The 10 Best Flaming Lips Songs (That Even Flaming Lips Fans Might Not Know)
Forty years ago today, on February 22, 1983, the Flaming Lips performed their very first show at Oklahoma City’s Blue Note Lounge. But if you could take a time machine back to that moment, chances are, you wouldn’t recognize the band onstage. None of the qualities we now associate with this band — the kaleidoscopic pop anthems bursting with positive vibes, childlike wonder, and a shit ton of confetti — can be detected in early setlist standards like “Bag Full Of Thoughts,” which sounds like a group of stoned misfits trying to figure out how to play Echo And The Bunnymen’s “Do It Clean” and coming up with a sludgy goth-garage jam of their own. Even the group’s most instantly identifiable characteristic — Wayne Coyne’s fragile, folksy voice — was nowhere to be heard; lead vocals back then were handled by his brother Mark, whose voice teeters on the edge between humorously dazed and genuinely disturbed.
Though spurred into action by the DIY circuit sprouting up across America in the early ‘80s — when the Oklahoma City area became a strategic pit stop for nascent indie-rock bands traveling to or from Texas and California — the early Flaming Lips were outsiders among the outsiders: too steeped in acidic psychedelia and classic-rock mythology to appeal to hardcore kids, and too downright bizarre and disturbing to ever court a typical midwestern rock audience. And right from the jump, this group had to get used to finding the inspiration in instability: shortly after the Lips released their self-titled EP in 1984, Mark left the group. But on that EP’s final track, he left us with an anti-social mission statement that would double as this band’s roadmap to a brighter future: “I want my own planet.” From that moment on, the Flaming Lips have never stopped seeking it out: With the naturally charismatic Wayne at the helm, the Lips would undergo numerous iterations en route to becoming an American alt-rock institution and perennial summer-festival favorites, all while developing a uniquely playful and perverse style of psychedelic pop that’s clearly not of this Earth.
Over the past four decades, Planet Lips has grown into a highly complex biosphere comprising 16 official albums, numerous EPs, a couple of soundtracks, and countless side-project curios and collaborations — so it’s nigh impossible to distill their history into just 10 songs.The process of drafting a definitive Top 10 list is further complicated by the fact that, as a band that’s gone through so many different phases, the Lips have many different fanbases who’ve tuned in and out over the years, so true consensus is more elusive. For some fans, such a list would seem woefully incomplete without all-timer anthems like “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize??”, but those songs are basically the “Happy Birthday” and “Auld Lang Syne” of the Lips catalog at this point, so you don’t need us to remind you of their eternal, life-affirming qualities. Other Lips enthusiasts would be equally justified in listing off 10 tracks from The Soft Bulletin and calling it a day. But for this survey, we’re going to forsake the band’s most popular songs in favor of the under-streamed gems, lost classics, and unheralded breakthroughs that lit the fuse for the Lips’ big-bang moments.
"Will You Return / When You Come Down" (from American Head, 2020)
The Flaming Lips have always been masters of the Side 1/Track 1 scene-setter. “Shine On Sweet Jesus,” “Talkin’ ‘Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues,” “Turn It On,” “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” “Race For The Prize,” “Fight Test,” “Convinced Of The Hex” — these aren’t mere opening tracks, they’re like grand public-square announcements, providing instant immersions into the unique new sound-worlds we’ll be exploring for the duration of a given record. And while it’s more subdued than the aforementioned canon fodder, the lead-off track to 2020’s American Head is no less powerful an introduction.
Having spent much of the 2010s stretching their sound to its darkest depths and most irreverent extremes, the Lips approached American Head as a return to their Oklahoma roots, fusing the rustic and the cosmic to present dramatized tales from Coyne’s upbringing. But “Will You Return / When You Come Down” makes it clear off the bat that this album is no exercise in dewy-eyed nostalgia: the song isn’t so much a homecoming as a graveyard visitation, where Coyne eulogizes the friends and loved ones whose lives were derailed by drugs, car crashes, and other oppressive circumstances. While Coyne is no stranger to singing about death, his meditations on mortality are usually counterbalanced by a seize-the-day gusto and fantastical storytelling. But when he cries, “What went wrong/ Now all your friends are gone,” it’s with a genuine deep-seated despair and survivor’s guilt that suggests it’ll take more than rainbow balloons and people in dancing bunny costumes to lift his spirit.
