We here at SportsAlcohol.com love indie rock, love lists, and love (with reservations) our teenager selves from years ago. So it’s a little bit strange to us that though we’ve tackled artists like David Bowie, Sleater-Kinney, Belle & Sebastian, Radiohead, and The Hold Steady, we have yet to make our definitive list of the best They Might Be Giants songs. It’s especially strange because of our founders’ history: Rob and Jesse went to see TMBG together on September 27th 1996, the night before Rob turned 17 and a few days before Jesse turned 16. There were TMBG t-shirts all over our high school for the next year-plus. One of the first times Jesse and Marisa met was at a TMBG show during college, and it was one of their most obvious initial common interests. Yet somehow it took us until 2018 to pull together a proper list.
This is probably because there never seems like a perfect time to make a They Might Be Giants list, because they’re almost always making music. I remember the gap between proper studio discs in 1996 and 2001 felt epic to me back in the day, but I didn’t realize how good I had it; the band released something— a compilation, a live album, an internet-only album, EPs, demos—literally every year of that “gap.” They have a new album called I Like Fun out right now, just a few months old, but still we’re not safe to make our definitive lists, because they’re going to be releasing more tracks through their Dial-a-Song service throughout the year, just as they did in 2015 alongside their album Glean.
So eventually you just have to put your head down and get to work and not worry about whether the next Dial-a-Song would have become your new favorite if you just waited another week or two. There will always be more songs, or at least that’s what it feels like when you’re a TMBG fan. I’ve been a fan of a lot of bands and I don’t know that I’ve ever found loving any of them as rewarding as it is to love They Might Be Giants. There are hits, obscurities, arcana, and everything in between. They have a reputation as a band that attracts nerds, and while that’s probably somewhat true, I think they’re also a band that kinda teaches you how to be a nerd. The good kind: curious, offbeat, and joyfully obsessive rather than sour or myopic.
A dozen-plus such nerds submitted lists of their 30 favorite TMBG songs, a wonderful and impossible task that resulted in this list of 40. If this seems like a lot, consider that it’s only the top twenty-five percent of the 160 songs that received votes, and only the top ten (or less) percent of the 400-plus songs (probably closer to 500+; I had to stop counting) that were eligible. Almost everyone who participated complained that this was too hard; that it wasn’t enough. Because we really, really love They Might Be Giants. So think of this list less as an exercise in leaving some songs off than as an extended thank-you to a band who means a whole lot to a whole lot of people.
Speaking of which: You’re familiar with Jesse, Marisa, and Rob. Here are your other voting nerds and TMBG experts for this rock-solid list:
Jeremy Bent is a writer, comedian, and UCB performer and teacher.
Trillion Grams loves TMBG and does IT for HR in DFW, TX, USA.
Karen Han writes on film, TV, music, and games, and is based in NYC. She loves Tintin and TMBG.
Andrew Hassenger is a musician and artist from Upstate New York.
Matt Koff is a comedian and Daily Show writer.
Randy Locklair is a Brooklyn-based dad and software architect, who likes to play the cello, fly planes and race bikes for fun. If you can’t find him doing any of those things, you can probably find him at a concert.
Demitri Muna is an astronomer at large in NYC who is reasonably obsessed with indiepop and is in love with a too-tall girl.
Michelle Paul is Managing Director of PatronManager.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance film and TV writer for the A.V. Club and elsewhere, and lives in Portland, Maine.
Alan Scherstuhl is the film editor at the Village Voice.
Rayme Shore is an Obstetrician-Gynecologist (yes, really) who occasionally enjoys geeking out.
Let’s get this over with:
The Top 40 Best They Might Be Giants Songs of All Time (For Now)
40. “Moving to the Sun”
39. “You’re On Fire”
In the pantheon of They Might Be Giants songs about heads with odd things on them, “You’re On Fire” joins “We Want A Rock” in anyone’s playlist of the band’s most irresistibly infectious rockers. Winningly brought to life in Hoku Uchiyama and Adam Bolt’s Lauren Lapkus-starring music video, “You’re On Fire” is a tight little explosion of loopy wordplay, killer hooks, and inspired romantic admiration, the hackneyed “hot girl” metaphor taken to the absurdist extreme of “You’re hard to get to know/But you’re easy to spot in a crowd.” You know, because of your combustible head. – Dennis
There are love songs, and then there’s “Answer.” To be clear, that’s not a diss — “Answer” might just be my favorite love song of all time. It’s a catalog of disappointments ranging from unfulfilled birthday wishes to poorly prepared food, and then, in my favorite verse, a deconstruction of “tall, dark, and handsome,” but it’s not ultimately a song of woe. So what if what you get isn’t exactly what you asked for, and so what if there are a few surveillance agents thrown in? Time (and maybe a little whiskey) has the power to heal all wounds, and love, to cop a quote from Dr. Ian Malcolm, finds a way. Listening to the song, it’s easy to imagine each and every misfortune that’s named, but it’s easy, too, to soar along with the bridge, and to know that there’s something admirable in not giving up, even when it seems like there’s no other recourse. And, again, that “tall, dark, and handsome” verse is a doozy. It’s the Paul Thomas Anderson of songs — it’s inimitably human, sad but sweet, and hopeful in the end. That said, it’ll probably come as no surprise when I say that this song was in heavy rotation in my music library for about three years straight. – Karen
37. “Am I Awake?”
Indestructible Object EP, 2004
What first hooked me on TMBG two decades ago was how weird and high concept they were. (A song about palindromes whose bridge is a palindrome? Take my money, you beautiful bastards.) But what I’ve grown to love about them is when they tap into real human emotion. Here, the emotion they tap into is malaise. You hear plenty of songs about love, loss, grief, pain, longing; the highs and lows of human existence. But you don’t hear many songs about the absence of those feelings. As a kid who spent 18 years in the suburbs, and as an adult who spent 4 years in a dead-end proofreading job, I am familiar with that absence. This song captures it perfectly. It’s the sound of a soul being crushed. – Matt
36. “Nightgown of the Sullen Moon”
They’ll Need A Crane EP, 1989
Suicide? Intoxication? Depression? Love? As with much of TMBG music, the meaning of “Nightgown” is debatable. Don’t look for answers in the identically titled children’s book by Nancy Willard; Linnell claims that they had no knowledge of the book when the song was developed. Like the Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the title of this song was inspired by a child’s drawing. (Linnell’s story is more believable than Lennon’s, unless there’s a drug called NSM that the kids are were doing in the ’80s).
