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  • Counting Down: Flaming Lips Albums From Worst To Best
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6. Embryonic (2009)

Embryonic feels like a return to form, despite the band's never having sounded quite like this before. Once again a four-piece with the addition of Kliph Scurlock -- former Lips roadie and touring drummer -- the boys drop all pretense of focus. It's an album of throbbing, screaming, goony psych, like a righteous combination of Sabbath and Les Rallizes Dénudés. Perhaps the Lips realized that songs needn't be streamlined to connect with audiences, or perhaps Coyne and Ivins were retconning the start of their career with a sprawling psych-rock opus instead of plains-fried cowpunk.

This is where the band picked up its current penchant for guests: MGMT and mathematician Dr. Thorsten Wormann each make an appearance, and Karen O crops up three times. One of her appearances, the literally phoned-in "I Can Be A Frog," hints at a future direction. While perhaps the most embarrassing thing in the Lips' catalog -- even more so due to its appearance on an album as nuts as this -- it begs the question: When is the children's album coming? It's only a matter of time, surely.

Which is more amazing: that 2013 marks 30 years of the Flaming Lips as a functioning concern, or that it heralds the 23rd year of their partnership with Warner Bros. Records? It’s difficult to judge. The first anniversary reflects the band’s perseverance; the second, their canniness. This happy, heady band of self-tabbed freaks has indulged nearly every creative whim in a career that has taken them from Oklahoma (state rock song: “Do You Realize??”) to the festival circuit, which they rule on the regular.

Of the Class of ’83, the Flaming Lips have outlasted Bathory, Killdozer, Poison, and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Unlike fellow ’83 alums Phish, Camper Van Beethoven, and My Bloody Valentine, who had their own reasons for pulling the plug, the Lips have never taken an extended hiatus, despite major lineup changes and personal struggles. And like Guided By Voices, Melvins, and Ozric Tentacles (and unlike the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who’ve had four between-album gaps of four-plus years) they’ve maintained a steady release schedule for decades.

All of this — the longstanding major-label relationship, the continued relevance, the tens of thousands of people gleefully becoming hamster-ball supports — is remarkable stuff for a one-time acid-punk band out of Oklahoma City. (Their wonderful origin story holds that the band heisted its instruments from a church. It connects whether your sympathies lie with punk, urbanity or secular humanism.) Of course, the Lips broke out of the Sooner State with one hell of a psychedelic crowbar: Wayne Coyne, a restless, boundlessly energetic musician and performer. For 30 years, he’s been the Flaming Lips’ own Paul McCartney, the man who keeps things moving by setting creative challenges, enlisting collaborators, and providing indefatigable enthusiasm.

The band has ebbed between periods of intense experimentation and relatively straightforward songcraft. They followed up the winningly daft alt-rock breakout hit “She Don’t Use Jelly” with Clouds Taste Metallic, an album of honed, buzzy guitar-pop tunes, then followed that with Zaireeka, a record designed to be heard on up to four CD players simultaneously. Zaireeka was recorded while they were piecing together the simplest, most anthemic record in their catalog: The Soft Bulletin, a permanent fixture in best-of-decade lists. And always, there would be the detours: collaborative EPs with Neon Indian and Lightning Bolt, parking-lot concerts consisting of dozens of audience members playing tapes in their cars, the long-gestating film Christmas On Mars.

The neo-psychedelic boomlet of the ’80s and ’90s produced acts (generally British) that focused on evoking the sounds, and acts that evoked the whole trip. Veterans of the anything-goes hardcore scene that gave us Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, et al., the Flaming Lips were always firmly in the second camp, first on a DIY level (bringing a motorcycle onstage for accompaniment, embellishing their stage setup with Christmas lights), and then on some proper major-label shit. All the extrasonic stuff — the giant hamster ball, the fans donning animal suits, the gummi skulls and fetuses housing flash drives — is absolutely integral to understanding the Flaming Lips. They are obsessed with spectacle.

Spectacle is a fantastic thing, of course: it jolts us into a new view of our surroundings, or simply affords us a distraction along our graveward path. “Death is the only thing worth singing about,” Coyne said in an interview last year, “but I don’t want it to be a bummer, so I embrace it by saying, ’We are going to die, motherfuckers, so let’s make sure we are alive.’” The Flaming Lips’ music is riddled with images of giant bugs, robots, and brains, nearly all of which are deployed as various metaphoric steps in coming to grips with a wonderful world that will see us all buried.

