The Flaming Lips Albums From Worst To Best
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.
14. The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwendz (2012)
The Flaming Lips -- and Wayne Coyne in particular -- have been canny in acquiring friends and admirers. Justin Timberlake joined them in a 2003 Top Of The Pops performance, miming the bass in a dolphin suit. As an occasional courtside attendee at Oklahoma City Thunder games, Coyne has gotten facetime with superstar small forward Kevin Durant. Alas, both JT and KD were omitted from the Heady Fwendzone.
A compilation of discrete recording sessions released for Record Store Day, The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwendz scans like an act of self-tribute. The album is a set of collaborations with younger acts of varying levels of buzz (Neon Indian, Tame Impala), pop royalty (Chris Martin, Ke$ha), and cagey veterans (Erykah Badu, Nick Cave, Yoko Ono). You'd think a unified sound would be difficult to manage, and you'd be right. The Lips try to compensate by pushing the needles to the breaking point. A lot of the guests end up stranded in the mix: Daniel Huffman AKA New Fumes stands no chance against the sludgy reverb-fest that is "Girl, You're So Weird," while on the tragically titled "Helping The Retarded To Know God," Coyne and some synthbuzz conspire to bury Edward Sharpe.
The best songs -- imagine this -- play to the strengths of the collaborators. The monotonous metallic strokes in opener "2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)" is an ingenious analogue to the adenoidal charms of Ke$ha (who was so psyched to work with the Lips that she reportedly almost dispatched an assistant to score some acid). The heinously underappreciated Yoko Ono does little more on "Do It!" than repeat the title, but she's always been one for enigmatic epigrams, and the bass-led groove favorably recalls her work circa Approximately Infinite Universe. Though the protracted plod of the spacey "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" threatens to envelop Badu -- not the last time she would fight victimhood at the hands of her hosts -- her surefooted treatment of the lyric and exquisitely idiosyncratic melodic sense win her the focus.
Despite the fact that its most impressive instrument was Coyne's contact list, Heady Fwendz was well-received upon release. It's possible that the public was relieved to hear any kind of extension of the intriguing possibilities of Embryonic. Steven Drozd and Coyne have indicated that the forthcoming LP is built on sonics, not songs. Should be fun.
13. Hear It Is (1986)
Ignore Michael Ivins's tonsorial homage to Robert Smith on the cover, and the title's bop-era pun: This is a prime slice of jangly college rock. The record is monochromatic, less acidic than basic, despite the presence of a song entitled "Staring At Sound" (and the rumor that the back cover -- a close-up of drummer Richard English's eye -- was photographed when he was tripping on LSD). "Unplugged" is (har) a fully electrified rockabilly punker; "Man From Pakistan" is a ragged little tale of police brutality that breaks open a couple times, allowing Ivins's flanged bass to presage the band's future melodicism. Taking over the vocal duties from his brother Mark, who left the band after a smattering of EPs, Coyne's register is the deepest it'll ever be, which restricts his melodic contributions.
Still, he has his moments: "Trains Brains And Rain" owes a debt to R.E.M., but tries to repay it with BoDeans. On "Godzilla Flick," if you look close, you can almost see Warner Bros.-era Mike Mills holding down the wall of backing vocals. "With You," with its hammy soft-loud dynamics and noise-rock freakout solo, is the kind of paralyzed love song the Lips would place on albums from time to time; evidently, they liked the tune so much they included it as a reprise at the end of the record.
12. The Flaming Lips And Stardeath And White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins And Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon (2009)
Every 16 minutes, a high school sophomore buys Dark Side Of The Moon, a full-stop great album (even if a future Stereogum Counting Down feature will probably slot it behind Atom Heart Mother and The Final Cut) that's maintained a mandated ubiquity for nearly 40 years. The upside of recasting this monolith in one's own image? Hard to say. It's been attempted before: in versions faithful and pisstaken, by dub acts and folkies, chiptuners and a cappella groups. This version is a family affair, split between the respective bands of Wayne and his nephew, Dennis Coyne. Henry Rollins -- Coyne's menschy punk-rock analogue -- handles the album's spoken bits, and Peaches updates "Great Gig In The Sky" with tremendously fun, needle-breaking howling. The fluttering feedback and squishy wah-wah are vintage Lips, although they do break out a new trick: Latin funk-rock on "Great Gig" and "Any Colour You Like." In no universe could this approach the stately existential original, but it's still a fun document, and it put some coin in Dennis's pocket.
