All Things Reconsidered: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’

Edited by Evan Sawdey

Apparently, Kid A isn’t just an album.

Shortly after I pitched the idea of a massive retrospective on the 10th anniversary of Kid A‘s release, the pitches and stories came flooding in from every angle. As I poured through them, though, I realized that I was getting more than just analysis and commentary. People were inserting themselves into their pieces, talking not only about the album, but their own relation to the album. I’ve read stories about what Kid A means to someone on a personal level, or even where they were when they first heard it. Apparently, Kid A stopped becoming a mere disc a long time ago, instead becoming a grand piece of art that worked its way into our lives. If I asked you, the reader, to remember when you first heard the album, there’s a good chance that you could tell me quite vividly where you were, what was going on, and how that album shattered any preconceived notions you had of what a pop album could be.

Ten years ago, I honestly didn’t know who Radiohead was. I was just starting to come out of my sheltered musical shell and began to discover more “real” music, but in picking up stray albums by artists I merely caught whispers of in music rags — Bob Dylan and Beck, Beth Orton and Badly Drawn Boy (apparently I had a thing for artists with B’s in their name) — I kept hearing about Radiohead here and there. Something about a new album. Apparently their last one was really good. That was about all that I knew at the time.

Yet what I remember distinctly about the summer of 2000 was that everyone, everywhere was talking about this disc with a passion. In every magazine, on every music site I visited, in conversation with every employee in a store that sold CDs (which were in fashion at the time), I kept hearing about Kid A one way or another. The band didn’t put out music videos to promote the release, but that didn’t stop call-in music video network The Box from using a clip of the band playing “Optimistic” live to help drive the hype up even further. I heard about the (very) select amount of shows that the group was doing prior to the album’s October 2nd release, how people were trying to decipher what these online “blips” were and what they meant, and if it would sound anything like OK Computer, which Q Magazine‘s 1998 Readers Poll had already designated as the greatest album of all-time … ever.

I couldn’t stand it anymore: I simply had to hear the disc that was causing all of this commotion — and just as its first spin in my car CD player finished, I realized that Kid A just boldly challenged everything I knew about music at the time. What I found out later was that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

Here’s a rock band not making rock songs. Here’s a group who previously wrote about alienation in our modern world now making efforts to deliberately alienate us. They culled influences from all over the place — from IDM and the Warp Records catalog, from Miles Davis and other avant-garde jazz giants — yet synthesized them in such a way that never once did you ever question that the song you were listening to was written by anyone but Radiohead. Some people scoffed at the whole business, calling it pretentious and cold. For just about everyone else though, the most important rock band in the world had just publicly reinvented themselves in as drastic a way as possible — and came out the other side as heroes. Right as the teen-pop boom of the late 90s was wearing out its welcome, Radiohead was proving that not only was rock music alive and well, but it was as daring as ever.

To celebrate the album’s 10th anniversary, PopMatters has collected writings from all across the spectrum, covering the album from every angle and concluding with an exclusive excerpt from Marvin Lin’s forthcoming 33 1/3 book about the iconic disc.

We all seemed to remember where we were when we heard this album for the very first time. So it is at this point, dear reader, that we must ask a similar question: where, in fact, were you?

— Evan Sawdey