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They Might Be Giants – My Top Ten Tracks

December 18th, 2008 · Luke · 7 Comments

Zak Kaveney made my day by giving some in-depth analysis on one of my favorite bands.  Check out his thoughts below and see if you agree or not.

They Might Be Giants | My Top Ten Tracks

by Zak Kaveney

I was on my way home, trudging through the snow and trying not to slip on the ice in my horribly soled shoes when I started listing my favorite albums by They Might Be Giants. I was doing this because a friend had recently asked me for my top picks of the bands grand catalogue since he had never given them much of a listen. So, I named for him my favorite album, along with their two latest releases: John Henry, The Spine, and The Else.

Now, for those who want the quickest and easiest route to find themselves knee deep in a 2-disc collection of some of the finest TMBG songs can go and purchase Dial-A-Song. This set collects twenty years of TMBG and serves as a good starting point of creating a life-long fan. However, for my purposes (and because I enjoy songs that just aren’t always played on local radio stations) I’m going to delve into the vault a little deeper. There may be a few that aren’t as obscure, but they deserve just as much attention. So, let’s get to it.

Number Ten goes to Narrow Your Eyes from their fourth album Apollo 18. This entire album is full of great treasures that could fool a dark hearted man into tapping his foot because of all the upbeat rhythms the John’s throw behind the lyrics. This song stands out to me because it’s such a light-hearted love song that you might just not find the little strands of it until you narrow your eyes.

Number Nine might seem like an odd pick, but stay with me, we’re only just getting started. I’ve picked Hovering Sombrero for a few reasons. It’s a mellow song on an album that is already filled with an unruly amount of varying genres. It’s got soothing guitar rifts that flow from your speakers and through your heart, and maybe even able to touch some dark grey space in your head. But, most importantly, it should speak to a lot of people. With lines like ‘and the old familiar things are mostly all gone/but the old sombrero just keeps hovering on’ people should find that indeed, they’re never just a hat.

Number Eight is found on the self titled album from this dynamic duo. She’s An Angel is, if you’ll excuse the wordplay, an angelic song that I would hope Phil Collins never tries to sing. However, if you can find a live version of this song you’ll be much better off. Specifically, the Severe Tire Damage album has a wonderful version of this song with a fantastic horn section. How else can you describe love when you find the one and you can’t help but chase after the angel?

Number Seven gives us the metaphor of people as water and the land acting as their ship. This one, of course, is for Women and Men from the third album Flood. This song is a melodic affair to all the women and men that help make our planet 100% water based.

Side Note: Maybe you remember the promotion that was done for Flood? John and John sitting in a coffee shop as they pitch to the audience the album with snippets of a few songs thrown in. Either way, this one’s choke full of the Johns’ great sense of silly, outlandish lyrics, and will fill the eccentric’s ears with delight. Where else would you find a record with its own theme song? Exactly. And you can find the always delightful staples, Istanbul (Not Constantinople) and Particle Man, on it as well.

Number Six is on one of my favorite albums John Henry. That’s right; No One Knows My Plan is a fun, bouncy song, that I imagine Lex Luthor hearing in his mind as he bides his time in his prison cell, cooking up his plans to eliminate Superman. Really, what else can I say about this one?

Number Five will find you tapping your foot, clapping your hands, and smiling all before you realize that this song is actually much less about the happy, and much more about the sadness. I’m talking about Mr. Me from the second album Lincoln. If there’s one thing TMBG is capable of, it’s taking the most upbeat rhythm and throwing the saddest lyrics against them. The alliteration here could be the fault of your smile, but I think if you whistle along it’s your own fault.

Number Four is a simple melody. A melody about Your Own Worst Enemy. From their sixth album Factory Showroom, this song brings you the trouble of a bottle, work, and in the end becoming your own worst memory. There’s not much to the song, clocking in at 1:45, but it hits the liver like a double shot of whiskey.

Number Three showcases a lovely horn section; one might even call it bitchin’. From the bands tenth album The Spine, Museum of Idiots is a fun, fun song. I will be so bold as to say it’s about the love of two wax figures in their museum. But the song builds up through the horns so well, that by the last verse you’ve fallen in love with these two idiots who love each other. Even if they’re burning, even if the one is chopping the other into pieces, and even if they’ve forgotten one another. They’ll still say ‘I love you.’

