On paper, it’s not a formula that sounds all that promising. Their voices are on the nasal side, their subject matter is bizarre, and the instruments they use are often a bit left of mainstream — accordions figure heavily, as do synths and totally unexpected noisemakers like stylophones. No matter, though: it all merges beautifully for them and their audience, and they diligently make radio friendly music that honestly sounds like nothing else in existence. It’s nearly impossible to mistake their sound for that of another band.
In recent years, besides writing songs and releasing albums, They Might Be Giants has moved to writing music for TV shows (most notably the theme song from “Malcolm in the Middle”) and has also carved out a big spot for themselves in the world of children’s music. (Their music has always been kid friendly, but their children’s albums are kids music that’s adult friendly.) Side work aside, the band has released over a dozen albums since 1986, making it hard to rank their top ten songs; this is especially the case when their 1990 effort Flood sounds like a best-of in and of itself.
Still, here are our top ten They Might Be Giants songs — or top ten plus an asterisk, rather, since one song is a cover. Why is a cover song on here? Because it’s done so well and is so well known, because many people don’t realize it’s not a They Might Be Giants original, and because fans and non-fans alike never take this list seriously with that song omitted. Read on — this top ten technically goes to eleven.
# 10 -When Will You Die?
John Linnell’s nasally baritone drives this upbeat pop song about a person who’s just insufferable. The band really has nothing good to say about this person, but who’s it about? They aren’t saying, and that’s probably best. The lyrics are mean, to be sure, but they’re sung in such a happy manner that it takes a few listens to get the gist of what they’re saying. Off 2011’s Join Us, “When Will You Die?” has the standard guitar-drums-bass configuration, with lots of horns punctuating throughout and breaks in the verses that are reminiscent of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” It’s great because you can play this track over and over and envision your own awful target in your head. It’s partially fun because it’s so mean, but we’ll say it’s fun because of the kicky beat.
# 9 – Purple Toupee
This song, presumably about staying hip, dates way back to 1988 and They Might Be Giants’ album Lincoln (named for the Johns’ hometown of Lincoln, MA, not the country’s 16th president), and it sounds as fresh as anything released today. The tune is held together with an irresistible strumming pattern, lots of emphasized downbeats, and the band’s knack for pulling hooks out of what seems like thin air. It’s also got the advantage of having a statistically improbable phrase as a title; it’s fun to say and probably won’t ever get confused with another song.
# 8 – Your Racist Friend
A favorite track off Flood, the lyrics “Your Racist Friend” feels more and more relevant every year. The title more or less explains what the song is about — listening to “some bullethead and the madness that he’s saying” — but the melody is so much more upbeat than the subject matter it carries. Both Johns sing the hook for a fuller sound, and musically, there’s just so much going on: steady drums, bright accordion, a blistering guitar solo, and tons of percussion toys for flavor. While it was never released as a single, “Your Racist Friend” struck such a chord (no pun intended) that it was even performed on “Late Night With David Letterman” to promote Flood — and yes, you can find it on YouTube.
# 7 – Meet James Ensor
Leave it to They Might Be Giants to turn a pop song into an art history lesson. In just a minute and a half, we get a down and dirty, almost Ramones-like rundown of the life of “Belgium’s famous painter,” sung to us with trademark They Might Be Giants’ harmonies with a hook that’s strong enough to hang an oil painting. From their 1994 album John Henry, the track features frenetic percussion and lots of vocals. More than that, though, it’s surprisingly educational, and perhaps helped pave the way for the fabulous children’s music that they would start making not even a decade later.
# 6 – I Palindrome I
It’s hard to say what’s the best part of “I Palindrome I” — the John and John echoes in the chorus, the irresistible hook, or the clever lyrics that incorporate palindromes and double back on themselves. A fan favorite single off 1992’s Apollo 18, this song never made much of an impact beyond a few spins on alternative radio (which was admittedly huge at the time), but fans love it for its trademark They Might Be Giants sound.
