I don’t remember if I purchased Radiohead’s Kid A on exactly October 2, 2000. I probably did. Back then, it was a quick lunch-time trip to Best Buy to browse their massive Compact Disc layout that took up most of the retail floor space. On an end-cap, you would find the displays with all the “New Releases.” I would have paid in cash. Probably after I made the trip to the bank to cash my paycheck. I don’t think I even had a credit card in 2000. I am not sure if I even had a checking account.
There is no doubt I called friends about this album, which would have been over my cordless land-line phone1. I am pretty sure I wrote about it on my website, which was then hosted on Geocities2. It probably was just something I wrote on the home page with the <blink> tag, because I didn’t know what a blog was or would become.
Most people just stole the album off Napster or Limewire. It wasn’t played much on the radio, perhaps because they didn’t release any singles from the record. It did largely dispense with guitar-driven rock and plotted a course with vintage instruments, electronic beats, drum loops, and early use of software like Pro Tools that are standard today. Radiohead cited influences like DJ Shadow, an artist that also influenced how I listened to music. So while my life from 2 decades ago has quickly become antiquated, Kid A feels as modern and contemporary as ever.
Putting 2000 In Perspective
I was 23 when the album was released. Bush v. Gore hadn’t happened yet. 9/11 was 11 months away. The original dot-com bubble had not yet burst. Dreams and expectations had not yet been shattered.
I expected a let-down3 because, how could you possibly top OK Computer? This album turned out to not only hold its own against its predecessor, but steered the band far beyond their early selves.
This was also a transitional time in my life, when I too was moving in new directions. By 2000, I had dropped out of college in order to work, and this was before I went back to finish my Degree. I had only been working my first “adult” job for 21 months4. I lost track of all my college friends, and I was too young to fit in with the older office people. Life felt like a purgatory between two contrasting worlds that were eons away from my orbit. It seems quaint now, but that was the existential angst I couldn’t escape when I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere.
I mention all this because Kid A also existed between two worlds. This was a “rock” band leaving a little of the guitar behind and shedding convention, while not stepping too far into the electronic sphere where it may have felt forced. The feeling I get from this era of Radiohead is one of restraint and confidence. OK Computer is audacious and loudly ambitious in comparison5. Kid A isn’t trying to beat OK Computer, and it isn’t trying to reprise anything that came before it. Yet, it avoids the pitfalls of…trying too hard.
Casual music fans like to stereotype Radiohead as this depressing music outfit6. But underneath this veneer is something lay music fans can’t seem to parse. There is something else going on. In fact, the opener, Everything In Its Right Place, is one of my favorite songs when I need a calm and peaceful moment and yet, there is a haunting hint of uneasiness beneath the surface. It also capably signals the band’s intent – this is the sound that will largely define the rest of the tracks. Kid A features intentional processing of the vocals, with a quiet synth arrangement backing it.
The National Anthem is indeed anthemic, but lets loose with all manner of chaos with a horn section that can best be described as pandemonium. How To Disappear Completely was made for any moment when the world seemed too large and oppressing for one to overcome. Yet, there is hope in acknowledging these feelings. I return to this track so many times when things feel impossible.
Treefingers is a rare instrumental that I have long found enjoyable on walks and road trips. I find it majestic. Optimistic is probably the song that made it on the radio the most, probably the most straight-forward rocker on the album. The lyrics bite. Living in a world where everybody is out to out-do each other, and yet, there is comfort in not using others to rate your own success7 In Limbo sounds nothing like Jonny Greenwood would have done on guitar in The Bends era.
Idioteque was an electronic-driven track that was most of their first forays into sampling. The drum loop in Morning Bell is remarkable, because how many times does the drummer in a band reduce his percussion to a drum loop8? Motion Picture Soundtrack is the wandering closer that brings this to a close, 3 times in all, with the main track, hidden track, and over 90 seconds of intentional silence that is always needed to fully process what you just listened to.
Kid A In Our Pandemic-Ridden 2020
There have been a number of retro reviews that have shown up this week, some of which have attempted to capture the hyperbole of the famous Pitchfork 10.0 review. Hell, I even pre-ordered and received Steven Hyden’s 256 page book about Kid A. And here I am, writing all manner of hyperbole myself.
So what does Kid A really sound like in 2020?
Kid A was one of the first albums I sought when I decided to move away from CDs and over to LPs. As I type this, I am listening to it on vinyl with a pair of clean M-Audio monitors. Everything is beautifully crisp and vibrant. So, while I do grow tired of songs over time, especially with too much airplay, the music here is still fresh. Sometimes, I need to give OK Computer a break9. Kid A’s anti-commercial stance has save it from turning stale. While this was a very important record in 2000, the 20 years since have only made that point more clear. Every turning point on a future Radiohead record uses Kid A as the center to work with.
Not Every Music Fan Is A Discerning Music Fan
I do suspect that critics and fans do overestimate Kid A’s impact, though. Mainstream music fans that just wanted simplistic ear candy and jingles went back to the Red Hot Chili Peppers10. Kid A has still only sold about 1.5 million copies in the United States, less than the sales of OK Computer in the United Kingdom! If you try to think of any Radiohead copycats who sprang up, it is difficult to come up with one. The turn of the millennium was also the time that Indie Rock hit its full stride. This is why I think Kid A, and Radiohead at large, largely stand alone and unique. And perhaps, occupying its small part of the music scene, with a cotary of extremely passionate11 fans.
I finally got to see Radiohead live in 2006 at then-Coors Amphitheater (I can’t believe video of the concert is actually on Youtube). The final encore was, like many of their concerts, Everything In Its Right Place. After 2 hours of a great performance from my favorite band of all time, the song that opened Kid A felt like the perfect way to close the best concert I have ever attended.
Thank you Radiohead. This album is still one of the brightest stars in my musical life. Happy 20th Birthday Kid A.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.
- No, I didn’t have a cell phone.
- Sadly, the source of my original website appears to be lost to history. I cannot locate it in any Geocities archive. The content probably sucked, anyway.
- No pun intended, OK Computer fans…
- I still work there! Nearly 22 years now, wow…
- In that case, that audacity and ambition succeeded in 1997.
- These people are probably extroverts. In fact, I am sure they are all extroverts.
- This is useful in photography, by the way.
- Phil Selway did confirm a fondness for DJ Shadow that I can totally appreciate.
- Sometimes I listen to it but skip Paranoid Android and Karma Police
- And sometimes…annoying