Greatest Hits: They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants

I recently won a pair of passes to see alt-rock champions They Might Be Giants perform at the Shedd Aquarium, and I thought I’d see if my friend Liz wanted to accompany me. Because she wasn’t super-familiar with the band, she asked me to provide her with a greatest hits mix as a primer. That’s kind of tricky when it comes to TMBG, a band with a lengthy, diverse career and no really satisfying official greatest hits packages: Dial-A-Song is too long and too full of weird choices, and User’s Guide doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Of course, both of those are also over five years old; TMBG’s released several records of noteworthy material since then, including the brand-new Join Us, from which they’ll surely cull at least part of their set at the Shedd.

So that got me thinking about putting my own TMBG “greatest hits” together, which then got me thinking that idea might be a fun feature for a column on Nerdy Nothings. Sure, lots of bands have official greatest hits packages, but many don’t, and I (like Liz) am of the opinion that a mix of tracks pulled from a band’s entire career is almost always the best way to approach them. So, whenever the mood (or a specific request) strikes me or one of my fellow authors, we’ll provide for you the track listing of an album that serves as, in our opinion, the ideal introduction to a given band or artist. Here’s the rules we’ll use:

GENERAL:

People like hearing songs that they know. A nice way to ease someone into an artist is to give them at least some material they’re familiar with. Charting singles, songs from music videos or television shows, and tunes that tend to consistently make it into concert setlists should therefore be given extra weight (though are not necessarily guaranteed a spot).

But often times a lot of the great songs aren’t super popular. If you want to really convey the full experience of listening to a band, you’ll usually have to go off the beaten “greatest hits” path a little. Some of the songs listed here aren’t especially notable beyond being really very good.

Variety is the spice of life. It’s important to concentrate on songs from throughout an act’s career, including diverse material that shows off the range of which that artist is capable (and pretty much any artist worth his or her salt should have an impressive range on display).

Pretend CDs are still relevant. For practical purposes, there’s an 80-minute cap on these mixes.

BAND-SPECIFIC:

Just a couple notes on variety here. TMBG features two main songwriters and singers, John Linnell and John Flansburgh. I thought it was important to represent each as equally as possible, although the most known songs (and my personal favorites) tend to be Linnell productions. In the end, I achieved a 16/9 balance in favor of Linnell, with one track being split roughly equally between them. I feel like that’s an acceptable ratio.

Additionally, TMBG’s songs can run the gamut from emotionally disastrous to straight-up silly. I attempted to include a balance of those tracks here, although again my personal preference leads me to gravitate towards the former. But, for instance, you’ll find your “Climbing the Walls” and “Twisting” mixed in with your “Particle Mans” and your “Mesopotamians.”

Finally, mostly for reasons of ease (but also some kind of tonal consistency — even given what I said above) I’ve opted to omit any of the children’s music recorded by TMBG. That’s not a knock on its quality, but it seems like at an “adult” concert they mostly play their “adult” songs, so it made the most sense to skip the kids stuff here. You can listen to the individual tracks via YouTube links below, or check them out in sequence via our Spotify playlist. Don’t forget to buy the tracks yourself if you end up liking them!

Nerdy Nothings presents They Might Be Giants’ Greatest Hits:

1. Birdhouse in Your Soul – One of TMBG’s most noteworthy tunes actually charted twice, once in 1990 and again in 2010 due to its use in a UK shoe commercial.

2. Don’t Let’s Start – I personally consider this song one of the Platonic ideals of “college rock.” Though it never charted, it did have a great 1986 music video.

3. Prevenge – From 2004′s The Spine, this wasn’t technically a single, although 93XRT (the best radio station in Chicago) did give it airplay, as did my college radio station, WPGU 107.1.

4. Can’t Keep Johnny Down – The lead-off video from Join Us, this is an incredibly catchy yet dark pop song.

5. Ana Ng – In my opinion one of the most emotionally resonant songs ever recorded by John & John, this tune hit #11 on the US Modern Rock charts in 1988.

6. Twisting – If you weren’t really paying attention to the lyrics, you’d never realize this seemingly upbeat dance number is all about suicide. It reached #22 on the US Modern Rock charts in 1990.

7. Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – Yes, it was a single, but come on… Tiny Toons.

8. Experimental Film – I can’t believe this wasn’t technically a single. For my generation, this song was immortalized by none other than Homestar Runner himself.

9. Climbing the Walls – For this mix, I opted to omit The Else‘s lead video song “I’m Impressed” in favor of this dark track, which received some radio play.

10. Man, It’s So Loud in Here – This faux-techno rave up charted in Australia in 2001.

11. Boss of Me – I believe the Johns are a little precious about this song, but its ubiquity can’t be denied thanks to the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.

12. Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head – This bizarre little ditty gave TMBG their first-ever video in 1986.

