Favorite 2000s Albums: #7 – Radiohead – “Kid A”

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I can’t speak for all Radiohead fans, but the music I initially loved by the band was showcased on 90s albums The Bends and OK Computer, a complex yet accessible guitar-based alternative rock sound. The story of 2000’s Kid A is well-known by now — burdened by the expectations of following up OK Computer and looking to evolve as a band, the group reinvented themselves, creating an atmospheric, electronic-based album that has little in the way of radio-friendly singles or mainstream appeal. At least that was the idea, but Kid A became one of the oddest chart-topping albums in music history.

Personally, I hated it. I began getting into Radiohead chronologically, and after loving The Bends and especially OK ComputerKid A felt like a slap in the face. I felt like the band had betrayed me and that Kid A was just a calculated attempt to piss off my adolescent self who wanted more big guitar songs about being depressed. Even today, it seems like there is a divide among Radiohead fans between those who love their 90s guitar albums and those who prefer their more complex,challenging output from the 2000s.

It took a couple years before I decided to revisit the album, and since then I guess my tastes had evolved somewhat. I suddenly had an urge to listen to Kid A. This time it clicked and made sense to me. (It was strikingly similar to this Onion article where Bill Gates finally gets into the album after several months.)

Nonetheless, I still feel slightly ambivalent about it, because Kid A received such a massive amount of slobbering acclaim at the end of 2009, when it topped most publications’ end of decade lists. It bothers me because I think Kid A has become more about a narrative surrounding the album than its actual music — it’s about the internet age, or the changing landscape of music, or the growing influence of electronica, or whatever. I’ve never felt comfortable shoving an album into a narrative box the way everyone seems to do with Kid A.

Instead, I would rather think about Kid A as it pertains to Radiohead themselves, which is where I think its true greatness lies. For a band in their position, it was an incredibly risky album. These days, it’s hard to imagine another band in that position pulling off such a radical shift when they could easily succeed by doing what they’ve been doing. Kid A is very unique in this regard: it required a band like Radiohead having confidence in themselves that they could make it, but also confidence that their rabid, intelligent fanbase would go along with them on the journey.

Kid A didn’t exactly come out of the ether though — listening to OK Computer, I can sometimes hear the beginnings of this phase of the band (especially on tracks like “Fitter Happier” and “No Surprises”) and the album has clear influences in electronica, jazz, and krautrock. Plus it still sounds like Radiohead, mostly because of Thom Yorke’s signature voice, which is always recognizable even when he’s singing lyrics that are often incomprehensible.

Kid A boasts what is probably the best opening song of the decade with “Everything In Its Right Place.” It’s an incredible tone-setter, its lack of guitar and ominous electric piano part instantly indicating that this is album is going to be different. Overall, what sometimes gets forgotten about this album is that it has incredible pacing, the perfect opener giving way to the abstract title track and then the throbbing bass groove of “The National Anthem” (which I wish really was the national anthem).

After Radiohead comes out of the chutes with the most distant, abstract music of their careers, the back-half of Kid A is more accessible. Guitar-driven “Optimistic” is the closest Radiohead comes to recalling their 90s sound, but it has more experimentation than some give it credit for, especially with the jungle-style rhythms. It’s my favorite song on the album, as a testament to my perpetual uncoolness. “Idioteque” is the album’s beat-heavy centerpiece, and it bleeds into “Morning Bell” which is another more accessible song that seems to foreshadow the band’s work on In Rainbows.

Radiohead forsaking their rock roots for Kid A looks especially prescient now after a decade where The Bends style rock fell out of favor with most people. Radiohead had already gained a reputation for making amazing music, but Kid A is where they became known as game-changers and trendsetters, fully establishing themselves as a band that would always play by their own rules.

Favorite Albums of 2011

At this point, most sites and magazines are releasing their 2011 music lists (even though there’s still some time left) so I figured I’d join in the party.  Rather than over-analyze which albums are “important” my list is basically the albums I listened to the most and felt the strongest about.  I think, based on previous posts, the stuff I like is pretty clear.  First and foremost, I enjoy albums that at least try to accomplish something unique and have some sort of ambition, and I felt like 2011 had a good supply of those.

