Very few album reviews can be described as infamous.
In 1970, Greil Marcus opened his takedown of Bob Dylan’s divisive Self Portrait by declaring, “What is this shit?” In 2006, Pitchfork critic Ray Suzuki assigned Jet’s Shine On a perfect 0.0 review, although the truly legendary part was that, in lieu of prose, he simply included a YouTube video of a monkey peeing in his own mouth. We tend to remember the vicious pans more than the glowing recommendations — we’re suckers for a good public shellacking — and arguably the most memorable negative review of this century occurred about 21 years ago. With a new edition of Kid A about to come our way, let us all pause to remember when Nick Hornby eviscerated the Radiohead album in the pages of the New Yorker. Of course, depending on who you are, you don’t need me to remind you: Lots of people have never gotten over Hornby’s pan, and they plan on making sure he never forgets it, either.
Back in the fall of 2000, there was a lot of anticipation for Kid A, which (along with its subsequent sister album, Amnesiac) is being packaged as part of an expanded edition, complete with previously unreleased songs, on November 5th. Radiohead had become the most acclaimed rock band since Nirvana’s dissolution thanks to 1997’s OK Computer, and there was much talk that their follow-up would be a severe sonic departure. When fans heard Kid A’s opening track, “Everything in Its Right Place,” they got a glimpse of just how much of a departure this new disc would be: icy keyboards, treated vocals, oblique lyrics, almost nothing that resembled alt-rock. “I find it difficult to think of the path we’ve chosen as ‘rock music,’” Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke once said. “Kid A is like getting a massive eraser out and starting again.”
Occasionally, artists will throw listeners a curveball by completely changing up their sound. (Think of Kanye West’s Yeezus or Taylor Swift’s Reputation.) But Kid A seemed especially radical, almost a provocation. And while the reviews were mostly positive — Kid A ended up at No. 3 on that year’s Village Voice critics poll — there were some that were less than ebullient. But none of them had the high profile of Hornby’s New Yorker diss.
By 2000, Hornby had established himself as a successful novelist thanks to High Fidelity and About a Boy, the former being turned into a well-reviewed film starring John Cusack that had opened earlier that year. (About a Boy would be adapted a few years later, earning Hugh Grant some of his best notices.) His 1992 memoir Fever Pitch, about his soccer fandom, was praised as funny and touching, and it too got made into a movie, not once but twice. And at the turn of the century, he started writing about pop music for the New Yorker, slagging Steely Dan’s comeback album Two Against Nature, praising a Los Lobos box set and sticking up for Aimee Mann’s moody, melancholy tunes. (“If Mann’s songs are whiny, well, who doesn’t feel like whining sometimes?” he wrote.)
And then one day, Kid A crossed his desk. “When I was writing for the New Yorker and I got sent that album, I must have listened to it five times a day for two weeks,” Hornby later said. “I couldn’t find anything in it for me at all, and I voiced my irritation with that.”
That irritation appeared in the October 22, 2000, issue, under the headline “Beyond the Pale,” where Hornby didn’t just sound off on Kid A but also on the very idea of the “challenging” rock album. Hornby had loved The Bends and admired part of OK Computer. But Kid A? He wasn’t having it:
“You have to work at albums like ‘Kid A.’ You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles (‘Treefingers,’ ‘The National Anthem’ and so on) might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be 16. Anyone old enough to vote may find that he has competing demands for his time — a relationship, say, or a job, or buying food, or listening to another CD he picked up on the same day. He may also find himself shouting at the CD player, ‘Shut up! You’re supposed to be a pop group!’ (The music critics who love ‘Kid A,’ one suspects, love it because their job forces them to consume music as a 16-year-old would. Don’t trust any of them.) I suspect that people who have been listening to rock music for decades will have exhausted the fund of trust they once might have had for ‘challenging’ albums. ‘Kid A’ demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.”
It was a belittling review that didn’t just demean Kid A but anyone who could possibly like it, accusing them of either being blindly loyal to the band or not the sort of person you should take seriously. (The idea that a group as brainy as Radiohead could only appeal to teens, who at that moment in music history would probably be relating more to nu-metal, was especially specious.) In an era before hot takes and clickbait, Hornby trolled Radiohead fans and fawning record reviewers by essentially saying that he alone saw through them.
Hornby was lucky he wrote his Kid A pan before social media: Twitter would have yelled about his review for weeks on end. Instead, it exists in a pre-“extremely online” age when you could actually write things on the web that were contrarian without being blasted for it, whether your opinion was well-reasoned or not. But as a result, Hornby’s negative review has become the stuff of legend: The sort of scathing takedown that now is pretty common but, because of its vintage, feels almost innocent in its disdain. Not that it escaped detection back then — a year later, music critic Simon Reynolds called Hornby’s complaints “absurd” in The Wire — but you didn’t have an apparatus for the endless subtweeting and hate-reading that’s now rampant on the internet.