Number Two is a bit of a guilty pick because it features my name. And of course, as I read the lyrics I find I am mistaken. It’s actually ‘sack’ not ‘Zak.’ Oh well! Withered Hope from the twelfth album The Else is a fantastic song that reminds me of I Palindrome I in the loosest sense. It’s more of a cyclical song that finds one character loving another character, loving another character, loving another character, loving another character that loves the first character. I think I got that right. But no matter! It’s a great song and you should give it a listen!

Number One! I’m choosing a song from the EP The Spine Surfs Alone for a few reasons. The song Now Is Strange is many things to me. It reminds me, after 20+ years of being a band that they can still do what they’ve always done. And that’s make a compelling song out of the strangest lyrics. Secondly, the song is just so haunting that whenever you listen to it you expect someone with a pumpkin to show up, kids dressed up in costumes, and fog. With lines like ‘Have you seen that naughty boy/Who steals each blade of grass/And replaces it with wires and batteries’ you cannot help but wonder just who this boy is and why he’d do such a heinous thing.

Alternately my number one would be Absolutely Bill’s Mood from their first album only because I want to hear it live. And I know they will never play this one live because it’s far too obscure and far too old for them to get any use out of it. There’s always cover bands, right?

That’s my far too wordy list. Whether you agree or disagree is one thing, whether you know the songs or not is another. Altogether though, you should do yourself a favor, find them, and listen to them if you’re at all interested in They Might Be Giants.


Tags: Articles and Essays

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mjbauer // Dec 18, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    Great list. I’m glad you didn’t stick to the well known songs and hit the gems that frequently get passed up. I’ve actually been slacking in the TMBG’s department lately so I don’t even know your top 3 picks (even though I own the albums), so I’ll have to give them a thorough listening.

    And as for your wish to see Absolutely Bill’s Mood live, you never know what the John’s might do. When I saw them on the Factory Showroom tour they opened with Spider, which is a song I never expected them to do live. Keep the hope alive!

  • 2 Luke // Dec 18, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    I have to agree, the list hits a lot of the lesser-known gems. TMBG live is always a treat. I love when they turn the radio on and riff off of whatever tune is playing.

    I thought both The Spine and The Else were kind of weak. Both had some great songs, but not much cohesion. I think Mink Car is the best of their last few, easily.

    I’d like to state for the record that “End of the Tour” from John Henry is my all-time favorite TMBG song.

  • 3 Aaron M // Dec 18, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Honorable mention: “Thunderbird”, from Spine. It’s a song that they’ve been doing at live shows on and off for years. And “On Earth My Nina”, from way back on John Henry, is an approximation of “Thunderbird” played backwards; they just released the punchline five years before the setup.

    I agree, Luke, that Mink Car is the best of the last few albums, though there are several songs on the last two that I like a lot (“The Mesopotamians”, “Museum of Idiots”, “Experimental Film”, “The Shadow Government”, etc).

    Oh, and my favorite TMBG song, for personal reasons is Destination Moon, from John Henry.

  • 4 Luke // Dec 18, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    The Mesopotamians is solid gold. Au Contraire also gets honorable mention.

  • 5 Aron Head // Dec 18, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Great choices, but my list would have to include The Mesopotamians and… Ana Ng. Loves me some Ana Ng. The surging rhythm and circus like cadence of the vocals? Masterpiece!

  • 6 Luke // Dec 18, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Ana Ng, Cowtown, and Purple Toupee…is there a better first third to any album ever?

  • 7 rumrokh // Dec 19, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Dude, I totally agree, Now is Strange is one of the greatest songs of all time. You’re one of the few TMBG fans who dig Apollo 18 and John Henry a lot – and also love the new material! But at the same time, I think I’d duplicate three, maybe four on my list. Such is the variety and awesomeness of the Johns.

    When camping last summer, my brother and I challenged ourselves with a TMBG compilation limited to three tracks from each album. Deceptively difficult. John Henry, my favorite, proved exceptionally difficult to whittle down.

    Great post!

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