Happy They Might Be Giants Week! We’re celebrating the release of the 88th volume in the 33 1/3 series: They Might Be Giants’ Flood. On Day 4, co-author S. Alexander Reed counts down the top ten non-album TMBG tracks.
Also! Today is the day the book becomes officially available on Amazon. Buy away!
“Never Had a Pocketwatch, Never Counted Backwards”: They Might Be Giants’ Top Ten Non-Album Tracks
Depending on how you tally it, They Might Be Giants have made at least fifteen studio albums since their 1986 debut. While you might know records like 1990’s classic Flood or this year’s excellent Nanobots, the band’s back catalogue is so staggeringly huge as to seem almost unknowable in any comprehensive way. Fitting for a group whose motto promises “Melody, Fidelity, Quantity.”
Below is a totally subjective countdown of my favorite They Might Be Giants songs that you won’t find on any of their regular studio albums. Collected from scattered B-sides, obscure EPs, solo projects, compilations, and movie soundtracks, here are ten songs that don’t deserve to be lost.
10. “Am I Awake?” (2004, from the Indestructible Object EP)
In a parallel universe, They Might Be Giants stand alongside Tuxedomoon, The Residents, and Devo as electronic pop pioneers. This is the universe where their most iconic tracks are their sampler-driven forays into plunderphonic dance music, like “I’m Def” and “Become a Robot.” It’s where “(Put Your Hand Inside the) Puppet Head” is recognized as the synthpop gem it always was. Linnell’s 2004 “Am I Awake” is a brilliant entry in this alternate-reality canon. It’s an electro ode to the coffee-buzz delirium of late capitalist labor, and it deserves far more listeners on this side of reality.
9. “Ant” (1990, from the Birdhouse In Your Soul single)
In “Ant,” John Flansburgh tells the story of an ant crawling up your body as you sleep, and in doing so, he gently reminds us 1) that we have no control over the world, 2) even our bodies are not our own, 3) life is fundamentally arbitrary and ridiculous (“someday that ant will grow up to be President!”), but despite this, 4) it’s all going to be okay—because what choice do we have? A children’s song gone horribly awry, this song packs a lot into less than two minutes.
8. “Boss of Me” (2000, from Music From Malcolm In The Middle, later collected on various anthologies)
This Grammy-winning song began as a written as the opening theme of Fox’s sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, but the band figured there was more potential lurking behind half-minute runtime. Flansburgh says, “I wrote a thirty-second song that I couldn’t finish for a year,” but the song eventually ignited into a post-ska scorcher that manages to address the full and confusing experience of growing up.
7. “Rest Awhile” (1997, from They Got Lost)
It’s a shame that the Johns were without a record deal for a few years in the late 1990s, because some of their best material is from this era, scattered across anthologies, online releases, and compilation albums. “Rest Awhile” is short enough to miss if you’re not listening, but it’s the kind of big-sounding rocker that Linnell first showed himself capable of on John Henry, and its sinister harmonies musically call into question the wisdom of its title lyric’s advice.
6. “Unsupervised, I Hit My Head” (1995, from Mono Puff’s Unsupervised)
John Flansburgh’s side project Mono Puff released two full-lengths, and this was their standout track, as fine as any TMBG single. With a thrilling 1990s powerpop shout chorus, the song manages both to rock and to wax philosophical about how we justify our actions. “I hit my head. Now I’m left-handed,” is a perfect lyric.
5. “South Carolina” (1999, from John Linnell’s State Songs)
State Songs, John Linnell’s 1999 solo album, is ostensibly a collection of songs about actual US states. This is true in the same way that Titanic is a movie about titans. The record shows just how baroquely craggy and mindbendingly weird Linnell gets when left to his own devices; it is completely brilliant. Although “Arkansas” is probably the album’s epic sleeper, its most immediately appealing track is “South Carolina.” It is absolutely, positively the best song ever written about cashing in on insurance payouts in the wake of a bicycle accident.
4. “SenSurround” (1995, from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Movie Soundtrack)
What? You don’t own a copy of the soundtrack to the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers movie? And you call yourself a civilized human? This may be the only decent song on the album, but what a song it is. “SenSurround” is Linnell’s meditation on the happenstance way we become ourselves: he posits that if his pregnant mother had watched different movies on the big screen, he’d have been a different John altogether. Fittingly, the song comes in two versions (this rendition is better than the one on the “S-E-X-X-Y” single), and it has two different bridges. (That’s a V-C-V-C-B1-V-C-B2-V-C form in barely three minutes, for those keeping score at home.)
3. “Reprehensible” (1999, from Long Tall Weekend)
Long Tall Weekend, in all its 33-minute glory, was billed as the first major internet-only album ever released, which was clever and all, but in 1999, it meant that it was only accessible to computer nerds—which, as it turned out, had a near one-to-one overlap with TMBG fans. Nonetheless, the collection has been largely forgotten, which is a shame, because some of its songs (like the original “Older” and “Dark and Metric”) are quite excellent. The real treasure, though, is John Flansburgh’s “Reprehensible,” a swing tune that would fit in on the Lawrence Welk show if Lawrence Welk were Beelzebub and if his show were filmed in Hell. The tremendous jazz vocals over top these chords are almost enough to distract you from the lyrical portrayal of a cigar-smoking villain who has wreaked misery and ruin on his neighbors for centuries. Almost.
2. “I’ll Sink Manhattan” (1989, from the They’ll Need a Crane EP, later collected on various anthologies)
Sometimes just breaking up with someone isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to sink the whole island they live on. And if four million other people live there, so be it. We’ve all been there, right? Right? Er…One of Flansburgh’s truly frightening ballads, “I’ll Sink Manhattan” is They Might Be Giants by way of Scott Walker. Or maybe Leonard Cohen if he’d been kidnapped by Herb Alpert. Note, by the way, how this song continues the answering machine fascination that the band set up with their Dial-A-Song service.
1. “She Was a Hotel Detective” (1994, from the Back To Skull EP)
No, this isn’t the band’s 1986 song “(She Was a) Hotel Detective”—it’s the little-known sequel! This Linnell-penned track is an eerie slice of cinematic disco noir. One of the most grandiose and brooding productions of the duo’s career, “She Was a Hotel Detective” focuses on the “was” in the title, revealing that the nighttime lady has since found some clandestine path to power: “She’s a billionaire… now that lady is running the world.” The song plays upon a genuine sense of dread and regret over a lost chance at a life of intrigue. As such, it becomes for hardcore fans an unnervingly ambiguous and ghostly commentary on the band’s own past. The best line is “Will she shoot you? She won’t have to; you’re already dead,” which reaches back to the lyric “I’m already dead,” from the 1985 demo version of “You’ll Miss Me.”
Bonus recommendations: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” “Olive the Other Reindeer,” “We Live in a Dump,” “My Other Car is a Boom Car,” and “Welcome to the Jungle” (no, not that song).
Tune in for more TMBG week tomorrow, and buy the book on Amazon or your local retailer.