Until I joined online fan communities, there was no question to me that this is a love song. Linnell sings this one with a dreamy contentedness in his voice which reminds me of that effervescent feeling of being in the throes of infatuation. So to consider others’ interpretations of the song’s meaning having to do with death (admittedly a recurring theme from the Johns) or drugs triggers feelings of a perfect contradiction of charm and melancholy that is a trademark of this band. To love TMBG, you must embrace bittersweetness.
The driving beat and verses densely packed with lyrics (showcasing Linnell’s impressive breath control) contrast with sleepy imagery of the mundane and everyday (door knobs and shoelaces). “Nightgown” is a good one to play for someone who’s just starting to get into the band. It has “listenability” for the average ear, yet there’s enough quirk to remind you who’s behind the steering wheel. The drums have this off-beat doubled quality, Linnell stretches single syllables into 5, and there’s a jarring amelodic fire alarm bell leading into the final chorus.
Who cares whether it’s about infatuation or self harm? They’re the same thing in the end. – Trillion
“Particle Man” isn’t on this list. Rob is relieved. He’s not anti-Flood but he’s enough of a hardcore fan to feel some kind of pull away from the obvious stuff from TMBG’s best-selling record. He’s also not alone; Alan didn’t choose any songs from Flood. I chose a bunch, though. I chose “Twisting.” It was actually released as a single, which sort of makes it more of an official greatest-hit thing than “Particle Man,” though “Particle Man” had that crucial Tiny Toons video. But this isn’t about “Particle Man.” This is about the songs on Flood that really make it Flood. The songs that weren’t the biggest hits ever, but became their own kind of hits: Live-show staples. Mix-tape staples. College radio staples, I assume. This is for the elation we felt when we heard “Hot Cha” on a carnival ride at The Great Escape in Lake George, New York, almost a decade after Flood came out. This is for realizing what a great fucking song “Road Movie to Berlin” is when you’re more grown. And this is for “Twisting,” the song right after “Particle Man” on Flood, a perfect two-minute Flansburghian burst of melodic riffs, handclaps, and break-up misery. – Jesse
34. “No One Knows My Plan”
33. “Push Back the Hands”
I Like Fun, 2018
The synth used for the backing on this song and the sound effects sprinkled through practically make it sparkle. It’s classic They Might Be Giants in that it’s working with a sound that’s very pop, but put through a sort of bizarre mirror of TMBG-specific structuring and lyrics in order to turn it into something completely different. It sounds like the Jackson 5 in space, or a disco constructed completely out of diamonds. Okay, so both of those images are more than a little fanciful, but the song itself is so otherworldly that it deserves nothing less. (Even the music video is kind of sci-fi.) When John Linnell sings about dawn breaking like a fallen vase, those fragments are reflected in the shimmery quality of the instrumentation, and there’s a creeping desperation through it all that belies that brightness. Though all of I Like Fun is superb, “Push Back the Hands” has to be my favorite of the bunch. It’s just so gorgeous, and the perfect paean to pushing past stress and regret. – Karen
32. “A Self Called Nowhere
31. “Your Racist Friend”
This one’s a little more personal for me. In the early/mid ’90s, when I was a somewhat nerdy pre-teen, I ran with a particular crowd. A particularly nerdy crowd. A particularly white and nerdy crowd. I was the stand-out person of color in a lot of my socioeconomic circles as a kid. And as a child of a mixed-race relationship, I was the recipient of and/or witness to a lot of prejudices.
But almost worse than a racist, is anyone—but especially a friend—who sympathizes with a racist. It is, in some ways, even more painful than the prejudiced act itself. And as a young mixed kid with not a lot of friends of color, it was something that no one else really understood.
EXCEPT FOR THESE TWO NERDY WHITE GUYS FROM BROOKLYN? How did the Johns write this amazingly accurate song about this situation? It was honestly one of the first times I felt like I had an ally, and I am incredibly grateful to them for that. (Also the guitar solo is FIRE. But also, the trumpet part is WEIRD.) – Randy
I first heard this song on New Year’s Eve 2012, a few months before TMBG released the album bearing its name, and I took an immediate liking to it, the way it triumphed over any feeling that maybe TMBG writing a song about nanobots could be a bit boilerplate, a bit expected, with sheer sonic inventiveness; the obligatory touch of robot-voice, of course, but also the overlapping vocals, the chiming verses, the little pauses where most everything drops out. It’s a wonderfully inventive piece of music. But the song grew further in my esteem, into a spot on my all-time TMBG top ten even, when I heard it described as a song about reproduction and I thought, well, of course. I don’t think John Linnell was necessarily trying to create a paean to parenthood with this tune, and I don’t think that’s what he really wound up doing, either. This song is, to my ears, pretty ambivalent about whether any of this endless reproduction is a particularly good thing. But when Linnell sings about tiny robots getting into each other’s personal spaces as they read comic books, I admit it: I think fondly of my space-invading, life-changing, vaguely TMBG-conversant daughter. – Jesse
29. “On the Drag”
Working Undercover for the Man EP, 2000
I may not be old enough, or legit punk enough, to say that I hung out at St. Mark’s Place in its heyday. By the time I was browsing its used cd stores, it was already a copy of a copy of itself. But I am hardcore enough to know that, at some point in this song’s life, the verses switched their order around, and it still confuses me every time I hear it.
