Single from the album OK Computer
Single release date: May 26, 1997
Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time: 256
Pitchfork's Top 200 Tracks of the '90s: 4
It has come to this. Eleven entries and almost four weeks in the making, we do not arrive at the greatest song that has ever been recorded in the history of music. Such hyperbole is ridiculous, knock it off. Rather, after eleven songs of varying age, genre and influence, we have one song and band that may most accurately be described as “my favorite.”
In 2006, on a whim mostly after hearing about their critical acclaim, I went and bought all of the full-length Radiohead albums. That one sentence intrigues me. At a time when buying albums was still the norm for me, I bought a band’s discography without knowing much more than they were supposedly awesome. I listened intently, trying not to become a victim of confirmation bias: Just because these were universally adored albums did not mean I would necessarily love them, too. Naturally, though, I did. Each album was filled with memorable songs and lines, and one album was stylistically distinct from the next. I was in love. I had never been exposed to such music before. Up until this point, I mostly relied on the few local rock radio stations for exposure to new bands. While one is consistently great (WEQX, which actually plays a decent amount of Radiohead and lots of alternative and indie rock), the others were littered with the modern rock schlock that I have grown to despise (the Nickelbacks, the Salivas, the Seethers). Rather quickly, I turned to the internet to unearth other great music on my own, and have not looked back. In essence, Radiohead single-handedly changed how I view and obtain music, as they have entrenched themselves as my gold standard for five years and counting.
Their library is filled with more outstanding albums and standout tracks than any other artist on this list, but “Paranoid Android” has stood above the rest, since day one, as my go-to example of Radiohead’s excellence. First off, the timing and structure were unlike anything previously in the Radiohead canon (and even since its release, only “Supercollider” clocks in as a longer release). It clocked in at over six minutes and featured distinct musical movements, much like Queen’s classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a song to which “Paranoid Android” was often compared initially. A standout on the decade-defining OK Computer, it encapsulated all of the themes that the album extolled: Paranoia, uncertainty, insanity. It also represents one of the earliest predictors of Radiohead’s musical range, as it expertly melds their previously-refined acoustic and traditional rock elements with their newly-fashioned electronic experimentation. The first two minutes are chilling and eerie, especially as Thom Yorke wonders “What’s that?” with that guitar lick looming in the background. The second part soon kicks in, which harkens back to a more traditional rock aesthetic. 2:45 is one of my favorite climaxes and solos in a Radiohead song, definitely showcasing that they can rock out with the best of them. Then, suddenly, we witness a slowdown. It is a rather beautiful movement, with the melodic vocal background and Yorke crying “Rain down on me!” As this continues, Yorke sings a few more lines until the memorable last line: “God loves his children, yeah”, which is immediately followed by another rock-out ending, with distorted vocals and guitars until completion. It is a rollercoaster of a song with a lot going on, but it all flows fluidly and excellently to create an evocative experience, even after a hundred listens.
On a personal level, the idea of being the titular paranoid android resonated with me, especially upon first listens. It is in human nature to be unnecessarily paranoid about certain things, but the robotic declaration “I may be paranoid, but not an android” sums it all up: I may worry about things, but it is on my volition and by my own thinking.
Every song on this countdown has held some significance since first hearing it. Most were gateways into the rest of the artist’s expansive discography, and all of them have impacted my overall music taste to certain degrees. However, no song (or artist) has had as much of an influence as “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead, single-handedly pulling me from the depths of modern rock mediocrity and into the realm of great music and talent. I always wondered what I might say if I ever had the unlikely circumstance of meeting Thom Yorke. I am certain that I would fall prey to being starstruck, but after recovering, perhaps I would begin by simply saying: “Thank you.”