Kid A at 20: Change in a New Century

Towards the very end of the 20th century, Radiohead were becoming one of the most acclaimed bands of their time. Their latest album, 1997’s OK Computer, had been hailed as a triumph, a tour de force that captured the spirit of the mid-to-late 1990s during which it had been recorded and released. It had been described by numerous critics and listeners as one of the best albums of the year, and was nominated for various Best Album awards on both sides of the Atlantic.

And as time passed, the world waited for the next release by the band; it desired an OK Computer II, replete with the powerful, guitar-driven alternative rock that had graced the original. The magazine Melody Maker put it best: “If there’s one band that promises to return rock to us, it’s Radiohead.”

Yet in October 2000, as critics and fans sat down to appreciate Radiohead’s new album, titled Kid A, they started to feel that something was… different. They didn’t hear the dominating presence of guitars. They didn’t hear a lot of clear vocals. They didn’t hear anything that made alt-rock what it was. From the cascading piano arpeggios at the very beginning of the album onwards, Kid A was proving itself to be unconventional, completely shattering all previous expectations of what Radiohead could do.

And many critics complained. For them, Kid A felt like a series of unfinished motifs put together without any care of how the final product might sound. It just couldn’t be called rock music. But for Radiohead – and as mainstream critics later realized – it was a drastically new step into rock, as new as the 21st century that was to come three months after its release. It proved that Radiohead were not just any mainstream alternative rock band that also happened to be politically minded; they were a band that was capable of change, capable of creating something truly different and progressive.

With Kid A’s 20th anniversary coming up this Friday, I’ve decided to take a look into the journey that Radiohead had embarked on in preparation for this album, and the modern-day masterpiece that has emerged as a result.

After the release of OK Computer in May 1997, Radiohead went on a year-long tour of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Here, they saw the success that their work had brought them: they headlined the famed Glastonbury festival, which showed that they were just as good on the live stage as they were in the studio.

Thom Yorke at Glastonbury, 1997.
(Credit: Edd Westmacott/Alamy Stock Photo)

However, here was also where they started feeling burnout: after a concert in November 1997, frontman Thom Yorke found himself unable to speak, being tired of the rock musician’s life. He felt that there was no way Radiohead could replicate their success with OK Computer. (Not surprising when the role of “Guardian of Rock Music” was effectively plopped onto his shoulders.) That spiraled into a writer’s block combined with feelings of self-hatred: not only could he not write music, but whatever he had already written—and even his own voice—annoyed him.

Yorke found solace in electronic music. It wasn’t anything new for him: he had been in a techno band in university. With his romance with rock music on a break, he started listening to groups like Autechre and Aphex Twin, seeing them as a brief liberation from guitars and everything Radiohead had previously done. Even the concept of lyrics and melody bored him, and he gained an interest in using texture and rhythm to create soundscapes. The voice, which was traditionally front and centre in popular music, was to become yet another component in these soundscapes, equal in importance to the other instruments.

The world was still expecting Radiohead to produce new music—and in February 1999, the band met in Paris to begin recording. Yet they didn’t find themselves making any progress, even after they moved to Copenhagen in search for a change of space. While Yorke was enthusiastic about incorporating electronic music into Radiohead’s work, the other band members didn’t share that excitement. They worried that this would lead the band to create nonsensical music for the sake of experimentation, and they were concerned that not every member would get to play on every song.

Gradually, however, Radiohead started writing new songs, and with the help of producer Nigel Godrich—who split the band into a group that created motifs and another group that built on the motifs using electronic techniques – the other members became convinced that Yorke’s vision was the way to go. The recording of what would become the album’s first track, “Everything in Its Right Place,” gave Radiohead the final confidence boost needed to finish their next album. Everything was now in its right place. (Ultimately, the band would record enough songs to fill up not just one, but two albums—with Amnesiac being released in June 2001.)

Unconventional electronica: While recording Kid A, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood made use of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument.
(Credit: 30rKs56MaE/Wikimedia Commons)

Radiohead’s new work was perhaps the most highly anticipated rock album since In Utero, Nirvana’s 1993 follow-up to their acclaimed Nevermind. Yet the band avoided playing a major role in their album’s promotion and decided not to release any singles. They emphasized listening to the album as a singular entity, rather than a collection of songs; for example, they requested that executives at Capitol Records listen to the entire album on a bus ride from Hollywood to Malibu instead of listening alone, which would have allowed them to select songs that they preferred.