Both versions of “On the Drag” start with a big claim before the music kicks in, either “I won’t die until I’m dead,” or “You’re only happy when you’re sad.” Either of those lines set up a certain kind of defiance. “New York City” may encapsulate the magical properties of the five boroughs, but “On the Drag” takes care of the area’s dirtier, brattier moments. It’s more of a straight-ahead rock tune, too, with a some fuzzy guitars and a stop-start beat. And, if you want to talk more about it, you can meet me at The Cube. – Marisa
28. “Cyclops Rock”
Mink Car, 2001
The transition between Apollo 18 and John Henry knocked longtime TMBG fans off balance with the introduction of a full band. Almost a decade after the band’s first full-band tours circa Apollo 18, several songs from Mink Car showed where we were going to land: guitar-driven pop, intricate layers, intoxicating hooks, and, of course, the wit and humor of John and John. “Cyclops Rock” is the perfect example of this. Setting aside a little worry that the TMBG sound might be getting harsher the first time I heard it, the song hooked me immediately. The chorus explodes with slightly distorted guitars, horns, and the irresistible chimes which alone transcend the song from average power pop to one I never tire of listening to. The high energy reflects the fresh heartbreak and raw bitterness suffered by the protagonist… much like Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” but with more references to the Child’s Play movies. You are free to picture the vocalist as a literal cyclops or just a broken man staring “with my one glass eye”. The “cyclops rock” of the song, however, is unambiguously a dance alongside the other 60s dance crazes dropped in the song (“Pony, twist, monkey and frug!”), wonderfully screamed in the bridge in her thick Welsh brogue by Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews (nerd rock shout out; see “Mulder And Scully”). Don’t waste your cyclops time; queue up this song and crank up the volume. – Demitri
27. “Sleeping in the Flowers”
John Henry, 1994
My son is not even three months old, but I see it already: he is a sad boy like his father before him. He doesn’t smile as easily as his twin sister, spends a lot of time looking pensive, and can often only be enticed to interact with others by playing music he likes. I’m not worried, though. What I find lacking in most critiques and satires of goths, Cure fans, and Morrissey obsessive is that there is joy in being a sad boy. “Sleeping in the Flowers” is a song about that joy. TMBG flips their oft-used Tin Pan Alley trick of disguising sad lyrics with happy music by ramping up the happy. They go larger than their new-at-the-time full band with a soaring horn section. This isn’t TMBG’s first paean to unrequited love. It’s not even their first ode to a copy shop employee. It is, however, the jam that is most content with just imagining the possibilities of what could be but will probably never happen. – Rob
26. “When Will You Die?”
Join Us, 2011
Page one of the TMBG songwriting playbook is “upbeat melody & dark lyrics,” and “When Will You Die?” hits that as well as any of their songs ever have. A joyous, celebratory tone from start to finish with excellent use of the band’s fondness for horn hits belies the lyrical content of craving to know when, precisely, your enemy will die. My girlfriend listened to this and immediately pegged it as a song about Trump. Having been released in 2011, it’s almost certainly not, but her point remains. Wouldn’t it be nice to know: when will you die? – Jeremy
25. “It’s Not My Birthday”
They’ll Need a Crane EP, 1989
I honestly can’t say why I like this song so much. I have no idea what the meaning behind it is (if anything). I recall having read various opinions about its meaning online. Some fans have speculated it’s about getting older and feeling out of control; could be. I’ve always liked nonsense poetry like Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” and the works of Lewis Carroll’s, and this song has that quality for me. Is it meaningless or is the meaning just obscured? Who’s to say, but it’s fun and catchy. That counts for something in my book. – Rayme
24. “Narrow Your Eyes”
Apollo 18, 1992
If you didn’t have a sense of the lyrics, it’d probably be easy to mistake “Narrow Your Eyes” for pretty much anything but a break-up song. But there’s no other way to take a line like “Now let’s toast the sad cold fact/Our love’s never coming back,” which anchors one of the most gorgeous bridges of all time. The swooping melodies and insistent backing vocals, which feel like celebrations out of context, suddenly turn into a race to the inevitable end of a relationship. It’s not a matter of one person dumping the other; rather, it’s a combustion, mutually assured destruction, a last crash before digging through what’s left and moving on. It’s also a song that prompts motion — the aural equivalent of biking down a steep hill, or driving with all of the windows rolled down. – Karen
S-E-X-X-Y EP, 1996
I often wonder why “Sensurround” wasn’t included on Factory Showroom and instead relegated to a B-side on only certain versions (!) of its lead single. Maybe they considered it tainted because they contributed a slower, inferior version of the song to the soundtrack for the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers movie (seriously). Maybe they thought it too straightforward to be a true TMBG classic, even though it is narrated from the womb. Maybe they didn’t want another uptempo rocker similar in style to “Till My Head Falls Off” on the album. Whatever the reason, a wider listening audience was deprived maybe the only ode to a subwoofer in the history of song. Returning to their evident fascination with the Cold War-era American pop culture they grew up with, there is just so much undeniable joy for the moviegoing experience in this song. The music matches the mood, which is not TMBG’s usual M.O., but sometimes a straight heater is most effective after a steady diet of curveballs. – Rob
22. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
Around the turn of the millennium, my sister gifted me a CD I hadn’t asked for by a band ostensibly unknown to me. “Listen to this,” she told me, and played “Man, It’s So Loud in Here” from the They Might Be Giants album Mink Car. I fell in love instantly, and wondered how she could perfectly pinpoint my budding musical taste. “Remember that Triangle Man cartoon on Tiny Toons? This is by that band!” she said. A key piece of my developing aesthetic was cemented in that moment. That odd-ball little song had been tattooed on my brain since childhood, and I owe a huge debt to my sister for recognizing (and tolerating) my strange taste and reintroducing me to the band that would instantly and permanently become my favorite.
TMBG gained a generation of new fans when a smattering of songs from their brand new album Flood was featured on Tiny Toon Adventures in 1991. I’d venture that a majority of fans in my age group must admit that their initial exposure to the band was those “Particle Man” and “Istanbul” clips. And it’s “Istanbul” from the iconic Flood that has exposed TMBG to the general public.