"The Train Runs Over The Camel But Is Derailed By The Gnat" (from Zaireeka, 1997)
After briefly striking alt-rock gold with 1993’s “Jelly”-smeared distorto-pop classic Transmissions From The Satellite Heart and then seeing their commercial fortunes turn to rust with 1995’s more accomplished but underselling Clouds Taste Metallic, the Flaming Lips became less interested in writing another MTV hit than in exploring the limitless possibilities of sound. Over the next two years, they put a pause on touring to host a series of public tape-synchronization experiments, building songs from discrete sonic elements captured on cassette and played on full blast in tandem on a small army of car stereos or boomboxes.
The group then applied that participatory sound-collage logic to 1997’s Zaireeka, a single album comprising eight songs whose arrangements were spread across four CDs meant to be played simultaneously on four separate players. But given that no two CD players spin at precisely the same speed every time, Zaireeka was ultimately less about creating a unified listening experience from isolated parts than savoring those fleeting moments of synchronized bliss that materialize between stretches of chaotic misalignment. And no track better illustrates the agony and ecstasy of the Zaireeka experiment than “The Train Runs Over The Camel But Is Derailed By The Gnat.”
At the start, the song seems downright conventional for such an audacious exercise, sporting a lumbering drumbeat and melancholic guitar riff that suggests a sad Led Zeppelin played at 16rpm. (A raw version of this section first appeared as an untitled hidden track on the 1994 EP Due To High Expectations… The Flaming Lips Are Providing Needles For Your Balloons.) But just as Coyne introduces his wounded vocal melody, a completely different, absolutely maniacal drum rhythm comes crashing in, suggesting a tweaked-out Led Zeppelin played at 78 rpm. As mixed-down versions of the song on YouTube confirm, the cumulative effect is nigh unlistenable — the rampaging drums absolutely streamroll over a song that, if given a more traditional treatment, could be the spiritual precrusor to The Soft Bulletin’s celestial stunner “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” But then, in the final minute, something magical happens: The clashing arrangements subside and we’re left with the same dreamy organ pulse beaming from all four discs, forming a hypnotic drone as soothing as aloe in your ears. It’s some of the most instantly mesmerizing music this band has ever produced, and in that moment, a song that couldn’t end soon enough becomes one you wish could go on forever.
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (Feat. Erykah Badu) (from The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends, 2012)
In the years separating 2009’s Embryonic and its 2013 follow-up The Terror, the Flaming Lips’ production pipeline went into overdrive. It seemed not a week went by without news of some radical recording stunt (24-hour song, anyone?), some disturbing new permutation of gummy-based packaging, or a new EP collaboration with a fellow indie all-star. The chaotic compilation Heady Fwends cherry-picked the most inspired moments from these madcap match-ups, but the most enduring piece of music to come out of this furious period of activity was a masterstroke of uncharacteristic stillness. The Lips’ first (and likely last) union with Erykah Badu transforms a Roberta Flack (via Ewan MacColl) soul classic into a weightless 10-minute dronegaze hymn that’s haunting and heavenly in equal measure. With Badu’s free-floating voice enveloped by encroaching thunderclouds of distortion, the song feels less like a paean to budding romance than a death-bed memory being mentally replayed in slow motion just before you slip over to the other side.
"Chrome-Plated Suicide" (from Telepathic Surgery, 1988)
During their late-’80s run on Restless Records, The Flaming Lips were an unruly power trio caught between the tuneful racket of The Replacements and the psych-punk splatter of Butthole Surfers. By the time of their third album, Telepathic Surgery, the band seemed unsure if they wanted to fully indulge their experimental tendencies or start writing proper rock songs. Sure, the record boasts a more liberal use of sound effects, spoken-word recordings, and an improvised 23-minute noise jam called “Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory,” but it also features the wonderful “Chrome-Plated Suicide,” which Coyne has claimed was his attempt to rewrite the most popular rock song on the planet at the time, GNR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” While it’s a bit hard to imagine Axl Rose likening love to “telepathic surgery” that “cuts and scrapes like Iggy Pop thrown in a hole,” the song nonetheless boasts the chiming riff, graceful ascent, and arm-swaying chorus of a genuine FM-radio anthem. Actual mainstream airplay was still a few years in the offing, but this is where the concept of the Flaming Lips as a crowd-pleasing entity was first hatched.
