They Might Be Giants Albums, Ranked
Gothamist, June 8, 2016
by Ken Bays
It's crazy to think that They Might Be Giants have been recording for 30 years. But as this fearlessly eclectic group once sang, time is flying like an arrow, and the clock hands go so fast they make the wind blow. From their early days as an arty Brooklyn-based duo to their current status as a five-piece, world-touring indie rock band that also dabbles in children's music--and by "dabbles in," I mean "wins Grammys for"--John Flansburgh and John Linnell now stand as elder statesmen of their particular genre.
Of course, few elder statesmen continue to make music at the rate this most prolific of bands does. In March, They Might Be Giants digitally released their latest studio album, Phone Power. In honor of this milestone, we've looked back on their career and ranked their previous studio albums. Note that this ranking doesn't include TMBG's five albums aimed at children. Nor does it encompass their numerous live releases, rarities compilations or EPs, though a handful of those are collected in a separate section at the end of the article.
Here, then, are the group's thirteen previous full-length adult releases, from worst to best. Not to put too fine a point on it.
** (Two stars)
13. Long Tall Weekend (1999)
First off, even the worst They Might Be Giants album isn't all that bad. Each of the band's projects has its moments, and Long Tall Weekend is no exception. As the first online-only release by a major artist, it positioned them as leaders of the digital music revolution. (A few CDs were produced, but it's unlikely you'll ever come across a copy.) The best songs were the ones originally slated for 1996's Factory Showroom; the gently rolling, midtempo "Certain People I Could Name" has an appealingly low-key Linnell vocal over well-placed piano tinkling, and "Reprehensible" does a great job of parodying the vibe of mid-century lounge music. "Lullaby To Nightmares" is a gnarly, sax-fueled samba, and the guitar-based version of "Older" is less grating than the Mink Car re-recording.
The other songs, though, feel hokey and unfinished--"Operators Are Standing By" is little more than a jingle, and the backwards a cappella vocal on "On Earth My Nina" is just plain unpleasant. This album might have been a brave, even prescient move from a technological standpoint, but only a small portion of it stands up to repeated listening. Even so, if you're among those whose CD player can't wrap its laser around the Factory Showroom bonus cut "Token Back To Brooklyn" hidden in that disc's Track Zero, you can grab it on Long Tall Weekend.
12. The Else (2007)
As TMBG edged further into their sequence of "family-friendly" albums, first with No! in 2002 and then with Here Come The ABCs in 2006, the rest of their new music began to eschew quirkiness in favor of more traditional arrangements. Instead of feeling like an organic shift, it seemed desperate, as if the guys were trying to say, Yes, but we still rock. The problem was that in accentuating the differences between TMBG's grownup songs and kids' fare, they ignored the fact that a lot of their fans were just grownup kids. Lyrically, the Johns were as idiosyncratic as ever--"Contrecoup" was about a brain injury, while "The Cap'm," with its unreliable narrator, rhymed its title with this rejoinder: "Go ahead and mess with me/You'll find out what will happ'm."
But musically, they cloaked themselves in the artifice of glossy alt-rock tropes: the unnecessarily complicated beat of "Upside Down Frown," the Radiohead-imitating intro to "Careful What You Pack," and "Take Out The Trash," which attempted to out-smashmouth Smash Mouth, a dubious goal even in parody. Granted, the Johns knew what to expect when they hired The Dust Brothers to produce half the material. And, yes, there are some essential tracks here, like "I'm Impressed," with its unrelenting wall of guitars, and "The Mesopotamians," which garnered some mainstream attention. You can't blame TMBG for wanting to break out of the weirdo-rock pigeonhole, but it's hard not to miss their musical eccentricities. I mean, let's be honest: Which is better Beefheart: Bluejeans & Moonbeams or Trout Mask Replica?
11. Nanobots (2013)
I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one. I played it a lot when it first came out, appreciating the way the two songwriters had swapped roles: All but two of Linnell's tunes were recorded in the kind of uptempo, dance-inducing rock arrangements at which Flansburgh had always excelled, while Flans' tracks were more varied, often moodier and atmospheric, filled with whirring, clicking keyboard textures that suggest the loneliness of an astronaut stranded in space. Over time, I've found that I rarely return to Nanobots, except for atypical tracks like the poppy, loopy "9 Secret Steps," where Linnell mocks the self-help industry over a variation on his "James K. Polk" melody, or "Too Tall Girl," where Flansburgh squishes together The Beach Boys and Bacharach to goofy effect.