# 5 – Nanobots
You’d think that by 2013, They Might Be Giants would be ready for a new direction in their sound, but you’d be wrong. “Nanobots,” off the album of the same name, is just another point on the continuum of the band’s barely evolving sound. Some may think that’s a problem, arguing that bands should be measured on their ability to improve their sound, but that’s not what’s happening here. They Might Be Giants started with an original sound — why tamper with a good thing? “Nanobots” uses what’s always worked: great guitar riffs, the Johns playing off each other vocally, quirky subject matter, and of course, a melody that’s sharp enough to cut glass. Like most of their other work, “Nanobots” didn’t chart, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, and it won’t keep it from the five spot on our list.
# 4 – Particle Man
You can spend all day and all night trying to deconstruct “Particle Man” (off of 1990’s Flood), drawing parallels and finding allegories between the fictional superhero farces mentioned in the song’s two minutes and real life people, but ultimately, it’s just a great, silly song. Perhaps an early inkling that They Might Be Giants was destined for children’s music greatness, “Particle Man” is fun to sing along with because it is so simple — or is it? The philosophical implications of the song are staggering (“When he’s underwater, does he get wet, or does the water get him instead?”), and like a lot of other They Might Be Giants songs, the happy music, full of claps and drums and accordion, lighten the overall mood. Try listening to this one without smiling. It’s impossible.
# 3 – Ana Ng
Interpretations on this one vary, but one thing is clear: the lyrical content of “Ana Ng” is a bit more mature and sophisticated than that of a lot of other They Might Be Giants songs. It seems to talk about the sadness of not having found your true love and wondering if you’ll ever meet her (or him, though Ana Ng is most probably a female name). As for the music, it’s classic They Might Be Giants, which is a funny thing to say considering the song was released way back in 1988, but still: the hysterical guitar riffs and John Linnell’s unmistakable voice are unmistakable. If “Don’t Let’s Start” was an early indication that They Might Be Giants would be a significant band in the years to come, “Ana Ng” solidified that sentiment soon after.
# 2 – Don’t Let’s Start
It’s truly amazing that They Might Be Giants’ “Don’t Let’s Start,” from their 1986 debut album, never made much of a splash when it was released. There’s just so much to like about it! It’s relentless in its catchiness, for starters, full of fresh hooks, up front guitars, and lyrics that only let up briefly for a hectic guitar solo. As for content, it’s about a fracturing relationship that’s trying to hold on — unusual for They Might Be Giants, but they definitely put their own spin on it. (It mentions Deputy Dog in the verse breakdown, so there’s that.) Despite its mid-’80s vintage, the song sounds like it would fit on any contemporary rock radio, and thankfully it’s gained some popularity as a semi-deep cut during retro hours on some stations.
# 1 – Birdhouse in Your Soul
Few songs fit together so many different musical puzzle pieces as well as “Birdhouse in Your Soul” does. There’s the intro patter, the chorus, with its awesome “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch” line, and its verses that don’t make a lot of sense but sound great together. Throw in several jaw dropping hooks, especially the one under Linnell’s crooning of “who watches over you,” and you have a bona fide hit. The song charted well on the Modern Rock chart in 1989, but its popularity has only grown over the years, and it never really seems to get old. These days, aging hipsters and millennials alike know all the words and will joyfully sing along when they hear it. Can any other song unite people across generations like “Birdhouse in Your Soul”? Probably, but I can’t think of any right now.
*Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
It’s perhaps the band’s best known song, but you probably didn’t know that it’s not a They Might Be Giants’ original. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was written way back in 1953 and originally recorded that year by The Four Lads. Their rendition was good, but in 1990, They Might Be Giants really made the song their own. Plus, it just sounds like a They Might Be Giants song, what with its lyrics that are repeated to the point of ridiculousness and its odd but still educational message. The accordions are front and center, the beat is hard and fast, and the Johns’ vocals work together seamlessly. And while the song is included on lots of 1990s compilations as a one hit wonder sort of thing, real fans know better; They Might Be Giants took a standard and made it a classic. You can see why we had to include this one our list.