Radiohead – Amnesiac
Released June 5th, 2001 on Parlophone Records
Produced by Nigel Godrich and Radiohead
Peaked at #2 U.S., #1 U.K.
“Pyramid Song” (#5 U.K.)
“Knives Out” (#13 U.K.)
When Radiohead released Kid A in 2000, all bets were off.
The English band have been a number of things over the course of the years. In 1994, conventional wisdom held that they would be a one-hit wonder. Their single “Creep” was a massive alt-rock hit in the days around Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and since nothing else on the album really seemed to catch anyone’s attention most thought that would be that. The Bends ended those ideas, and then two years after that they released OK Computer. That album is easily the best release of the entire alt-rock era, and for a sizable and growing number of people it’s the greatest record ever made. Kid A was a complete reset, a journey by a white-hot rock band into the world of samples, loops, and ambient electronic sounds; they’d discovered Aphex Twin and suddenly the whole world was new again. While the rockists didn’t know what to think of them at the time, that album set the more critically-thinking members of the rock ‘n’ roll fan group on fire. Many people point to it as being the best album of the 00s (for my money that’s Funeral) and beyond that it showed a band who was not only willing to completely revamp their style to explore the sounds in their heads, it showed a band who was good at it. There’s a sort of purity that you get when you wander into a new instrument or a new way of musical expression before you learn the rules, the ‘conventional wisdom’, and the walls people have constructed to claim bits of the new world for themselves. Before you learn all of that you can do anything, and it’s at once an incredibly freeing and terrifying concept.
The Kid A sessions produced enough material for a double album, though, and that’s where Amnesiac comes in. The band decided that unleashing everything on an unsuspecting audience would be too much for everyone to handle, so they split what they had into two albums, the first of which was released as Kid A. Some critics have suggested that this makes Amnesiac a glorified B-sides collection, but the problem with that idea has always been that it implies a quality decline from Kid A to Amnesiac which isn’t really present. Amnesiac instead presents the more experimental side of the Kid A sessions – delving deeper into processed loops, adding angular instrumentation, being even less concerned with commercial viability. Not that that was a problem, of course; it went to #1 in the UK and was only denied the #1 spot in America because of that country’s bizarre contemporary fixation on butt rock (Staind’s Breaking The Cycle was on it’s third week at #1 at the time). It’s just that the album sprawls out a bit more, and it doesn’t need to fill in all the sketches it creates. “Pyramid Song” and “You And Whose Army?” have some melodic sensibilities as “The National Anthem” or “Everything In It’s Right Place” but much of the rest of the album is comprised of tracks that like to mine their own groove and really scratch at the loops and samples.
Kid A and Amnesiac would be the turning point for the band; they’ve never really gone back to the sort of sounds they perfected on The Bends and OK Computer. In a sense what they’ve done in the past twenty years is slowly add more pop back into the sounds they did here. Hail To The Thief was a bit more normalized, and then In Rainbows was even more so. Radiohead have in essence spent the last twenty years dealing with the abrupt tonal shift they made at the turn of the century. Having gone to the top twice in a row with experimental ambient loop music, they were set up to do literally anything they wanted, and what they apparently wanted to do was wrestle with the paranoia and alienation this freedom brought.