The Flaming Lips, who started out in 1983, began in search of a musical direction — and then a lead singer, when original frontman Mark Coyne left the band two years later. Taking his place was his older brother Wayne, who’s been the group’s frontman and shaggy-haired, blissed-out leader ever since. “We didn’t have any identity that we were satisfied with,” Wayne Coyne recalled to Spin in 2013 about those early days. “I don’t even think we do now.”
Coyne’s just being modest: Three decades later, the Lips stand as one of indie rock’s most beloved and longest-running institutions — not to mention one of its most distinctive. Inspired by punk and Pink Floyd, psychedelia and grunge, the Oklahoma group first came to prominence in the early 1990s thanks to the quirky alt-rock smash “She Don’t Use Jelly,” continuing to refine their approach until, by the end of the 1990s, they were seen as elder statesmen and folk heroes.
Both experimental and deeply melodic, the Flaming Lips address the heavy issues — war, death, love, failure — with the cosmic, wide-eyed wonder of a smiling stoner. 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, in particular, became go-to albums for people still reeling from the terror and sadness of 9/11, wrapping the records’ fragile, resilient songs around themselves like a security blanket.
So in honor of the Lips’ forthcoming Oczy Mlody, we decided to select 10 songs that represent the best of the group’s deep cuts, while also showing how their groovy, fluid sound has morphed over the years, going from light to dark and back again. In fact, it’s amazing to think that they all come from the same group of Midwestern hippies.
“With You” (1986)
The first song on the Flaming Lips’ first album, Hear It Is, starts off as a lilting acoustic ballad, but the mood is broken by Coyne declaring awkwardly, “When I walk with you / I feel weird / When I talk with you / I feel weird.” Thirty years later, it’s downright odd to hear him singing in such a straightforward, slightly low tone rather than the aching falsetto he’d eventually utilize. All of 25 at the time, he sounds like one more insecure guy professing his love, and as “With You” segues from campfire sing-along to fuzzed-up guitar workout, we hear a band figuring out the rudiments of pop songwriting. The weirdness and experimentation would come later.
“Mountain Side” (1990)
In their early days, the Lips were unapologetic rockers, merging grunge’s noise with garage’s clattering intimacy. The band’s influences are readily apparent on “Mountain Side”: Vocally, Coyne could almost pass for Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, while the guitars evoke the towering force of Led Zeppelin. Amidst all the head-banging bravura, it’s fun to hear Coyne intone goofy, heartfelt romantic lines like “I hold your electric toaster while standin’ in your bathtub of love.” The Lips have since grown into a far more sophisticated band, both lyrically and sonically, but it’s nice to be reminded how hard they used to thrash.
“Hold Your Head” (1992)
On this album-closer from Hit to Death in the Future Head, the Flaming Lips borrow from the Doors’ playbook to create a psychedelic head-trip. In “Hold Your Head,” Coyne informs the listener, “We didn’t come to negotiate / We didn’t come so we could wait / We didn’t come to change the world / We didn’t come to fuck girls.” Over echoing keyboards and slithering bits of guitar, the singer seems to be drawing some sort of line in the sand, standing up for the importance of fully feeling emotions as opposed to giving in to cynicism or being seduced by celebrity. “Hold Your Head” would pave the way for the far more elaborate, almost operatic sonic concoctions the band would create on subsequent albums like The Soft Bulletin and Embryonic.
“Pilot Can at the Queer of God” (1993)
Transmissions From the Satellite Heart found the band moving (barely) into the alt-rock mainstream, as “She Don’t Use Jelly” landed them on MTV and put them on tour with Stone Temple Pilots. But the Lips’ brand of frenetic strangeness continued. In other words, don’t look to the title of “Pilot Can at the Queer of God” as a clue into what the song’s about. Coyne seems gob-smacked by a beautiful woman who, apparently, is a military pilot. But even if the words don’t entirely make sense, the screeching guitars, juxtaposed with an understated melody, are what make “Queer of God” irresistible.