As reluctant residents of Earth, the Lips have had their brushes with tragedy. In 1996, bassist Michael Ivins had a tire crash through his windshield in a bizarre auto accident. Multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd grappled with drug addiction for years (allegedly costing the band the continued services of guitarist Ronald Jones), culminating in his shooting heroin on-camera for Brad Beasley’s 2005 documentary The Fearless Freaks.

Their fans may always debate the extent to which drug use informs the band’s creative process (for what it’s worth, Drozd says he got clean shortly after that harrowing scene, while Coyne remains coy about his own chemical regimen), but even if Wayne were currently gobbling E by the fistful, it’s far less noteworthy than his interest in other people’s trips. Even as the Lips continue to mount rolling freakshows in a city park near you, they’re not trading in the the wide-eyed acid evangelism of classic psychedelia, or the transgressive rave bliss of 20 years ago. At their heart, they’re an existentialist rock band in the Pink Floyd mold: fascinated with the implications and limits of escape. Only they’re, y’know … fun.

Considering how much the Flaming Lips have chucked against the wall in 30 years, their catalog is strong from stem to stern. There are those who grew up paying fealty to the beatific space-pop of the Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi years, and others who yearn for the six-string reigns of Jonathan Donahue or Ronald Jones. For some, Wayne Coyne has become a kind of alt-rock father figure, dispensing grace to thousands at a time and following his cracked muse into his fifth decade. Others view him as a meddling old-timer, picking fights with the likes of Win Butler and Erykah Badu in the press while unveiling an endless series of gimmicky releases. Still, it’s hard to argue against this: Three decades after their founding, he Flaming Lips remain one of the great American underground success stories. None of their albums sounds quite like another. They’re always moving, swallowing styles and studios whole, turning out records that sound like no one but the Flaming Lips.

These are the Flaming Lips’ full-lengths, with the exception of the Christmas on Mars soundtrack. (It’s best heard with the film.) Head for the comments to discuss your smiling deathporn immortality blues. Start the Countdown here.

Comments (121)
  1. I’d also like to see a “Flaming Lips Publicity Stunts From Most to Least Obnoxious” list.

  2. If you put Dark Side behind Atom Heart Mother and The Final Cut you are crazy, Brad. Meddle, maybe.

  3. Haha, the Stereogum rule of “take the generally agreed upon best album and take it out of the No. 1 spot” is in FULL effect here.
    This is the Stereogummiest one yet.

    • My comment was going to be “I wonder who will be the first person enraged by how low Yoshimi is ranked here”.

      Before clicking submit, I refreshed the page. Sure enough, someone was already enraged.

      • My opinion has nothing to do with this. Truthfully, I’m not the biggest Flaming Lips fan, I just get a kick out of the fact that OF COURSE Stereogum needed to humble The Soft Bulletin (a bit) and Yoshimi (a lot).

        • Can’t help but agree with you wholeheartedly. Not saying Yoshimi is the best Lips album but it’s certainly among the most widely known and beloved by fans who don’t really worship the whole Lips catalog. It reeks of obstinateness to not only place it so low, but place it TWO slots BELOW At War with the Mystics, which is essentially a (nowhere near as good) retread of Yoshimi, which is even acknowledged in the review (“One can be forgiven if Lips titles tend to run together…”) This list has many other problems but this detail screams defiance more than anything.

          • Took the words out of my mouth with your thoughts on Mystics. I wasn’t surprised SG decided to check Yoshimi and Soft Bulletin, even though they’re the Lips’ 2 best albums IMO, but I was shocked they gave more cred to Mystics. It’s an OK album and all but it basically seemed to me like they were just grasping at straws trying to repeat the magic of Yoshimi and SB.

          • I guess I can even see them ranking Clouds and Transmissions higher than Yoshimi or Soft Bulletin, that’s a matter of opinion. But what they did to Yoshimi is categorically wrong. What possible argument could you make for Mystics being a better album?!?!?

        • i honestly think yoshimi flat out sucked, i haven’t heard every single flaming lip’s album but I’ve heard enough to say that I would skip that one if I were you

    • I’ve always thought Clouds was the best. For my money, Stereogum got it right.

    • Before I even looked at the list or the comments, I said to myself, “I won’t be suprised if they decide not to put The Soft Bulletin at #1 for some reason, but I won’t be happy about it.”

      Then, I looked at the list.

      Then, I threw a flaming bag of shit at the computer screen.

      Then, I left this comment.

      Brad – you REALLY think there are two (TWO?!) Lips albums better than Bulletin? This has nothing to do with site traffic or comment fodder? Have you listened to all of these albums? More than once?

