These aren’t runners-up in our list of the Top 40 Best They Might Be Giants songs. Far from it; these are all found much further down the full ranking of 160 or so tunes, because they all received exactly one (1) vote from one (1) participant. In some ways, especially with a band as original and idiosyncratic as TMBG, these outliers will tell you more about the artist than the stuff that nearly made the official list. These were the choices that inspired passionate devotion that, in turn, was not enough. Some of them are from the band’s best-selling record; others are newer songs that may not have had time to gain popular traction; one was chosen by a two-year-old who didn’t get to vote yet. What they have in common is that peculiar, wonderful connection between prolific band and attentive listener. Consider this an alternate top ten (er, eleven).
I can offer no sensical interpretation of this song’s lyrics; the very first line has admittedly always seemed impenetrable to me. (Even if you start with the simple reading, where the narrator is literally returning groceries he bought… why would it be a problem or accident that they were taken off the shelf BEFORE the expiration date?? The joke works in the second line but the very premise is flawed… isn’t it? Almost 30 years of analyzing this problem gets one nowhere.)
This song made my list because that mystery never gets old, because it’s a really fun song to scream-sing out loud with a friend providing the backup vocals, because my 14-year-old self was incredibly tickled by the joke of “I will never say the word ‘procrastinate’ again,” and because in researching this list I discovered that there’s a song on “No!” called “I Am a Grocery Bag” – and thus the mystery lives on. – Michelle
“Whistling In The Dark”
Is this my favorite TMBG song? No. But I ranked it an improbably high eleventh on my personal list (admittedly too high). For the offbeats that tend to get into TMBG though, the line “And that’s be you / Be what you’re like / Be like yourself” can be a very validating statement. And if that’s not catharsis enough for you, just keep chanting “Whistling, whistling, dark, dark!” until satisfied. – Jeremy
“I Can Hear You”
Factory Showroom, 1996
I’m pretty excited I get to write about this song. As soon as I heard the intro back in 1996, I had to know more. This song was recorded on an Edison wax cylinder recorder. Sound pressure going through a pair of large metal cones causes a needle to carve a groove in a rotating tube of softened wax, and the recorded sound plays back similarly to vinyl.
Fun facts: This recording is the ONLY wax cylinder recording to be released on a studio album. The recorder doesn’t pick up strings as we know them very well, so the band used instruments with metal resonators, like a Stroh violin and a resonator guitar. The band made a second wax cylinder recording of the song live on the Daily Show Millennium Special in 1999.
Each verse of the song itself is about unreliable, aged or failed communications formats. A song about old, expired technology recorded with and given such incredible character by old, expired technology. Peak They Might Be Giants. – Randy
“It’s Kickin’ In”
The Spine, 2004
I think by the same token that some of the more fundamentalist, humorless, dudely rock critics tend to dismiss They Might Be Giants on grounds of them flouting plenty of beloved rock clichés, some of the more fundamentalist TMBG fans tend not to care that much about when the band really rocks out. Or maybe I’m just unnaturally attached to this garage-rocky rave-up from one of the band’s most underrated records. But I love that Flansburgh can still bust out a straight-ahead rocker with such energy, and still apply the conciseness that characterizes the band’s more experimental forays. It’s especially welcome in their later-period work, so this outlier entry is for you too, “Judy Is Your Viet Nam” and “Authenticity Trip.” – Jesse
“Seven Days of the Week (I Never Go to Work)”
Here Come the 123s, 2008
Ed note: Jesse and Marisa’s 2-year-old daughter has listened to a lot of TMBG, or, as she calls them, “Abby Giants.” We didn’t let her vote on her Top 30 songs, but we did let her comment on the song she loves most that wasn’t pushed on her by her parents or Mickey Mouse. She really discovered “Seven Days of the Week” on her own. Here is her analysis.
“I like this song.”
Ed: What do you like about it?
“The not going to work part.” – E.H.
Join Us, 2011
Most operative line: “I think the rock ‘n’ roll girls in this world want apologies.” You’re fucking right we do. At this moment in time, every girl does. I’m glad someone finally noticed. You can start by apologizing to me for not including this song on your lists.
Okay, maybe I just have a soft spot for songs about shows. (When The Hold Steady sings about the lambs looking up at the stage, I’m always like, “That’s me! I’m looking up at the stage!”) I love the imagery of being up on a band shell, looking out over an “unlikely crowd assembled here,” and just, well, celebrating.
