Jun 11, 2021
By Matthew Berlyant
Twenty years ago, Radiohead released Amnesiac, their fifth studio album overall and their second full-length album release in less than a year at that point. This was after a two-and-a-half year silence following the tour for 1997’s monumental breakthrough album OK Computer and the eventual release of 2000’s Kid A, the record that established them as the modern, groundbreaking group they became known as from that point on.
It wasn’t always guaranteed to be like this, though. Kid A was greeted not with universal acclaim when it was released, but with mixed reviews. Some fans and critics immediately loved it, understanding that they were breaking new ground for the band and its audience while not sacrificing hooks and songwriting. Others couldn’t get over the more electronic and atmospheric direction and less immediate hooks and more or less gave up on them.
Regardless, less than a year later came Amnesiac, a record consisting of songs from the same sessions as Kid A and which is almost, though not quite, as strong as its predecessor. Like Kid A, it was also viewed somewhat skeptically upon release, particularly by fans hoping for a return to the guitar-based sound of The Bends and OK Computer.
Instead, what they got was a record perhaps even more experimental than its predecessor, complete with a full New Orleans style brass band on “Life in a Glasshouse,” the album’s ambitious closer. There is, for whatever reason, another version of “Morning Bell,” which also appeared on Kid A, alongside the instrumental “Hunting Bears” (resembling “Treefingers,” the instrumental passage from Kid A) and the fantastic singles “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out,” the closest this record gets to ’90s Radiohead. It is elsewhere that this record REALLY shines, though, particularly on the loopy, hypnotic “I Might Be Wrong,” the closest Amnesiac came to the repetitive throb of Kid A’s “Idioteque,” a live favorite alongside “Like Spinning Plates,” here given a bizarre arrangement seemingly constructed to induce dizziness in listeners. Compare to the beautiful piano and vocal version on I Might Be Wrong, the live album that followed this later in 2001, to see just how they use the studio here along with how they managed to brilliantly rearrange these experimental compositions in a live setting.
While Amnesiac was a direct influence on what they would continue to do on 2003’s underrated Hail to the Thief (this time with the benefit of more guitar work), they would arguably never get quite as experimental and challenging to their audience again. Overall, releasing these albums in quick succession was a bold move for Radiohead, but one that paid off significantly in the long run.