Why Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' is the Best Song of the Past 15 Years

13/10/2011 13:25 BST | Updated 13/12/2011 10:12 GMT

It's hard to believe, but NME.COM is fifteen years old. The site launched in 1996, back when people still listened to music on Sony Discman, DVDs were the hot new thing from Japan, Google didn't even exist yet, and Mark Zuckerberg was only 12 years old.

Much has changed in music since then - but thankfully NME.COM is still going strong, and these days has a loyal monthly audience of five million users, a fifth of whom use the site an incredible 200 times a month plus.

We thought it was a good time to look back and reflect. The result? Our countdown of the 150 best tracks of NME.COM's lifetime.

Obviously making the list involved some heated debate in the office, but actually the number one was never in doubt. Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' was always way out in front. Here's why I think it truly is the best song of the past decade and a half.

Where were you when you first heard it? I'll never forget. April 30, 1997, a Wednesday night: the first exclusive play on Radio 1's Evening Session. I'd expected 'The Bends' part two. What I heard instead was bizarre and breathtaking: six and a half minutes of spiralling melodies, twisted-metal dissonance, robot voices, and a desolate choral coda featuring the line, "The dust and the screaming, the vomit, the vomit."

The song left me spellbound, exhilarated, slightly baffled... but pretty certain I'd just experienced An Event - something colossal and unprecedented. I immediately called up a friend to try and make sense of what we'd just heard. What I definitely didn't do was snort tea through my nose and go, 'Ha ha! The dust and screaming! That's hilarious!"

It's puzzling, then, that Radiohead have always insisted that 'Paranoid Android' - the solemn, sprawling lead single from their 4.5 million-selling third album 'OK Computer' - was all a bit of a giggle. Far from penning a universal hymn of woe, Thom Yorke claims he picked the title as a self-mocking "joke", and says the lyrics are "not personal at all."

Bassist Colin Greenwood remembers the writing process being "a laugh", the result of "getting wasted together". When the band came to actually play the song live, according to guitarist Ed O' Brien the whole thing was "completely hilarious" and had them "pissing ourselves as we played". Anyone would think they'd written 'My Humps', not one of the towering rock songs of the 20th Century.

And yet... they protest too much. I have a theory. I think that Radiohead knew they'd written an era-defining masterwork, but - in a very British way - felt embarrassed by the grandeur of their creation, and ever since then have bashfully tried to make light of it. They're not fooling anyone.

See, 'Paranoid Android' may do many things, but it doesn't exactly get you firing up the ROFL-copter. There's a reason why it has never been used as a goofy soundbed on The Planet's Funniest Animals. Anyone with ears and a brain can tell that this is a song about the horror of modernity. Thom Yorke surveys the whole grand sweep of humanity and finds he's disgusted by all of it. We've all been there, especially while watching The Xtra Factor with Dermot O'Leary.

The more pretentious among us might point out that 'Paranoid Android''s fragmentary structure, epic scale and overarching mood of bleak horror recalls TS Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem that Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood once performed aloud at school (and according to Colin, Thom was "totally" into it).

So, is 'Paranoid Android' a 90s equivalent of The Waste Land - a modernist masterpiece with distortion pedals? If you want to get pointy-headed about it, yes, I think that's exactly what Radiohead were aiming for. And you know what? They absolutely succeeded.

Besides, this idea that 'Paranoid Android' was intended as a joke - a sozzled attempt to rewrite Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' - doesn't quite tally with Yorke's own account of how he wrote the lyrics. They came to him at 5am following a hateful night out amongst coked-up music biz types in Los Angeles.

"I was trying to sleep when I literally heard these voices that wouldn't leave me alone," he recalled in 1997. "Basically 'Paranoid Android' is just about chaos, chaos, utter fucking chaos."

When pressed to reveal more about the "kicking squealing Gucci little" piggies who inspired the song, Yorke described them as "inhuman... you do often see demons in people's eyes. They're like fucking devils.... Everyone was trying to get something out of me. I felt like my own self was collapsing in the presence of it."

Hmm. So not quite dashed off as a rib-tickling novelty wig-out then? Lest you doubt that 'Paranoid Android' burns with a core of genuine misanthropy, note the hex on the single sleeve. The ensuing world tour was called Against Demons. 'Paranoid Android' is a song about seeing evil in the world around you, and being absolutely terrified by it.

So how come it's so thrilling to listen to? What prevents 'Paranoid Android' from being unbearably bleak is the song's endless inventiveness. It's so complex, it took Radiohead 18 months of rehearsal before they could play it live. Tellingly, 'Paranoid Android' is essentially uncoverable: those who've tried, like Weezer, have failed dismally.

Standout moments? How about the guitar solo, hissing and spitting like a power cable let loose in a storm? Or better yet, the bit where the guitar cuts out, leaving a chasm of distortion before the final choral lament, which has always made me think of hooded monks marching with bowed heads, like Joy Division's 'Atmosphere' video.

Of course, it's really three entirely different songs stitched together, and was built up piecemeal, layer upon layer, growing into this crazy toppling Jenga tower. Colin Greenwood recalls the weird feeling of vertigo this instilled: "We recorded the first bits and we were really into it. Each of the other bits had to be as good as what came before. It was really exciting... but it just raised the stakes each time and piled the pressure on."

The best song of the past decade-and-a-half? Yes, because 'Paranoid Android' predicted so much of what came after. Not just the tenor of rock music, which took a more gloomy and introspective turn in the song's wake, but the broader culture too. 'Paranoid Android' was recorded before most of us had internet access or mobile phones.

But the world it skewers - one of dislocation, chattering voices, information overload, bile - speaks to our times uncannily. Long may this extraordinary song rain down, rain down on us.

The 150 best tracks of NME.COM's lifetime