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Son Raw was listening to Aphex Twin way before Thom Yorke.
If Radiohead didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent them. Having considered Blur’s arty Brit Pop and Oasis’ laddish British re-Invasion and found both lacking, the collective will of Generation X demanded a Great, Important, British Rock Band™ to call their own. The bar was set stratospherically high: this act needed to capture the 90s zeitgeist, reconcile punk with prog, and push rock in exciting new directions, all while selling enough records to shut up boomers still jabbering on about the Beatles(1). But as unlikely candidates as the Oxford-based Radiohead seemed when they stepped up to the plate with grunge afterthought “Creep” — which by all rights should have relegated them to one hit wonder status — they were the chosen ones.
Spending the rest of the 90s blazing new trails while their competition used post-modernism as an crutch to rehash English rock’s glory days, by Y2K, Radiohead’s catalogue sat peerless among acts big enough to make a commercial splash but creative enough to merit critical consideration. The Bends shifted art rock’s palette away from sullen muck towards a more naturalistic, if hi-def studio sound that opened a creative space for more ambiguous emotional content, and then OK Computer took over the world with a miserabilist statement that combined Pink Floyd’s ambition to post-punk depression. In a decade dominated by rap’s commercial ascent and dance music’s future shock, Radiohead weren’t just the world’s most important rock band, there’s an argument to be made that they were the only important rock band(2).
And by all accounts, and totally unsurprisingly if you know even a bit about Radiohead, they hated it.
The timeworn story goes that beset with writer’s block and more than a bit horrified at how many copycats emerged in the wake of OK Computer, Thom Yorke set off to make an anti-rock album, drawing inspiration from IDM, Mo’ Wax, electronica, and contemporary classical. Band members hemmed and hawed over the new direction, an Ondes Martenot was brought in, and everyone got familiar with Pro Tools, Cubase, and working with an orchestra. Songs went unfinished, and the project ballooned to double album size(3). So far, so Bowie in Berlin.
Except, Kid A ultimately doesn’t sound like any of those influences(4), nor does the decade’s first great rock album sound much like any great music to come. By jettisoning the art rock signifiers they felt trapped by but processing their ideas and influences through their singular lens, Kid A ultimately redefined what Radiohead could sound like all while sounding exactly like Radiohead. If you were in it for the supremacy of the electric guitar in popular music, you furrowed your brow, yet no one would confuse this solemn, auteurist art record with club tracks: that would require Radiohead to demonstrate that they could actually have fun, an Kid A ran as far away from fun as artistically possible.
To wit, there’s still way too many guitars and sad sack lyrics. For all of the band’s determination not to repeat OK Computer, in either sound or approach, the album only feels like a massive divergence from their past work and rock overall if viewed from the thick of a scene that still viewed any deviation from riffs as radical – a well ravers and hip-hop fans had long since considered bone dry. The muted electronics and Yorke’s cut up lyrics(5) certainly confounded conservative rock crits(6), but that says more about the discipline’s inability to see where music was heading than it does about how radical Radiohead’s left turn was. By the album’s release, acts like Autechre and Aphex Twin had been coxing alien rhythms and textures out of computers for over a decade, rave had both taken over Britain and begun to exhaust itself, and hip-hop’s mainstream was leaving sampling behind just as alternative acts were cottoning on to the idea of breakbeats.
Surely an ambient interlude or two wasn’t going to scare anyone off(7)?
Fans certainly weren’t worried, and the album was a hit despite tastemaker concerns. Within a few years, aided by a decade-long boom in file sharing which would help break down the strict tribal barriers between fans of various music genres, the album would retroactively be anointed a classic. In the era of the iPod, “getting” Kid A became a badge of honor amongst the cognoscenti, proof that you weren’t a rockist dullard who needed his hand held through verse-chorus-verse structures, but also that you were a thinking man’s music fan, who best appreciated electronic advances when part of an album tackling serious issues instead of *shudder* dance-pop or rap(8). It was a neat trick: by sounding neither like any rock album that had come before, nor an explicit overture to other styles of music, Kid A simultaneously felt like a fresh, brand new experience, and a project that fell well within the expectations of what an art-rock act might create.
