Ranked: The Flaming Lips

Nov 08, 2013
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Welcome to Ranked, our recurring series in which one of our writers takes an artist's catalogue and ranks all of their official studio albums from most essential to least essential. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Cody Ray Shafer ranks The Flaming Lips.

From their inception in the mid '80s, The Flaming Lips have touted themselves as a band you have to see live to really understand. Frontman Wayne Coyne's talent isn't so much his musicianship as his role as a master of weird ceremonies. After all, it was one of the band's crazy concertsthis one featuring a flaming cymbal fueled by lighter fluid that led to at least one incident of a band member's hair catching firethat landed their record deal with Warner Bros. It is safe to say The Lips rely on gimmicks, lights, balloons, confetti, giant hands, and lasers to win over crowds, something they have managed successfully for nearly three decades.

 

In the studio, however, The Flaming Lips created a whole new niche in pop music teetering on the edge of avant-garde brilliance. Maybe it's a testament to their old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic, sheer luck, or the raw talent of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, but Flaming Lips albums are known for explorations into vast caverns of human emotion, psychedelia, and sonic experiments.

 

These are the best full-length albums from The Flaming Lips, including their often-overlooked pre-Warner Bros. releases.

 

Omitted are 2012's Heady Fwends duets album, their full-length cover of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon with Stardeath and White Dwarfs, the soundtrack for Wayne Coyne's film Christmas on Mars, and any EP releases or compilations.

1

The Flaming Lips

The Soft Bulletin

1999

Following the departure of reclusive virtuoso Ronald Jones, The Flaming Lips launched into a series of experimental and interactive concerts that culminated in the confusing four-disc Zaireeka. After the heavy concept baffled their label, who threatened to drop the act altogether, The Lips surprised everyone with The Soft Bulletin, a simultaneously blissful and melancholy album that has been compared to both Pet Sounds and The Dark Side of the Moon.

The Soft Bulletin is a confrontation with madness while trying to maintain composure. Coyne cites his father's death, Drozd's drug addiction, and his own fears of insanity as inspiration for the record. It takes The Lips' signature noise-rock palette of the '90s and channels it through vibey synths and delicate flourishes, and by the end of the album abandons all remnants of their punk roots altogether. "The Spark That Bled" best captures the album's layers of moody ponderings backed by lush orchestration. "The Gash" is a raucous declaration of personal will, while "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" is a transcendent moment in The Flaming Lips' career. Aside from completely reconstructing the band's dynamics, The Soft Bulletin kicks off a trilogy of their most accessible and pristinely produced albums, including Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War With the Mystics.

2

The Flaming Lips

Embryonic

2009

The Soft Bulletin defined The Flaming Lips and served as a template for postmodern indie rock. Ten years later, The Flaming Lips tore down everything they had built in The Soft Bulletin's wake with 2009's Embryonic. Described by Coyne as a hybrid of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, Joy Division, and John Lennon, Embryonic is aggressive and primal, deploying thundering drums and fuzzy bass riffs accented by dissonant chords and effects-laden arrangements. Parts of the album are explosive improvised psychedelic jams; other parts are introspective synth-driven dirges.

Embryonic isn't just The Flaming Lips' best effort since The Soft Bulletin: it's a dramatic shift in their sound and energy. It's a chaotic revival of The Lips' manic experimental beginnings, and it will define their trajectory for the next decade. Highlights include the Zeppelin-esque "See the Leaves," the bass riff monster "Worm Mountain," and epic "Powerless."

3

The Flaming Lips

Clouds Taste Metallic

1995

Clouds Taste Metallic is the mid-career fan favorite that lives up to its hipster hype. By this point, the Coyne-Drozd-Ivins-Jones quartet had mastered the art of psychedelic alt rock, and Clouds is a build-up of unspent creative momentum that would burst over the next couple albums. In many ways, it doesn't move the band forward: it rehashes animal themes, atheist platitudes, and absurd imagery like an art-rock assembly line. But the sound is crisp and explosive, with Ronald Jones' tweaky and subtle guitar virtuosity giving the album a palette of sonic residue unheard anywhere else.

"When You Smile" is transcendently beautiful and foreshadows their future pop brilliance, while "Kim's Watermelon Gun" is perhaps the final word on The Lips' hyperactive punk days, with a twangy and sublime lead guitar part faded nearly to silence weaving throughout. Album closer "Bad Days" is an offbeat '90s staple, heard by many for the first time during Jim Carrey's Riddler's inception scene in Batman Forever.

