‘Kid A’ 20 Years Later: Why Radiohead’s Masterpiece Still Matters

Radiohead, Kid A

20 years ago, Radiohead released an album that encapsulated an experimental fusion of cacophonous jazz (“The National Anthem”), ambient music (“Treefingers”), “traditional” rock moments (“Optimistic”), and electronic music (the rest). Kid A was unveiled during a moment in time that demanded heated discussion, introspection, and patience. With patience comes great reward: to understand the album the way it was intended opens up a whole new world. The record also immediately cast a behemoth-sized shadow over what Radiohead had done before (yep, even OK Computer) and what would come after (In Rainbows, too). 

Singer Thom Yorke found himself exhausted with burnout following a lengthy tour of OK Computer. He began to despise everything about “rock music” as we knew it – guitars, the glamorization of drug and alcohol addiction – and his vision of what “rock” music could be would inadvertently change the music industry and online music culture for decades to come. For many Gen X-ers, Kid A was one of the earliest albums experienced online. Pre-streaming era, over 1,000 websites posted Kid A and it was streamed over 400,000 times, three weeks before the album’s release. There was no promotion – no music videos, the band declined to do interviews – but that didn’t stop incessant arguments on whether the album was Radiohead’s magnum opus or hot garbage, nor did it stop the reviews coming.

Of course, nothing about the band’s fourth album was new. Britpop magazine Select didn’t buy it: “What do they want for sounding like the Aphex Twin circa 1993, a medal?” That’s entirely fair. Yorke emulated his idols on Warp Records out of spite and freedom from the box The Bends and OK Computer shoved him in. He refused to be a rock “icon.” Radiohead didn’t set out to make complicated music while recording, despite the popular criticism at the time. However, Kid A ranked at #20 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time for a reason: even with so-called cold synthesizers, chopped up vocals, and a lack of guitar solos, the album prevails thanks to its ruminations on mortality, hopelessness, paranoia towards what the 21st century would hold – in technology and fear-mongering politics – and unrivaled ambition.

The album’s finest moments simultaneously showcase Yorke at his most beautiful and at his most downtrodden. But, he isn’t the sole superstar – Philip Selway’s tight, effortlessly catchy drumming on “Morning Bell” is why the Kid A version of the track is superior; Jonny Greenwood bringing in the Ondes Martenot for “How to Disappear Completely” transforms an already ethereal song to an otherworldly expression of catharsis, likewise with his playing the modular synthesizer bringing the chaos to “Idioteque”; the recording sessions of Kid A and Amnesiac initiated Ed O’Brien’s love for looping, delays, and sustain units; and as always, Colin Greenwood’s bass lines are the heart of every track. Indeed, Kid A began as Yorke’s child, but by the end, the album became the pinnacle of Radiohead‘s rich discography.

“A classic album like Kid A can connect us with the past, present and future simultaneously, making them feel like one and the same, a multidimensional form of historical and personal narrative,” says Steven Hyden in his book, This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century.1 He continues, “As a work of art, Kid A arrived as a missive from an unseen time beyond the visible horizon, an inarticulate mishmash of garbled words and passive-aggressive electronics that eerily emulated the contextual wastelands of online communication platforms that were still several years away.” The album bridges the gap between the Internet (and music downloading platforms, such as Napster) finding popularity, and where we are today. We now live in a world run by algorithms and false truths – but how did we get here?

Kid A’s shadowy, mountainous artwork is eclipsed by how little light there is – Radiohead’s long-time album artist, Stanley Donwood spoke of his fixation on the detritus of war, terrifying statistics about how quickly ice caps were melting, and images of swimming pools filled with blood. The album cover and its loud, bold liner notes introduce us to a bleak world, where sunshine and roses are a distant memory. The outcome of the artwork itself is like a sucker punch for visual merchandiser and photographer, Eleanor Osada. “Kid A feels like a momentary cliffside dream – trapped in a temporary lull, only to be shocked awake, violently. Even in its moments of peace, there’s a looming danger – a sense of impending doom,” she explains.

