The Great Big Canon of Important Records is a silly idea, and of course I don’t buy into it much, but whenever someone makes a Great Big List of the Best Albums Ever I have to sheepishly admit that I own most of the top 100. Like it or not, my exploration of popular music began with the canon.
The first album I ever listened to in its entirety was the “White Album” and the next three or four were Beatles albums as well. The Joshua Tree, Dark Side of the Moon, IV, London Calling, Blood on the Tracks and Who’s Next were all albums that impacted my young brain in the early days of my pop-obsession, and Fear of a Black Planet, Daydream Nation, A Love Supreme, Ziggy Stardust, There’s a Riot Going On and Doolittle have all become favorites since then. Though many of my favorite records are perennially canonized, I can’t help it if I recoil from those lists of albums that all start to look the same. You know… like this list in this paragraph.
If there is one thing I can say in favor of the canon, it’s that it has the potential to make a specific record a communal experience, a work that (albeit only in hindsight) provides a definitive view into a specific zeitgeist. When my mother was in college, everyone knew Tapestry by heart. People have, to my shock and amazement, excused the behavior of a pedophile because “Thriller is SO GOOD!”.
Peeking into zeitgeists isn’t why I listen to music, though. I love Are You Experienced but couldn’t care less what people were doing at Woodstock. For the most part, the canon makes it hard to approach a recording with open ears, unfettered by expectation and unthreatened by that guilty “What-am-I-missing?” feeling I got when I first heard Pet Sounds.
When I was growing up, listening to Abbey Road, for example, I would try to imagine what it was like for people hearing it upon its initial release. I would feel a twinge of jealousy, and a dull regret that I’d never have the experience of hearing an album like that before it was tainted by critics, nostalgic fandom and, I suppose, canonicity. See, the cannon also teaches you that pop music’s masterpieces are already made, and will never be topped. Unless Jann Wenner says so.
I know better now, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear a lot of what are now my favorite albums before they were burdened by expectation. It helps that I started listening to music that was not made before my sixth birthday, music that has had less time to be dissected and worshipped. The first record that convinced me to keep up with the present was, (speaking of dissected and worshipped) Radiohead’s OK Computer. Even my first listen to that was tainted, though. It had, in only a few short months, already been canonized by the sorts of people who make big lists of albums (gulp), leaving it ravaged, analyzed and written about way more than any rock and roll record needs to be (double gulp). Hearing it for the first time (Memorial Day weekend, 1998, my uncle's basement,) was the exact moment when I decided that popular music wasn't a dead art with all possibilities exhausted, but it wasn’t a moment of discovery; the album’s achievement was already conventional wisdom.
My fist genuine moment of discovery, then, was October 3rd, 2000.
It’s hard to imagine this now, but in 2000, the prospect of a new Radiohead album inspired curiosity more than rabid anticipation. It wasn’t something we felt assured we would love. It was a follow-up to an album we loved, but plenty of great albums have been succeeded by duds. (Ok everyone; stop glaring at the Stone Roses.) Some of my excitement probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t think there was a whole lot else going on in popular music at the time. (I was wrong, of course; 2000 was also the year that brought us Dopethrone, Deltron 3030 and The Unseen
My tradition of buying Radiohead albums on the day of release began when my mother drove me to Best Buy after school to get Kid A. I remember not wanting to listen to it in the car because I wanted to hear it the way I liked to hear Pink Floyd albums: from start to finish, uninterrupted. When we got home I sat in the basement, by lamplight, and did just that. I was transfixed.
Kid A is like an encyclopedia of the music people discover when they graduate from “someone who likes music” to “music geek.” Free jazz (“The National Anthem”), ambient music (“Treefingers”), “experimental” electronic music (the title track) and elements of modern classical, dub and Krautrock melt together in a way that isn’t innovative so much as it is well-integrated. Of course, in 2000 I didn’t know what any of those things were, but even after this record was exposed to me as a stew of influences, I still love it, which is a testament to the ingenious creativity and the quality of the songs.
At the record's very beginning, the 10/4 keyboard pulse of “Everything in It's Right Place” sucks you into embryonic hallucinations and uses Thom Yorke's urgent and feeble vocals to create a neck-twisting intensity without relying on guitars or drums. It's an odd and beautiful song, pressing out of some sonic womb somewhere, and I distinctly remember being bewildered and confused and completely engrossed when I first heard it. The title track follows, much less repetitive and all the more confusing because of its unusual structure and incomprehensible robotic vocals. While live performances of this song would bring out an anthemic, yearning quality, the studio version does a lot to cement this album’s climate: If OK Computer was a war with technology, then the sound of Kid A must mean that technology won. The neo-luddite militia armed with guitars is gone, and (some years after it happened to Kraftwerk), the Man-Machine has taken over. The alienating neon metropolis of OK Computerhas been replaced with a ruined, claustrophobic atmosphere and songs that, rather than raging against the (literal) machine, slump down in defeated melancholy.
“Treefingers” bored me at first. I kept waiting for something to happen and when it didn’t I felt cheated; down to just nine real songs, bummer. Of course, at the time I hadn't heard of ambient music, and if I had, I would have thought it was all boring and stupid (I don't feel that way now, of course…) “Treefingers” is important though. The impeccable construction and sequencing of this album depends on every track being right where it is- everything in its right place, y'might say. Kid A calms down at just the right moments (the dissonant horn torture of “The National Anthem” giving way to the swaying strum of “How to Disappear Completely”) and picks up again at just the right moments (“Treefingers” followed by the record's most straightforward rock song, “Optimistic”.) When the dense, polyrhythmic “In Limbo” is followed by the lone, untangled drum machine of “Idioteque”, Kid A officially becomes the textbook on how to sequence an album.
“Idioteque” is such a brilliantly simple song it’s a wonder that no one wrote it before. An unrelenting beat is joined by a simple motif that could be a minor-key variation of the Simpsons theme (Psssst: It’s a Paul Lansky sample.) The various vocal parts bleed together and the simple, sorrowful melody becomes more and more panicked and apocalyptic: "Women and children first!" It’s the most chilling moment in a repertoire filled with chilling moments.
And how else could it end but with a dirge? “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is perhaps the most beautiful ode to depression ever penned. The harps and soprano voices (real or synthesized, I can't tell) give the impression of floating through those pearly gates, and Thom promises "I will see you in the next life." We started with something vaguely resembling birth, so it's fitting to end with death.
Was this really a genuine moment of discovery? Not quite; everyone and their cousin was geeked for this record. That’s a good thing. Kid A is so good I want everyone I know to hear it at least once.
Teenagers a decade from now will listen to this album and peek into that Y2K zeitgeist, but I’m going to assume that peeking into zeitgeists won’t be why they listen to music, either. I hope I’m not contributing to the analysis and dissection that will hinder their honest enjoyment of this record, but luckily, it’s good enough to withstand even the most rabid fanboy ravings.