“Placebo Headwound” (1995)
“Where does outer space end? / It’s sort of hard to imagine.” Amazingly, it wasn’t until the band’s fourth full-length album, Clouds Taste Metallic, that Coyne asked this wonderfully zonked-out, dorm-room question. On “Placebo Headwound,” he doesn’t get an answer, which is fitting for a song that’s all about living with mysteries. Imagine the Beatles’ harmonies crash-landing into the scruffy rattle of lo-fi garage-rock, and you’ll get a sense of the charming, confused sweep of this impossibly catchy song. Near the end, Coyne wonders, “If God hears all my questions / Well, how come there’s never an answer?” He’ll have to settle for the beautiful cacophony of out-of-tune guitars and martial drums.
“Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” (1999)
A new crop of Lips fans were introduced to the band through The Soft Bulletin, a dreamy collection that showed Coyne dealing with mortality and existence in a warier, more vulnerable way. The combination of weighty themes and trippy music reaches its apex on this symphonic number in which the singer acknowledges the importance of love and the inevitability of death — and how each is an integral part of life. “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” feels like it’s floating toward the heavens, ushering us into an alien spaceship or maybe the great beyond. Either way, the song is an excellent precursor to “Do You Realize??,” a live favorite that appeared on the follow-up album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which also dealt with love and death.
“One More Robot/Sympathy 3000–21” (2002)
It’s one of the oldest sci-fi tropes: a robot who learns to feel. But in the hands of the Flaming Lips, it can still be pretty fresh. “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000–21” tells the story of an android who begins to show what appears to be legitimate emotions. Coyne and his crew have always been unabashed hippies, so if the song’s thematic concerns aren’t surprising — what is love, man? — the band’s treatment is. This Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots track is all space-age keyboards and chilly atmospherics, painting a future that looks despairing rather than fabulous. But if “one more robot learns to be / something more than a machine,” maybe there’s hope for the rest of us trapped in a dehumanizing society.
“All We Have Is Now” (2002)
As he’s gotten older, Coyne has tried to find optimism within life’s dark truths — namely, that we’re all gonna die. On “All We Have Is Now,” he dresses up that worry in a fictional narrative, imagining a moment in which the human race is informed by a mysterious stranger from the future that they’re doomed. (“You and me were never meant to be part of the future.”) The story has a twist — the stranger is actually the narrator traveling back in time — but what makes “All We Have Is Now” so beautiful is that it’s a reminder (for the narrator and the listener) that the present is the only thing we can count on. It’s a clichéd sentiment that the Lips bring to life through the song’s fragile collection of keyboards and pensive, slowed-down electronic beats.
“Watching the Planets” (2009)
After a few years of writing, by their freaky standards, relatively straightforward indie-rock songs, Embryonic was a refreshing blast of unhinged freak-out, the songs full of angst and guarded beauty. A rude collage of guitars, keyboards and drums, “Watching the Planets” sounds like an oncoming apocalypse as Coyne sings through distortion about a doomsday scenario. “I got no reason to lie … I got no secrets to hide,” he declares, later announcing that he’s “building a fire” and “burning the Bible tonight.” With Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead singer Karen O providing backup vocals, Coyne keeps insisting “The sun’s gonna rise.” But the track’s gripping tension makes us a little unsure about that fact.
“You Lust” (2013)
With The Terror, the band seemed to consciously move away from the optimism that’s so central to their music, embracing the darkness they usually rail against. The epic “You Lust” isn’t loud — it’s mostly a couple keyboard notes, a distant beat and some stray sound effects — but it’s so insistently spare that it creates a growing sense of unease. What doesn’t help, of course, is that Coyne opens the song by announcing, “You got a lot of nerves / A lot of nerves to fuck with me.” The chanted, nearly inhuman “Lust to succeed / Lust to succeed / Lust to succeed” that is this song’s version of a chorus suggests both toxic ambition and deep failure, and the Lips (aided by the indie-pop group Phantogram) let that uncertainty grip you over the extended runtime. Where most of the band’s songs leave listeners rejuvenated, “You Lust” is a quietly unnerving track that’s hard to shake off.