13. The Statue Got Me High – This song charted in the US in 1992, although honestly it’s the one I have the most problem with putting on here. I kind of just don’t get it.

14. They’ll Need a Crane – This song, on the other hand, ought to be more popular; it’s one of the most interesting artistic takes on divorce I can think of. It had a great video in 1988 and comes off Lincoln, arguably the band’s best record.

15. Why Does the Sun Shine? – This reworked educational tune is a TMBG live show staple and provides a great example of the kind of faux-humor the band does so well.

16. Snail Shell – Coming off John Henry (my second favorite record of theirs), this is the first full-band single TMBG ever released, and their last to chart in the US.

17. New York City – Actually a cover of a song by indie rock band Cub, this uber-sweet tune provides a great example of a John Flansburgh vocal.

18. Spiraling Shape – Surprisingly not a single, this 1996 song got the hell played out of it on Chicago’s Q101 (RIP).

19. She Was a Hotel Detective - Here’s another early (1986) video song for TMBG.

20. The Guitar – This strange reworking of the Tokens classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” provided one of two music videos from 1992′s Apollo 18.

21. She’s an Angel – Neither single nor video spawned from this song, but it’s a concert staple and probably one of the best lyrics in TMBG’s stable. “When you’re following an angel, does it mean you have to throw your body off a building?”

22. Dr. Worm – One of the band’s few songs to consistently make it into sets at both “adults” and “kids” shows, “Dr. Worm” received a music video in promotion of 1998′s live Severe Tire Damage.

23. Particle Man - Again… Tiny Toons.

24. Cyclops Rock – Another great John Flansburgh song (featuring co-vocals from Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews), I also put this song on here because it’s a favorite of my friend Craig, the guy responsible for getting me into TMBG in the first place.

25. The Mesopotamians – The closing track of The Else gave TMBG another video; it’s probably the most classic-sounding Giants track on the record.

26. Fingertips – I had to close with this strange, strange collection of audio snippets supposedly meant to simulate scanning through radio channels. In many concerts, this provides an epic closing number with an extended power ballad-y guitar solo. I think it’s one of the keys to really understanding the weirdness to which TMBG will sometimes go in the name of art.

Did we miss any major tracks you love? Include a song that just sucks? Let us know in the comments!

If you liked what you heard (or read), you can purchase these tracks digitally on AmazonMP3 or iTunes. Support great music! And if you have any suggestions for future Greatest Hits installments, let us know.

tags: greatest hits, they might be giants

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  • http://nerdynothings.com Noah Nickels

    Glad to see they’ll need a crane! I love that song.

  • Anonymous

    That one, and “Destination: Moon” from John Henry, are the only two songs that have a permanent spot on my otherwise-rotating TMBG Top 5. 

  • http://twitter.com/Doubting_Tom Tom

    Great list and great concept, Rikki. I have a hard time thinking of any substitutions…maybe “Destination: Moon” or “I Palindrome I” for “Snail Shell” or “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head.” “Why Does the Sun Shine?” is a great song, but one that’s hard to include because they’ve done so many different versions of it. My preferred version is one that I only have in MP3 form, and I’ve never found its source (though I suspect it’s off “Dial-A-Song”).

    Frankly, though, I don’t know that I could whittle it down to one CD. If I were putting it together, this might have to be a playlist trade, because I don’t know if I could leave off “Feign Amnesia” or “Stalk of Wheat” or “Working Undercover for the Man” or “When Will You Die” or “O Do Not Forsake Me” or “James K. Polk” or “Mr. Me”…well, you get the idea.

  • Anonymous

    With “Destination: Moon,” maybe it sounds weird but I felt that I wanted to leave great songs to still be discovered after someone went thru this list, and I think that’s the definition of a hidden treasure. 

    “Sun Shine,” the version I used on the actual mix is from “Severe Tire Damage,” which I’m pretty sure is the same one that made it on to “Dial-a-Song.” There’s a slower, xylophoney version that comes off an EP entitled “Why Does the Sun Shine,” and I believe there’s also a studio-recorded, updated version of the track on “Here Comes Science” called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine” or something.

    Yeah, if I was doing a list of favorites I probably would have included a few of the ones you mentioned. A note on Mr. Me: I actually prefer the recent live versions, where the band was playing it with a horn section. Super cool. 

  • http://twitter.com/Doubting_Tom Tom

    One quick note: TMBG did record a new version of “Why Does the Sun Shine?” for “Here Comes Science” (though I still prefer the Severe Tire Damage version); “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” is a new and completely different song that rebuts the original. “Sun Shine,” naturally, is a cover of an old science record, and science has progressed beyond it considerably since then. Hence, “Really Shine” explains that the sun isn’t made out of gas, but is a miasma of incandescent plasma.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad that no matter what the true science behind the sun is, it still rhymes. 

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