4

The Flaming Lips

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

2002

The Flaming Lips followed up The Soft Bulletin with the massively successful sci-fi concept album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Their bombastic sound-crushing punk days seemingly behind them, Yoshimi is a calmer, lusher album with heavy use of electronica and pop melodies. The instrumental "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)" would earn the band their first Grammy, while "Do You Realize??" remains their biggest hit. And it should be, too. It's a song that is universally loved by diehard and casual fans alike, confronting death and grief with shimmering optimism.

Yoshimi is musically wonderful, but lacks the experimental tenacity of their earlier albums, and isn't pushing the boundaries as much as their recent work. For a band that's always been lauded for leaping ahead of their time, Yoshimi sounds distinctively trendy. That's not to say it isn't timeless—in fact, in 2012 Yoshimi was made into an off-Broadway musical.

5

The Flaming Lips

Transmissions from the Satellite Heart

1993

The first Flaming Lips album to feature multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and guitarist Ronald Jones, Transmissions takes the band from its raucous avant-garde early days into a new, coherent, and polished sound. Wayne Coyne's straining Neil Young rip-off vocals sound much better fronting a band with superb musicianship and creativity. Basically, The Lips struck gold with their new members, and Transmissions is a perfect showcase of their new talent, exploring a wide range of cosmic hillbilly-folk with chainsaw-buzzing distortion and thundering drums. "She Don't Use Jelly" would be the band's biggest hit in the '90s, nearly delegating them to one-hit-wonder status. Other highlights include the first two tracks, "Turn It On" and "Pilot Can at the Queer of God," which together frame the quirky pattern of fun pop-rock and explosive experimentation the band would be revisiting over the next couple of albums. The closer "Slow-Nerve-Action" is pretty great too, employing a John Bonham-inspired beat in a groovy, melancholy ballad about invisible dogs.

6

The Flaming Lips

At War With the Mystics

2006

Six albums down the list, and it's still hard to say that any one of these is nearly bad, or even mediocre. At War With the Mystics, the politically-driven follow-up to Yoshimi, features a plethora of classic Flaming Lips songs. Wisely, Wayne Coyne avoided diminishing the overall theme of challenging institutions and authority by pinning it explicitly on the Bush administration, even though they were the target of the album's protest fury. Instead, on songs like "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)," Coyne turns his criticism on himself, and admits that most humans are not immune to power-drunkenness.

At War isn't all politics and protest, though. The album's highlight, "Pompeii am Götterdämmerung," is a throwback to '70s prog rock about two lovers holding hands during a volcanic eruption. "Mr. Ambulance Driver" is a teenage car crash ballad complete with sirens and impressive pop restraint, given the rest of the album's tendency toward extravagance. After At War, it looked like The Flaming Lips were heading into a well-produced, glossy prog era-but the albums Embryonic and The Terror disproved that outright.

7

The Flaming Lips

The Terror

2013

If I am ever stranded on an alien planet far from the sun I imagine the sound that the backup generator makes as it dies will sound like The Terror. Cold, consistent, overwhelming, beautiful, and frightening.

The Terror, needless to say, lives up to its name. A carefully chosen name, in fact. It's not scary, and it's not the soundtrack to a horror film. It's terror, and a specific kind of terror that deserves a qualifying title of being the one and only capital-T Terror. The album opens with the humming and clicking of "Look... The Sun Is Rising," but dissolves soon after into a pulsing noise of whispery drones and broken-up phrases that build into nothing. If there are ever crescendos in emotion, they rarely last, and by the time the rhythmic "You Lust" comes around, it's hard to realize how much time has passed. Verses bleed into choruses, which bleed into the background. It sticks to its concept, which makes it consistent, at least, but it's heavy and misses the brightness of other great Flaming Lips albums.

8

The Flaming Lips

In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares)

1990

During The Flaming Lips' early pre-Warner Bros. life, they made four acid rock/punk albums, each better than the last. What makes In a Priest Driven Ambulance stand out is its emotional depth. Before, Coyne was merely rattling off absurd psychedelic poetry with no real meaning. In a Priest Driven Ambulance, for the first time, carries a theme of blasphemy, while exploring Coyne's own doubts about the future of the band. In a surprisingly somber acoustic ballad, "There You Are: Jesus Song No. 7" -supposedly recorded behind a truck stop in Oklahoma-Coyne sings "There you stand/With your bleedin' hands/And you don't understand/Why you work so goddamn hard/To be anything at all." It's emotionally draining, but the album kicks you in the gut by churning out the loud and fuzzy "Mountain Side," a cruel joke as you're trying to recover from the near-suicidal "There You Are."

Moments like that highlight the potential of a band struggling with identity after years of hard work with no payoff. Fortunately, it was In a Priest Driven Ambulance-and the band's infamous fire-hazard stage shows-that would land them their deal with Warner Bros.