"Put The Waterbug In The Policeman’s Ear" (from Due To High Expectations… The Flaming Lips Are Providing Needles for Your Balloon EP, 1994)
Long before his dark backstory provided narrative inspiration for 2020’s American Head, Wayne’s brother Tommy Coyne already loomed large in Lips lore, thanks to this endearing lo-fi lullaby — whose absurd title makes a lot more sense after you hear Wayne’s two-minute pre-song explainer. Where Tommy’s troubles with drugs would land him in and out of jail, here, Wayne uses his brother’s overdose experience as the basis for a valorous fable where Tommy is able to psychically summon the titular insects to attack the nosey cops who hassled him while he was high at the grocery store. But in spite of its Willard-inspired B-movie plotline, “Waterbug” is actually one of the sweetest, saddest songs in the entire Lips oeuvre. Sounding like “Life On Mars” recorded on a boombox, it’s a testament to the Lips’ ability to create rich cinematic vignettes even when confined to crude cassette limitations, and a pre-Soft Bulletin harbinger of Coyne’s burgeoning flair for spinning real-life dramas into heroic, heartfelt songs.
"Powerless" (from Embryonic, 2009)
Up until his quiet departure from the group in 2021, bassist Michael Ivins was the only Flaming Lip besides Coyne to have been there since the very beginning. In the early years, Ivins was the most readily identifiable member of the band, with an imposing black-leathered, sunglasses-at-night presence that gained a few extra inches of height thanks to his frizzy goth-shocked hair. But as the band’s live show transitioned into a more choreographed circus at the turn of the millennium, Ivins took a literal backseat to Coyne’s carnival-barker shenanigans, often performing sidestage in a chair, seemingly impervious to the colorful anarchy swirling around him. This deep cut — the dark throbbing heart of 2009’s apocalyptic double-album epic Embryonic — soundly reasserts Ivins’ role as the living embodiment of the Flaming Lips’ post-punk roots. For nearly seven minutes, Ivins locks into a sinister bass pulse that never wavers, clearing a path for Coyne to fire off the most unhinged, brain-damaging guitar solo of his career. “Powerless” is effectively the audio manifestation of Ivins’ tenure in the group: the steady guiding hand who always kept his cool even as chaos swirled around him.
"The Captain"/"Satellite Of You" (Soft Bulletin-era outtakes, 1999)
When I caught the Lips on the Clouds Taste Metallic tour in 1995, there was a moment during the pre-show line check that seemed silly and innocuous at the time, but, in hindsight, proved highly emblematic of this band’s future course. After making the necessary adjustments to his drum kit, Steven Drozd tested out a small piano positioned at his side by playing the climactic piano arpeggio from Yes’ “Heart Of The Sunrise” — providing us with a fleeting glimpse of his multi-instrumetalist prowess and latent prog-rock affinities. And as we’d soon see, the Lips’ subsequent transformation from inspired noisemakers to widescreen visionaries would come once they promoted Drozd from mere drummer to omniscient musical director.
Thanks to that shift, the Lips experienced a creative renaissance between 1996 and 1999 that few bands have matched, as they plotted both the ear-bending audio experiments of Zaireeka and the sweeping salutations of The Soft Bulletin in tandem. In fact, the period was so fruitful that even those two albums couldn’t accommodate all the amazing songs they were coming up with. Not only are these two excellent outtakes deserving of spots in the band’s official canon, they form a perfect yin-yang summation of the era’s most significant evolutions. “The Captain” pushes the Lips’ newfound capacity for orchestrated art-rock excess to its breaking point, yielding a slow-surging sing-along that’s as anarchic as it is ostentatious, like a symphony getting sucked into a jet turbine. On the flipside, the exquisite “Satellite Of You” sees Coyne fully embracing the sort of sentimental songcraft the Lips would’ve previously buried under a wall of noise, and leaning into the sort of open-hearted appeals that allowed him to move beyond his previous fascinations with snot and strange fruit. But even as Drozd’s palette diversified to include pianos, synths, and angelic harmonies, his booming drums remained central to the Lips’ rapidly expanding sound. Plenty of alt/indie bands were trying to make their Pet Sounds/Sgt. Pepper’s in the late ’90s, but no one else could deliver theirs with such an earthquaking kick.
"The Sound Of Failure" (from At War With The Mystics, 2006)
At War With The Mystics — the polarizing follow-up to 2002’s beloved tech-pop saga Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots — arrived in the thick of what could be called the Flaming Lips’ Spongebob period, where the band’s musical achievements threatened to be overshadowed by cutesy, crowd-baiting gestures like rolling onstage in a plastic-bubble, covering “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and yes, contributing whimsical ditties to kids-show soundtracks. True to its title, At War With The Mystics proved to be a battleground of sorts, between newer fans drawn to the band’s jokey antics and old-school heads who yearned for a return to the mind-melting psych-rock of yore. As such, the album makes for a highly erratic, whiplashing experience, pitting some of the band’s most aggressively quirky songs against some of their most powerfully transportive.
