In Act One of the Radiohead story the group arrived onto the scene in 1993 as a forgettable Brit-pop band with a huge hit song (“Creep”), only to rise to the top of the rock ranks with their second album (The Bends) and then make one of the greatest musical achievements of the 20th century (OK Computer).
There was a three year gap between OK Computer and Kid A during which the band toured endlessly and tried to find a new approach to their sound. The result was Kid A, an album less about guitar anthems and more about electronica, jazz, and minimal krautrock rhythms. Almost a decade later these songs sound familiar, but it’s hard to describe the initial shock of hearing the album for the first time – especially the opening trio of “Everything In Its Right Place”, the title track (with Thom Yorke’s robotized vocals), and “National Anthem”, which was at least a rock song, but also featured a repetitive Krautrock groove and free-jazz skronking. Strange as the songs initially seemed, the band’s willingness to experiment paid off with an album whose challenges were infinitely rewarding. Kid A had no singles (both literally and figuratively) or videos, so the bonus disc and DVD are made up of radio and television performances. Many of these songs took on more open-ended possibilities live – like “The National Anthem” where Johnny Greenwood samples live television and “Everything In Its Right Place” where Johnny samples and plays back Thom Yorke’s live vocals – so these performances are a welcome companion to the album. The only song that makes no sense here is “True Love Waits” from the I Might Be Wrong live EP. Why include one song from an officially released album?
2001’s Amnesiac was recorded during the same sessions as Kid A (and is often derisively referred to as Kid B) but it stands up well as its own piece of work. The album continues down the same experimental path as Kid A on the Tricky-esque “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, and “Like Spinning Plates”, where Thom Yorke learned to sing the song backwards and then played the backwards vocals backwards, making the vocals sound slurred and slightly off. With those numbers came a group of more “traditional” Radiohead songs like “I Might Be Wrong”, “Dollars And Cents” and “Knives Out” which sharply contrasted the more experimental fare. The group also indulged in woozy jazz ballads on “You and Whose Army”, “Pyramid Song” and the New Orleans-styled “Life In A Glass House” to tremendous effect. The bonus-disc features eight b-sides (“Worry Wort”, “Fog” and “Cuttooth” are essential), six studio sessions and, yet again, a single song from the I Might Be Wrong live EP. The DVD has five excellent videos from the album and six TV performances.
Hail To The Thief, from 2003, has been getting a bum rap from reviewers of late, which makes no sense at all. Perhaps detractors are down on it because the group don’t seem to be pushing themselves into new territory. However, you could say the album takes the best parts of Kid A and Amnesiac and removes the extraneous experiments for the band’s most consistent set of the decade. There’s great singles (“There There”, “Go To Sleep” and “2+2=5”), creepy electronica (“Backdrifts”, “The Gloaming”), beautiful ballads (“Sail To The Moon”, and “I Will”) and not a duff number among the album’s 14 tracks. The bonus-disc has 10 B-sides ranging from fair to terrible (Christian Vogel’s remix of “Myxomatosis” and Four Tet’s remix of “Scatterbrain” are both pretty unlistenable) and three live tracks. The DVD includes five videos (including a rather brilliant one for “Sit Down, Stand Up”) and a four song performance on the Jools Holland Show.