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Kid A Reaches Adulthood: Radiohead’s Mesmerizing Fourth Record Turns 20

380608 09: Lead singer Thom Yorke, left, and bassist Colin Greenwood of the band Radiohead perform October 20, 2000 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Radiohead only had two U.S. performances, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles. (Photo by Troy Augusto/Newsmakers)

A little over three years after releasing their atmospheric masterpiece OK Computer, Radiohead set the tone for the rest of their career with Kid A: a radical and beautifully bizarre collection that relied less on guitars, more on fragmented electronics and ambient experimentation.

As writer Zev Borow observed in SPIN’s November 2000 issue, Radiohead’s fourth LP was the most anticipated rock album since Nirvana’s In Utero. But Radiohead did little to promote it, eschewing press interviews and promotional photoshoots. Critics weren’t provided with advanced copies, and there wasn’t a music video. In a clear sign of the times, Kid A was leaked on Napster three weeks ahead of its release — shocking an unsuspecting public with its beguiling rhythms.

With Kid A, released 20 years ago today, Radiohead proved that great art often requires more than great talent — it demands great risk. The uncompromising record introduced the world to several beloved tracks (“Everything in Its Right Place,” “The National Anthem,” “Idioteque”), pushing the band outside the “rock” format altogether.

As Kid A approaches legal drinking age, we reached out to several musicians — along with one very successful screenwriter — for their takes on what makes the album so special.

Amanda Palmer


<p>I first heard Radiohead at Newbury Comics in Cambridge. I was maybe 20, and I was browsing the racks and saw this album called <em>OK Computer</em> with a handwritten sign saying, “Such and such magazine called this the album of the year,” and I had never heard of it. I just bought it on a lark. I took it home and liked it, but it wasn’t until a few months later, when I was in college, and I had a lover who was absolutely obsessed with the record. We wound up lounging around and getting to know each other and having a lot of sex and listening to <em>OK Computer</em> over and over again. It was our relationship’s soundtrack, and it really got under my skin, and became the soundtrack to an era of my sexual awakening and my youth.</p>
<p>There was also something illicit about it because I was a real avant-garde non-mainstream music obsessive, and by that point, Radiohead seemed to belong to other people. So, there was something almost subversive about me snatching it back, and saying, “No, I’m allowed to have this band too, and I will shack up in my weird dorm room with my weird love, smoking my clove cigarettes and this music is allowed to belong to me.”</p>
<p>The songwriting is phenomenal, but the production embraces your soul. There’s a spectrum of songwriters, from the very literal to the extremely vague and metaphorical, and the lyrics of Radiohead straddle that spectrum so beautifully that the songs are almost a study in what is possible. I adore Thom Yorke’s ability to go from incredibly broad to the incredibly finite in two seconds. That’s something Leonard Cohen did beautifully, and as a lyricist, listening to <em>Kid A</em>, almost as an exercise, is really helpful — how those lyrics draw from a certain palette, and then all of a sudden, the palette becomes a frisbee thrown off a cliff.</p>
<h2>Jonathan Nolan</h2>
<p><b>Screenwriter/producer/director, <em>The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Interstellar</em><b></b></b></p>
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Kid A came out when I was 11, so a lot of Radiohead’s music has been out of order and in my own chronology. I discovered OK Computer first, and I heard that at a CD-listening bar with my dad, who was also obsessed with music at that time. We’d got to Second Spin and sit in the little booth, checking out CDs, and I remember hearing “Airbag.” That was the first Radiohead song I heard. It was such an eye-opener for me.

My initial reaction to Kid A was really bewilderment over the fact that a “rock band” could do this. At that time, my general view of music, like a lot of musicians and listeners in general, things were in a vacuum. I didn’t have much historical context. All I knew was, “Wow, I have never really heard anything like this before.” That record really has become such a template for the sonics of the modern alternative: to use a synthesizer, to use an Ondes Martenot — all these things that, I guess, at a certain point in the ‘90s, were kind of taboo — became something that now is ubiquitous. Everyone is using this stuff and everyone, in a sense, is still trying to copycat that feeling.

I always joke that, if Radiohead, for some reason, offered me a gig to just be the background vocalist and do harmonies with Thom Yorke, I’d take it in a heartbeat. I absolutely love them, as a career band: they have been able to traverse essentially upstream the whole time, but still remain so amazingly relevant and still managing to redefine their sound with every record. It’s been breathtaking.