However, Hornby’s review has followed him around for decades — so much so that when The Sunday Times interviewed him last year about his latest novel, Just Like You, the Radiohead pan came up, inspiring him to say, “That’s what I’m most famous for!” In fact, it’s a topic reporters constantly bring up to him. In 2003, in a profile in The Harvard Crimson, he was asked his opinion of Hail to the Thief, the band’s album from that summer. “I gave up on Radiohead after Kid A,” he replied. “That killed it for me. Also, I reviewed it at the time, and got hate-mail for ages afterwards. Don’t upset fans of people like Radiohead, they take it very seriously.”
In 2015, Slate’s Dan Kois, a Kid A fan, talked to Hornby about the record, wondering when was the last time he heard it. “Somebody asked me that last night at a signing!” he said. “I find it a fascinating question because, you know, when I reviewed that record I listened to it solid for about three weeks and decided very firmly that I didn’t like it. I don’t know who all these people in the world are who watch or listen to something solidly for three weeks and then, four years later, think, ‘You know what, I think I’ll give that another go.’ I didn’t like it, I’m not gonna listen to it anymore.” When Kois good-naturedly suggested putting together a Kickstarter for charity to make Hornby give Kid A another shot, the author replied, “It probably sounds like, you know, With the Beatles or something now.”
Journalists couldn’t stop asking him, though. Three years later, David Ehrlich interviewed Hornby in connection with his film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn. Naturally, Kid A was broached. Really, seriously, would he ever give the album another spin to see if it had grown on him? “[T]he idea of me now — with three kids, a job, an enormous record collection, an enormous DVD collection, Spotify — that the one thing I’d do is go, ‘You know what? I’m going to give Kid A another go…’ I don’t see how that would come up,” he said. “I don’t see how it ever would with normal people. They get a considered opinion that they don’t like something, and they leave it at that.”
But you have to give Under the Radar’s Celine Teo-Blockey credit for finding the bluntest way to mention the album, asking Hornby point-blank in 2019, “Do you think you will ever be able to live down your negative review of Radiohead’s Kid A?” He just laughed in response, later saying, “I have not listened to the album since I wrote about it. I know that I won’t. There’s nothing there for me. I understand that I upset people but it just makes me laugh really. You know, someone doesn’t like a record that you like” — he laughed again — “there are worse problems in the world.”
He continued, “There’s so much music to listen to that I don’t see why I should try and make myself like something that I didn’t like when I listened to it a lot. Just recently, I’ve been discovering — I never listened to jazz before the last four or five years — and the idea of not listening to everything that Duke Ellington or Miles Davis made because I’m trying to listen to Kid A for the 300th time, it doesn’t really interest me.”
Hornby’s review gets mentioned on Reddit and Twitter, with Radiohead fans apoplectic about how wrong he could have been about Kid A. The tenor of the comments always seems the same: Why doesn’t he feel bad that he screwed up? and When is he going to give the album another chance? These sentiments surface a lot nowadays when critics trash something popular — fans simply cannot understand why the thing they love isn’t beloved by everyone — but as Kid A continues to grow in stature over the past two decades, the snideness of Hornby’s dismissal becomes even more iconic. In his book This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century, music critic Steven Hyden summed up what it felt like at the time to adore Radiohead’s new direction: “The Hornby review got passed around … more as a rumor than anything else, a dispatch from the land of the clueless fuddy-duddies. You almost felt sorry for these people: how sad must it have been to not marvel at the exhilarating weirdness of seeing Radiohead perform on Saturday Night Live less than two weeks after Kid A was released.”
Of course, what’s funny is that while Kid A is now an accepted masterpiece — it currently sits at No. 20 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest albums ever made — that only opens the door for new listeners to consider the record (and Radiohead themselves) massively overrated… and to be sympathetic to Hornby’s point of view.
Hornby has continued to have a successful career, but for a lot of folks, he’ll always be known as the idiot who didn’t get Kid A. Do I think he missed the boat on the album? Yeah, but as Kid A gets rereleased and fawned over once again, I’m even happier that his review exists. I remember reading it at the time, baffled why he could be so wrong. But because his takedown was so withering — and his refusal to ever revisit the album remains so steadfast — it’s taken on this aura. There’s an integrity to his dislike, and a reminder that nothing in popular culture is beloved by absolutely everyone.
In a way, the review is like Kid A itself: unapologetically its own thing, unconcerned with how the world would accept it. If anything, you could say that Hornby’s hit job only underlines how great Kid A is. Only an album that distinctive could prompt such a passionate response.