Much of the record sounds too fussed-over; "The Darlings Of Lumberland" may be ambitious, but that doesn't make it pleasant to listen to. And the nine "Fingertips"-style song fragments--they worked wonderfully on Apollo 18, sequenced together near the album's conclusion--are scattered among the full-length tunes here, making you feel like you're on a roller coaster, easing through the album one minute and careening at breakneck speed the next. Finally, enough with Linnell's various clarinets: To hear more honking than on Nanobots, you'd have to be caught in a traffic jam. It's admirable that TMBG seemed to be going for more of the sonic experimentation that characterized Join Us, from two years earlier, but this time the music was too tense and brittle to love.
*** (Three stars)
10. The Spine (2004)
The Spine was sort of a precursor to The Else in that it mostly downplayed TMBG's madcap side, focusing instead on a sound closer to what was going on in modern rock radio at the time. If you ignored the lyrics to "Damn Good Times," "Memo To Human Resources" or "Broke In Two," you could imagine them getting serious airplay. To the album's credit, it didn't sound as forced as the disc that followed it, since the rock tunes mingled with other, more diverse, often sillier pieces like the Auto-Tuned "Bastard Wants To Hit Me" and the sultry-rhythmed "I Can't Hide From My Mind."
"Wearing A Raincoat" is another of Linnell's clever odes to circular reasoning, and his lush, dynamically intricate "Museum Of Idiots" features the most gorgeous use ever of TMBG's horn section. I wish he'd fleshed the 30-second-long "Spine" into a full song, although I'm not sure where you can go after starting with a declaration that "I've been draggin' my feet across my back/And I've been rubbing my head against my neck." The rest of the record isn't as interesting; the music on "Prevenge" is blander than its amusing portmanteau of a title, while the tuba-enriched "Stalk Of Wheat," wacky to the point of self-parody, cuts too close to the bone when Linnell sings that he's "out of ideas." Still, the record has a sleeper quality to it, and it's worth revisiting if you haven't played it in the past decade or so.
9. Apollo 18 (1992)
After the success of Flood, Elektra Records tried to talk Flansburgh and Linnell into letting Elvis Costello, who was a fan of the duo, produce their next project. Fearing awkwardness in the presence of one of their heroes, they decided instead to self-produce (although it should be noted that Alan Winstanley, who with his partner Clive Langer had helmed Costello's poppiest-sounding record, ended up mixing Apollo 18). Upon its release, the hype centered on "Fingertips," a series of 21 tiny song snippets glued together to sound like one of those once-unavoidable television commercials for K-Tel hits-of-the-day compilations. Brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed, "Fingertips," was, in retrospect, the best thing on the album. The soaring "The Statue Got Me High" and the twisty, ingeniously constructed "I Palindrome I" showcased Linnell's most assured singing to date, while "My Evil Twin," "Narrow Your Eyes" and "See The Constellation" revealed new depth to Flansburgh's writing. And opening track "Dig My Grave," with its driving guitars and fuzz-box vocals, offered the first glimpse of the hard-edged mock rock to which TMBG would later return.
But other selections felt half-baked, like the Bo Diddley-channeling "Hypnotist Of Ladies," the casually jazzy "She's Actual Size" and the carnival-like "Which Describes How You're Feeling," a re-recording of one of their earliest tunes. Apollo 18 wasn't a bad album, but it was the first to show chinks in the group's armor after a trio of amazing records that made it seem they could do no wrong.
8. Glean (2015)
This was a back-to-basics set for the band, in both process and result. Its selections were rooted in an updated version of their old Dial-A-Song service, the Johns writing and recording a new song each week without thinking about how they'd work together as an album. Perhaps as a consequence of the abbreviated production time, these largely uptempo songs came out sounding streamlined and direct; they waste no time getting to the point, whether that point is a jokey take on bouncing back from a failed relationship (the balls-out big band of Flansburgh's "Let Me Tell You About My Operation") or something a little deeper (Linnell's melodramatic, rock-operatic "End Of The Rope").
