TMBG Albums, Worst to First
Time for another pointless list, this time the best They Might Be Giants albums of all time. Couple of rules here: I’m only listing the ones I own. I haven’t bought much of their new stuff (such as “Why” and “Phone Power”, nor do I own the kids album “Here Come the 123s”) and I don’t have many of the collections. I’m lumping all the EPs into one entry because 20 is a nice round number. Also, I want to say this review seems to slag on Flansburgh a lot, and what I want everyone to take away instead is that I *REALLY* like John Linnell’s songwriting. Anyway, here we go!
- Here Come the ABCs (2005) – I’m not going to pretend to be the biggest fan of TMBG’s kids albums, but a few of them have some merit. This is one I feel best encapsulates why I tend to not like “new” TMBG stuff. Basically everything after Factory Showroom seems to be them experimenting with voices and silly sounds. Many of the songs on this album are downright annoying, and this is coming from a parent who listens to tons of crap my kids like.
Songs to Listen to: Alphabet of Nations; Go for G!
- Venue Songs (2004) – A “collection” album of songs they wrote (probably the day of a concert) for various venues they played at. While their dial-a-song service was great, I felt it was better for satiating die-hard fans rather than calling what they produce in a week a ‘finished product’. Add to that I’m not generally a fan of live albums, and you see why this falls where it does.
Songs to Listen to: The Stony Pony (Asbury Park); Anaheim House of Blues (Anaheim); First Avenue Stage (Minneapolis)
- Glean (2015) – So this is the real reason I’m writing this list. My love for TMBG has sorta waned in recent years. I felt the band was concentrating too hard on silly sounding instrumentation and I’ve come to almost dislike Flansburgh’s songwriting. 2013’s Nanobots changed my opinion and made me look forward to a new album. What I got instead is this one. Sure it isn’t ingrained in my brain like older albums are, but still, there isn’t much to this album I’d call memorable. Of note, however, is that this is the first album of their in many where I *do* actually like some of Flansy’s songs. That might say more to how unimpressed I am with it, though.
Songs to Listen to: Unpronounceable (I really like this song); Answer; Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel
- EPs (various) – I’m cheating here by lumping all their EPs into one category. Truth be told, some of the EPs contain really good songs, but in general, it’s no surprise that many of these tracks missed the album’s final cut. I’m specifically addressing the following EPs (as I don’t have all of them): Why Does the Sun Shine?; Back to Skull; They Might Be Giants… in Holidayland; Bed, Bed, Bed; Indestructible Object; The Spine Surfs Alone. (Also, if Holidayland didn’t exist, this ‘album’ might be higher, but man those are some lousy songs.
Songs to Listen to: Mrs. Train (from Skull); Ant (from Object)
- Severe Tire Damage (1998) – Another live album, though the inclusion of Dr. Worm and the Theme from Severe Tire Damage are welcome additions. The live versions of these songs aren’t overwhelmingly different than the studio albums, though I like their slower version of She’s an Angel and a really good version of She’s Actual Size. I also just like “she’s” songs, apparently. This loses MANY points for the inclusion of the “Apes” songs, which are just bad songs recorded poorly.
Songs to Listen to: She’s Actual Size; She’s an Angel; Dr. Worm
- No! (2002) – TMBG had not developed an identity as a kids band at this time, and I think that actually helped this album. Sure it lacks focus, but there are some pretty fun songs on it. What helps is they didn’t try to teach anything with this album, they just tried to entertain. That it does, even if some of the songs fall flat.
Songs to Listen to: Violin; Four of Two; I Am Not Your Broom
- Long Tall Weekend (1998)/ They Got Lost (2002) – These two compilation albums aren’t technically the same, but there is plenty of overlap, so I’m including them both. The first was available ONLY via MP3 download (back before anyone knew what that was) but I was lucky enough to be at a concert where they hucked a CD copy right at me. There are some real gems on here, but I could certainly do without hearing On Earth My Nina ever again.
Songs to Listen to: Certain People I Could Name; Reprehensible; Older; Lullaby to Nightmares
- The Else (2007) – I gotta be honest, this album probably would have done more poorly if it didn’t come with the “B” side album, Cast Your Pod to the Wind. The latter contains two of my favorite TMBG songs of all time. As for the main album, it is, unlike the title track, unimpressive.
Songs to Listen to: Brain Problem Situation; We Live in a Dump; Bird of the Bee of the Moth; The Mesopotamians
- Miscellaneous T (1991) – The fanboy in me probably ranks this “B” side collection better than it should, but man, this was my youth here. Some of the songs truly are among TMBGs greats, though in all fairness some of the others probably shouldn’t have made it onto any purchasable album.
Songs to Listen to: Hey Mr. DJ…; I’ll Sink Manhattan; It’s Not My Birthday; The Famous Polka
- Factory Showroom (1996) – This album marked the first time I was disappointed with a TMBG album. I bought it the day it came out and saw a measly 13 tracks. Worse yet, many of them didn’t hit at first. Sure, I grew to love the album in time and most of the tracks, but it was a really slow burn. I also stopped seeing them live soon after this as their shows became less band-having-fun and more Flans-yelling-a-lot.
Songs to Listen to: Till My Head Falls Off; Exquisite Dead Guy; Spiraling Shape; I Can Hear You
- Here Comes Science (2009) – Every rule has an exception. I said before I don’t love the kids CDs (though I’d still rather hear TMBG kids stuff verses 95% of “other” kids’ music). This album is different. The topic has much to do with it, as I and my family all love science. But the songs here are clever, fun, and educational. These songs have replayability, too, something many of their kids CDs don’t.