Consider the entirety of the Johns’ discography, and it’s undeniable that “Istanbul” is one of the few songs that drifts near mainstream territory. So it should be no surprise that it’s actually a cover (though it may be a surprise to discover that the original went gold). The Johns put their eccentric spin on the 1953 novelty song. The Four Lads’ original is a plodding funeral dirge compared to the upbeat Two Johns’ version, but the classic recording features those humorous and educational lyrics that TMBG fans cherish.
“Istanbul” has been steadily referenced in pop culture for decades including two dancing video games (you can spot pockets of the youngest fans performing the routines from memory at live shows), The Simpsons, network dramas, movies, and reality TV. My hope is that it will persist after we’ve all been a long time gone and Istanbul becomes… something else. But (sing it with me): that’s nobody’s business but the Turks’. – Trillion
Join Us, 2011
One consequence of ditching the drum-machine duo act: The songs on They Might Be Giants LPs from John Henry on tend not to sound like greetings from their own singular sonic universes. Instead, they often sound like the output of a working band, particularly on the excellent six-album run that started with Join Us, their second LP with the current lineup of Danny Weinkauf (bass), Marty Bellar (drums), and Dan Miller (guitar). What they’ve lost in tape-machine novelty they’ve often made up for in stellar songcraft and rock-combo energy.
But they also sometimes still muster up a dispatch from the outer rim, like “Cloisonné,” not just a highlight of a strong album but also a fruitful new creative direction. “Cloisonné” stands as the first of Flansburgh’s stream-of-consciousness sprees (see also: “Authenticity Trip,” “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin,” “I Like Fun,” and more), one of the most reliable pleasures of the Giants’ recent work. The lyric is a torrent of boasts and commands and would-be catch phrases that bloom into new ambiguities at each line’s enjambment. They tumble out of Flansburgh with uncommon euphony, a parade of stick-in-your-head declarations every bit as catchy as goddamn “Particle Man.”
The mode is familiar, a return to the Tennessee Ernie Ford-goes-beatnik pleasures of “She’s Actual Size” and “Lie Still, Little Bottle,” but here the character singing refuses to contain himself to the traditional form of a pop song. The first boast suggests the character singing is not conversant with what most singers might brag about: “My craft is explosive,” he insists, “like I’m making cloisonné.” The music seems to race to keep up with his free-associative bluster. He seems to be racing, too, eager to share some urgent truth before his mind caves in. He seems to fail and spends the end of his last verse circling a pop-culture cul-de-sac, wondering what the hell a Sleestak is, only to be saved by the songform he had been pressing against: Suddenly it’s time to sing the title, and our man, a pro, can always do that.
The music’s up to the madness. Here the Johns eschew the band for inspired beat programming that suggests the old days but is not at all beholden to them. Flansburg’s minimalist beat track, filled out by the joyous bounce of Linnel’s bass clarinet, sounds nothing like They Might Be Giants or Lincoln but would have been a highlight on either. Bonus points for the climactic woodwind freakout. – Alan
The Spine, 2004
I’m not sure why, but John Linnell knows: Addiction itself is a hell of a drug. How does he know, though? The Onion once joked he struggled with Tetris, and the documentary Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns suggested the strongest thing he’s hooked on is coffee. But “Thunderbird” suggests a much darker personal experience. It’s unclear what the title’s namesake is, but it is a source of deep, shameful compulsion. The song revels in the pull, in giving oneself to one’s worst impulses with abandon. It may not be the best idea, but it doesn’t stick around long enough to consider the consequences. – Rob
19. “The Mesopotamians”
The Else, 2007
There is nothing as quintessentially They Might Be Giants as getting a whole audience to jump and loudly sing the names of ancient Mesopotamia rulers (“Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh!”), names that don’t particularly roll off the tongue even in non-rock environments. They are reimagined together as not only a touring band called “The Mesopotamians,” but a Beatles (or, if you will, Monkees) of antiquity (the timeline makes it clear who stole whose haircuts from who). Tragically, no one has ever heard of The Mesopotamians (the band predates reel-to-reel by a significant margin) or are aware that they rule the land. Their songs are scratched “down into the clay / half believing there will sometime come a day / someone gives a damn / maybe when the concrete has crumbled to sand.” The allusions to 2007 Iraq are not strongly hidden here even as they are wrapped in a buoyant, playful, crowd-favorite pop song. The video is a must-see for hilarious riffs on the Beatles. And don’t believe the crazy rumors: Hammurabi isn’t dead. – Demitri
18. “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)”
Apollo 18, 1992
I can’t speak for anyone else, but, when I put together my list, I took a holistic view of all their songs and tried to think about every way I’ve experienced them. I considered the album versions, of course, but also performances, memories, demos, and more. And while I wouldn’t give a song a spot on my list just because of the video, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the video for “The Guitar” didn’t factored in. (Hey look, it’s The Warsaw!) It’s almost worth it for the face Laura Cantrell makes at the 3:09 mark alone. But if the video didn’t tip this one onto my list, its live version definitely did. When “The Guitar” comes up on a setlist, it’s always a moment. They give it a little something extra, be it horns, arm waving, band intros, or demands to “put your hands together.” There’s always jumping. It’s one of the reasons TMBG is the band I’ve seen live the most—a record that no other band is even close to catching. – Marisa
17. “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”
Join Us, 2011
TMBG by way of The La’s, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is an instant pick-me-up. If you’re already in a good mood, you can just give yourself over to the bright, Brit-poppy guitar riff and sing along, and enjoy trying to extend your vowels for as long as possible. (“I’m poooooooointing my finger in my own faaaaaaaaaace.”) If you’re in a bad mood, though, you can play along with Johnny, which, even though he’s a jerk, is mostly empowering. The world is out to get you. You’ve been given the high-hat at every turn. But you’re better than that. But you haven’t given in, and you never will. – Marisa
