom-built modular synths, and vocoders. The effect takes us back to the diode matrix early days of RAM in the funkiest way imaginable.
#6 Garbage, Version 2.0 (1998)
The follow-up to the band’s wildly popular eponymous debut, Version 2.0 sought to combine electronic elements without fully transmogrifying the band’s organic rock sound—and it worked both critically and commercially for Garbage. The slick-sounding record had enough pop sensibility to become certified gold or higher in 13 countries. There’s no telling if that sort of success would have come if Garbage kept the original working title, Sad Alcoholic Clowns.
#5 Herbie Hancock, Future Shock (1983)
Jazz piano legend Herbie Hancock famously melded hip-hop elements into this funky, electro-themed recording, best known for the “Rockit” video, which features dancing robots and turntable scratching. Future Shock shares a title a 1970 novel by futurist author Alvin Toffler that is set in a post-industrialist society, wherein goods have become disposable, and technology has made social engagement superficial and bereft of meaning. Sound familiar?
#4 Neil Young, Trans (1982)
Neil Young threw everyone a curveball with this release—his band Crazy Horse included—with his heavy use of digital synclavier, vocoder, and Kraftwerk-inspired drum machines. The song lyrics for “Sample and Hold” seem to depict a computer dating service for robots, but really, the album expressed the challenges Young faced while learning to communicate with his young son born with cerebral palsy. Digital vocal effects on songs like “Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)” and “We R In Control” demonstrate this vision.
#3 Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
This critically-lauded album brushes technology themes like artificial intelligence, synthetic against organic, human emotion contrasted with digital nihilism, while inserting a lot of cool-sounding bloops and beeps along the way. The high-watermark of the Flaming Lips career, Yoshimi elevated them from psychedelic cult heroes to summer festival headliners.
#2 Kraftwerk, Computer World (1981)
Virtually any Kraftwerk album could make this list, but this one by the German electronica pioneers is perhaps their most prima facie example of the “computers-rising-to-power” theme in which the band immersed itself. “Computer Love” is a ballad to PC companionship decades ahead of Joaquin Phoenix and Her; “Home Computer” is the programmers anthem, with its refrain: I program my home computer / Beam myself into the future. The soft, intense grooves are so, so crispy.
#1 Radiohead, OK Computer (1998)
This self-produced magnum opus by Radiohead frequents best of all time lists, and it truly is a work of genius, an anxious look into 21st century culture, with its hyper-connected media and machinery. “Paranoid Android” borrows its title from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and its lyrical themes touch on inhuman traits in modern socialites. “Fitter, Happier” employs the Macintosh robot voice to outline a yuppie credo of proper personal care. The album’s original working title was Palo Alto, a tie-in to Silicon Valley and Thom Yorke’s fear of “standing in a room where all these appliances are going off and all these machines and computers and so on.” We’re excited about what the Internet of Things will mean for Radiohead’s music.
What are your favorite technology-themed records? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.