And that celebration is a specific one. The mood of this isn’t like any other TMBG song. It’s not an all-out party-rocker. It has a more reflective feel, one that makes you just “a little bit better.” When I first met this “Celebration,” that’s really all I needed to make me happy. – Marisa
“9 Secret Steps”
Like Factory Showroom’s “The Bells Are Ringing,” this song’s driving, repetitive exhortation to “let go/Of all your thwarted dreams/And visions of success” proposes a freedom based on self-negation. A paean to surrendering into the flow of inevitable capitulation and shutting off those parts of yourself that make you resist from the seductive release of finally giving up, the song, here in the form of a seeming pitch for a self-help philosophy, transcends its ironic boosterism almost too well. Linnell’s plaintive vocal—alongside a gathering, mournfully lovely background chorus—carries a skillfully obscured abyss of pain in the chipper salesmanship and promises a peace whose only price is to “amputate a thought.” – Dennis
“Sleep” may only be 43 seconds long, but it’s lovely — like “Hello Mrs. Wheelyke” packed into a smaller, slightly more melancholy-sounding musical box. Like almost all of They Might Be Giants’ songs, it’s deceptively sweet for how strange it ultimately is. It’s not just the baroque little trills that get the job done; it’s the lyrics, which suggest a cycle of replacement that form a parallel curve to the anxieties and assurances that form everyday life. – Karen
“All the Lazy Boyfriends”
The Johns have resisted the temptation to revisit on record their ’80s sound, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hark back, at times, to their first decade. But in typically atypical They Might Be Giants fashion, when they throwback they mine pop sounds that back then weren’t theirs. Since 2001’s “Man It’s So Loud in Here” they’ve been sneaking synth-disco jewels onto their albums, especially with the band lineup they’ve employed since The Else.
This fleet, slick Flans banger is the inverse of “Rhythm Section Want Ad”: You think their old drum machine could beat this band performance? The thump of Marty Beller’s electro kickdrum propels the track, which is candied up with pizzicato violin and layered over with Linnell synths that split the difference between Paisley Park and ballpark organist.
Flansburgh’s lyrics take aim at a persistent interest of the band’s: dudes who simply ain’t going to break out of the cycles they’re trapped in. Linnell writes these songs from inside these dude’s heads, while Flansburgh tends toward observing them from the outside and even sounding the alarm about them (see The Else’s garage-rock advice column “Take Out the Trash”). Here, Flansburgh sounds more amused than disgusted as he suggests that, contrary to Apatow movies, lazy boyfriends won’t actually get around to making the changes that they’ve promised. That day-planner’s still in the wrapper, and the dude who bought it’s still in his shed, basement, or attic. That said, I wonder every time I spin this one — which is unhealthily often — just what the singer’s attitude is on that delicious bridge, which echoes LCD Soundsytem in both words and surging rock feeling: “Did you say out loud/ that you think you’ve lost your edge?/ Man, you’ve never lost your edge!” My guess: He’s too nice to sneer at the absurdity of worrying about edge loss, and then can’t help but be politely reassuring about a concern he knows is silly.
Whatever the answer is, the song escapes subtweet pissiness both via its irresistible groove, its wryly detached tone, and by its very existence. It’s one of hundreds examples from the band’s catalog of all the great things dudes can accomplish can when they get to work. (Recommendations for further TMBG synth-groove research: Phone Power’s “I’ll Be Haunting You” and I Like Fun’s “Push Back the Hands of Time.”) – Alan
“Let Me Tell You About My Operation”
This song sounds so upbeat! But it also has an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sort of sadness to it. I almost always listen to it on a playlist where it follows “Dr. Worm,” so the two are linked in my mind. I held a little bit of a grudge against TMBG for awhile because they insulted offshore medical grads who went to school in Grenada. Hey, I went to medical school in Grenada! This occurred at a free summer concert in Prospect Park, Brooklyn just before they played “Dr. Worm.” I got over it eventually. I guess this song removed my memory… or at least the grudge. Très bon! – Rayme
“I Left My Body”
I Like Fun, 2018
The very first time I listened to “I Left My Body,” it hit me so profoundly that I literally lay down on the floor in order to process it. It opens with a pure wall of sound and doesn’t relent for over 30 seconds. As suggested by the song’s title, it’s almost an aural exorcism, that pure push of chords and vocals nudging the listener towards leaving their own body behind. Despite how strong it is, there’s still an undercurrent of longing through it all, epitomized by the lyrics, “My plastic hip is going to be worth something.” It’s such an earthly statement that it hits like a punch to the gut: Though the body may decay, and though the spirit may fly the coop, that hip will remain. – Karen