My Favourite Album – the Anniversary of Kid A

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I wrote a piece a while ago about Mulholland Drive, in which I stated that the idea of “favourites” is largely ephemeral, that it is difficult to fully decide a favourite book or album because it is dependent on so many circumstances. While that is true, if I absolutely had to choose one Desert Island Disc, one record that I would listen to above all others, it is one that is celebrating its 15 year anniversary this month.

An album that continues to divide opinion, Kid A inspires fevered devotion amongst its advocates, and vehement dislike, even anger, amongst its detractors. Upon release, it was described by Mark Beaumont as “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish”, while in a 10/10 review Pitchfork compared it to the experience of seeing a shooting star, and wrote that “it’s clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who.” 15 years on, this dichotomy persists, some seeing the album as unlistenable, a fatal experimental misstep for Radiohead, while others deem it the defining masterpiece of its time, if not all time.

It is no secret that I possess an almost unhealthy love of Radiohead (it is the first thing many learn about me), and in their extraordinary, unparalleled canon of relentless genius, for me Kid A stands above the rest. I have written before about The Bends, and it is testament to Radiohead that one of the greatest albums of all time is arguably only my 3rd, 4th, or even 5th, favourite of theirs. Above The Bends, above the criminally underrated Amnesiac, above In Rainbows, even above OK Computer, stands Kid A.

I first heard the album a few years after its release. The 12-13 year old me, like so many, consigned it to the dustbin. Holding a fanatical love of The Bends and OK Computer, this didn’t make sense to me. The Guardian wrote that “The first time you hear Kid A …you’ll probably scratch your head and think, huh? What are they on about? For starters, why are the guitars only on three songs? What’s with all the muted electronic hums, pulses and tones? And why is Thom Yorke’s voice completely indistinguishable for most of the time?” and this was my experience. What was this? It was unintelligible, and I regretfully put it to one side. It was only 2 or 3 years later that I picked it up again, and suddenly there were elements of it that appealed. Sure, it wasn’t OK Computer, but it wasn’t the travesty that I had labelled it. Then, after 8, 9, 10, 11 listens, it all made sense. My adoration of the album continues to grow, I love it now more than I did even a year ago, every listen elevates its status higher and higher.

What is often overlooked in the talk of its experimentation, its departure from guitars, and its significance to modern music, is that it is a phenomenally beautiful record. It is not beautiful in an instantly noticeable way, it takes patience to appreciate, but when it clicks it is extraordinary. It is not experimentation for the sake of it, nor is it in any way pretentious or pompous. It has been dismissed by many on two differing accounts: certain people say that it is opaque, self-important rubbish, while others actually suggest that it does not go far enough; I have read that it is “art rock for people that don’t like art rock”. This is to wildly miss the point. People do not love Kid A because they think it is weird or “experimental”, people love it because it is astonishingly gorgeous. Its ideas aren’t all ground-breaking; components of it derive from Can, from Kraftwerk, from Aphex Twin, from Talk Talk, from Miles Davis, from Charles Mingus. No music is devoid of influence, and to suggest that Kid A is weaker for it is wholly misguided. But Radiohead, in my humble opinion of course, do it better than anyone. Certainly, Can were experimenting with Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi 25-30 years before Kid A,  but I don’t believe they ever wrote anything as beautiful as How to Disappear Completely, anything as heart-stopping as Motion Picture Soundtrack. I am a huge fan of Can, indeed a huge fan of all of the artists listed, but I don’t believe that any of them had a moment as perfect as Kid A, an album where all of their ideas coalesced to make a single record of such unending majesty.

Approaching Kid A as a difficult, experimental piece is wrong. That is not where its genius lies, its genius lies in the masterful songwriting that underpins the whole album. Everything in its Right Place, Kid A, The National Anthem, Optimistic, Idioteque, Morning Bell, Motion Picture Soundtrack – each mini-masterpieces. The album’s greatest achievement, however, is How to Disappear Completely. If my desert island was only able to accommodate one song, it would be this. I have never heard anything so beautiful. Inspired by advice given to Thom Yorke by Michael Stipe on how to deal with depression, How to Disappear Completely is 6 minutes of aural paradise. Right from the first second to the last, it is simultaneously striking, heart-breaking, uplifting, joyful, sorrowful – it is just everything that is wonderful about music. The moment that Yorke’s voice soars over the key change is possibly my single favourite moment in any song.

