Amnesiac is not better than Kid A. We should get that out of the way up front. But also: Amnesiac is incredible. Let’s hold those two thoughts in tension.
For most bands, Radiohead’s fifth album — released 20 years ago today — would be a career-defining masterpiece. Coming from these guys, Amnesiac can’t help but feel like a midlevel work at best, less a grand statement than an often spectacular clearinghouse. Arriving just eight months after the band’s game-changing opus Kid A and pieced together with leftovers from those same sessions, you could almost slag it off as a god-tier B-sides collection if not for the fact that Radiohead believed in this material enough to release it as an album in its own right. They were correct to do so. Amnesiac remains a peculiar and rewarding chapter in the band’s history, one on which the weak links are more than counterbalanced by some of the greatest songs in the band’s catalog.
As the story goes, the band contemplated releasing Kid A and Amnesiac as a double album but ultimately decided against it. This was also a wise choice, and not just because double LPs were exactly the kind of classic rock dinosaur move Radiohead were suddenly insistent on spurning (lest we forget all the hubbub at the time about this band abandoning their press-anointed destiny as the next U2 to make difficult art music). There was a more practical argument against combining the records: Although built from the same batch of recordings, they are different beasts. Kid A is a closed system, a meticulously fussed-over epic with a captivating arc. It’s not a concept album or a distinct narrative, but it takes you on a journey. Everything really is in its right place. Whereas Amnesiac is more like a smartly assembled collection of mostly excellent songs that hangs together well enough.
Thom Yorke understood this. “They are separate because they cannot run in a straight line with each other,” he wrote of his band’s twin albums in the summer of 2001. “They cancel each other out as overall finished things.” Sure, both records were shaped by the same avant-garde jazz, classical, and electronic influences, and they channeled the same despair, paranoia, and frustration. But packaging them together would have deadened the impact of Kid A and denied Amnesiac its rightful spotlight.
“Pyramid Song,” though, would have achieved its legendary status even if buried on the second disc. Inspired by the chanting, clattering, blaring first half of Charles Mingus’ “Freedom,” the song takes on a more spectral, somber feel while maintaining its hard-swinging jazz rhythm. Yorke traces eerie piano chords up and down the Phrygian scale and wails about jumping into a river full of black-eyed angels, a surreal metaphysical vision inspired by Buddhism and quantum theory.
“All my lovers were there with me/ All my past and futures,” he sings with a mix of drowsiness and fervor, his bright but weathered tenor floating just south of falsetto. “And we all went to heaven in a little row boat/ There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.” Soon Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangement has ramped up, Phil Selway’s drumming is defying the laws of gravity, and Yorke is cycling through the whole ordeal again — grander and more hopelessly beautiful this time — until it all collapses and dissolves into light. Rhythmically, harmonically, lyrically, it’s among the most stunning tracks this band has ever released.
A few more tentpole classics prop up Amnesiac along the way. “I Might Be Wrong” invents a new kind of Radiohead guitar banger, building out a hard-edged exoskeleton around Jonny’s cyclical drop-D riff and then letting Yorke exhale over sparse, dramatic arpeggios. “Like Spinning Plates” wrings surprising drama out of studio trickery: The reversed instrumental from future Hail To The Thief deep cut “I Will” becomes a swirling cauldron of despair into which our hero leaps headfirst. (Yorke learned how to sing his impassioned lyrics backwards so they could be flipped back into real words with a haunting Twin Peaks vibe.) “Life In A Glasshouse” concludes the proceedings with a New Orleans jazz dirge enlivened by the Humphrey Lyttelton Band’s mournful screeching. Inspired by tabloid journalists’ torturous treatment of celebrities, the song builds to a magnificently wobbly climax, the sound of Yorke seemingly pushed to the brink of madness by the pressures of life in the spotlight. It is a spectacular way to end an album, even by the standards of the band that gave us “Street Spirit” and “True Love Waits” and “A Wolf At The Door.”
Then there are the songs that other people have more love for than me, perfectly solid Radiohead tracks that have never left me gobsmacked like the band’s best work. Fans have been talking for two decades like “Knives Out” is an OK Computer-worthy rock ‘n’ roll stunner, and all I hear is a queasy “Paranoid Android” retread that never fully achieves liftoff. (Apples to oranges, but I prefer the Rian Johnson whodunit of the same name.) And although it serves its purpose as a rallying cry against self-righteous regimes, “You And Whose Army?” has always struck me as less than fully realized; its early piano meandering does not completely earn that fiery finale, which itself cannot compare with elite Radiohead cheap-seats pandering like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Karma Police.” I guess it’s a nice excuse for Yorke to ham it up with his little eyeball camera at concerts?
Alternately, some songs I originally viewed as lesser have ingratiated themselves over the years. “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box” once felt tinny and overly simplistic; a highly repetitive keyboard vamp and drum loop seemed like an underwhelming way to begin, especially after a hall-of-fame streak of album openers like “Planet Telex,” “Airbag,” and “Everything In Its Right Place.” What a brilliantly subtle pop song, though! Especially if you hear its lyrics as an OK-maybe-not-so-subtle rebuke to the fans who kept begging Radiohead to go back to their old sound: “After years of waiting nothing came/ And you realize you’re looking in, looking in the wrong place/ I’m a reasonable man/ Get off my case.”
Meanwhile “Dollars & Cents” initially felt like an extension of the gnarled and woozy aesthetic the band pursued on some of this era’s B-sides, songs like “The Amazing Sounds Of Orgy” and “Kinetic” that show just how much further out there the sound of these albums could have gone. Nowadays I often find myself rapt by the disorienting tension the song maintains throughout. Supposedly inspired by both Can and Coltrane, it manages to blend the band’s jazz, classical, and krautrock impulses in a completely different way than “Pyramid Song,” en route to a sequel for the claustrophobic and dystopian “The National Anthem.”
As for the rest: Did this album really need the ProTools malarkey of “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”? The humble guitar instrumental “Hunting Bears”? An (admittedly very pretty) alternate take of “Morning Bell”? On Kid A, even the songs that scanned as connective tissue between climaxes were brilliantly executed, essential components of the whole. Even the ambient interlude “Treefingers” mattered deeply — whereas these lesser Amnesiac cuts felt like little more than ammunition for Radiohead’s critics. Can you even imagine how everything would have played out if they’d released this one first?
I’ve come to treasure every part of Amnesiac over the years; when you go all-in on a band and repeatedly subject yourself to their albums, you come to love even the least essential tracks like difficult family members. It’s hard not to wonder what this album could have been like if they’d made space for B-sides like the shimmering video-game lullaby “Worrywort,” the atmospheric ballad “Fog,” the cracked-Pavement rave-up “Trans Atlantic Drawl,” or “Cuttooth,” an anthem that seemingly existed to remind Coldplay who’s boss. Still, the Amnesiac we got is pretty damn good — good enough that some people even call it their favorite Radiohead album. And hell, why not come up with a perversely contrarian take when assessing this band’s perversely contrarian era?