11. Oh My Gawd!!! (1987)
Begins with a Lennon sample from "Revolution 9" and closes with a loop from "Tomorrow Never Knows," an excellent metaphor for the band's move from heroin to acid as a thematic focus. (Judging from her appearance on Heady Fwendz, Yoko Ono hasn't minded the theft.) In the liners to a 1998 compilation, Wayne noted that he and Michael were experimenting with sleep deprivation during the recording dates. Maybe that's why he's so punchy on the opener, "Everything's Explodin'": "When I look in my mirror and my brains are fallin' out of my head/ Well, there's nothing wrong, it's just the way I feel/ If you don't like it, write your own song..." A rare bit of guff from our fuzzy crew.
The Lips learned a few tricks this go-round. The nine-minute "One Million Billionth Of A Millisecond On A Sunday Morning" is a hellish drive-by in slow motion that eases into a deliberate, osmium-dense riff and English's frantic fills. The piano-based "Love Yer Brain" predicts straighter moments to come, at least until the band literally takes the instrument apart. In time, the Flaming Lips would learn to incorporate their experiments into the songs, rather than cramming them in for the hell of it. But their glee at what they get away with here is infectious.
10. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002)
Though partially informed by the death of a young fan from Japan (not the titular person -- that would be guest vocalist Yoshimi P-We from the sainted Boredoms), Yoshimi splits its time between moody noodling and a clutch of chipper singles. In the three years between albums, Coyne and company worked on a couple other projects: the cornpone swamp-country soundtrack to Okie Noodling (the 2001 manual-catfishing documentary released by future Lips chronicler Brad Beesley) and Christmas On Mars, the band's pet film project that finally got released in 2008. Both approaches -- the acoustic cheeriness of the former and the dirge-y madness of the latter -- found their way into Yoshimi's overall sound.
Although previous album The Soft Bulletin was a hit by the band's standards, Yoshimi's lead single "Do You Realize??" was a bonafide smash: another top 40 UK hit, used in the soundtracks of cinematic classics like 50 First Dates and How to Deal, and voted as the Official Rock Song Of Oklahoma in 2009. Its goggle-eyed, precious stonerisms haven't aged well, but with this kind of material, the Lips were connecting with new fans at an impressive rate. The title track is on some aw-shucks shit, complete with gimmicks like gated acoustic guitar, robot responses, and martial-artist grunts. As a campfire singalong, it's good; as a song, it's a lazily-rhymed, well-engineered slice of soft rock. For the first time in the band's career, the uplift doesn't connect like the comedowns. Trancy, baleful songs like "All We Have Is Now," "One More Robot," and "In The Morning Of The Magicians" are prime head music, with computational bass work from Ivins and an admirable refusal to resolve. And on all of them, Coyne drops his voice to a childlike mewl; his ability to wrangle his ragged pipes in service of daunting vertical melodies is downright inspirational.
9. In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1990)
A new decade, a new sound, a new guitarist: Jonathan Donahue. Another band hoping to make the leap into psych-pop grandiosity might have recorded on Timothy Leary's houseboat or a sunbaked Mojave ghost town or something. The Flaming Lips chose SUNY Fredonia, attracted to its Bell Labs vibe. Drozd and Coyne, in particular, were soaking up new influences, and Ambulance reveals a band attempting to translate their pet sounds into the songs they have in their heads, and mostly succeeding.
The key word is "mostly." "Take Meta Mars" is a burnout's recasting of Can's "Mushroom." The next track is "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain," wherein the band tries to disguise a "Sweet Melissa"/"Wild Horses" update with divebomb twang and postwar American disillusion. When the guys decide to kick up a racket, things improve considerably. "Mountain Side" is a propulsive highway ride on mescaline with some awesome ultralow frequency pan in the middle. The harmonic psych-punk of "Unconsciously Screaming" shows how far the band had come in managing tension and dynamics; reportedly one of their most worked-over tunes, the endless guitar snarl and McCartney-worthy basslines show no seams. "Rainin' Babies" is a supreme fuzz ballad, with Nathan Roberts (also making his Lips debut) judiciously injecting thunderous fills and Coyne singing from his heels about giving his gift to the world.
The album closes with a cover of "What a Wonderful World," which had re-charted on the pop charts in 1988 due to its inclusion in Good Morning, Vietnam. A long-time on-stage and PA staple, it was, despite its familiarity, the perfect vehicle for the band's endless grapple with wonder and despair. Coyne sings the melody straight against his and Donahue's backgrounded feedback and wrist-thick fuzz. The sounds of nature bookend the track; the ultimate takeaway is yours.
