One of the best things about any form of art is its absence of absolutes. Art is subjective and indefinable. One man's fuzzy eyesore is another man's Monet. This is what makes art such an interesting topic of discussion - each person's individual declaration of what is "best".
What is the best painting ever? Some would say the Mona Lisa, some would say The Scream and every parent would say "That finger-painting held to my refrigerator by magnet," if its creator is listening in. There is no definitive best television show ever (but note that the list of correct answer candidates is restricted to Breaking Bad and The Wire). Besides disaffected youth who generally favor Catcher in the Rye, there is no unqualified best book. And there long had been no certain answer to the question "What is the best song of all-time?" Fortunately, however, loyal readers -- after extensive research and reflection there is now an answer to this question, and it is "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead.
Disagree? Let us know your pick in the comments.
The second track from the 1998 highly-acclaimed OK Computer, a song that never charted in the United States and peaked at #3 in the band's native UK, is the greatest song ever made. "Paranoid Android" fits in squarely with the themes of the album, namely alienation, sanity/insanity, identity crisis, claustrophobia, and the over-modernization of today's world.
Taking its title from the character Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series of books, the lyrics were written by lead singer Thom Yorke after a miserable experience in a Los Angeles bar. Many theories abound as to the actual meaning of the song, including the process of a man going insane, a robot lost in the human world and (seriously) the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. The animated music video isn't particularly helpful for further gleaning meaning from the lyrics, but watch it if you want to have a thoroughly bizarre six-minute viewing experience. "Paranoid Android" starts with a mellow jangly Jonny Greenwood guitar intro laid over gentle percussion, leading into two verses of lyrics describing the troubling thoughts in the protagonist's head. As York belts out "What's that?" a robotic voice underneath him murmurs, "I may be paranoid, but not an android." The confusion becomes delusion with the subsequent couplet that begins "When I am king, you will be first against the wall." After a calming couple guitar stanzas, softly repeating that memorable Greenwood hook, the feeling switches to frustration and anger - "Why don't you remember my name?" and "off with his head man" - while the instruments rise in power and intensity to match the swelling emotions.
Suddenly, like a bus into a brick wall, it all stops and in comes the interlude. My goodness, the interlude. I have heard this song hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and it never fails to make each and every hair on my neck stand at full attention. Haunting choral voices, light drums and acoustic guitar set the background for a wailing Thom York masterpiece. The aching in his voice as he opens with "rain down" is tangible - the man (or robot) is looking upward ("from a great height") for some kind of guidance or intervention, anything to quell those "unborn chicken voices in my head" from the first verse.
Two impossibly brilliant stanzas conclude with "God loves his children...God loves his children...yeah." Then, with the urgency with which the song had halted, it immediately hits full tempo again with a cacophony of Greenwood's screaming guitar riffs, heavy Phil Selway percussion and odd laser-sounding organs. The song comes to one final, sudden stop, almost forcing the listener to contemplate exactly what it is he just heard.
No song, not "Stairway to Heaven", not "Hey Jude", not "God Only Knows" takes the audience on such a ride, while keeping the adventure to a reasonable length and not devolving into endless repetition. The raw emotion, the find-your-own-meaning lyrics executed with one of the finest voices in the world and the perfect instrumentation of Radiohead make "Paranoid Android" a scintillatingly unique listening experience. It is not just a great song, not just a perfect song. It is the best song.
Follow Dave Geeting on Twitter @thegeeter.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.