The list, unsurprisingly, is also quite female-heavy.  Admittedly, this is largely due to my bias towards female singers and those are the types of artists seek out and listen to the most. But let it be known that I did listen to many of the acclaimed albums released by male singers, and I found most of them oppressively dull.  The shift in the last few years away from guitar rock and into folk, bedroom pop, and other genres largely populated by bearded wan guys has done nothing but reinforce my female-biased perspective.

So, in 2011 particularly, I felt that female artists gave music something it was missing in most aspects.  If you have a problem with it, make your own list, or just yell at me in the comments or on Facebook.  I’ll be happy to argue with you.

10. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

I don’t think any album this year was as pleasant of a surprise to me as Last Summer, the solo debut of the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger.  I’ve only been a casual fan of the Furnaces (particularly their zany 2004 epic Blueberry Boat), but at times their overstuffed, wildly imaginative music could become frustrating to listen to.  Last Summer solves most of those flaws, building songs around simple instrumental configurations, with an emphasis on bass, piano, and occasionally saxophone.  What really elevates the album beyond the typical indie pop fare is Friedberger’s idiosyncratic charm as a vocalist and lyricist, which helps it strike the perfect balance between accessibility and experimentation.  High points like “My Mistakes” and “Roosevelt Island” are beautiful, nostalgic pieces of summery pop and prove that Eleanor is capable of succeeding just fine without her brother.

9. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

It’s a good thing Radiohead released The King of Limbs in February.  After purchasing it in advance with massive expectations, I was incredibly let down by my first two listens and frustrated by the lack of guitar, the mere eight songs, and its general obliqueness.  Of course, like most Radiohead albums, King of Limbs is a grower, and after revisiting it a few months later I began to appreciate the underrated rhythm section’s contributions to the album, plus the back half which has some of the band’s most beautiful work to date like “Codex” and “Give up the Ghost.”  While The King of Limbs may not be an essential, ambitious Radiohead album like Kid A or OK Computer, it’s still a Radiohead album, and it shows the band settling into a comfortable groove rather than trying to change the world.

8. Widowspeak – Widowspeak

First thing’s first: Yes, Widowspeak singer Molly Hamilton sounds a lot like Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.  Despite that obvious influence, the band is able to bring something unique to the table, combining Mazzy Star’s hazy aesthetic with the sounds of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks.  What’s most impressive is how well-crafted and self-assured the band’s songs are on their debut album, full of catchy melodies and memorable guitar riffs like on the knockout track “Gun Shy.”  Widowspeak is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s one of the most fully-formed albums of the year and one that I found myself listening to repeatedly.

7. Yuck – Yuck

Much like Widowspeak, Yuck has obvious 90’s influences: Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine among them.  Those are some of my favorite bands, so the group of age 20ish youngsters had big shoes to fill, and for the first couple listens I couldn’t help but be annoyed as they pillaged basically every element from those bands in creating their sound. What separates Yuck from the rest of the bands that knock off these indie rock heroes is that their music never feels cynical or calculated.  Rather, it’s the sound of young people playing the kind of music they like to listen to (and doing it quite well to boot, such as on noisy, melodic guitar tracks like “Get Away” and “Holing Out” and the sweet male/female “Georgia”). Besides, is sounding kind of like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth really a bad thing?

6. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

This is another album I wasn’t expecting to like, probably because of the silly band name and the lead singer’s growling, roaring vocals. Most of the time I’d lament what could have been had the band picked a cool female singer instead of a questionably talented guy, but it’s hard to imagine another singer capturing Fucked Up’s anarchic spirit.  David Comes to Life is an 18 track, 77 minute rock opera, clearly indebted to the ambitious punk albums of bands like Husker Du.  Like most concept albums, the storyline isn’t anything special and the album is fairly monochromatic and arguably about 25 minutes too long, but it’s also full of some of the most exciting rock music of the year with one fist-pumping anthem after another and many layers of arena-ready guitar.  David Comes to Life filled a void for me in 2011 as an ambitious, epic rock album.