Apollo 18, 1992
“Fingertips” is actually 21 songs. Here’s a bonus list-within-the-list where I will rank all the songs in “Fingertips”:
1. Mysterious Whisper (FT17)
2. Everything Is Catching On Fire (FT1)
3. I Hear the Wind Blow (FT3)
4. Fingertips (FT2)
5. Hey Now Everybody (FT4)
6. I Don’t Understand You (FT15)
7. Somethin’ Grabbed (FT14)
8. Wreck My Car (FT7)
9. Please Pass the Milk (FT9)
10. Aren’t You the Guy (FT8)
11. What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here? (FT13)
12. The Day Love Came To Play (FT18)
13. I Walk Along Darkened Corridors (FT21)
14. Heart Attack (FT19)
15. Leave Me Alone (FT10)
16. I Heard a Sound (FT16)
17. Who’s Knocking On the Wall (FT11)
18. All Alone (FT12)
19. I Found a New Friend (FT6)
20. Fingertips II (FT20)
21. Who’s That Standing (FT5) – Michelle
I don’t have a history with this song, the way I have a history with every single song They Might Be Giants released during the 1990s (yes, even “Stormy Pinkness”: It was a song I didn’t get to hear for ages, until I found the Istanbul EP for sale at Newbury Comics in Boston, during a time when that was the best way to hear music, to buy the CD it appeared on, and as such it felt like a big deal, even though it’s relatively negligible in the full history of the band). “Erase” came out in January 2015, the first song in a year where TMBG released over 50 songs, and both the first single and first track from their record Glean. I like Glean and I afforded it the same close attention I give to all TMBG records, but it’s not quite the same as endlessly looping a CD (or cassette!) twenty years ago, is it? That doesn’t matter, though, because “Erase” comes with its own sense of history – or more accurately, with history falling away as it approaches an inevitable end: “Put one box on the sidewalk / Then you return with the next and the first one’s gone. / Everyone gets on the bus out of town / And the lights start going out one by one.” It’s one of the band’s most evocative late-period lyrics, deftly making the transition from every day moving-out imagery to a sense of desolate abandonment, married to one of the band’s power-poppiest melodies. 30-plus years into this gig, TMBG can still make new history for themselves, ever aware that it’s still subject to life’s unavoidable erase button. – Jesse
14. “Spiraling Shape”
Factory Showroom, 1996
The start of “Spiraling Shape” makes me imagine falling to my death from the top of a building in a 50s era New York City construction site. Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t really understand what the lyrics were actually about when I was 17. Maybe it’s that eerie vibraphone and jazzy ride cymbal playing in a happy major key that didn’t seem to belong. As if it was something just waiting to completely fall apart. You listen, and listen, and eventually realize that, like “Thunderbird” at #20, it’s a song about addiction and compulsion, and that eerie feeling you’ve had with every listen now makes so much sense. The song traps you in its beauty and then drags you to a much darker place. Those arpeggiated chords from the first chorus repeat through the whole song, anchoring you while you feel everything else building up and wanting to crash down around you. Just as I imagine the subjects of the song felt. – Randy
13. “I Palindrome I”
Apollo 18, 1992
“I Palindrome I” may be the most They Might Be Giants-y song there is, and yet it feels underrated. Probably because its brilliance is disguised in a perfectly crafted pop song.
It is so easy to listen to and enjoy and not notice the wordplay or the fact that it’s filled with literal and figurative palindromes. You might have noticed “man o nam” or even
“Egad, a base tone denotes a bad age,” or the title and “dad palindrome dad” being word palindromes. Or maybe you even noticed the song is 2:22 in length.
It’s also easy, though, to gloss over the fact that the whole first verse, or the snake head line, are palindromes in concept. The notes of the vocal line in the bridge even contrast against the bass progression in a palindrome-y kind of way. Oh, and also this song is basically about killing your mom for the insurance money. Classic TMBG disguising something pretty terrible disguised in pop beauty. – Randy
12. “Man, It’s So Loud In Here”
Mink Car, 2001
The time: October 2001.
The scene: This TMBG show at Lupo’s in Providence, Rhode Island.
The action: DANCING OUR FACES OFF to “Man, It’s So Loud In Here,” the first time we ever heard it live.
To be clear, that show was far from the first time they’d ever played the song live (it was in regular rotation as early as ’99), but 2000-2001 were my own prime TMBG-going years, and oh man, the feeling I felt at this moment. The lights go down, the backing track starts, the DISCO BALL starts spinning, and it’s dance party time. Here: Experience it yourself. – Michelle
11. “Till My Head Falls Off”
Factory Showroom, 1996
I remember reading about it on message boards, the same way I’d wager most of our list participants remember reading something or other about They Might Be Giants on message boards or newsgroups, especially if you were born in the vicinity of 1980, because if you were a TMBG fan and an early internet user, what choice did you have? What, talk about the meanings of the songs with your friends? Maybe if you were lucky. (I was lucky and I still went on message boards.) Anyway, somehow the message board missive I remember about “Till My Head Falls Off” was not either (a.) about how much this song rules or even (b.) whether or not “till” is the grammatically correct abbreviation of “until,” but rather to register a complaint about its guitar solo. Not the quality of the solo, mind, but that it existed at all. This, according to the poster, was a terrible betrayal of the Johns’ early promise that their music would not contain such unforgivable indulgences.
It was actually a perfect lesson for me in how often this kind of artistic dogma comes quickly to matter more to the fanatics than the artists. Doubtless one John or another once said something disparaging or dismissive about guitar solos, and certainly their early music eschews typical rock-music bombast. But this was not a band’s manifesto, and when they started flirting with the kind of longevity that’s the kinda-sorta subject of “Till My Head Falls Off” (“I won’t be done until my head falls off/Though it may not be a long way off”), obviously they were happy to try new things, like bitchin’ guitar solos and relatively straightforward rock-band arrangements that still maintain their signature mordant wit and boundless energy.
Did I mention this guitar solos is literally ten seconds long?
In a song that’s over and out in under three minutes total?