Singer/songwriter (formerly of San Fermin)

<p>I first became aware of Radiohead through my high school buddy, Colin Turner, who was fanatically obsessed with them and listened to nothing else. He had every album of theirs in his car, and nothing else — and we used to drive around after school, listening to them and geeking out. After high school, I worked as a camp counselor in Burbank, California, where we went on this 7-mile hike from the top of a mountain (where the camp was located) to the beach— and I would always ritualistically listen to “Treefingers” on my way down. Walking through the mist with those eerie synths felt right as a soundtrack, and I’ll always associate it with being 19.</p>
<p><em>Kid A</em> is the album that famously got a 10/10 from Pitchfork and 2/10 from Melody Maker’s Mark Beaumont, who branded it as “look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish.” I think it’s a polarizing record because its abstract, shapeshifting nature means that it awakens different things intuitively, for different people. To me, <em>Kid A</em> is the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie, it’s teenage existentialism, it’s a dissonant church hymn in “Everything in its Right Place.” I read that Thom Yorke recorded his vocals after the music was recorded by literally pulling words out of a hat. The line between random and intentional is blurry — just like life.</p>
<h2>Riley McShane</h2>
<p><b>Vocalist, Allegaeon</b></p>
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It was early 2001 and high school was rapidly approaching. My teenage angst was at full-tilt and I had mostly shifted my focus onto heavier music to match the aggressiveness of my hormones. But with those big, pubescent mood swings came a lot of sadness, too. One day, after school, I went to Sam Goody with a few friends and saw a copy of Kid A in the new releases section — even though the album had come out almost six months prior. I remember that day because it was raining, and I took the wrong bus going home and had to walk about a mile back. When I got home, I was soaking wet and I went straight to my room to get changed. Before that, though, I put Kid A into my dresser’s resident boombox. I left the CD playing while I hopped in the shower and when I got out, I quickly discovered that I had neglected to do laundry and had no clean clothes. It might have been the progression of the day and the misery of walking home in the rain paired with my uncontrollable early teenage emotions, but it was the final inconvenience in a long chain of unfortunate events that day, and I started crying.

This weeping spell coincided with “How to Disappear Completely” coming up in the tracklisting and I have an incredibly vivid memory of just sitting there in a wet towel, crying and looking out the upstairs window of my bedroom, into the gray and rainy street, with that song as the backdrop. I don’t think Kid A ever left that CD player before it stopped working

Radiohead provided the foundation for so many amazing bands that came out of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and even far beyond that. Their absolute fearlessness in artistic expression has said to so many people — me included — that you can deviate from the musical path that your band or you, as a musician, have beaten for yourself. To Radiohead’s legacy, Kid A represents artistry, experimentation, a wide range of emotional expression, and, most importantly, the fearlessness to jump with both feet into a new body of water.

Stef Johnson

Singer/songwriter (Mise en Scene)

<p>I remember being a kid when I first heard “Fake Plastic Trees” in the movie <em>Clueless</em>. It was the scene where Cher actually complains and makes fun of the music, and I remember being like, “Cher! What the fuck? I’m loving this!” I have to say that I feel like most people discover Radiohead through another person because their fans are so dedicated to the band and they share the love. An added bonus is that Radiohead fans are really cool — usually progressive — people, so you’re down to take their music recommendations.</p>
<p>I remember being confused by <em>Kid A</em>. I was younger then, and looking back, I appreciated that they presented me with a sound that allowed me to confront my preconceived notions of what new music was and what Radiohead could sound like. As an artist, I definitely appreciate the boundary-breaking. It gives others permission to break away from what they have already done, which is incredibly important in a creative practice.</p>
<p>Radiohead’s albums are diverse, and they explore instrumentation and different genres in a tasteful way while remaining leaders in contemporary music. I think that’s why <em>Kid A</em> factors into their legacy, because some love it for its jazz qualities, while others feel it represents a departure of the previous guitar-based sound and an exploration into new technologies in music — and culture — and new understandings of who Radiohead are as a band at the beginning of the 21st century. Radiohead always has been and will remain explorers and pioneers of modern music and <em>Kid A</em> was a big part of that.</p>
<h2>Joey Holman</h2>
<p><b>Songwriter (Man on Man and Cool Hand Luke)</b></p>
<img decoding=Anyone Can Play Guitar.” At this time, I was really much more into hip-hop, R&B, and grunge, so I was sort of scratching my head when it came to how I should receive the band. I was in Australia when Hail to the Thief came out and I bought the CD based on the artwork alone. I fell in love with the music and worked my way backward from there. I wish I could say I was a day one Radiohead fan, but I think it went over my head until I was old enough to appreciate what they were doing.

When I bought Kid A, my CD player was accidentally set to “shuffle,” so the first song I heard was “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which completely changed my first impression of that record. To this day, that song is still one of my top three favorite Radiohead songs. Radiohead shows the world that success and intrigue can be found in doing your own thing. Remember, Kid A came out during the peak of the ‘90s pop explosion — Christina, Britney, ‘NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys. The world seemingly didn’t have anywhere to go from there. The entire class was asleep, and Radiohead came along and smacked us on the back of our heads with a ruler and told us to wake up. And they keep doing that over and over again. Just when you think there’s nowhere else to go, Radiohead does something new every time.