Today the long-running alternative-rock scene fixture They Might Be Giants released Nanobots, their 15th full-length studio album in the 31 years since John Flansburgh and John Linnell first came together as an accordion-wielding duo that was significantly weirder than most other bands in the New York underground of the time. The pair quickly established a reputation for using instrumentation that you don't normally hear on rock records (accordion, theremin, samplers) and singing about subjects rock bands don't normally touch (stellar nuclear fusion, the 1964 World's Fair, the history of Istanbul), both of which engendered a great deal of affection from geeks the world over.
As a result, a lot of non-geeks have dismissed TMBG as one of those things like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and T-shirts with math jokes on them that are far too seriously geeky for them to even bother with. Which is a shame, because the group's catalog is packed with songs that don't require an interest in obscure historical facts or a high tolerance for kitschy instrumentation to enjoy. Here are some highlights, with a Spotify playlist to boot (also below):
My favorite song on Nanobots is the sparse, reggae-inflected "Black Ops." It's one of the most serious songs that they've ever recorded--lyrically it looks back with regret at the past decade's worth of American military activity, and the stripped-down arrangement and downright melancholy melody drive the feeling home with laser-guided accuracy. Sonically and mood-wise it resembles TMBG material like "Particle Man" far less than it does something that might have been recorded by the Chicago agitprop dance group the Eternals.
Amid a discography defined by its quirky humor, there are a few TMBG songs that are downright emotionally devastating. "I've Got a Match," an unblinking postmortem of a shattered relationship, may be the prime example.
Or how about a supremely catchy, piano-led singalong about confronting your own mortality? ("Dead")
TMBG's 1992 album Apollo 18 is best remembered for its songs about biology and wordplay, but its best track is this burst of clever, Elvis Costello-esque power pop. ("Narrow Your Eyes")
With its searing blues-guitar riffing and minimalist beat anchored by a slap bass, "Snail Shell" mixes the the sonic adventurousness of Bowie's Berlin period with the rigid funk of his dancefloor-oriented '80s output. At the time, alternative-rock radio was full of smart experiments with pop, but few had the crackling mad-scientist energy that They Might Be Giants was giving off.