9

The Flaming Lips

Zaireeka

1997

Zaireeka gets a big boost in points for ambition alone. These days, tracking down four separate CD players is a feat in itself, while getting three other people to operate them at the same time limits Zaireeka's playability. Of course, stereo mixes exist, but the album benefits from the quadrophonic experience. But its concept is also its downfall. The songs almost have to be listened to in the intended form to be totally interesting, otherwise they sound incomplete, and none of the discs offers a worthwhile listen on its own.

The songs aren't bad. They're weird and disjointed, and remarkably coherent given the format. They rely less on verse-chorus structure or lyrical purpose than on abstract moods and chaotic themes. Zaireeka is certainly the missing link between guitar-driven Clouds Taste Metallic alt rock and The Soft Bulletin's ethereal arrangements. It's probably the most inaccessible Flaming Lips album, even if for purely technical reasons. Still, it's an experience worth having.

10

The Flaming Lips

Hit to Death in the Future Head

1992

The Flaming Lips' first Warner Bros. release is slightly underwhelming. It has some clever moments, like the opening hyper-shoegaze of "Talkin' 'Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever)" and "Frogs," a quirky first attempt at a hit single. Coyne splits lead vocal duties with guitarist Jonathan Donahue, who would quit the band after this album to form Mercury Rev. Maybe it was the dynamics of clashing egos that stalled creativity, but at least Hit to Death formed the circumstances that would lead to Drozd and Jones joining the band. Highlights of the album include "Halloween on the Barbary Coast," and "The Sun," a trippy wash in early '90s alternative energy.

11

The Flaming Lips

Oh My Gawd!!!

1987

The Flaming Lips' second album is the first hint that Coyne might actually know what he's doing. It's a fun album, stripped of any pretense of talent or musicianship. Everything is turned up to 11, but it doesn't go anywhere. The epic 10-minute Pink Floyd homage "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning" is worth the album's price alone, but it's almost alone in an album of expansive experimental punk. The album ends with "Love Yer Brain," which is a decent song, but ends with the sound of a piano being smashed to pieces. Coyne perpetuated a rumor that the piano belonged to Elton John-a lie, of course, but it's interesting to see that he wasn't afraid to resort to gimmicks even in the early days.

12

The Flaming Lips

Telepathic Surgery

1989

The only reason to really listen to Telepathic Surgery is to experience the avant-garde 23-minute-long "Hell's Angels Cracker Factory," or to listen to Coyne discover his trademark high-pitched whine on "Chrome Plated Suicide." Telepathic Surgery is nearly incoherent, featuring only a handful of real songs scattered among an album's worth of weird experiments, like the jokey "Michael, Time To Wake Up." Bassist Michael Ivins was known to fall asleep in the studio, so Coyne set up an amp right next to his head and played a chaotic guitar solo to wake him up, and recorded it. It's probably on this album that the band learned most of their studio tricks, but to a listener it's mostly incomplete.

13

The Flaming Lips

Hear It Is

1986

I can't think of any other band whose debut album is so far from their potential brilliance. Hear It Is is an interesting time capsule of the band's first attempt. Fueled by post-punk rhythms and druggy dreams, Hear It Is never finds its niche, and mostly wanders around the perimeter of complete songs, with an occasional crescendo of noise. Coyne's songwriting is clearly in its infancy, but when listening to Hear It Is and comparing it to the follow-up Oh My Gawd!!!, it's obvious that the band was capable of learning from its mistakes and progressing.

At least Hear It Is dares to accomplish something peculiar. 1986 wasn't exactly a year for acid-burned pop punk, but The Flaming Lips defiantly established themselves as pioneers on the path to grungy alt rock years before anyone else caught on.

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Andrew
November 13th 2013
11:48am

Not a bad list overall, I would make some changes,  but I won’t get into it.  Just wanted to note that “There you are” was recorded in a Tops Supermarket parking lot close to Buffalo, NY (where the album was recorded by Dave Fridman)

Brennan Tiffany
August 2nd 2014
10:52pm

1. The Soft Bulletin
2. Zaireeka
3. Transmissions From The Satellite Heart
4. Clouds Taste Metallic
5. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
6. Hit To Death In The Future Head
7. In A Priest Driven Ambulance
8. At War With The Mystics
9. Oh My Gawd!
10.Telepathic Surgery
11. Embryonic
12. The Terror
13. Hear It Is

restaurantes saltillo
May 31st 2015
3:09pm

i didnt know they were playing since 1986!

Mike
October 27th 2016
2:34pm

soft bulletin
yoshimi
zaireeka
embryonic
at war with the mystics
clouds taste metallic
transmissions from the sattelite heart
the terror
hit to death in the future head
in a priest driven ambulance
oh my gawd!
hear it is
telepathic surgery