Two decades ago, Radiohead changed music forever by abandoning the conventional rock style from their massively successful OK Computer in favor of an avant-garde electronic sound. They weren’t the first hugely successful act to do a 180 — The Beatles and David Bowie notably made similar maneuvers decades prior, for instance — but with the album era of rock coming to an end, Radiohead’s defiant rebuke of their own lucrative commercial success was a profound and consequential statement. Ultimately, the fruits of this new artistic direction, Kid A and Amnesiac, hold up as some of Radiohead’s best work.
Kid A Mnesia is a box set that contains Kid A, Amnesiac and a third disc containing previously unreleased material from the recording sessions of both albums. Considering Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded in the same sessions, the marriage of both albums onto a single collection is a natural fit. Both albums are effective on their own, but together, they fully encapsulate the extent of Radiohead’s electronic mastery during this era, from the up-tempo, high-energy “Everything In Its Right Place” to the somber and melancholic ballad “Pyramid Song.”
Surprisingly, Kid A Mnesia’s third disc has a strong sense of cohesion and is much more than just a random assortment of bonus tracks and B-sides. Each track flows smoothly into the next in a manner that blurs all distinction between new and old material. Despite its focal points being B-sides long-buried in Radiohead’s discography and previously unreleased tracks that suffered an even less fortunate fate, Kid A Mnesia doesn’t taste like microwaved leftovers but rather a freshly prepared meal. These forgotten tracks are given the chance to shine, and they do, highlighting the strengths of Radiohead that weren’t showcased on Kid A or Amnesiac. One of the collection’s best overall tracks is the B-side “Follow Me Around,” a completely acoustic solo performance by frontman Thom Yorke with a vaguely grunge sound, particularly reminiscent of fellow 90s rockers Alice in Chains’s brilliant acoustic EPs Sap and Jar Of Flies.
As a collection, Kid A Mnesia shines thanks to new material that emphasizes acoustic instrumentation in stark contrast to the synthetic, electronic sounds that define Kid A and Amnesiac. The first track on disc three is an alternate version of “Like Spinning Plates” that replaces its synthesizers with acoustic piano, recontextualizing the original song and establishing a subtly different mood.
Other songs are much more apparently distinct from their original counterparts, such as the standout closing track, “How to Disappear into Strings,” a reworking of Kid A’s “How to Disappear Completely” with no vocals and a heightened emphasis on orchestral strings. While most of the non-string instruments are cut from the mix, some of the synthesizer lines are still just barely audible, giving the song an eerie and unsettling tone. It’s almost like listening to the original track in a cave, where the higher frequency vocal and guitar lines are completely absorbed by the environment, leaving only the haunting string chords and the occasional distorted synth melody. Even compared to its profound original Kid A version, “How to Disappear into Strings” is a chilling and deeply moving emotional experience.
Despite the triumphs of Kid A Mnesia, the collection is severely hampered by its baffling omission of full remasters or remixes of Kid A and Amnesiac. While both albums can be easily appreciated in their current states, presenting them unchanged in this collection feels like a lazy decision and a big missed opportunity. Remixing or remastering an album’s source material is essentially a standard for modern reissues — even Radiohead themselves understand this, as their 2017 reissue of OK Computer includes a remaster of the original album that tastefully tweaks its balance to highlight different elements of the mix. As a digital streaming release, this omission doesn’t take anything away from the terrific third disc of mostly new material, but it would be difficult to recommend the $23 CD release (let alone the more expensive vinyl or cassette releases) to anybody who already owns either album on any medium. While the lack of new mixes of Kid A or Amnesiac is a frustrating blow for hardcore Radiohead fans, for whom this collection is probably most enticing, Kid A Mnesia is still a strong overall release that recontextualizes and celebrates two of Radiohead’s most timeless albums.
Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can be reached at email@example.com.