Kid A was officially released on October 2, 2000. It debuted at number one on both sides of the Atlantic—in the UK, it sold more than 55,000 copies on its first day; in the US, it sold more than 207,000 copies in its first week. It became the most-sold item on Amazon, having been pre-ordered over 10,000 times. Being the next potential monument in rock music, those were very respectable numbers—and not at all unexpected. Another Radiohead album, another commercial success.

Kid A was influenced by a wide range of artists, none of whom were conventional rock. Having become greatly enamoured with the work of Aphex Twin and Autechre, Thom Yorke took a great deal of inspiration from both groups. He was also informed by the work of 1970s Krautrock bands like Can, and the jazz of Charles Mingus, Alice Coltrane, and Miles Davis. Two particular albums that largely influenced the new record was Björk’s 1997 album Homogenic and Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light; Yorke said of the latter that Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s strategy of “just [picking] stuff up and [throwing] bits in all the time” became his own method in creating Kid A.

As a whole, Kid A bears witness to Thom Yorke’s progression as a musician, as Radiohead abandoned acoustics to create futuristic, texture-focused soundscapes that reflected Yorke’s inner struggles and the band’s determination in forming a new attitude towards music. Supported by unconventional instrumental sections (notably free jazz-inspired brass, the ondes Martenot, and harp and choir), these varied soundscapes allow each song to express a sensation of its own—warm and welcoming (“Everything in Its Right Place,” “Kid A”), troubled and paranoid (“The National Anthem”), dreamy and liberating (“How to Disappear Completely”), relaxing and meditative (“Treefingers”), lost and confused (“In Limbo”), among others. Woven together, they become a powerfully expressed patchwork of emotions.

Alongside the evocative flow of musical textures, the lyrics also provide an insight into Yorke’s creative conflicts and their ultimate resolution. At multiple points throughout the album—the escapism-driven “How to Disappear Completely,” the disorientation of “In Limbo”, and the desires for detachment disguised as relationship problems on “Morning Bell” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack”—they detail Yorke’s journey from the mute wreck that he had been in November 1997, through his burnout, writer’s block, and dissatisfaction, to the radical musician that he became in 2000, as well as his departure from the life and musical style that he had formerly embraced.

Thom Yorke, 2000: A man at the end of a transformation.
(Credit: Juice magazine)

Concurrent with this progression is a depiction of the gradual development of humanity as it approaches and crosses the temporal line into the 21st century. There’s no better indication of this than in the album’s electronic inspirations and futuristic sound, like in the techno-esque beat of “Idioteque” that invokes a dance club in a prosperous but doomed society of the future. And the subject matter of the songs further reveal Radiohead’s hopes and fears about the century ahead: the first human clone (to which the album’s title refers, according to Yorke), but also the inner human paranoia (“The National Anthem”), the proliferation and domination of capitalism (“Optimistic”), and the crisis that slowly emerges as we continue to let technology and decadence consume us (“Idioteque”). With the 21st century approaching, Yorke believed that the world must be cognizant of what humanity will face and how we should adapt and react to these events.

Upon release, critical opinion on Kid A was divided. While some reviewers praised the album’s depth, imagination, and dreamlike nature, others were much more negative, criticizing the album for its deviation from guitars and conventional musical form, as well as its seemingly self-obsessed, egotistical view. Reviewers also noted that Kid A was confusing and sometimes incomprehensible, and that the electronic musical style was unoriginal and lacked fluency; after all, Radiohead were still a rock band, and no matter how innovative they tried to be, they didn’t have enough knowledge to truly make novel steps in electronica. Even some praising reviewers noted that Kid A was not as revolutionary as OK Computer.

