Review Summary: Kid A is a strange album, certainly unprecedented in Radiohead's discography. But if you can get into it, it's incredibly rewarding.
Kid A has to be my favorite Radiohead album, overall. I'm not trying to position myself as "edgy" by picking a supposedly difficult album; it's truly a record that I can put on and simply listen to, not doing anything auxiliary, just sitting and listening. Much has been made of its privileged status as harbinger both in Radiohead's oeuvre and the larger pop paradigm, so I won't add my dollars and cents on that topic.
I don't think enough has been said about the songs themselves. Kid A is an immaculately sequenced record, ten songs that leave you wanting much more (and I don't mean Amnesiac, unfortunately). The fluttering electronic haze of "Everything in its Right Place" flows into the minimalist patter of "Kid A" flows into the angular "The National Anthem" flows into the funereal "How to Disappear Completely" - and then the record stops for four minutes. "Treefingers" is a completely ambient interlude, a gentle wash of noise acting as concrete evidence for Kid A as a complete album. It might not be a song that you go to for your Radiohead fix, but in listening to the entire album it seems indispensable. Between the bleak, discordant "How to Disappear Completely" (where Yorke's first unprocessed vocal moans "That there, that's not me") and the uptempo, jangly "Optimistic," "Treefingers" acts as a palate-cleanser, a gossamer bridge spanning the two. Then the breathy, ride-drenched "In Limbo," followed by "Idioteque," a fully electronic slice of Yorke-ian paranoia. "Morning Bell," with its distinctive 10/8 drum pattern and watery Rhodes, plays host to lines like "cut the kids in half."
The cumulative effect so far is slightly cold, I'll admit, especially for the first few listens. Coming off the organic OK Computer the difference is even greater. But taken alone, the focus on electronics and unconventional noises remains off-putting. That is, until "Motion Picture Soundtrack." This track trades the glitch-ridden beats of "Idioteque" and the stuttering vocal processing of "Everything in its Right Place" for a pedal organ and a bed of glissando strings. It's startlingly beautiful and affecting (not affected), especially with Yorke's plaintive vocal over the top. Then a brief "hidden" coda and it's over before you have time to register it - "I will see you in the next life."
What is it about the songs that warrants simply sitting and listening: why do I love this album, specifically? The thick Rhodes sound on "Everything in its Right Place," as well as the way Yorke's voice slides through the building intensity. The vertiginous strings on "How to Disappear Completely." The dry, drums-and-vocals verse in "Idioteque" where you can practically see Yorke twitch and shuffle through the panicky lyrics. The wall-of-sound synths at the end of "Kid A." The metallic effect on the vocals in "The National Anthem," as well as its free-jazz brass outro. All these little details and moments that show the care that went into creating the album. It all goes toward creating a mood, and then breaking through it in that last song like a shaft of light through the clouds. That mood might be construed oppressive, or bleak, or simply outré, but I simply see it as a success. It's a tombstone of sorts for albums intended as complete listening experiences (in the pop world, note); even Radiohead are straying from the idea. As elegies go, you couldn't do much better.