8. At War With The Mystics (2006)
One can be forgiven if Lips titles tend to run together. It's easy to get your wizards mixed up with your cosmoses, your egos with your frogs. This is the sunset of the Flaming Lips' huggy-pop era, and it opens with a flash. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" is political pop-rock of the first order, a start-stop boogie with impeccable structure that replaces condemnation with questioning. Somehow, the Flaming Lips find the fun in fundamentalism, as in the glam-rocker "Free Radicals," wherein Wayne interrogates a suicide bomber with fab falsetto. "The W.A.N.D." is a legit jam, a Sly Stone-style political number with rousing vocal cadence, turntable imitations, and a curlicue guitar lick. (Two of its official videos evinced an unfortunate, long-standing habit of the band: the visual objectification of women. Another holdover from the founders of psych-rock, I guess.)
These successes still have to sit next to a few static compositions, the sound of a band ready to find the Next Thing. Their arrangement chops are as tight as ever, very nearly putting over "Goin' On" and the popstar-baiting "The Sound Of Failure" with L.A.-style soft rock. "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" offers yet another pretty airy melody over synthbeds; it takes the appearance of bleeding organ and rubbery guitar to even approach takeoff. Written for a theoretical Gwen Stefani, "It Overtakes Me" begins as red-hot mutant disco written around Ivins's heroic bassline. It stalls on 420-friendly couplets like "it overtakes me/ it wakes and bakes me," then finally runs out of gas with an extended ambient passage and a "Blackbird" coda.
As usual for the Flaming Lips, though, this is not quite like anything else in their catalog. Few bands have made so many genres serve such a distinctive sound. "Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung," buried on side two, is a reverent take on prime Popol Vuh: churchy organ, steady rhythmic gallop, flute melody and all. And yet, there's something distinctively Lippy in the lacerating aluminum guitar bursts, and the way Dave Fridmann has them zoom through the mix. And there's still no singer quite like Coyne, who tracks the most devotional vocals of his career with a solemnity that is childlike in the best possible sense.
7. Zaireeka (1997)
In theory, this could be one of many Zaireeka reviews, but I was rubbish at combinatorial math, so this will cover a one-CD mix of the four CDs. Yes, the Flaming Lips may be the only act in history to release a quadruple album before the double. The project originated in 1996-97, with the band's Parking Lot Experiments: dozens of cars playing unique pieces of a composition (one of them was "Should We Keep The Severed Head Awake??," which ended up on The Soft Bulletin as the instrumental "Sleeping On The Roof"). According to Mark Richardson's 33⅓ book on Zaireeka, the band dreamed about a 100-CD home version before talking themselves down to four discs. It was never intended as a "proper" album, or even a stopgap release -- Warner Bros. would not distribute Zaireeka until the band agreed it wouldn't count toward their seven-album obligation.
In the liner notes to The Soft Bulletin, Coyne writes about taking a walk in Western New York during the recording sessions. The "soundlessness" he experienced -- just the dim hum of nature coupled with his own breathing -- really freaked him out. That's not how most people think. I would wager that the average person sees silence as a valued thing, and proper maintenance of acoustic ecology as a worthy pursuit. Not so the Flaming Lips. Zaireeka is a sonic splatterfest, laced with infinitely stacked screams, demented Hollywood synth ascensions, and Geneva Convention-flouting high and low frequencies. Occasionally, Ivins's simple bass ostinatos provide a fixed point (as on opener "Okay I'll Admit That I Don't Really Understand," a fine companion piece to Radiohead's millennial Weltschmerz-core), but time after time, the Lips bomb meter into the ground with freeform aural assault.
All of this would be difficult enough to digest in a single-disc format. But, infamously, the band parceled tracks onto four discs designed to be played simultaneously. Or designed not to, since Coyne and company were very aware of the different load times and miniscule-but-crucial differences in playback between any two CD players. For those who acquired a copy of the record, trying to overcome these challenges was part of the appeal (as was the creative agency and group listening that Zaireeka demanded). For those who didn't, it didn't matter; like any great work of conceptual art, just hearing the project's premise was enough to make this release a major part of the band's legend.
No matter how it's heard, it's still one hell of a statement. Genial humor, un-self-serious creative restlessness, Coyne's melodic gifts, Drozd's physical drumming, a knack for earworm guitar figures, the band's desire to surprise and delight: They all come together here. And Soft Bulletin's beloved opaque, keening synths got their first workout here. The Lips aren't dumb; they knew that following one of the oddest major-label releases in history with a universalist pop record could only boost their rep. And it did.
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.
5. Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (1993)
As often happens with bands, the Lips converted Hit to Death In The Future Head's experiments in expansion into a set of tight tunes. Little did they know that one of them would land them on Beverly Hills 90210, thrilling their record-label masters. Steven Jones and Ronald Jones replaced Nathan Roberts and Jonathan Donahue (who left to focus on Mercury Rev full-time), respectively. Keith Cleversley takes over production duties from the Rev's Dave Fridmann, and the result is a robust mix that avoids Hit To Death's tendency toward thinness.