Incidentally, I believe the longest non-remix TMBG song isn’t “Till My Head Falls Off,” but it is from the same approximate era: The studio version of “They Got Lost” runs four minutes and thirty-nine seconds. I’ll start scouring the internet for haunted message boards as soon as they cross the five-minute mark, just to see what the fuss is like. – Jesse
10. “Museum of Idiots”
The Spine, 2004
The first time I heard this song, it was live and I was outside. It was at a Celebrate Brooklyn show in Prospect Park. I thought I remembered the band saying it was the first time they’d performed it for a crowd, but the Wiki points out that a show in Englewood Cliffs, NJ snuck in a few days before to claim the premiere. They definitely said it was written about Brooklyn, a place I knew little about. It was one of those perfect summer concerts, with a setlist full of horns and so much energy and heat and mosquitoes. The song was beautiful, Brooklyn was beautiful, and, when kids in the audience rolled their eyes at us for dancing too emphatically, I couldn’t do anything but laugh.
I put “Museum of Idiots” on a mix for Jesse, around the time in college that we were making a lot of mixes for each other. It was still so new that I only had a bootlegged live recording. That semester, I had decided to study abroad. We had a tearful goodbye at the airport. I hated it and was back within weeks. I put the song on a cd with a loose, “God, that was a mistake,” theme. I was the idiot.
We graduated, we moved in together—hey, in Brooklyn!—we decided to get married. It was time to choose the song for our first dance. Our original contender had been disqualified, because when someone mistyped the URL for our wedding website, a different Marisa (well, Marissa) and a different Jesse greeted them with a smiling slideshow of photos set to the song we’d picked. Ugh. Without much discussion, we switched to “Museum of Idiots.” It should’ve been our choice all along. (I was probably too worried that the “chop me up into pieces” part would’ve been weird for my relatives.) It was always there for us, in the background. Of course it should soundtrack the moment in our wedding when we had to dance in front the people we loved most, since doing that made me feel like a little bit of an idiot. – Marisa
9. “They’ll Need a Crane”
Like much of Lincoln, “Crane” eschews the wild experimentation of their earliest work to make a song that sounds like it was performed by a full band. The lyrics have to do the heavy lifting, and boy, are they a doozy. John and John were not yet thirty when this song was written, but it’s such a vivid portrayal of the dissolution of a marriage that it has to be drawn from personal experience. TMBG’s manager Jamie Kittman has stated publicly that he believes it was inspired by John Linnell’s parents. This is in direct contrast to another track on Lincoln, “Purple Toupee”, which is specifically inspired by the hazy memory of childhood. That must have been a terrible relationship to stick with Linnell so clearly. I’m just going to finish this by pasting the lyrics to the bridge and let that sit with you. – Rob
Don’t call me at work again / No, no, the boss still hates me
/ I’m just tired and I don’t love you anymore /
And there’s a restaurant we should check out
where the other nightmare people like to go /
I mean nice people — baby wait
/ I didn’t mean to say nightmare
8. “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head”
They Might Be Giants 1986
A despairing/invigorating spa-day spent soaking in the blood of the exploited working class, this singular Flansburgh/Linnell collaboration (Flansburgh sings and penned the verses; Linnell wrote the chorus and music) finds the band facing down the Reagan years much the same way The Else and I Like Fun would find them getting through Bush and Trump. Here the anxiety is economic, as befits a weird-ass young band in then-burntout Williamsburg, and also generational, as befits weird-ass young artists trying to bring something new into a culture that had taken to yearning for the past.
As always, tunefulness and groove sweeten the panic. They also stir smiles with parody, pastiche, and dada. Verse one’s shuttering of the burn-smell factory upends the mournful romanticism of Springsteen, while verse three’s jubilant job-quitting high jacks Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man” to posit a future where we don’t have to do the dumb things we all gotta due, one where anybody can just walk away from go-nowhere work — not just putative music stars.The genius, though, lies in verse two, which expresses the warmest, most humane thought in any college-rock hate-my-job manifesto. The pig whom the person that covers the subway in ads is trying to keep happy is also just trying to keep his or her boss happy, who’s just trying to keep his or her boss happy and etc. etc. forever. Why not bash in the puppet head we each must wear for all of them?
It’s clearer now than it was in‘86, that Flansburgh is singing as Linnell would have, extending the last note of many lines toward Linnell’s trademark bleat: it’s a mighty zombie talkin’ of some love and posteri-teeeeee. Slogging through a job that’s sucking your life away would become a throughline of the band’s work, especially in Flansburgh’s songs, which feature fantasies about burning all the uniforms and practicing trumpet every day. The rousing smash-the-system cry of “Puppet Head” is bookended, brilliantly, by The Spine’s “Memo to Human Resources,” a weary lament about perseverance, about finding a way to keep on keeping on when your hand’s inside a puppet head that cannot be busted in. Also worth noting: “Puppet Head”’s lyric warns against the kind of nostalgic thinking that might convince us that “Puppet Head,” which so fully evokes a bygone age, is somehow better than “Memo.” – Alan
7. “Don’t Let’s Start”
They Might Be Giants, 1986
Their first single of all time! TMBG’s long and storied career as one of rock’s proud weirdos begins, in a way, with this jangly gem. It’s fitting that their kickoff single featured many of their hallmark elements for decades to come: bright and melodic music, dark and off-kilter lyrics, stop-start rhythms, and of course, chintzy drum machine. This also goes for the music video, which features the band’s, shall we say, avant-garde choreography, playing with the frame rate, and enlargements of the head of William Allen White. “Don’t Let’s Start” becomes the blueprint for TMBG’s next ten years, if not the next thirty. But it speaks highly of the Johns that even 32 years later, this song is still fun and still catchy as hell, and that is beautiful. – Jeremy
6. “Doctor Worm”
Severe Tire Damage, 1998
Let me take you on a journey with “Doctor Worm,” which by any account of how record-making works is not the type of song that should just barely miss the top five of a long-running band’s catalog. It is the studio-made single on the otherwise-live They Might Be Giants album Severe Tire Damage, which seems potentially ignoble at every step of the way, especially if you’re not a committed TMBG fan. So this was the token new song? On a live album? Culled from several years’ worth of shows, rather than a particularly wildly successful world tour? From a band that is not really known as a better-live commodity the way that Phish is? I’m not sure how that rates against, say, the token new single on a greatest-hits album, but it can’t be that favorable.