      Then, I cleaned my computer screen.

    • Sooo effin gummy.

  4. Some ordering disagreements aside (I’m personally a huge fan of “Priest Driven Ambulance”, it’d take my number three spot below “Soft Bulletin”), I’m really REALLY psyched that “Clouds” ranked number one. That’s always been my favorite. And “Hit to Death” is pretty criminally under-appreciated, so I’m glad you guys gave that some play as well. I’m actually sure I’m contrarian to what will be the predominant Stereogummer reaction to this, but I’m with you guys. Mid-period Lips has always been my favorite Lips.

    • Addendum, listening back to “Clouds” and “Transmission” one thing is immediately clear: Ronald Jones is one of the best guitarists ever.

      • I’ll say it here: I think every LP they’ve released is worth owning, and I don’t normally feel that way about deep-catalog bands. I’ve got the same bias as you: that mid-’90s lineup could do so much damage. As a drummer, Drozd has an incredible feel, and Jones gave the band so many tone options. I’m a sucker for the twangy stuff, too. Yoshimi was a letdown for me after Bulletin (which, if I remember correctly, I bought at Borders. Ouch), but I’ve grown to love the moodier stuff on it. Believe me, I know putting it that low looks off. It’s the fave Lips album for a lot of my friends.

  5. Glad the one with Ke$ha on the cover is last…

  6. Yoshimi >>>> At War

  7. Yoshimi that low? I want your badge and gummy skull on my desk by morning.

  8. Priest Driven Ambulance was recorded like two years before Drozd joined the band. Also that album at #9 but Telepathic Surgery at #4?

  9. solid list. Interesting where Yoshimi was placed–in fact, it’s probably my favorite of theirs along with Soft Bulletin. But still, it’s great to get a complete look into their catalog, which I really should be diving more into (I’m not all that familiar with their stuff pre-Zaireeka)

  10. “Yoshimi” got the shaft here. Easily one of their best.

  11. I’m glad to see “Hit to Death” so high. I’m sad to see “Yoshimi” so low.

  12. I expect to see plenty of OMFG YOSHIMI comments to follow…

  13. Is this list available inside of a human skull or just a gummy skull?

  14. Not going to freak about Yoshimi, although it is probably the one I play the most, overall. Hit to Death may be my favorite though.
    With any ‘ranking’ type list, I prefer to ignore the order as a general rule. The careful review of each album, was for me, the point anyway.

  15. How could anyone put At War With The Mystics above Yoshimi? AWWTM is an incredible patchy album, held up by a handful of strong singles (The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song and The W.A.N.D are the undeniably great). Yoshimi’s a solid listen all the way through though (closing track aside, maybe), and despite what you think about the pop sound they were going for on the two albums, ranking them that way round seems odd.

  16. Do you realize you made a terrible list?

  17. Where is the 24 hour song ranked? #boring?

    • As someone who is currently 6 hours in, I can say that I’ve spent more time listening to 7 Skies than the first 3 Lips albums combined. That might say more about me than the albums, though.

  18. This list in nonsense. The Soft Bulletin = #1, hands down. Yoshimi > At War with the Mystics and almost everything else in front of it. Almost.

  19. Based on the albums I know, I agree with about 2% of this list, but it was cool reading write-ups for the ones I haven’t heard yet. Been meaning to check out Clouds Taste Metallic for a while…

  20. This list is a joke – complete bullshit.

  21. You just picked CTM because Win Butler said it’s his fav Lips album didn’t you? Kidding, kidding. I adore this band (but not blindly, Wayne is still kind of a creeper now to me), have seen them twice, and own entirely too much of their merch. This list has this particular Flaming Lips obsessive’s approval. But I’m sure plenty of peeps are going to rageface at Yoshimi’s placement.

  22. All this list did was remind me how off the rails this band has gone over the last few years.

  23. heady fwendz their worst? i don’t even know if i can look at the rest of this thing. that was a SOLID compilation.

  24. I like how they used the Pink Floyd tribute album as away to pre-upset people and to tease more attention bating lists.

  25. 1- The Soft Bulletin (holy hell no doy)
    2- Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
    3- Clouds Taste Metallic
    4- Emrbyonic
    5- In a Priest Driven Ambulance
    6- Heady Fwends
    7- Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
    8- Hit To Death In The Future Head
    9- Zaireeka
    10- Hear It Is
    11- Telepathic Surgery
    12- Oh My Gawd
    99- At War With the Mystics

  26. Embryonic was too high on the list. Also, I think it’s a pretty commonly held opinion that Mystics was a step down from Yoshimi. That said, I think the top 5 is mostly correct.