Songs to Listen to: Meet the Elements; My Brother the Ape; How Many Planets?; Solid Liquid Gas
- Join Us (2011) – Really, #s 9-7 are all interchangeable, and they’re adult studio albums #8, 9, and 11 (The Else, which was just above this, was #10). These aren’t bad albums, per se, they’re just sort of… there. It was also at this time that the rift between the songs written by Linnell and those written by Flansburgh really became noticeable.
Songs to Listen to: Canajoharie; When Will You Die; Spoiler Alert
- Mink Car (2001) – See #9.
Songs to Listen to: Man, It’s So Loud in Here; Yeh Yeh; Drink
- The Spine (2004) – See # 9, but with this addition: this was, in all actuality, the last time I actively sought out new TMBG releases and started buying them whenever I saw them on sale.
Songs to Listen to: Experimental Film; Museum of Idiots; Stalk of Wheat; I Can’t Hide From My Mind
- They Might Be Giants (the Pink Album) (1986) – Back where it all started. This wasn’t the first TMBG album I owned (like almost everyone else, it was Flood), but this was a totally ambitious first album for any band. No drums, no bass, all programming, and songs that defied all types of musical convention. There was an accordion throughout. The lyrics were usually very dark but sung incredibly happily. It’s a pretty special album.
Songs to Listen to: Everything Right is Wrong Again; Don’t Let’s Start; Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes; (She Was a) Hotel Detective; She’s An Angel; Chess Piece Face
- Nanobots (2013) – This album made me a fan again. Basically every album they release, fans on Amazon say “It’s nothing like their old stuff!” or “This is the first album since XXX to capture their old magic.” I don’t buy that anymore. They’ve evolved, and I’m okay with that. But really, the later albums are missing two things: quirky, witty lyrics and catchy melodies. This one brought them both back in force. Sure, there are some duds on here, and I still can’t get into most Flansburgh songs, but there is so much to like about this album. Totally caught me by surprise.
Songs to Listen to: You’re on Fire; Call You Mom; Sleep; 9 Secret Steps; Decision Makers; Icky
- Flood (1990) – I have a theory that, for most bands that people actively like, the first album they buy/listen to will always be their favorite. This was my first, and for a long time it was my favorite. (Guilty admission: I didn’t care for it for about a year, then I randomly put it on one day and fell in love with it.) Scott Fourre got me into them by playing “Whistling in the Dark” for me, which was my ultimate hook. And the rest is history. It’s still a fantastic album, and to this day when people refer to the one quintessential album by ANY band, they’ll sometimes refer to it as that band’s “Flood” (“Fashion Nugget” is Cake’s “Flood”).
Songs to Listen to: Birdhouse in Your Soul; Dead; Particle Man; We Want a Rock; Minimum Wage; Letterbox; Whistling in the Dark
- John Henry (1994) – I distinctly remember when this album came out, They Might Be Giants “purists” were aghast. How could they ditch the drum machine? A full band? What the crap of what?!?! I held judgement. Part of me wanted to join the crowd, but I couldn’t because the album was Just. So. Good. My first concerts were around this album so I didn’t really get the true “John and John” experience, though they later replicated it during some shows. But the songs are just so awesome on this album. Really, if you’ve never heard them before, listening to any of the top 6 albums are solid choices, but #s 1-3 in particular.
Songs to Listen to: Subliminal; AKA Driver; No One Knows My Plan; Destination Moon; A Self Called Nowhere; Meet James Ensor; Window; The End of the Tour
- Lincoln (1988) – The top three albums are also interchangeable in my mind; they’re all fantastic albums. Their replayability is off the charts, their lyrics are excellent, their melodies and chords are super catchy. Picking between them is like picking between your children. Lincoln is many TMBG fans’ favorite album, and for good reason: there really isn’t a dud on it. Well, except Santa’s Beard. It also blazed the way with the first few true “hits” the band had before their Flood explosion. It holds up well to this day.
Songs to Listen to: Ana Ng; Cowtown; Lie Still Little Bottle; Purple Toupee; Where Your Eyes Don’t Go; Pencil Rain; The World’s Address; Shoehorn with Teeth
- Apollo 18 (1992) – Most people remember this album because it has Fingertips, the mashup of tiny songs. TMBG even tried something similar on Nanobots, but I don’t know of anything like it before or after in music. That being said, the album is so much more than Fingertips (and it still annoys me that they split up all the tracks on a CD so it can play on random!) Another album with nary a weak track, and essentially no difference in the caliber of writing between of the Johns.
Songs to Listen to: Dig My Grave; I Palindrome I; She’s Actual Size; Spider; The Guitar; Dinner Bell; Which Describes How You’re Feeling; See the Constellation; Turn Around; Fingertips
Interestingly, or not really if you’ve read any of this, of the 90+ songs I listed in the “Songs to Listen to” sections, only about 25 of them were written by Flansburgh. But since I feel like I’ve spent this whole blog bashing him, I want to say that if I were to have a top 10 TMBG songs list, he’d had more than 20% representation. She’s Actual Size is easily in my top 3 (maybe #1?), and also Lie Still Little Bottle, Hotel Detective, We Live in a Dump, and See the Constellation would all be in the running. AND Go for G is easily the best song on the lackluster ABCs album. So sorry John F., since I’m sure you’re going to read this and be piiiiiiiissed.