Having recently completed reviews of They Might Be Giants’ three albums to come out of the new Dial-a-Song project, I felt it was time to give them the Through the Years treatment. I’m going to experiment with a new format for this one, though. Rather than going through their albums chronologically, like I’ve done for other artists, I’m going to break them into three groups based on my opinion of the quality of each album: the stars, the solids, and the space-fillers. I found a few patterns in the way I classified each album, and I think it will be interesting to examine that. Note: I’m excluding their Here Comes… children’s albums, as I’ve never listened to them.
The stars: Flood (1990), Apollo 18 (1992), John Henry (1994), Factory Showroom (1996), Mink Car (2001), The Else (2007), Glean (2015)
From this list, it’s pretty easy to see where They Might Be Giants’ peak period was. I feel like Flood is the first album where they truly found their voice, and settled into their quirky and catchy formula that allowed them to build a large fanbase. Many of their best-known songs are on that album: “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “Particle Man.” The former track reached #3 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and remains their highest-charting song in the US. It also displays all the best qualities of their style, as it is written from the point of view of a child’s night light. Many don’t realize that “Istanbul” is actually a cover of a 1950s swing-style song originally recorded by the Canadian vocal group The Four Lads. At the last TMBG show I attended, they performed “Your Racist Friend” when someone mentioned Donald Trump 🙂
Apollo 18 contributed one of my all-time favorite songs of TMBG’s, “I Palindrome I,” as well as “The Statue Got Me High,” and a delightfully funny parody of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens. The album also ends with “Fingertips” a series of “songs” lasting anywhere from 4 to 27 seconds. They’ve tried this on other albums, but this is probably the most famous example. I’m not a huge fan of the format, but it’s at least something different. John Henry is the first album recorded with a full band setup at the urging of their record label, rather than synthesized or programmed backing tracks. The album title is a reference to the man-versus-machine tale featuring the namesake character. “I Should Be Allowed To Think” is the closest TMBG has ever come to a protest song, referencing Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Howl.” Factory Showroom is probably a notch below the others in terms of overall quality, but makes the list on the strength of “The Bells Are Ringing” and “New York City,” which is another obscure cover.
Since their 1990-1996 peak, the star albums have been fewer and further between, as they’ve experimented a little more and a little avant-garde quality has slipped into some of their work. The three albums that I enjoy the most since then are most reminiscent of their classic formula, a little offbeat while still being accessible to most listeners and fans. Though there are some new sounds in these albums too. “Man, It’s So Loud In Here” (from Mink Car) is one of their most danceable songs, and the bass line on “Take Out the Trash” (from The Else) is downright infectious as well. Glean also features echoes of the previous sound on “Erase” and “Answer,” but successfully breaks from the mold with “Let Me Tell You About My Operation.”
The solids: They Might Be Giants (1986), Lincoln (1988), No! (2002), Join Us (2011), Why? (2015)
Here, we have their first two albums, where the band was rounding into form but hadn’t yet hit their stride. They Might Be Giants is one of their more diverse albums, incorporating pop, rock, country, polka, and other styles. But on later albums, they’d find a better way of incorporating all those styles without the resultant sound being disjointed, as it sometimes is on their debut. “Don’t Let’s Start” was their first song that really got them noticed. “(She Was A) Hotel Detective” is one of the first examples of the Johns’ ability to bend and shape the timbre of their voices. Lincoln features them getting closer to their peak, with “Ana Ng” making chart noise, and “Cowtown” showing the first echoes of the quirky style that they would make famous later. “They’ll Need a Crane” was also one of the first examples of their “peppy music and crushingly sad lyrics” combinations that they are known for.
TMBG’s two children’s albums, No! and Why?, fall into this category. No! was somewhat limited by the decision to record in the children’s genre, as it restricts them from using some of the more fun quirks in their musical toolbox. But songs like “Four of Two” and the title track are still fun to listen to. Why? is a fun and cohesive album, but the same limitations that hindered No! keep it from achieving greatness.
Finally, another newer album, Join Us, makes this list. It has probably the biggest peaks and valleys on a single album in TMBG’s career, with great songs like “Celebration, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” and “When Will You Die.” Those are accompanied by songs like “The Lady and the Tiger,” and “2082,” which rather than being weird and fun, are just head-scratchers.
The space-fillers: Long Tall Weekend (1999), The Spine (2004), Nanobots (2013), Phone Power (2016)
Let me be clear: I don’t think They Might Be Giants has ever made a bad album. But these four stood out as falling short of the rest. Long Tall Weekend was notable in that it was one of the first albums released entirely online, making TMBG one of the pioneers of digital music sales. It’s solid all around but has few truly killer singles. The Spine is sort of a more extreme version of this. All the tracks are decent, but “Experimental Film” is the only one that truly stands out. In a similar vein, Phone Power is the least impressive of the three Dial-a-Song albums.
And then we get to my least favorite They Might Be Giants album, Nanobots. All of TMBG’s weaknesses seem magnified on this album: avant-garde weirdness, a less impressive suite of Fingertips-style microsongs, and no songs after the first track, “You’re On Fire” that hold my interest. Thankfully, they fixed many of these problems on subsequent releases, such as Glean, but they’ll need to so again after Phone Power.
So when we break down their albums into groups as I have, we can see four distinct eras: finding their voice in the 80s, a run of great albums from 1990-1996, a more spotty period from 1999-2002, and a sort of “peak and valley” period from 2004-2016 where their albums are just as likely to be great as to be space-fillers. The band is reportedly taking a bit of a break after their latest tour, so maybe I’ll dive in and find new layers in these albums in between, and my opinion of them will change. But there’s no denying that TMBG has had a prolific and successful career up to now.