Kid A at 20

Kid A album cover detail

Radiohead’s Kid A, released 20 years ago today, is my favourite album. There are two reasons why.

Firstly, and most simply, Kid A is a brilliant album because the music is incredible.

But what marks it out as truly special is what it represented. It demonstrated true artistic freedom the like of which has never been equalled. Normally when regular bands go experimental, the results are embarrassing. But Kid A showcased a band defying all expectations, venturing out of their own comfort zone, and that of their fans — and triumphing.

I was 14 when Kid A came out, and it wasn’t until the following year that I actually bought it. I’d already been keenly buying music for a number of years. But britpop had died, and I was getting bored of the Kerrang rock music that was becoming fashionable at the time.

I’d heard that Kid A was an adventurous album, dividing the fans and critics. School friends who liked Radiohead also seemed a little wary of their new direction.

It all sounded very intriguing to me. I had already noticed that my tastes were more experimental. At around the same time I was discovering bands like the High Fidelity (a cult Scottish indie band centred around an enigmatic instrument called the omnichord) and Broadcast (a band that took a retro 1960s sound palette of psych-rock and library music, twisting it into beautiful and strange directions). Diving head-first down the rabbit hole of Warp Records was just around the corner.

So while Radiohead were possibly the world’s biggest band in the late 90s, Kid A was the first time I actually bought an album of theirs.

There was no doubt that it was a challenging listen at first. But that was its appeal to me. The album covers a wide range of sounds and styles, yet retains an overall coherence that few albums have. (Is there a better sequence of tracks than Optimistic ⟶ In Limbo ⟶ Idioteque ⟶ Morning Bell?)

From the piercing synth-shards of Everything in its Right Place, to the goosebump-inducing choir from beyond the ether in Motion Picture Soundtrack, Kid A genuinely takes you on a journey as a listener.

What makes that all the more incredible is the fact that most of the lyrics are rather oblique. In the main, lyrics in Kid A act as cut-up shards just as much as the electronics do. These word juxtapositions rapidly inject several images into your head, like flicking quickly up and down the radio dial.

With these lyrics set against the varied and frenetic music itself, Kid A is almost the ultimate abstract art. The emotion is undoubtedly determined by the words and music. But the interpretation is ultimately up to you.

But what I admire the most about Kid A is what it represents about the ambition of Radiohead as a band at the time. The superstardom that came following the worldwide success of their previous album OK Computer seemed to bring discomfort to the band, as documented in the film Meeting People is Easy. At one stage in the documentary, you can almost see the idea of Kid A forming in Thom Yorke’s head, as he rocks back and forth in his chair backstage, cursing his own success.

Many other bands at that time would have been happy to churn out new versions of OK Computer and the Bends to keep the fans happy and maintain the trajectory. Radiohead sensed that they had to do something different, perhaps for two reasons. One, to stop the madness of the superstardom. But most importantly, to cement their status as one of the greatest bands ever.

Kid A was a mission to defy all expectations. Radiohead sought to eschew their status as the music media’s “saviours of rock and roll”, turning to experimentation and electronics, and doing so brilliantly.

But Radiohead didn’t just change themselves by making Kid A. They changed all of their peers as well. Many bands were willing and able to borrow the OK Computer template for their own music. But Kid A would prove impossible for the pretenders to copy.

Yet, Kid A was a challenge that other bands had to answer if they wanted to remain relevant. Many bands had their shakiest album in the wake of Kid A.

Take Blur. They had successfully jumped off the sinking britpop boat in 1997 with their self-titled album, which drew more from American alternative rock. Their 1999 album 13 was another leap forward. It is one of my favourites, better in my view than OK Computer. Their evolution up to that point was stunning.

But following Kid A, Blur’s next album — Think Tank — was a confused stinker. It was an incoherent mish-mash of electronica, trip-hop, world music and indie. It tried too hard, with patchy results. It just didn’t add up as an album.

But the most egregious example is Gomez. Their first two albums were a unique smoky-cool modern blend of bluesy rock, rightfully earning them a Mercury Music Prize. Post-Kid A, their third album — In Our Gun — was a derivative mess in its attempts to stay relevant. It included the song Shot Shot, which was so obviously [inspired by / stolen from] the Kid A track the National Anthem that it’s difficult to understand how it was ended up being so embarrassingly awful.

Even Radiohead themselves have failed to live up to the standard set by Kid A. Amnesiac gets a free pass for being recorded at the same time. But follow-up Hail to the Thief was oddly sketchy. Thematically, it’s so tied up with the George W Bush era that it has unavoidably dated.

In Rainbows was good, but established the template for the permanent Radiohead sound. With nothing left to prove, the inertia Radiohead avoided after OK Computer was set. Since Kid A, their albums have been sometimes good, and sometimes not-so-good — but they have always sounded like Radiohead.

When it was released 20 years ago today, Kid A didn’t sound like Radiohead. It didn’t sound like anything else. But it changed everything else. It is an unsurpassed musical achievement.

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