Amnesiac may not be Radiohead’s best, but it’s their weirdest.
Released June 2001 via Parlophone
Amnesiac has always occupied an ambiguous spot in Radiohead’s repertoire. It elicits some curious responses. Pitchfork likened it to “watching the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax.” Recorded in the same sessions as Kid A, Amnesiac was initially seen by many as just the leftovers. Not worthy of attention as a “proper” release. Au contraire: Amnesiac is not just a fully-fledged album, but one of Radiohead’s very best, with all of Kid A’s clean edges and sense of space replaced with mud, grit and claustrophobia.
The opener, ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box’, is built around a strange, metallic drum loop, with Thom Yorke’s use of autotune—along with reversed guitars and heavy synth—all making the song feel unnatural. This is followed by possibly Radiohead’s best song, the show-stopping ‘Pyramid Song’. The cascades of noise and strings are beautiful, and the deviant time signature adds that extra element of strangeness and wonder.
Amnesiac sets itself further apart from Kid A with its sheer experimentation. Whilst that album was no doubt incredibly forward-thinking, Amnesiac looks both forwards and backwards. The influence of jazz on Amnesiac, most notably the works of Charles Mingus, is seen all over. ‘Pyramid Song’, ‘Dollars and Cents’ and ‘Life in a Glass House’, for example.
The album also experiments with more modern techniques and ideas—see the weird drum machines on ‘Packt’ and ‘Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors’. ‘Like Spinning Plates’ was clearly originally an electronic piece, then played backwards, creating a weird, synthetic late album masterpiece. The nods to Johnny Marr on ‘Knives Out’; Brian Eno on ‘Hunting Bears’; and the omnipresent influence of Talking Heads’s Remain in Light, complete the band’s hugely outward perspective, taking in as much as possible to make something entirely new.
Amnesiac is an underrated gem of experimentation and creativity. It’s not without problems—most notably the relatively pointless ‘Morning Bell/Amnesiac,’ which isn’t as good as its Kid A counterpart and would be better off replaced with one of the incredible B-Sides, such as ‘The Amazing Sounds of Orgy’. It’s filled of tiny details and ideas that deserve attention, respect and reappraisal.