5. Björk – Biophilia

In typical Björk fashion, most of the build-up to Biophilia focused on everything but the music. People talked about the made-up instruments, the iPad apps, and all of its other multimedia connections.  Perhaps that’s why critics were surprised at Biophilia‘s sparse sonic landscapes and immediately complained about the lack of “songs” on the album.  (Could there be a lazier criticism of music?)  In the end, it seems like critics didn’t really grasp what Björk was doing: For example, many complained that a song called “Dark Matter” was too formless and lacked pop hooks (see what she did there?). Every song on Biophilia  ties into science and nature in a clever, uniquely Björky way, like the quirky love song “Virus” which compares lovers to being a “host”  or “Mutual Core” which begins contemplatively before exploding into noise and beats.  Biophilia is unlikely to convert any non-believers, but it’s a completely unique album full of wonder and awe at the natural world.  And there’s songs too, if you give it some time.

4. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Fully entrenched in her status as an indie goddess, Annie Clark easily could have settled into a zone and kept making quirky, whimsical pop songs like on her second album Actor. Fortunately she didn’t, and Strange Mercy represents a quantum leap forward for her as an artist.  Her music retains its quirks and charms, but Strange Mercy is more aggressive and strange than any of her previous work, from the ominous “Surgeon” to the creepy-but-catchy “Cruel” (with its disturbingly funny music video).  It also has some of her most personal songs (particularly “Cheerleader”) and she allows her guitar skills to be at the forefront far more than she has previously.  Strange Mercy is another step forward for St. Vincent, who has staked a claim as one of the most unique and interesting artists in music today.

3. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Erika M. Anderson, formerly of Gowns, put a lifetime’s worth of pain and anguish into her debut solo album Past Life Martyred Saints, and we’re all better off for it.  EMA not only establishes herself as a fearless singer-songwriter on Past Life Martyred Saints, but also a unique one, as she channels her emotions into a pair of epic folk-noise suites (“The Grey Ship” and “Red Star”) which bookend the album.  In the middle is some of the most cathartic, raw music of 2011, including the apocalyptic, Kim Gordon-meets-Patti Smith tale of alienation “California” and the horrifying “Butterfly Knife” which is about body mutilation.  All of it is held together by EMA’s strong, versatile singing voice and guitar playing.  Past Life Martyred Saints might be too much gloom for some people to take, but for me it was one of the most powerful albums of 2011 and an astonishing debut.

2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

All-female supergroup Wild Flag were burdened with massive expectations for their debut album. The band, consisting of Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of The Minders were simultaneously supposed to be saviors for women in rock and appeal to die-hard Sleater-Kinney fans who had waited for 6 years since their final album The Woods.  While saving rock music may be a stretch, Wild Flag is able to move beyond the supergroup label and sound like a legitimate band, one with skilled members who know their way around a great rock song.  More than anything else, Wild Flag is just plain fun, which can be refreshing in this era of self-serious navel-gazing.  And with songs like “Romance” the band celebrates the joy of rock music while simultaneously sharing it with starving Sleater-Kinney fans.

1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There’s not much left for me to say about PJ Harvey at this point.  Her 10th album marked yet another departure in a career that has been full of them, presenting a study of her homeland of England and how it has been affected by war through time.  Let England Shake unfolds like a great World War I memoir as Harvey acts as a narrator through some of the country’s greatest atrocities, singing about the inevitable sense of war with a grim sense of resignation rather than shrill protests.  In many ways, Let England Shake is a culmination of PJ Harvey’s 20 year career:  It has the visceral, occasionally gory lyrics of Rid of Me, the higher-register singing of White Chalk, and the beauty and sense of place of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.  While this version of PJ Harvey may be quieter, her songs still hit with incredible weight emotionally, and it’s arguably her best work lyrically (I got chills reading the lyrics after I bought my copy of it).  Let England Shake is catchy, horrifying, and beautiful, often at the same time, and it stands tall above any other album this year for me.  It’s my favorite album of this year, the last few years, and probably the next few.