The deadpan "Madam, I Challenge You To A Duel" is Flansburgh at his high-concept funniest, while the sweet, lighthearted "Good To Be Alive," despite its hospital setting, is one of TMBG's cheeriest tunes. And "Answer" is classic Linnell, its singsongy verses of eternal disappointment raising more questions than, well, answers--is the narrator God? A romantic partner? Disillusionment itself? Occasional lyrical mysteries aside, the straightforwardness of Glean's songs combines with lean, keyboard-heavy arrangements and bright production to make it the most Flood-like of the band's new-millennium discs.
**** (Four stars)
7. Factory Showroom (1996)
Some of the best tracks from the Factory Showroom sessions didn't make it to the final product. "Certain People I Could Name" saw the light of day three years later on Long Tall Weekend, while the phenomenal "Sensurround," which combined one of the group's most memorable guitar riffs with an almost breathless Linnell vocal, was relegated to B-side status (an inferior version was previously released on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers soundtrack). Still, there's plenty to like here. The lounge-y vibraphone running through "Spiraling Shape" meshes nicely with the song's theme of being rendered powerless by some mysterious, hypnotic force, an idea that crops up again on "The Bells Are Ringing," where it's driven home by hilariously literal sonics.
"Till My Head Falls Off" nods to New Wave; its impassioned organ stabs and careening drums sound like Elvis Costello's Attractions circa 1979. "Your Own Worst Enemy" is atypically straightforward, as Linnell abandons irony to sing one of his most poignant lines: "Full bottle in front of me/Time to roll up my sleeves and get to work/And after many glasses of work, I get paid/In the brain." Best of all is the Flansburgh-sung "New York City"; pulsing with happy-go-lucky energy, it deservedly became one of the group's signature songs. It's telling that Flans' most exciting contribution to the album was a cover--the song was written and recorded in 1994 by the Vancouver band Cub, which occasionally featured a young Neko Case as an auxiliary member--because the rest of his tunes, like the plodding "XTC vs. Adam Ant" and the gimmicky, one-listen-is-enough "I Can Hear You," don't measure up to Linnell's. Overproduced? Absolutely, and that's both blessing and curse: It's fun to hear the Johns try every keyboard sound under the sun on Factory Showroom, less so to endure the annoying, hiccupy sample that intrudes halfway through the otherwise splendid popcraft of "Metal Detector."
6. Mink Car (2001)
This one shouldn't work, but does. It was recorded all over the place, with no fewer than five different sets of producers, and it certainly sounds like it. No TMBG record contains as much genre whiplash as Mink Car; its first four tracks alone encompass pop-rock, guitar-based garage rock, pulsing disco, and the sort of sample-heavy, hip-hop-flecked indie rock Soul Coughing doled out (thanks to a guest turn by Mike Doughty himself on "Mr. Xcitement"). Yet as the album progresses, all the loose strands somehow weave themselves into an oddly cohesive whole. It helps that the songs are so solidly constructed: "Man, It's So Loud In Here" gets not only the sound of the late-'80s dance music it's parodying exactly right, but the emotional tone and the occasional Pet Shop Boys-style unexpected chord insertion, too.
"Hovering Sombrero" is the best ever motivational song sung to a hat, and "Bangs," an ode to a haircut that manages to be sarcastic and sweet at the same time, is just a perfect Linnell melody. "Yeh Yeh," a cover of Georgie Fame's hit from 1965, is like a microcosm of the album itself, combining bits and pieces of disparate styles into a groovy cocktail that's simultaneously retro and modern. It all makes for a more controlled kind of schizophrenia than the out-and-out insanity of their earliest albums, and a few clunkers do make their way into the sequence (here's looking at you, "Wicked Little Critta" and "I've Got A Fang"), but Mink Car easily lands in the top half of They Might Be Giants' output. It's also the only TMBG disc to be the subject of a full-length tribute album, so there's that.
5. John Henry (1994)
A T-shirt sold during TMBG's 1992 Don't Tread On The Cut-Up Snake World Tour advertised the band's strengths as "Melody, Fidelity, Quantity." That phrase, later reused as a subtitle on one of their compilations, might as well have been the name of the band's sixth album: At 20 tracks, it was their longest release to date, and as for fidelity--well, listen to the slithering groove bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Brian Doherty created on "AKA Driver," the chiming ear candy of "Destination Moon" or the wall-of-sound overload of "Subliminal" proved that the expansion of TMBG from duo to full band wasn't going to be the disaster some fans feared.