But as time passed, the majority of reviewers became convinced that Kid A’s lyrics and musical style were a worthy match for OK Computer’s radical outlook. In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine called it the best album of the 2000s; recently, it was designated the 20th best album in the history of popular music. The tumultuous times that Yorke warned throughout the album somewhat became true in the 2000s, beginning with the September 11 attacks in 2001—in 2009, the Guardian noted that Kid A was “a jittery premonition of the troubled, disconnected, overloaded decade to come. The sound of today, in other words, a decade early.” The album’s concerns of paranoia, loneliness, predatory capitalism, climate change, and fearmongering remain pertinent to this day, twenty years later. In a way, Kid A has been successful in predicting the prevailing mood of the 21st century.

Everyone has got the fear: Twenty years after Kid A raised concerns about it, paranoia continues to pervade today’s society.
(Credit: Optimum Consulting Group)

And perhaps Radiohead—a band that continues to attract commercial success and critical acclaim two decades later—would not be who they are today without embarking on Kid A. They could have appealed to critics and fans by making an OK Computer II, another guitar-heavy album focusing on the angst of the modern day. They could then have made even more variants of OK Computer, each time slightly different from the previous, before slowly fading into obscurity as they failed to catch up with the times.

But they decided to take a giant step in the other direction, choosing to forgo everything that most people saw as “rock music.” This radical shift in musical style showed that the band were willing to make changes however they liked, whenever they liked; they need not satisfy the musical press. At the height of their success, Radiohead ceased to be a conventional rock band, and instead became an innovative group of musicians, keen to tread paths that were either new or which groups like them had never taken before. And the timing could not be more appropriate: this expectation-shattering musical outlook, combined with the pessimistic, perhaps prophetic subject matter, made Kid A an album perfectly suited for the coming 21st century.

Although they refused to recognize themselves as Progressive Rock, Radiohead had become another representative of progressive music. And as musical trends progressed through time, Radiohead were able to retain the spirit behind Kid A, go their own way, and create unique albums that were sure to contain surprises for even their most experienced fans.

Radiohead’s latest album, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Combining art rock, folk music, chamber music, ambient music, and electronic techniques, it was referred to by the musical press as one of the best albums of the year.
(Credit: XL Recordings/Wikimedia Commons)

Critics and fans may have believed that OK Computer marked the pinnacle of Radiohead’s career. Yet Kid A became another, taller peak, a testament to both a renunciation of convention and an artist’s embrace of creative freedom. Kid A became Radiohead’s most defining moment, a symbol of change in a new century.

References:

100 Best Albums of the 2000s. (2011, July 18). Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/100-best-albums-of-the-2000s-153375/

Albums of the decade No 2: Radiohead – Kid A. (2009, November 28). The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2009/nov/28/album-decade-radiohead-kid-a

Cantin, P. (2000, October 18). Radiohead sales fall, but “Kid” still No. 1. JAM! Showbiz. https://web.archive.org/web/20041031192406/http://www.canoe.com/JamMusicRadiohead/oct18_radiohead-can.html

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“Difficult” Radiohead album is a hit. (2020, October 4). BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/955767.stm

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Hyden, S. (2015, September 29). How Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ Kicked Off the Streaming Revolution. Grantland. https://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/how-radioheads-kid-a-kicked-off-the-streaming-revolution/

Letts, M. T. (2010). Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album: How to Disappear Completely. Indiana University Press.

Noakes, T. (2013, February 12). Splitting atoms with Thom Yorke. Dazed. https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/15601/1/splitting-atoms-thom-yorke

Radiohead Revealed: The Inside Story of the Year’s Most Important Album. (2000, March 29). Melody Maker. https://web.archive.org/web/20070711130337/http://www.followmearound.com/presscuttings.php?year=2000&cutting=66

Reynolds, S. (2001, July). Walking on Thin Ice. The Wire. https://web.archive.org/web/20120204233756/http://www.followmearound.com/presscuttings.php?year=2001&cutting=131

Sheffield, R. (2015, October 2). How Radiohead’s “Kid A” Shocked the World. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/how-radiohead-shocked-the-world-a-15th-anniversary-salute-to-kid-a-49200/

Smith, A. (2000, October 1). Sound and fury. The Observer. https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2000/oct/01/life1.lifemagazine

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. (2020, September 22). Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/best-albums-of-all-time-1062063/

US adopts Kid A. (2020, October 12). BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/968437.stm

Zoric, L. (2000, September 22). I think I’m meant to be dead… The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/friday_review/story/0,,371289,00.html

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