Favorite 90s Albums: #4 – Radiohead – “OK Computer”

I’ve been sort of dreading this one.  What is there left to be written about OK Computer?  By now, I imagine anyone who remotely cares about music has listened to it and formed their opinion on it.  Just about any list of top 90’s albums that is worth anything will have it at or near the top, with most praising it as a landmark album that has come to define the 90’s and everything that came after it.  It’s a prescient album that in some ways predicts how the internet would make music extremely fractured today in 2011.  It’s hard for me to imagine another album being made that unifies as many people as this one, that is celebrated by both the indie sect and more casual music fans.

Since enough has been said about it, I don’t really feel like giving my own inferior analysis of the music.  If you haven’t heard OK Computer, do it.  Now.  Close your door, stop reading this crappy blog, put on your headphones and spend the better part of the next hour listening intently.  Meanwhile, I can at least share what this album means to me personally.

I’m somewhat unique among the musically obsessed in that I didn’t really listen to music at all growing up.  My parents both played some classical stuff on guitar or piano, but there was very little in the ways of contemporary music.  When people asked me favorite bands or songs, I just kind of shrugged and said I didn’t listen to music.  Pretty much all of my musical memories from this time are things I was exposed to unwillingly:  Awful Smash Mouth songs, the collected works of pretty much every late 90’s boy band (thanks to my sister), and most of the other ubiquitous 90’s hits.  There was nothing that I ever sought out myself.

It wasn’t until high school that I began to take at least a casual interest in music.  It probably had something to do with the transition going on in my life, from a previously happy and well-adjusted elementary and middle schooler into an alienated high schooler.  After living a mostly sheltered existence, high school was the first time I saw what the real world was, and for the most part recognized how terrible it is.  I had always been considered funny, witty, and smart by people who knew me, but in high school none of those traits seemed to be valued. Eventually I basically gave up on trying to relate to my peers and became incredibly shy and withdrawn (problems I still struggle with today).  For the most part, I had no real friends that I was seeing regularly and just a handful of acquaintances who I would occasionally talk to.

After each day of high school, I would usually take a nap, but then I’d have nothing to do for the next 7-8 hours (since I rarely did my homework).  And that’s when I began to start seeking out music, partly out of boredom but also because there was this whole world that I had really not explored at all.  For the first year or so (I’m guessing), I latched on to just a handful of bands:  Oasis, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Verve.  And those bands, and pretty much just those bands, became music for me.  I listened to them constantly and didn’t bother finding anything else for a weirdly long amount of time.  (Sidenote:  I still listen to Oasis and The Verve occasionally, but now just hearing one note of Muse and RHCP is enough to almost make me gag.)

Eventually I began to look for more bands, and I decided to try to find bands similar to Muse. When searching, I found a lot of people saying that Muse was simply a worse version of Radiohead (“how could Muse be a worse version of anything?” I thought to myself).  So, I looked up Radiohead, saw that OK Computer was their most acclaimed and recognized album, and decided to give it a shot.

Now this will sound really corny, but it’s true:  OK Computer changed me.  It wasn’t just that it was so beyond anything I had ever heard musically, but it was also the first music that I really felt spoke to me and my situation.  It wasn’t poppy the way the Britpop bands were and wasn’t focused purely on histrionics like Muse.  It was all emotion, and it was all the emotions that I was feeling and felt weren’t being articulated anywhere else.  And it almost instantly sent me down the path from being someone who just listened to some music to being someone that really cared about music.  In a sense, Radiohead (and other bands I grew attached to) replaced the friends I didn’t really have, which might be why I’m so passionate about my favorite artists.

Now, 4-5 years later, I don’t find myself listening to OK Computer as much, possibly because it’s inextricably linked to a time in my life that I’d rather forget.  But I’ll always be indebted to it, and whenever I listen to it again I’m reminded of how powerful it is.  When I hear someone complain that Radiohead is too sad or mopey for them, I just kind of shake my head and chuckle, because I know that they don’t get it and probably never will.  And it reconfirms that, despite their massive popularity, Radiohead is a band that seems like they made music just for me.