Yet “Doctor Worm” is far more “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” than, say, “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” (shout-out to that sliver of overlapping TMBG and Billy Joel fandom that is composed primarily of my family or people who are like family to me). In part, this has to do with the fact that TMBG is, if not better live, certainly a band where seeing them live can make certain elements of their sound, their talent, and their appeal fall into sharper relief. This is how, as teenager, I came to follow They Might Be Giants around the college towns of the northeast part-time. If they played within three hours of Saratoga Springs, New York, my friends and I would go. This was from fall ’96 until we went off to college in fall ’98, overlapping with the time the band was starting to try out “Doctor Worms” in their live set. And I did not care for it. As a TMBG live-show connoisseur, there are just certain songs you come to, if not outright resent or dread, certainly regard with a little bit of trepidation. It’s not the same for everyone. I’m sure there are hardcore fans who never need to hear “Birdhouse” again, whereas I kinda need to hear it every show, if possible. But I do not need to hear “Particle Man” again, and in a weird way “Doctor Worm” played a little like a cousin to that setlist staple: an accordion-based number, whimsical, not exactly a party-starter. I loved (and love) the rock-band aspect of TMBG that you don’t always hear on the record but certainly hear at their live show, and I did not have time for this “Doctor Worm” business. I wanted “Till My Head Falls Off” or the fast version of “They Got Lost” or something I hadn’t yet heard from the Pink Album or John Henry.
But as sometimes happens, because Linnell and Flansburgh are such gifted songwriters and seemingly hard workers to boot, “Doctor Worm” started getting better. Punchier. More infectious. Or maybe, I’ll grant you, I changed. Maybe I matured somewhere between fall of 1997 and summer of 1998, when Severe Tire Damage came out, and became more open to songs that did not rock my socks off. Or, and hear me out: Maybe they put out a really goddamn great studio version of the song with a complete horn section, and augmented it with a delightful music video – really the last proper music video of the initial TMBG video era, in that it features members of the band in the flesh, black-and-white photography, and bizarre dancing. Either way, the song lodged itself in my brain, and now it’s one of those songs I’m happy to hear at every damn show. – Jesse
5. “New York City”
Factory Showroom, 1996
I listed this as my favorite TMBG song, but with reservation. I remember feeling a pang of disappointment when I found out it was actually a cover (by the Canadian group Cub), and felt a little better when Cub was cool enough with it to open for TMBG. This was when They played at the now-shuttered Roseland, touring for Factory Showroom. Andy Richter was also there for some reason, but I digress. It was the first concert I had ever been to and in New York City, no less! This song has since taken on a magical quality for me, I’ve moved around the world and still New York has a pull that I can’t resist. When I see the New York skyline, it feels like home. When I hear this song, I feel that pull. – Rayme
4. “She’s an Angel”
They Might Be Giants 1986
Carrie Brownstein has noted that much of the greatest art has a “deal-breaker” element, a signature feature that makes it unique – and possibly alienating. For her band, Sleater-Kinney, that element is Corin Tucker’s five-alarm yowl. It’s hard to boil They Might Be Giants’ down to just one, but certainly in the running would be the Johns’ headlong metabolism. They Might Be Giants, the LP, is like a woodchipper stuffed with ideas and then blasted into your earhole for 19 short songs, many of them too fast for a listener to catch on first listen. This hasn’t let up as even they’ve matured; I Like Fun’s ace opener “Let’s Get This Over With” seems to begin in media res, reeling through five hooks in the first forty seconds.
“She’s an Angel” is the early-Giants slowdance treasure that proved the band’s not just for spazzes, even as the lyric captures a spaz’s terror in the face of a surprise romance. Here the Giants pace themselves, teasing out one idea at a time and exhibiting a sophisticated pop sense of how to build and release tension. “Everyone was acting normal so I tried to look nonchalant,” Linnell sings over a plodding synth bass that sounds more like today’s Brooklyn bands than 1986’s. That line about trying to fit in is universal, and that lurching bass, hitting on the first three notes of the measure but falling into silence on the fourth, expresses uncertainty as clearly as the words do. The song, like the singer, seems like it’s about to step into the abyss.
But rather than plunge “She’s an Angel” soars. From nowhere, at the verse’s end, woozy slide guitar and a suddenly buoyant bass catch us, lift us toward the chorus, one of those Linnell doozies where every note seems to have been set in motion by the logic of the preceding, the whole of it seemingly unspooled from the subconscious rather than merely written. “These things happen to other people,” the song’s narrator sings, still not quite believing that that the woman who seems to have fallen for him might truly love him – the only plausible explanation must be some divine honeytrap.
I’ve always wondered if that line’s awed disbelief might also be about Linnell’s awareness that he has written a melody as pleasing and perfect as “She’s an Angel”’s. Songs like this don’t happen at all, in fact – certainly not from downtown No-wave drum-machine performance-art duos. In interviews over the years both Johns have admitted to ambivalence about writing love songs, to discomfort at the kind of personal disclosure that elevates a love song above cliché. All these years later, “She’s an Angel” still sounds to me like an exhortation to stop overthinking and let yourself feel.
