Radiohead’s “Kid A” turns 20: What this album means to me

By Jeffrey Deiss

Radiohead’s fourth album, Kid A, turned 20 on October 2. As many of you reading this blog probably know, this album completely changed the trajectory of Radiohead’s career and alternative music as a whole. In the wake of Kid A, indie bands began to venture headfirst into the worlds of IDM and ambient music. Artists and groups like Portishead, Stereolab, Bjork and countless others were experimenting with electronic sounds for decades. Yet, Kid A’s massive success and direct influence on the industry is unparalleled. 

I would love to keep writing about Kid A from a historical perspective, and analyzing all the ways it changed the alternative music landscape. Instead, I think it would be better to write about how it changed me.

I listened to Kid A for the first time in middle school. Radiohead was my favorite band for years, but at that point in my life I was just beginning to unravel their dense discography. I had heard all their “hits” (“Fake Plastic Trees,” “Creep,” “Paranoid Android,” etc.) and was hungry for more. I enjoyed the emotive and strange alt rock that Radiohead excelled in. It goes without saying that I was not prepared for Kid A.

Streaming the album off of YouTube (my usual means for listening to albums in middle school), the sparse and repetitive “Everything in its Right Place” began playing. The song wasn’t bad by any means, but there was something very unnerving about it. Thom Yorke’s voice mumbling incoherently over an off-kilter beat? It didn’t sound like “Fake Plastic Trees” to me at all.

It got stranger from there. A whir of wind noises and the title track began. Now, Thom Yorke was speaking through some robotic vocal effect over an instrumental that sounded like a children’s lullaby. I was horrified. This wasn’t the Radiohead I knew and loved. Next came “The National Anthem.” The song started with a rocking bassline – something familiar after the strange trip of the last two songs. I was relieved to hear something “normal.”

Then the horns came in. The discordant, random, obnoxiously loud horns. Why would Radiohead take a perfectly fine rock song and ruin it with this mess? I didn’t get it. It hurt my ears. I turned it off.

I had never been so challenged by music in my life. Kid A took all my expectations and threw them out the window, presenting me with sound so otherworldly and bizarre (to a middle schooler) that I stopped listening to it. I didn’t give Kid A a fair chance that first listen. Nowever, the songs of Kid A crept back into my life as I grew up. I listened to the album again, and enjoyed it slightly more. The emotional performances hidden beneath the odd experimentation began to show their true colors. I listened again. And again. And again…

Today, Kid A is one of my absolute favorite albums. It cemented Radiohead as my favorite band in the world. I give it credit for being the first record that forced me to have patience, re-listen, and put forth an effort in order to fully enjoy it. Its experimentation is nothing compared to a lot of the music I’ve discovered since – but Kid A opened the door for me to find more exotic music in the first place. If it wasn’t for Kid A, I would never have found things like Aphex Twin, Can, Bjork and Charles Mingus.

Kid A didn’t only strike me because of its odd soundscapes and weird instrumentation – it also struck me emotionally. Songs like “How To Disappear Completely” emanated feelings of existential depression – a longing to get away from a cold and seemingly meaningless world. The album’s lyrics reflect paranoia about nuclear war (“Idioteque”) and meditations on death (“Motion Picture Soundtrack”). Yorke and the band wrote songs for the oddball, for the socially anxious geek, for the 21st century teenager staring endlessly at a computer screen. I could relate to the anxiety that Yorke was expressing through Kid A. I felt like the band was speaking to me.

Happy birthday Kid A. We had a rough first introduction, but as I got to know you, I began to look at you differently. I began to look at music and art differently. In a way, I began to look at myself differently.