Osada used her masters’ study to analyze how an album can become more “credible” with a strong visual surround. She then dedicated herself to exploring how design and modern music intertwine, as it’s relatively unexplored in theory, but has fascinated her for as long as she can remember. “It’s an apocalyptic landscape, and one that conceptualizes the album’s themes so chillingly,” she says. “I would argue that without the artwork, the Kid A world wouldn’t exist to the extent it does. Considering its role so thoroughly does raise the question: would it be as atmospheric, gripping, and experimental as it is, without [Stanley] Donwood’s visual design?”

Foxing vocalist Conor Murphy felt left out of intellectual music conversations for a long time following the release of Kid A. “I resented it for that,” he says. “[It was] sort of like [that feeling after watching] a Christopher Nolan movie: ‘is it going over my head or is it just bad?’” It took him obsessing over Radiohead’s follow-up album Amnesiac to come around and respect Kid A. Once he came around, he learned to allow himself to be fearless. “I often consider myself a musical coward, but the times when I push and innovate can be fully attributed to Kid A and albums of its ilk… I respect artists like Sigur Ros and Cocteau Twins for the same reason that I love Kid A: Nobody is holding your hand and telling you what the story is. They create and we listen.”

O’Brother guitarist Jordan McGhin first heard Kid A when he was 14 years old. “I remember telling my friend Rob that the title track was the most futuristic song I’d ever heard. You can’t beat those drums,” he says. Going into the band’s radical pivot to electronic music, jazz and krautrock, McGhin recognizes that Radiohead weren’t the first to create challenging, divisive records, and they won’t be the last. “Björk (Kid A and Amnesiac follow Homogenic’s harsh beats and processed samples), Portishead, Massive Attack (Radiohead’s 2011 album, The King of Limbs bears resemblance to the swelling strings and rhythm-driven nature of “Unfinished Sympathy”) and others were already doing it and remain a big influence on Radiohead, so I believe that they deserve some recognition, too.” 

Michael Dwyer has written about music, web culture, television, technology, and arts for three decades. His writing has been featured in countless publications, including Rolling Stone, The Bulletin, and Melody Maker. He’s currently a veteran writer for The Age. While writing still keeps him busy, Dwyer also educates keen, up-and-coming journalists at the Australian College of the Arts (Collarts). He believes that OK Computer was the last great album of the rock era, while Kid A represents a step forward thematically and artistically: “a refusal to compromise or pander to the ‘world’s greatest guitar band’ expectations.”

Dwyer hopes that Kid A continues to scare first-time listeners and makes artists try harder. “I just hope that they [musicians] don’t try to copy it like a million tedious saddos before them,” he says. Discomfort can be a tool that pushes the envelope. Dwyer concurs, “there’s more fear, more chaos, more disorienting time signatures, and modes, more machines, more [composers] Steve Reich and Charles Mingus and Igor Stravinsky than any other ‘rock’ band got close to… The deconstructed approach to music wasn’t new, but it’s hard to think of another band at a similar height of popularity that had done something so radical. It all adds up to a brave precedent.”   

“[Kid A] might not be your cup of tea upon first listen, but once you get it, it’s so rewarding… and it’s OK to cry along to ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack,’” says Kristen Iliopoulos, an Australian academic, writer, artist, broadcaster and Amnesiac enthusiast (“Morning Bell/Amnesiac” is her preferred version of the song). “There’s a book called ‘Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive’ that goes so deeply into [their music] and mortality than I ever could and is a fascinating read,” she adds. “The band’s expression of macabre and doom – not to imply that they don’t also have positive songs that evoke happiness – seems to be something that speaks to a lot of their fans.” That expression of macabre and doom Iliopoulos speaks of has immeasurably helped cement her own beliefs about the nature of life, as well as creatively, as an academic and a songwriter. It’s had a huge influence on the subject matters that drive her writing, “particularly regarding topics of death and grief, Radiohead has lit up my path towards healing which has made them the most monumental band to my very existence.”

  1. Available now on Hachette Books. The book can be bought via the publisher, Bookshop.org, Amazon, and Apple Books.