John Henry was surprisingly bold for a transitional album; its emphasis on guitar and horns--maybe a smidge too much of the latter, since their ubiquity as melodic leads gets overwhelming around the album's midsection--made it clear that the new guys were going to be integral to the band's sound and not just bit players. Few of these songs landed perennial placements in TMBG's setlists, but the ones that did, like the Sly Stone-referencing "Snail Shell" and the accordion-propelled "Meet James Ensor," are absolute barnburners.
The rest are solid, too, and the disc's consistency of sound makes it one of the group's easiest to enjoy start to finish. Why "The End Of The Tour," with its luscious, autumnal keyboard melody, isn't viewed as one of the band's masterpieces is beyond me--though its title did get lifted for the 2015 biopic about David Foster Wallace, who once contributed a short story to McSweeney's that was printed, of all places, on the journal's spine... the same publication that once commissioned a CD of original music by TMBG, who subsequently recorded an album called The Spine. Hmmm.
4. They Might Be Giants (1986)
"I hope that I get old before I die."
"Weasel overcome, but not before the damage done."
"There's only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third."
"Laugh hard, it's a long way to the bank."
"All the people are so happy now, their heads are caving in/I'm glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin."
TMBG's self-titled debut, sometimes known as The Pink Album, overflows with enough puns and non-sequiturs to keep word nerds occupied for days. Their sound was as stripped down as the solo folkies of the '60s, except that instead of guitar, harmonica and vocals it was the mid-'80s art-school equivalent: guitar, synth and drum machine. With incredible resourcefulness and imagination, the duo created wildly original things from those components, from the miniature abstract sculpture that is "Boat Of Car" to oblique commentary pieces like the hipster-conformity-skewering "Youth Culture Killed My Dog" or the self-referential "Rhythm Section Want Ad." It's probably true that nobody's listening to the odd throwaway like "Rabid Child" or "Chess Piece Face" today, but the vast majority of the record shows that Flansburgh and Linnell were unafraid from the very start to define themselves not by what others expected of them, but by the sounds they heard in their heads.
3. Join Us (2011)
What can I say? I adore this album. At first, I thought it was just relief at finding out that the Johns were still capable of getting strange after the (relative) normality of their previous two non-kids' sets. But now that five years have passed since Join Us came out, I see that what keeps me coming back to it is the quality of the material, the sheer sense of fun. For the first time in a decade, the music seemed to be working in tandem with the lyrics rather than protesting against them, the textures and arrangements oozing adventurousness. In the spiraling keyboards that open "Can't Keep Johnny Down," the nervous guitar figure that bubbles under "In Fact" and the blurry vocal sample that provides the bottom end on the cool, crazy "Three Might Be Duende"--the closest thing to a surrealist epic TMBG have ever written--you can feel a renewed focus on digging up sounds they've never tried before.
At the same time, there are familiar touches, like the way the stuttering guitar in "Canajoharie" etches out the melody as surely as it did in "Ana Ng," or how "Cloissoné" continues the Johns' apparent interest in French-derived song titles likely to get fans scouring their dictionaries. "Protagonist" and "Spoiler Alert" both play with song structure; the former colors its main storyline with distorted-voice stage directions, while the latter features two simultaneous narratives--one sung by Linnell and one by Flansburgh--that ultimately collide. Or do they? In short, Join Us has all the elements that make TMBG great, and just as important, make them different.
***** (Five stars)
2. Flood (1990)
As bids for the big time go, They Might Be Giants' was quite successful: Flood landed the band on the Modern Rock charts, spawned some of its most iconic songs and eventually went platinum. The duo's first major-label release--and they were indeed still a duo at the time, despite bigger, brighter production that made room for guest musicians to add horns and violin--wasn't so much a reinvention of their sound as a fine-tuning of it, with hummable melodies and bold choruses that are clearly meant to demand attention. John and John use irony to ward off accusations of selling out (no joke: I remember my local record store owner warning customers, "But they're on Elektra now!"), beginning the album with a ludicrously bombastic announcement of their "brand new record for 1990" before launching into the band's greatest achievement, "Birdhouse In Your Soul."
