This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #449: Kid A by Radiohead.
Of all of the songs profiled so far, this song is the one that is the most personal for me. Radiohead have been my favourite group for years, in the same way that Kate Bush has been my favourite female singer for years, too. I first came to be aware of the band in the 90s when I bought a compilation CD called “MTV: 120 Minutes Live”. On this CD was a song called, “Fake Plastic Trees”. In the liner notes, it said that this song was best enjoyed with headphones because the song was going to fill the air with sounds in a way that no other band was doing at the time. So, I put on my headphones and listened as “Fake Plastic Trees” built up and built up and built up and then, explode in a finale of sound, a cacophony, really. I was impressed. The song was from an album called, “The Bends”. On that CD was a song called, “Street Spirit” which remains one of my personal Top Five songs of all time. I came late to the party when it came to “The Bends” because, not very long after buying that album, Radiohead released a new album called “OK Computer”.
“OK Computer” is my favourite album of all time, bar none. I listened to it in awe. I love originality in Art and this entire album was filled, from start to finish, with the most original, thought-provoking, intelligent rock n’ roll music I had ever heard. “OK Computer” coincided with a time in my life when I was in transition. I was well into my teaching career, I had just bought my first house, I was hoping to find my soulmate but had not yet met Keri. So, “OK Computer” helped fill my empty Oshawa home with sound and helped to fill my mind with stories and images. I wasn’t the only person who thought “OK Computer” was a special album. It was ranked by many critics and magazines as being the #1 album of the entire decade of the 1990s!
Not only did “OK Computer” arrive at a time of transition in my life, it arrived at a time just before the Internet really started growing into the all-encompassing entity that it is today. There was no social media back in the day when Radiohead was touring in support of this album. Therefore, I had no way of knowing that the members of Radiohead were miserable on tour and were actually contemplating breaking up the band. Unlike many band breakups, their desire to stop playing the music that was making them famous had nothing to do with internal band strife. Instead, they simply began hating the musical form they were playing. They began feeling constricted by the structure of rock music. At the time of their tour, they had a lead singer, Thom Yorke, three guitarists (Ed O’Brien, Jony Greenwood and his brother, Colin Greenwood) and a drummer, Philip Selway. That was a fairly common rock band configuration. But, by the time their tour was at the mid-point, the band (in particular, Thom Yorke) were sick of guitars and of songs with a chorus and of just about everything to do with music as they were making it. So, as I sat in my tiny home in Oshawa, Ontario, having my mind blown by their songs, Radiohead were making the very deliberate choice to abandon everything and completely re-invent themselves and how music is made. I knew none of this when news came out that Radiohead were releasing a new album called, “Kid A”.
There were no singles released from this new album. Usually, bands pre-release a new single in order to drum up interest in their new album. Radiohead did not do that. They simply created “Kid A” and sent it out into the world. I rushed out and purchased it, sight unseen. I raced home and immediately put in on. And, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It seemed like all ambient sounds! It was nothing at all like “OK Comuter” or, even, “The Bends”. It seem like gibberish to me. I have never been so heartbroken and disappointed in anything in my life as I was with Radiohead’s new album. I played it a couple of times to see if it would grow on me but, the only thing that grew was my sense of revulsion. I hated it so much that, within a week, I took it to a used CD shop and sold it to the guy who ran the place for $2.50.
I didn’t listen to Radiohead for awhile after that. In time, the internet grew into an important part of all of our lives. As it developed, it began giving all of us increasingly greater and easier ways of accessing content of interest. For me, I began listening more to music, watching videos and reading articles about music from all manner of sources. One of the things I discovered while doing so were live Radiohead performances. I had only ever listened to them. I had never watched them before. I found their live performances mesmerizing. Some of the performances that I was most drawn to were of songs I was unfamiliar with. I conducted some research and discovered, to my embarrassment, that some of these songs were from “Kid A” and from the sister album, “Amnesiac”. I was watching/listening to “How to Disappear Completely”, “The National Anthem”, “Everything In Its Right Place”, “Spinning Plates”, “Optimistic” and so on with fresh ears and eyes. I was stunned at how completely transformative it was to watch the band live, as opposed to, listening to these songs at home, alone. I truly was not sophisticated enough to understand what Radiohead was trying to do with “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”.
Simply put, what they were trying to do was not only re-invent themselves but, in the process, re-invent how musicians made music. What Radiohead did was change the way sounds were used. They developed various technologies that isolated sounds in loops that could then be played in any manner the band liked; more quickly, on a slow reset, stretched out, condensed, played on offbeats, etc. They de-constructed their vocals in the same way. Some songs have actual vocals, some have snippets of words that are recorded in isolation and re-edited in a stream in whatever fashion they chose. They use traditional instruments but they don’t always play them in search of harmonies or having one instrument act as a means of amplifying the notes from another. Sometimes, they play rock n roll like jazz fusion is played; all discordant but, all producing sounds that lend themselves to new song stylings that work in the end. In short, Radiohead revealed themselves to be inventors and magicians all rolled into one. And I, in reply, revealed myself to be unsophisticated when it came to my own understanding of infinite number of ways songs can be made.
I am going to close by talking about the videos I am going to share with you. First of all, I don’t want the song, “Kid A” from the album, “Kid A” to be your first introduction to Radiohead, if you have never heard them before. The song, “Kid A” has been described as the most inaccessible song the band has produced. It was almost as if the band was challenging their fans to see who was really ready to follow their new directions and who wasn’t. I did not like the song then and I still do not play it very often now. So, instead, I will start you off with a live performance of another song from, “Kid A” called “The National Anthem”. This song has more vocal sounds than it does vocal words but, there is no denying that it is a real song. On stage, you will notice Jony Greenwood operating a computer-like box called Ondes Martnenot, which controls how some of the sounds in this song appear. Thom Yorke’s vocals are transmitted through a voice modulator. There is a jangle, discordant wall of sound that erupts out of this song that really gives it a sense of great energy and excitement. All in all, this is quite a performance. More importantly, it is quite a song.
Radiohead remain my favourite band. I still think “OK Computer” is my favourite album but, my appreciation and admiration for the vision that Radiohead employs has grown immeasurably. If this is your first encounter with Radiohead then, buckle up! “The National Anthem” is not a pop song. I will post the song, “Kid A” in the comments, for anyone who wishes to give it a go. Thanks for hanging in until the end of this, my longest post.
The link for the music video for The National Anthem by Radiohead can be found here.
The link for Kid A by Radiohead can be found here.
A link to Radiohead’s website can be found here.
Thank you, KEXP, for supporting original and challenging music, such as that produced by Radiohead. A link to their website can be found here.