“The Sound Of Failure” not only belongs to the latter category, it’s as sonically ambitious and emotionally stirring as anything on Yoshimi or The Soft Bulletin. A portrait of a young woman in mourning, the song also doubled as a rebuke of the poptimist mindset gaining critical traction at the time: With its sideways lyrical shots at Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani, the song seems to suggest that hyper-positive, self-empowering Top 40 hits inevitably ring hollow to those in most serious need of a pick-me-up. (That said, it wouldn’t be long before the Lips took a wrecking ball to such rockist theories.) But while it’s one of the few Flaming Lips songs to trade in topical pop-culture references, “The Sound Of Failure” is a timeless triumph that expands the Lips’ orchestral-rock template to absorb the wondrous textures, trippy flutes and tastefully chicken-scratched guitars of early-‘70s soul masterworks like What’s Going On, resulting in a swirling lava lamp of sounds anchored by a divine chorus that’s as elating as it is devastating.
"Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles" (from Clouds Taste Metallic, 1995)
For Flaming Lips fans who discovered the group before the Soft Bulletin era, witnessing the band’s post-millennial success can carry the same bittersweet feeling as watching your kid head off to college: On the one hand, you couldn’t be prouder of what they achieved and you’re always excited to see what they do next; on the other, you can’t help but miss the very different band they once were when you first fell in love with them. Clouds Taste Metallic was the Lips’ final album as a four-piece guitar-driven rock band, and the last to feature guitarist Ronald Jones, whose fusion of T. Rex crunch and Sonic Youth screech thrust the group to giddy new heights during his brief 1993-96 tour of duty. In essence, Jones’ tenure in the Flaming Lips can be likened to Mick Taylor’s in the Rolling Stones — it amounted to but a blip in the grand scheme of things, but yielded some of the group’s most exciting and indelible work. And “Psychiatric Explorations” is the ecstatic peak of this phase: Sounding like a funfair hosted inside a rupturing volcano, the song represents the ultimate symbiosis of sugar-rush melody and interstellar overdrive that the Lips had spent their first decade of existence chasing. After achieving fuzz-pop perfection here, their only way forward was to become a new band.
"Jets, Part 1 (Cupid's Kiss Vs The Psyche of Death)" (Hit To Death In The Future Head-era outtake, 1991)
Admittedly, I have a somewhat irrational attachment to this song, a castaway track from that magical early ’90s moment when — with guitarist Jonathan Donahue and producer Dave Fridmann coming into the fold — the Lips briefly shared a brain with the fledgling Mercury Rev. I first heard “Jets Pt. 1” in 1996 on a cassette acquired through my first-ever internet tape trade, facilitated through some alt.flaminglips message board. I had requested a copy of a bootleg called The Day Andy Gibb Died, and my anonymous trading partner kindly filled out the extra space on Side B with a random assortment of Lips ephemera, including this glorious stardust-speckled ballad — a “Ballrooms Of Mars” to call their own. Alas, after moving apartments a few years later, I lost the cassette, and while I later spotted a track with the same name on the hard-to-find 1991 EP Wastin’ Pigs Is Still Radical, I was disappointed to discover this wasn’t the same recording that I had heard — it was rougher two-track demo, with a more hoarse lead vocal from Coyne, and none of the sparkling night-sky ambiance that made my mystery version so transfixing. (This demo also appears on the expanded edition of the 2018 compilation, Greatest Hits Vol. 1.)
It wasn’t until the release of the 2012 audio documentary Autopsy Of The Devil’s Brain — which chronicles the making of 1992’s Hit To Death In The Future Head — that I got to hear “Jets, Part 1” once again in its majestic full-band bloom. (Fortunately, a rip of the track appeared on YouTube shortly thereafter.) To my ears, this version of “Jets” encapsulates everything that makes the Lips so special: that uncanny mix of wholesome heartland tenderness, stargazing glam, and spectral psychedelia, and their effortless ability to seem humbly earthbound and boldly outlandish at the same time. It’s also a poignant snapshot of a then-struggling band at the crossroads, right at the moment where they were taking their tentative first steps into rock’s great unknown and finally achieved liftoff: “For the first time in our lives,” Coyne sings, “we decided the only place for us would be on Mars/ Or on the back of the bus.” We should be eternally grateful they chose option A.