I was on the prowl for pasties in Oxford's indoor market. The Office of Off-Campus Study will tell you it's the intensive tutorial system that lures Bowdoin students into spending Michaelmas at the world's oldest university. I'll tell you it's the cheese-filled balls of dough whose stench is heady enough to convince tourists to languish in queues for the whiff.

In one such queue, I jostled a gentleman striding by—the height of poor comportment in a country where etiquette is sovereign. “'Scuse me,” I tried to dither out in my best Oxonian-American, before the impish figure in a bowler hat and trench coat knocked the words straight back down my gullet to mingle with esophageal perfection. I, a bumbling foreigner, had backed into Thom Yorke, resident of Oxford and frontman of Radiohead.

My friend Christopher introduced me to Radiohead in tenth grade. I must have said something morose, using words I didn't really know to describe feelings I didn't really feel. He must have wanted to channel my pubescence out of English class rants about Sartrean nausea and into the private realm of Radiohead, lords of sob. In the computer lab we logged into Windows XP. I pulled up 2009-era YouTube. He pulled out 2009-era earphones. “Listen to 'Idioteque.' You'll like it.” I didn't.

I've forgiven myself, and not simply because my music taste in early high school could have been outpaced by an evolutionarily stunted prokaryote. Radiohead challenges, and I didn't like to be challenged. Radiohead also rewards, and I thought the reward was overstated. To be fair, one of the first reviews of the band's seminal 2000 record “Kid A,” which houses “Idioteque,” described hearing the music as “witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on IMAX.”

My thinking is that listening to Radiohead—a band bigger than the band bigger than Jesus—for the first time is like losing your virginity to your best friend in the back of your brother's jalopy on the eve of graduation. Which is to say: uncomfortable, exciting, terrifying, and world-historical. The bleating squalls of “Idioteque” were the sounds of evocative fiction, the kind that provoked the dismissive “hm” I gave Christopher only to guide me to study abroad in Oxford in search of the music's authors.

Radiohead shouldn't exist. They rocketed to fame on the same combustive consumption of American self-loathing that fired Kurt Cobain's shotgun. “What the hell am I doing here?” misbegotten Yorke pleaded in 1992, after Jonny Greenwood's signature squawk sent the band to assured one-hit-wonder-dom with “Creep.” Radiohead's debut “Pablo Honey” is not good, but only because it caters to the lowest common denominator of disaffected asshole-aesthetes. When they became uncompromising in 1995 with “The Bends,” they apotheosized as guitar heroes who could will modern alienation into transcendent celebration. When they heralded technological apocalypse with 1997's “OK Computer,” they became nothing short of prophets.

Where does the best band in the world go after releasing the best album of the decade? They enter a new decade and do it again. I'm too young to remember Y2K, the residual paranoia from Damocles' ballistic missiles, but I imagine “Kid A” disintegrating into the desperation of a billion electrons. Which is what happened to the chimerical album-as-art—diced into compressed data, scrambled into .mp3s, teleported from servers to earbuds, first through Napster and now through Spotify. What if the best album of all time was also the last, arriving on vinyl already vestigial, on compact discs already discarded? “Kid A” issues soothsayings, autopsies, and elegies for the same humanity that died in its creation, at the incipience of the wireless age.

Dylan went electric in 1965, but Radiohead went digital in 2000. I didn't know anything about the band's history, let alone the history of Musical Statements, but I did know that after a night of gallivanting with friends, I had to clamber, boozed and bloodshot, under my sheets to let the descending resolution of “Everything In Its Right Place” wash over me. The notes collapsed into each other while I soared into the barren soundscapes of the title song and “The National Album.” They're cruel but compelling, a disaster and a dawn, stitched from Thom's vocoder wails and flairs of demented brass. The lyrics are dense, unintelligible, and often mundane, like snippets of conversations dredged from data trawlers or the concomitant propaganda that none of this is really happening. But they also suggested a peace beyond the clash of competing cell lines, ineffable and effaced. Loss in the era of hyper-connection wasn't a new idea in 2000, but in 2009 it was innovative to a student trying to piece his world together.

Hence the irony of discovering Radiohead through the jittery opening of “Idioteque” on library computers. The song can't play by command, summoned from the depths of the Internet along with its demons. It unfolds along the infinity of the record's 48 minutes, discernible only in fellowship. For that, “Kid A” is not unhopeful. Its beauty persists if we let it, 15 years later, from the palpitations of surrender of its opening, the cacophony of its uncertainty halfway in, and the ending requiem to “red wine and sleeping pills.”

Because as much as “Kid A” seethes of techno-dystopia, it breathes something else into life. Maybe it's the memory of friends like Christopher, to whom I haven't spoken in years but nevertheless could strike up conversation—even about Sartrean nausea—with affection. Maybe it's the pasties wafting from Oxford's impossible, ancient kitchens. Maybe it's the nights spent in search of love and refuge with the radio on. Maybe it's the humanity embedded in digits by design, the link we have to each other even from our furthest distances. Maybe it's the same hope that Thom kindles at the record's close, whether it turns out merely true or merely comforting: “I will see you in the next life.”