A piece of sparkling, immaculate power pop that starts quietly but builds to a crescendo of canon-style vocal harmonizing, "Birdhouse" appears to be narrated by a blue-canary-shaped nightlight, and if it seemed strange subject matter at the time, fans would eventually grow accustomed to such playful points of view from TMBG. "Dead" was sung by a guy reincarnated as a bag of groceries, while "Lucky Ball And Chain" was a countryish breakup tune whose lyrics alluded to an old Darlene Love song. And those are only a handful of Flood's gems. I'll even defend seldom-loved songs such as "Hot Cha," for its cool vibraphone patch, and "Sapphire Bullets Of Love," for its spiral staircase of fast-paced keyboard arpeggios.
1. Lincoln (1988)
Shakespeare said brevity is the soul of wit, but one of the great things about TMBG is how creative John Linnell is in taking his time getting to the point. He'll start a song by approaching its topic from some unexpected tangent, mischievously circle around it in the first verse, and then come in for the kill in the chorus. He perfected that technique on TMBG's second album, with richly melodic pop-rock sketches that laid the foundation for plenty of wordy-but-irresistible singles to come. The stories are frequently gloomy: "Ana Ng" tells of a love prevented by geographical remoteness, while the romance at the heart of "They'll Need A Crane" is thwarted by emotional rather than physical distance.
And in "Where Your Eyes Don't Go," Linnell launched what eventually became a long series of songs about the human psyche, crafting one of his most beloved lines--"Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders what the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of"--then finding a way to sing such convoluted syntax without sounding ridiculous. Flansburgh's songs explore the darker corners of consciousness, too, injecting humor through wry twists on pop-culture references ("This is the spawning of the cage and aquarium") or flat-out wordplay ("If it wasn't for disappointment, I wouldn't have any appointments").
The music itself is whimsical and upbeat, a contrast that ended up proving essential to the band's long-term appeal. The album also features some of Linnell and Flansburgh's best collaborative work; they trade vocals amid the music-box country and western of "Cowtown" and the absurdist vaudeville of "Shoehorn With Teeth," and weave superb harmonies on the bitterly sarcastic chamber pop of "Kiss Me, Son Of God." More than any other album, Lincoln captures the essential They Might Be Giant-ness of They Might Be Giants.
Other Essential Elements
Miscellaneous T (1991)
They Might Be Giants are both incredibly productive and unusually open to sharing, which means they've put out almost as many compilations as they have proper albums. Miscellaneous T--self-deprecatingly titled for the section in which the band's music was categorized by record stores, back when they existed--collected B-sides from singles released between 1986 and 1989. Highlights like "Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal," "Nightgown Of The Sullen Moon" and especially "It's Not My Birthday" make this one essential listening. Most of its tracks also appeared on a 1997 compilation called Then: The Earlier Years that combined the group's first two albums.
Back To Skull (1994)
A month before the release of John Henry, the band issued this EP that kicked off with the album's first single, "Snail Shell," also present here in a Dust Brothers remix. But the real appeal of this five-cut set lay in a pair of songs that would have made TMBG's fifth album even stronger had they been included: "She Was A Hotel Detective," which borrowed a title from The Pink Album and completely rewrote it as luxuriant, falsetto-sung disco-pop, and "Mrs. Train," a silly but addictive Linnell confection that more than doubles in tempo as it progresses.
Venue Songs (2005)
The Johns wrote a brief song for each stop on their 2004 tour, composing many of them just before the gig. This two-disc DVD/CD combo brings them together, and while the videos are decent, the tunes themselves are the reason to pick it up. Most of them use the name of the venue as a jumping-off point; the Asheville, North Carolina-based Orange Peel was "once part of your orange," while The Egg, an oval-shaped arts center in Albany, has "no corners for you." Others are endearingly random (and often frighteningly accurate) genre spoofs: "Dallas" is perfect prog-rock, "Vancouver" is Cars-style New Wave and "Charlottesville" channels Lynyrd Skynyrd. Add a few non-album treasures like Linnell's lovely "Renew My Subscription" and you have a release that's superior to The Spine, the album they were touring behind.
Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (2011)
Another compilation of outtakes, largely from Join Us, plus a selection of tracks originally recorded for outside projects. "Marty Beller Mask" is the best of the new songs, but covers of The Pixies' "Havalina" and Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" are worth hearing, too, as are the reworkings of TMBG's own "Boat Of Car," "Mr. Me," "Dirt Bike" and "Particle Man" featuring a brass section.