  27. And in ranking Wayne Coyne’s suits I got:

    5. The grey one
    4. The grey one
    3. The grey one with the fake grenade pocket
    2. The grey one
    1. The grey one

  28. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  29. 1. Soft Bulletin
    2. Clouds Taste Metallic
    3. Embryonic
    4. Yoshimi
    5. Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
    6. Hit To Death in the Future Head

    Don’t know their earlier stuff but it’s all probably better than At War With the Mysics which sucks. “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” is crap. “The W.A.N.D.” is the only thing worth hearing from that album.

  30. Now they’re just fucking with us. I think by bizarro stereogum logic, number three is the top number.

  31. Yoshimi is well placed, most people know it well and associate it as being the ‘best’ Lips album because of that Pink Robot song you still here everywhere.

    I think their best radio hit has been “She Dont Use Jelly’. 90s gold.

  32. Who ever wrote this article is obviously a not so well read Lips fan. Like Yoshimi number 10? SOFT BULLETIN NUMBER #?!?! Coming from a person who considers the flaming lips to be my favorite band I am simply outraged. Good day sir…I SAID GOOD DAY!

  33. I haven’t listened to all of their albums, but I can’t imagine any list with The Soft Bulletin not at number 1. It’s incredible, and functions as the sole reason probably that most people even like this band.

  34. My humble little comment: I personally am glad to see Embryonic up so high.

  35. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  36. All you Yoshimi-come-latelies can take a long walk off a short Abandoned Hospital Ship. Clouds Taste Metallic is awesome and weird and perfect.
    Also, can we talk about Mercury Rev? I love Mercury Rev. Yerself Is Steam is wunderbar. And no Deserter’s Songs = no Soft Bulletin. Fo real.

  37. I love that there’s a joke about Stereogumming (agreed upon verb) up a Pink Floyd list, and that’s precisely what happens here. If anything “Soft Bulletin” deserves to be number one not because of critical or commercial success, but because it fully delivered on the promises of “Clouds Taste Metallic” and “Transmissions”

    • Meh, Soft Bulletin is a lovely record but the wild noisy Flips of Hit the Clouds To Future Death In a Metallic Ambulance is the best Flips.

  38. I swear to god these lists are made for the sole purpose of pissing people off.

  39. nobody can complain about zaireeka’s place on this list because nobody has actually listened to it

  40. I don’t know if I agree with the ordering of this list….but putting Clouds Taste Metallic at number 1 makes me REALLY happy. The Soft Bulletin may be their most important album, but CTM has always been my favorite. Oh, and anyone who didn’t listen to Zaireeka in the way it was intended to be heard missed out on something monumental.

  41. If you have In a Priest Driven Ambulance that low, you need to listen to it again. That being said, I’m happy to see the two greatest albums of their “rock” period at 5 and 1. Which, in my overly humble opinion, are their best works. (I miss you Ronald)

  42. ‘Telepathic Surgery’ at #4 is the real farce here. It’s their worst album by a mile.

  43. god this band grates.

  44. Well, here I am complaining about an online list in the comment section. But I can’t let this go without comment: The Soft Bulletin. It’s #1. There is no argument. It’s not even close (and I LOVE Clouds Taste Metallic, if that says anything). Anyhow, congratulations, you received my clicks and ad revenue.

  45. While I consider most of the Flaming Lips catalogue pretty godawful and only like the Soft Bulletin (‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ being the apex for me), I was pumped to see Brutal Juice’s album given the big up as a badass major label debut. That thing is a classic desperately in need of a reissue/reintroduction to the YoT.

  46. This is a different order than I would have picked!!!

  47. Can we get a Meat Puppets worst to best? I’m ready to rage at “Up on the Sun” being number three.

  48. Did you pick albums out of a hat for this order? You’re a fucking disgrace.

  49. Although I believe your top pick was a poor poor choice (my least favourite 90′s album from them) and Yoshimi is ridiculously low, I do love that Hit to Death in the Future Head is recognized as one of their great albums; “The Magician vs. the Headache”, ugh, such an amazing track. The only two FL albums I haven’t listened to are Oh My Gawd and Telepathic Surgery because I was always led to believe that they were so awful.

    Here would by my top 5 picks:

    The Soft Bulletin (also one of my favourite albums of all time)
    Hit to Death in the Future Head
    Transmission From the Satellite Heart
    Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
    Embryonic

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