More deliciousness: The daft comedy of the verses, which sketch a romcom montage over that paranoid plod; the feathery accordion chords on the chorus; the relaxed confidence of Linnell’s deviations from the melody the second time through, especially on the lines “Why, why did they send her?” and “They don’t happen at all-all-all,” the strongest evidence on the first LP the Johns weren’t just idea men – they have soul. – Alan
3. “The End of the Tour”
John Henry, 1994
In AJ Schnack’s 2002 TMBG documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), actor Michael McKean does a dramatic reading of “The End of the Tour,” his serenely sonorous voice bringing forward the two Johns’ inimitable gift for binding playful, obscure lyrics with mysterious, even devastating, undercurrents. A car crash? A long-ago love affair? The end of one of the actual band’s tours? These interpretations and others, as usual, are all there, wound around an achingly wistful melody, Linnell’s voice in the returning chorus imbuing a song about the end of something with a haunting sense of the loss of everything. – Dennis
Note: This song also placed on our list of the best songs of the ’90s, a deeper cut than fellow ’90s listee “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Speaking of which…
2. “Birdhouse In Your Soul”
An ode to a nightlight sounds, on the face of it, insufferably twee. Yet in the hands of Linnell & Flansburgh, it’s one of the most perfect singles of all time, as evidenced by the song hitting #3 on US Alt. and #6 on the UK charts – their highest ever. That darn bluebird of friendliness has won over thousands of new fans in the nearly three decades since its release, so many that Flood is the band’s only RIAA-certified Platinum album (that’s over a million copies sold, folks).
So what makes “Birdhouse” so great? It is a classic TMBG song, possessing both an undeniably hummable melody and distorted sampled trumpet solo for strangeness’ sake, but its lyrics are just slightly brighter than average for the Johns. “Make a little birdhouse in your soul” the song exorts, so that your guardian angel always has a place to return. But, Linnell reminds you, “while you’re at it / keep the nightlight on inside the birdhouse in your soul,” so that even your protector might have the same peace of mind that it grants to you. And perhaps that nightlight finds its own birdhouse of the soul, as blue canaries recurse forever into infinite birdhouses into infinite souls. A beautiful, and comforting, image, and the ideal subject for one of They Might Be Giants’ greatest works. – Jeremy
1. “Ana Ng”
As a bookkeeper of sorts on SportsAlcohol.com lists, it’s very much in my mind that while “Birdhouse in Your Soul” was ranked as high as third on our list of the best songs of the entire goddamn 1990s, it was outstripped on this list by “Ana Ng”—and not even especially narrowly, I might add. Now, this could just mean that our website also considers “Ana Ng” on its own better than all but two songs from the entire 1990s; it could also mean that we had a different voting body on this project than on the ’90s project, or that “Birdhouse” is better-identified as a ’90s song than a TMBG song. It’s probably some combination of those, plus a pinch of residual anti-Flood snobbiness (recall that you have reached the #1 spot and not seen “Particle Man” on this list. It was totally #41, guys, and I didn’t cook the books on that or anything). But I think I’m also qualified to talk about this shift by returning to a favorite anecdote that I think I might have mentioned before on this very site.
During my senior year in AP English, once the AP test was over with, we went on to, by far, my most anticipated English assignment of the year: Everyone would choose a pop song, print out the lyrics like it was a poem, play it for the class, write some discussion questions, and lead a little discussion sesh on, say, the Rollins Band’s “Liar” (not a lot of subtext there, Nik), the Stone Roses’ “Breaking Into Heaven” (Second Coming forever, Chris!), or Bush’s “Glycerine” (seriously, Beth, your analysis improved that song for me significantly). My internal debate was not so much over what song to do, but over what They Might Be Giants song to do. It was 1998 (to be honest, probably 1997 when I started thinking about the assignment) and they were my favorite band in the world. I thought that it pretty much had to be “Ana Ng.” It was my favorite song by my favorite band and also my most recent choice for my just plain favorite song of all time. It went OK. I don’t think anyone went out and bought a TMBG record because of my little presentation, unlike when Marisa and I played “Museum of Idiots” at our wedding. But then, you could buy songs individually on your phones by 2010. This was 1998.
Later, being a teenager and later even an adult, I second-guessed myself. Maybe the melancholic imagery of “The End of the Tour” would have been better-suited to analysis. And beyond this assignment, maybe “Birdhouse in Your Soul” was really my favorite TMBG song slash song of all time. It’s certainly the more consistent live-show rush. It’s a song that I can share with more people (see that ’90s list).
But when it came time to rank my favorite TMBG songs for this list—not, I admit, the first or even the second or third time I’d attempted such a thing—something nagged at me, telling me to put “Ana Ng” back on top. It’s a pretty meaningless distinction, really, whether “Ana” or “Birdhouse” gets 30 points or 29 points, but somehow it felt important. It could be that the super-fast stutter of a guitar sound on this song, the part that’s sort of like a guitar vibrated by a highway rumble strip, has been replicated in plenty of other TMBG tunes (“Bangs” or my beloved “Canajoharie,” among others), and this feels like kind of an ur-text musically speaking. It could be that the song takes familiar feelings of unrequited love to both a global scale and a weirdly logical conclusion, where the narrator longs for a person he feels like he’s just missed but has never actually met. Or it could be that the video is everything I love about TMBG videos, with its oddball imagery (never just illustrating song lyrics), sight gags, and bizarre dance that I fully learned how to do, and did, at concerts, like a total fucking dork. It’s probably some combination of those.
Whatever it was, as lists started coming in, I noticed it: Other people felt this way, too. “Ana Ng” wasn’t everyone’s #1 song, but there it was, towards the top of so many lists, over and over and over, like a whirlpool and it never ends (a line I didn’t realize until just this moment riffs on a lyric from the late 1960s song “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe!). Obviously, people have their reasons. Here’s what I keep coming back to: The song is both vast and lonely, and there is room for all of us in it. When I saw “Ana Ng” on so many lists, I felt like I was doing something right—like I wasn’t the crazy one. That’s basically the experience of finding other They Might Be Giants fans, in convenient song form. It’s 2018, that English assignment nearly 20 years gone, and they’re still my favorite band in the world. – Jesse
And here’s a playlist of the whole damn thing:
- The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast Oscar Special 2023!!! - March 10, 2023
- The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Best Movies of 2022 - February 17, 2023
- ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA is all small favors - February 14, 2023