Some of that's due to fewer instruments fighting for attention, and some is due to the new guys' sonic strengths. At times, Ronald Jones' guitar tone conjures elephantine snarl, whining klaxons, or lonesome twang -- sometimes all within the same song. And for the first time, every track comes in under six minutes. That doesn't mean that the compositions aren't allowed to wander, though. "Moth In The Incubator" begins with Coyne's acoustic guitar and affecting double-tracked flatness, then erupts into a dread crawl, trebly squiggles floating toward the ceiling. The band then introduces a third section: a kind of triumphant hoedown, with Jones doubling his string-stretching twang with a flute-like tone. Drozd's "Slow Nerve Action" is the longest track, his steady muscular drumming a suitable string for hanging mournful picking and a beefy echo of the vocal melody. (The latter moans like a Texas longhorn caught in a bear trap.) It's indicative of the overall feel of the record: This is insular stuff. The quietest track the band ever released is here: their cover of "Plastic Jesus," a folksy spoof most famously sung by Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Coyne's favorite movie. Stranded in one channel with quasi-steel drift blowing through the other, he's never sounded so tiny.
But there's no getting around it: This is the album with "She Don't Use Jelly," a jokey lyrical blessed-weirdo triptych, played straight with heavenly strumming and crackerjack tension from the rhythm section. Anyone who bought the record on the strengths of that freak hit would be greeted warmly with "Turn It On," a rousing statement of alt-rock empathy and an all-time album opener. And "Be My Head" is a real swingalong, with Jones's aforementioned Klaxon alerting Coyne to the ghostly backing vocals flying in and out of the mix. It's possible that he's not singing to the voices.
4. Telepathic Surgery (1989)
The parenthetical to "Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon" is "(Fuck Led Zeppelin)" -- God only knows what that's supposed to mean, especially since the song opens with a takeoff on "Misty Mountain Hop." Influences both hip and hidebound combine into an assured collection of tuff alt-rock. "Drug Machine In Heaven" and "Right Now" pack an opening one-two punch of vintage Sonic Youth-style noise-rock, with the latter featuring some overt Townshendian flourishes. The SoCal punk rock "Redneck School Of Technology" even finds time for a ripping harmonica solo from Dallas disc jockey Craig "Niteman" Taylor. As for "Chrome Plated Suicide," Coyne later allowed that "someone showed me the chords to ‘Sweet Child O' Mine.'" They did much more than that: He tracks the vocal melody studiously, and even refers to being "taken away."
Alongside their newfound confidence to kick out the jams, the Lips show off an increased comfort with recording possibilities. The album was originally planned as a full-length sonic collage, but the band's poppier instincts prevailed, to a point. "Hell's Angel's Cracker Factory" is a three-minute edit of a 25-minute aural free-for-all that includes revving motorbikes, drone, and opera vocal warmups. "U.F.O. Story" is just that: Coyne's spoken-word patter (based on a story told to Michael Stipe) leading into a roaring, hellish full-band retelling, chased with an Richard English-performed piano coda that's halfway between Wyndham Hill and Van Halen.
Telepathic Surgery brings the band's acid-punk phase to a close. English would depart after this record, and the Flaming Lips began their longstanding relationship with producer/engineer Dave Fridmann. They would continue learning how to embed their beloved backmasked samples and orgiastic ruckus into compositions instead of making them standalone events. Just a few months after the release of their most righteous racket, the reconstituted lineup was back in the studio.
3. The Soft Bulletin (1999)
In The Soft Bulletin's album's liner notes, Coyne acknowledged a change in the band's songwriting process. Before, the band would just track a bunch, hoping for those famous "happy accidents." But around the time of Zaireeka, they found themselves in command of hundreds of tracks and thousands of potential accidents, a boggling challenge for any band. It became too much to corral, and as Wayne noted, "[t]he song itself would have to be the guide for the sound." Tempos slowed, the acid-garage freakouts ceased, the piano became a focal instrument. Thematically, the Lips were still in their wheelhouse. But Coyne's keening ruminations on love and the universe took on a different coloration when paired with celestial synths and ponderous piano. "What Is The Light" -- filled with piano decay, a heartbeat kick, and Drozd's funky drumming -- is even more of a power ballad than Clouds Taste Metallic's "When You Smile." Drozd was a key beneficiary of the stylistic change: His magnificently recorded kit dominates the album's mix, providing heft to the bubblegummy "Buggin'" and "Waitin' For A Superman," a devastating portrait of the death of Coyne's father. And "The Gash," an apocalyptic march girded with harp, demonic pitchshifted vocals, and eerily horn-like synths, is the band's own "When The Levee Breaks."
