There’s a logical progression to Radiohead’s first three albums: Pablo Honey introduced the band’s gift for catchy songs and melancholy, The Bends refined and perfected it, and OK Computer stretched it to the experimental breaking point. So what do you do when you’ve reached the end of logic? In 2000, Radiohead responded with Kid A, the sound of a band successfully turning itself inside out. Largely absent: grabby guitar lines. In their place: distorted vocals, skittering rhythms, strings, electronic instruments both new and old, and songs built less around hooks and choruses than layers and swells. The obsessions changed, too. The mounting digital-age alienation had hardened into fear and acceptance. Where OK Computer captured the sound of a world slowly drifting apart, Kid A provided the soundtrack for the day after its dissolution.
In the years after the album’s release, bewilderment gave way to acceptance and then reverence. Listening to Kid A, reissued along with Radiohead’s two subsequent albums as double-disc editions at the end of the decade it helped kick off, the album now sounds no less radical and more than a little prophetic. It isn’t that many artists have made albums like it, but plenty have taken up room in at least part of the space the album helped carve out.
Kid A could have been the end of the story, and its 2001 follow-up Amnesiac left some listeners wondering whether the band had at last found a sonic dead end. Taken mainly from the same sessions that yielded Kid A, Amnesiac doesn’t live up to its predecessor if only because it’s strange to hear the band staying in the same place for the first time—relatively speaking, anyway. Amnesiac remains filled with tracks that few other bands would dare attempt, all kept close to the ground by Yorke’s aching vocals. No matter how fixated the band became on using new technology to condemn the effects of new technology, Yorke’s voice always provided an unmistakably human element, even when that element seemed swallowed by despair.
2003’s Hail To The Thief proved to be Radiohead’s major-label studio farewell; the band now seems committed to self-releasing its material. But before going it alone with 2007’s excellent In Rainbows, Hail To The Thief found Radiohead opting for a less solipsistic approach, motivated largely by anger. With a name taken from anti-Bush protesters, the album sounds angry and again engaged with the world, albeit supremely pissed off at the state of things. Still, it’s for the best that something brought the band back to the world.
As with the reissues of Radiohead’s first three albums, Capitol has done a nice job of gathering B-sides and live tracks for each set. Intimate live versions of the album’s songs dominate the Kid A set. Amnesiac’s second disc splits evenly between live versions and B-sides, some of which push the experimentations of Amnesiac and its sister disc further than the cuts that made it. The Hail To The Thief package features B-sides, live versions, and remixes. All are worth hearing, though the live tracks stand out, if only because it seems like a small miracle that any tracks from this era could find their way to the stage.