As its cover suggests, Kid A is bizarre, icy and abstract, even by Radiohead standards. Their first three albums, Pablo Honey (1993), The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997), are more or less guitar-based and fit comfortably into the alternative rock canon. Radiohead updated alternative rock for the new century by fully embracing electronic elements on Kid A, resulting in some startling compositions. The inorganic feel creates considerable distance, and if I had to sum up Kid A with one word, I would describe it as desolate. At first Kid A is a pretty alienating listen, but it’s through no fault of the music itself. It’s like trying to view a sculpture in a room with barely any light. At first even the shape of it is elusive, which, naturally, is frustrating, but as your eyes adjust to the darkness its detail comes into higher definition.
In subsequent trips to the room it becomes easier and easier to see the sculpture, until eventually you know every crevice and can remember what the whole thing looks like from memory. Sometimes you wonder what it would be like to view the sculpture in a fully lit room, but then you realize part of its artistic worth is its compromised nature; it’s meant to be viewed in the dark. What differentiates Radiohead from their peers is that they don’t just dabble with electronica, they thoroughly absorb it into their repertoire. Electronica and techno were fads in the late 90’s and early ’00s, and a lot of music from that era that incorporated synthetic beats sounds hopelessly dated now. Radiohead had already flirted with electronic elements on OK Computer, so the reinvention wasn’t a complete surprise, but the glorious results raise my eyebrows even today.
Though Radiohead had just made two amazing albums (The Bends and OK Computer — Pablo Honey, not so much), for them to basically reinvent the wheel and for the resulting album to sound so accomplished was what ended up making Kid A a real treat. At the end of the ’00s, Kid A topped many “best of the decade” lists, and though it’s probably too early to really say which albums from the decade will have the most lasting impact, I have no problem with Kid A being considered the consensus number one. As I look back on the decade, I think Radiohead’s music was as relevant as anyone’s. Whenever I think about Kid A or Amnesiac (released 8 months afterwards consisting of material recorded during the same sessions), I think about what singer/guitarist Thom Yorke said:
I think the artwork is the best way of explaining it. The artwork to Kid A was all in the distance. The fires were all going on the other side of the hill. With Amnesiac, you’re actually in the forest while the fire’s happening.
While I do not disagree with Yorke’s insight regarding the artwork, I actually think the metaphor extends to the aesthetics of the music itself, since Amnesiac utilizes more acoustic instruments and has a warmer, more immediate feel compared to Kid A‘s cold and distant sound created by a largely electronic palette. Both albums were released within a year of 9/11 — Kid A was released in October of 2000, Amnesiac in June of 2001 — and the traumatic narrative Yorke proposes seems to have gained some added weight in light of what eventually happened. Likewise, the band comes across as a bit troubled on their messy 2003 follow-up Hail to the Thief, released mere months after the invasion of Iraq. I think it’s a really good album (it’s an honorable mention), but Radiohead seemed to suffer an identity crisis, and the band would later express regrets over it.
Although no one knew it back then, it would be the last time they would release an album by common commercial means (i.e., through a record label), though they had experimented with more unorthodox marketing with Kid A. No singles were released and no music videos were made, yet Kid A still managed to open at number one in America and sell a million copies here.