I can scarcely express how excited I was, in the early days of October 2000, to switch on the Compaq desktop computer in my dorm room, open the Napster music file-sharing service and discover that “Kid A,” the long-awaited new album by art-rock gods Radiohead, had finally leaked.
And yes, I am aware of all the things about the preceding sentence that make me sound 100 years old. So be it.
After finishing my extremely illegal download, I loaded the files into my Winamp player and cranked the speakers, eager to have my mind blown by whatever Radiohead had concocted as a follow-up to “OK Computer,” the band’s landmark 1997 album.
Shrouded in secrecy and rumored to be wildly experimental, “Kid A” was touted as a paradigm-shifting release from a band that was becoming as innovative and significant to its era of rock as Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Talking Heads, U2 and Nirvana had been to theirs, respectively.
But I hit play and discovered ... a pretty conventional rock album. The guitars jangled and roared in the Brit-pop tradition, and the vocals resembled Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke at his Thom Yorkiest. Actually, the album sounded a lot more like “The Bends,” Radiohead’s 1995 guitar-rock breakthrough, than any kind of leap forward. There was something reassuring about it — Radiohead was still Radiohead! — but also something deflating about such a familiar-sounding effort.
I had this all wrong, of course, and I deserved to feel dumb about it. The files I’d pilfered were songs by a different, sound-alike band (I forget whom) that some prankster had uploaded to Napster and listed as Radiohead, and I was just eager and gullible enough to believe I’d found the real thing.
But this head-fake, I think, made the real album a lot more startling when it finally arrived. “Kid A,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, is a million things, but “conventional rock album” is not one of them. The British quintet, stuck with the unenviable task of topping a masterpiece, abandoned rock almost entirely just as all the Coldplays and Travises were catching up to what Radiohead had been doing years earlier.
Instead of anthemic bombast, “Kid A” offered frigid beats, apocalyptic jazz explorations, spooky ballads and weird time signatures. Instead of soaring vocals, Yorke sang in disorienting non-sequitur. Instead of slash-and-burn riffs and heart-stopping melodies, “Kid A” delivered rhythms and textures borrowed from the 1990s electronic avant-garde.
And instead of a worldview, “Kid A” cultivated a vibe of pure unease, an unnamed dread in the margins, an unspecified anxiety about the dawning millennium. The warmth of “Everything In Its Right Place” arrives with withering sarcasm. The shimmering “Idioteque” warns of children in bunkers and a looming ice age. The title track sounds like a mushroom trip gone sideways, and it’s one of the album’s happier moments.
Even though “Kid A” remains the strangest album ever to top the Billboard chart, in retrospect its experiments were less radical than they seemed at first, or maybe that’s just the passage of time dulling the impact. Radiohead returned to friendlier sounds on later albums, and the release that was so polarizing in 2000 is now a beloved pillar in the band’s catalog, widely canonized as one of the finest albums of the new century.
“Kid A” somehow exists outside of time, yet is unmistakably a product of its era — one when the music industry was peaking and unraveling at the same time, when artists could still nurture and demolish their own mythology, when the idea of “most important band in the world” was something that mattered and when the internet was still a realm of discovery and mystique.
The dystopian fever dreams “Kid A” conjured are more recognizable 20 years later, following the contested 2000 election, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars, online extremism, constant mass shootings, widespread right-wing populism, viral pandemics and worsening climate disasters. “We’re not scaremongering,” Yorke will always remind us. “This is really happening.”
And so it continues to happen. “Kid A” didn’t predict the world we now inhabit, but Radiohead constructed a parallel dark reality that we’ve seemingly spent the last 20 years entering an inch at a time.