It is impossible to do justice to the album, it needs to be listened to, and listened to, and listened to. As with any great art, it cannot be fully appreciated in one or two attempts. If you listen to Kid A for the first time, you are likely to be perplexed, and deem me an idiot for raving about it. I ask that you listen to it again, and again, and again. If after 10-15 listens your opinion does not change, then fair enough, we all have different tastes after all, but I urge you to try. It is not an album that you will get to grips with if you have it on in the background while talking or doing other things; it requires, and deserves, full attention, from beginning to end. 15 years on, it sounds better than ever.

Wenger – A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Wrapped in an Oversized Coat

Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, Football, Premier League, Transfer Window

Here it is then; the football season has begun. Yes, I know it began weeks ago, but it never feels real until the transfer window closes. Teams are still to be decided, big name signings and sales can still destroy the equilibrium. We battle through the opening rounds, hoping for damage limitation from our side before the real big guns are settled. I am sure that is what Arsenal fans were thinking. Benzema, Cavani, Reus, Draxler, Verratti, Rabiot, Ibrahimovic – the names went on. All of the potential incomings swirling around North London, the heady, intoxicating list of superstars. This was it; after the promise created by Ozil and Sanchez, this was the summer that Arsenal went for it. A few signings away from a title winning team; this was where they would fill in the missing pieces and join the elite once more.

You often get the feeling that Arsene Wenger is wilfully becoming a parody of himself, and he pulled his ace card by being the only manager in Europe’s top 5 leagues not to sign a single outfield player. Arsenal desperately need a defensive midfielder and a striker; an injury to Coquelin or Giroud and their whole season will capitulate, yet Wenger continues to be Wenger. He is a fascinating man, an enigma that I admire hugely, and simultaneously want to slap. He seems such a noble, principled figure, a lone ranger sticking to his beliefs in the ugly face of modern football. Other clubs throw obscene money around, the social media age means more than ever clubs and fans are desperate for a quick fix, for instant results. Managers, players and clubs can go from hero to zero, or vice versa, in the space of a few minutes, let alone a few weeks. Yet there he stands, putting in bids £1 above buy out clauses, sticking to his guns about value, refusing to use the money available at one of the world’s richest clubs. He is determined that his beliefs will prevail, that even in the largely reprehensible modern game he can nurture and develop players, and build a winning team without compromising his values.

However, it is equally frustrating, because it seems clear to everyone that his principles will not win him titles any more. The transfer market has evolved, and to get the best you have to pay obscene money. It is sad, but it is true. Certainly, you can develop world class players, and it would be deeply upsetting if Arsenal stopped doing that, but there are clear deficiencies at Arsenal that have been obvious for years, and no one in their ranks can solve them. He is now not even buying young talents, he just isn’t buying.

Gary Neville was right, it is either arrogance or naivety, and I think it is probably the latter. I am continually astonished that, for such a successful, experienced manager, Wenger seems to lack nous in situations. I understand that he doesn’t want to compromise, but he seems to have such little tactical awareness. Last season against Monaco was the prime example, and while he corrected it in the victory against Manchester City, it is still evident. We have seen it already against West Ham this season, when it was so clear that Arsenal needed some width. Wenger’s obstinacy continued, determined to pick holes through the middle of a compact defence. Yet you have to love him for it, his steadfast commitment to aesthetics and enjoyment, knowing that once in a while it will culminate in a glorious, dare I say perfect, moment like this:

He has huge flaws, and even as a non-Arsenal fan he leaves me tearing my hair out, but I know that I will miss him when he’s gone. I hope I am wrong, but he seems like the last bastion of what made football beautiful. There he is, swimming against the tide, trying not to drown in the morass of amorality and greed that permeates the game that he loves. He is an easy figure to ridicule, indeed he often warrants criticism, but try to imagine English football without him. It is not a happy thought. Whether openly or not, I believe we collectively dream of one final hurrah for Wenger, just one signing or moment that will give them the required extra spark. All football fans must hope for a 2003-04 type Wenger side, there has been nothing more joyful in the Premier League era.

Plus, Wenger royally pisses off Piers Morgan, and that can only be a bonus.