13 Years Ago: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ Album Released
On the first day, there was ‘Pablo Honey,’ and fans of Ocean Colour Scene rejoiced. On the second and third, there was ‘The Bends,’ and followers anew appeared — some that liked Oasis, some that liked Blur. On the fourth, fifth and sixth days, there was ‘OK Computer,’ and the rock critics swooned. And on the seventh day, a robot alien invader landed on earth and gifted us with ‘Kid A.’ At least that’s how it felt.
Radiohead’s tremendous leap forward, ‘Kid A,’ touched off a debate: Was this band the Second Coming or just a bunch of nerds with computers who’d made a mess of their careers? Certainly, it was one of the year’s (and century’s) most highly anticipated records, arriving on the heels of the tremendously successful ‘OK Computer,’ the record that reintroduced rock fans to the “concept album” — an LP that tells a cohesive story about something. Not to get all ‘Seinfeld,’ but rock fans have become equally obsessed with albums about nothing, and on ‘Kid A,’ there was a feeling among critics and fans alike that something had happened — but it could’ve easily just been nothing.
The instrumentation was largely computer-generated or electronically distorted — take album opener ‘Everything In Its Right Place,’ which features lead singer Thom Yorke’s “real” voice modulated and mixed as if it were its own instrument. The time signature is almost impossible to follow at times. And there’s zero backbeat, nothing to tap one’s foot to. If ‘OK Computer’ was Radiohead fans’ tall glass of milk before bedtime, ‘Kid A’ was the monster under their bed sharpening his nails. On the following song, the title track, Yorke’s voice is distorted to ‘Fitter Happier’ levels over a pitter-patter beat that is a mixture of electro and live. Some might call it unlistenable, while others might rejoice in its daring artiness. The only tracks with any semblance of the traditional rock-song form of ‘The Bends’ and ‘OK Computer’ are ‘How To Disappear Completely,’ Optimistic’ and ‘Morning Bell,’ the set’s weakest moment.
But formlessness doesn’t mean it’s not a wholly enjoyable listening experience by any stretch of the imagination. ‘Kid A’ is one of those records that is best played multiple times — unless, of course, you pitched it in the trash after the first listen. ‘Idioteque’ is a triumph, Yorke’s surging vocals and post-apocalyptic lyrics floating over a sampled dance beat and fragile melody that breathes in and out. ‘The National Anthem,’ whose lead “guitar” line is played by a saxophone, disconnects in the outro into a sea of hot and messy brass, a sonic sauna. And the aforementioned ‘Optimistic’ sounds like a carryover from ‘OK Computer,’ its tribal backbeat and melodic guitar line the perfect accompaniment to Yorke’s winding, high-lonesome vocals.
For those fans that made it out alive, ‘Kid A’ was a triumphant statement about the future — and the future of music. Those that couldn’t wrap their head around it, meanwhile, turned their noses up in disgust. Radiohead lost a lot of fans with the album, but it’s interesting to note that all of the albums Radiohead have put out since ‘Kid A’ have that germ of electronica in them — the band influenced itself.
Continuing on the success of ‘OK Computer,’ Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ hit No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Canada, France, Ireland and New Zealand — a sign that Radiohead were now one the biggest bands in the world. Critics and fans alike had come to expect more and more from them, and every time the group shot back with something new and less commercial, it sparked a whole new debate. (If Coldplay had put out a mostly electonic album like this one, for example, it probably would have been universally panned. Fans and critics know what to expect from them.) To this day, Radiohead continue to break the mold with every new record, and the success of ‘Kid A’ made critics-and-fans-be-damned innovation a sustainable model for the band.