And yet for all its album of the decade nominations, innovations, hedged bets and Radiohead’s continued success, precious little music in Kid A’s wake even attempted to answer the questions this groundbreaking (or not) album asked. It’s not as if your average band could cobble the equipment to make a riposte to “Everything in its Right Place”’s slow churning IDM, or even figure out how Yorke processed his vocals on the title track, even if the microhouse beats intrigued more than one future bedroom producer. “The National Anthem” is still covered by bar bands worldwide, but the cacophonic, post-Mingus squall of the outro usually gets replaced by bog standard guitar feedback. Even comparatively traditional moments like “How to Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic” sound startlingly modern and serotonin-deprived next to the other 00s rock tent poles, with animal-themed bands like Deerhunter or Grizzly Bear reaching for Radiohead’s scale while keeping the music well within a guitar band comfort zone.
Standing apart from their britpop peers from the very start, Kid A did succeed at preventing the industry from shoving out Radiohead copycats, but it’s to rock’s great discredit that instead of rising up to the challenge, the genre spent the rest of the decade treading water and cycling through a 60s garage revival, an 80s art punk revival, and finally the exhausted Ouroboros moment that was chillwave, while all the while Radiohead faced minimal competition for the title of Britain’s premier rock export(9). Ultimately, Kid A chose the difficult path of forging a future for rock, reimagining what a guitar band could sound like when forced to abandon its 20th century trappings. Radiohead’s peers however, used computer technology to play historical dress up, ravenously consuming and regurgitating the wealth of music file sharing suddenly put at the world’s fingertips … while rarely synthesizing their influences to speak about the world they lived in.
Rock’s past 20 years have been spent grappling with its importance in a world where a bunch of white guys playing instruments is no longer the de facto unit of music making(10). Kid A proposed an alternative, not an easy one, but a worthwhile path that could have led Rock as a genre out of a revival rut that’s since turned to a creative death spiral. 20 years down the line, too few successors have taken up the challenge, and Thom Yorke still sounds very much alone from his perch.
1 Lest we mock them, let’s not forget that Kendrick Lamar was basically willed into existence by a generation demanding a Nas/Pac hybrid so old heads would stop talking about the 90s.
2 An exaggeration… but only slightly. Let’s not forget that late 90s commercial rock was dominated by such august acts as Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock on one end, and *checks notes* The Foo Fighters on the other. Indie meanwhile was in the process of shoving its head deep up its own ass to please an increasingly effete crowd of snooty tastemakers, a process that would pay commercial dividends in the 2000s before collapsing once streaming metrics proved no one else really gave a shit.
3 We won’t be tackling 2001’s Amnesiac here for brevity’s sake, but consider it further listening.
4 Although the Free Jazz trainwreck on National Anthem does sound like Free Jazz, in part.
5 Straight out of their art rock predecessors the Talking Heads’ playbook, though I imagine Yorke went straight to the source with Burroughs.
6 Melody Maker on Kid A: “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish”. The Guardian: “self-consciously awkward and bloody-minded, the noise made by a band trying so hard to make a ‘difficult’ album that they felt it beneath them to write any songs”
7 To be fair, a few critics did note that the band was playing catch up, with the New York Times shrugging the album off as a “rock composite”
8 Full disclosure: Radiohead fans in my school were the absolute worst when this album dropped and worldwide, this record gave far too many pretentious white boys an excusive to strut around claiming they understood art. We shouldn’t necessarily hold that against it, but as a rap fan, I’m still processing that shit years later.
9 In terms of artistic merit, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys or Coldplay, and the post-post-punks never grew out of their imitation phase. If anyone one upped Kid A’s sadboy electronics creatively in the 2000s, it was Burial. Biggest Rock Star? Winehouse.
10 Commercially speaking, obviously. That it ever was artistically is the kind of PR mythmaking we’re still slowly parsing through, as listeners.