"The Gash" is concerned with quitters, and the illogical will required to persevere. As such, it's a fine picture of the band's own determination: the record was received ecstatically by critics, and in the United Kingdom, the band earned their first top-40 album and single ("Race For The Prize," which, like the album, peaked at #39). It looked for a time that this new-model Flaming Lips would be the standard, but of course, that was never how the group operated.
2. Hit To Death In The Future Head (1992)
Is Hit To Death more indebted to a grunge-era let-the-kids-play attitude among A&R peeps? Or were the Flaming Lips just that good at selling the suits on their vision? The band's Warners tenure has lasted about as long as the combined stints of Black Sabbath and Funkadelic, so I'm leaning toward the latter. The Flaming Lips crashed the major-label party like they weren't getting invited back: incorporating a ragged symphony of instruments, devoting the final 30 minutes of the album to an excruciating two-"note" noise loop, and holding up the album's release over the clearance of a snippet from Michael Kaman's Brazil soundtrack.
Hopefully the label brass thought it was worth the wait. Hit To Death is a slow fizz of an album, featuring the most fascinating vocal timbres in the Flaming Lips' career. It kicks off with a tremendous feat of sequencing: four consecutive woozy jams, each one weirder than the last. The Elephant 6 antecedent "Gingerale Afternoon" brings the pulse back up, only to cede to "Halloween On The Barbary Coast," which contains a majestically unfurling riff, Coyne's poignant squeak, and a masterful, barely-restrained performance on drums from Roberts.
The Flaming Lips' startling reign as guitar-pop kings begins here. Donahue and Coyne make statement after throttlingly immediate statement, their lines burrowing through the packed yet loose performances. If there can be any complaint -- assuming you've skipped that final track -- it's that the giddily overstuffed arrangements push the tracks toward thinness. But with so many worthy places for your focus -- Coyne's vocals become an instrument unto themselves in a way they wouldn't again until Embryonic -- it's not much of a complaint. It would be the best major-label debut until Brutal Juice's Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult.
1. Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
This was Warners' best-case scenario for a Flaming Lips album: buzzy pop delicacies with nothing over the five-minute mark, a rack-dominating fluorescent orange cover, a song featured on the Batman Forever soundtrack. There's even a Christmas tune! With this album (which didn't perform so hot in the marketplace, by the way), the band solidified their claim as the best guitar-pop band of the decade, then promptly abdicated for stranger thrones.
Clouds Taste Metallic holds the Flaming Lips' most affecting portraits of a cruel universe and the heroes who die in it. Instead of opening with a salvo, they have the patience to slot "The Abandoned Hospital Ship" leadoff, a quizzical, Twilight Zone-inspired short story carried by Coyne's affecting high tenor first, then Ronald Jones' remarkable bell-like guitar figures. "Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World" bakes funky organ and those beloved pitch-shifted bass vocals into a tale of a man whose tumor affords him genius. In Jim DeRogatis's Flaming Lips bio Staring At Sound, Wayne says the song reminds him of Aerosmith; he's not wrong.
As wonderful as these vignettes are, the best parts of the record are the power-psych sugar-rush numbers. "Kim's Watermelon Gun" is a Ronald Jones guitar clinic, overdriven riffs trading places with Nashville ping and beatific chime. "Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles" -- in the running for Most Flaming Lips Song Title Ever -- destroys the levels as Coyne yowls one of his stickiest melodies. And "Lightning Strikes The Postman" -- a series of existential inside jokes -- comes off like an apocalyptic marching band, stately in its genial devastation, a steady windup to the band's best, sweetest black humor. The ringing "Christmas At The Zoo" tackles a subject dear to Wayne's heart with joy where cloy could easily have gone, and "When You Smile" is, finally, an honest-to-Jesus triumph of a love song, cosmic metaphors and all.
Unfortunately, this was the end of the ride for Ronald Jones. Allegedly concerned with the bad vibes brought on by the addition of Steven Drozd (he was also nervous about poor karma resulting from "Evil Will Prevail," to the point that -- according to Drozd in Staring At Sound -- he vainly tried to sabotage the recording with off-kilter guitar parts), Jones left the group and now lives (happily, we hope) in anonymity. Drozd battled addiction for years afterward, while still managing to add vital multi-instrumental contributions to his tremendous drumming. With The Soft Bulletin, he helped craft one of the best-received albums of the decade. On Clouds Taste Metallic, he made one of the very best.