Oklahoma City’s favorite fearless freaks The Flaming Lips have shown no signs of slowing down as one of North America’s last great psychedelic-rock bands. As they have soldiered on triumphantly into their fourth decade, lead singer Wayne Coyne has remained an ageless Peter Pan figure in alternative music. With their theatrical shows complete with blow-up props, innovative lights and Coyne’s signature inflatable plastic space-bubble, which he famously used to get inside and roll over crowds during performances, The Flaming Lips are in some ways psych-rock’s answer to KISS. Different generations have been able to connect with different phases in the band’s long career, whether from knowing their early work or their reputation as one of the most life-affirming live acts on the planet. But the main difference between them and KISS, outside of the obvious, is that the band continues to release music that feels vital and challenging.
They may be elder statesmen in the realms of indie rock, pop and experimental music, but The Flaming Lips have remained unflappably contemporary as they continue to throw fans for a loop with outlandish detours while releasing critically beloved albums in the process. After starting out as teens trying to get the punk rockers to take acid in the ’80s, the band’s second act reinvention, led by Coyne and multiinstrumentalist Steven Drozd’s musical partnership, has yielded numerous revered classics that have remained enormously influential.
While the group has maintained a prolific streak that has yielded a treasure trove of one-off experiments and collaborations—most notably, a highly sought-after 24-hour song released inside of a human skull—their official releases are worth examining. A week ahead of the band’s April 4 return to North American touring, we’ve ranked all of The Flaming Lips’ studio releases, as well as their most readily available collaborative albums (and their sole release as Imagene Peise), to track the evolution of one of popular music’s most consistently innovative bands.
21. The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon (2009), Playing Hide and Seek with the Ghosts of Dawn (2012), The Time Has Come to Shoot You Down… What a Sound (2013) and With a Little Help from My Fwends (2014)
While the band have been known to pull out some tremendous covers live, The Flaming Lips guest-filled attempts at covering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon, King Crimson’s In The Court of King Crimson, The Stone Roses’ self-titled album, and The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are some of the least essential albums in their catalog. With exploded and rearranged compositions, some tracks on these albums are commendable for their attempts. But in the end, the fact that the band even attempted these projects is more interesting than these records are to listen to. The albums are deserving of a spin from die-hard fans, but even then, there really is no reason for return listens. If you’re like me, however, hearing Henry Rollins do some evil sounding reverb soaked laughter over a demented version of Pink Floyd’s “On The Run” sounds like a great time.
20. Oh My Gawd!!! (1987)
Perhaps their most punk with a capital “P” record, The Flaming Lips’ sophomore album Oh My Gawd!!! is like their version of The Replacements’ Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out The Trash. That’s not to say the album doesn’t contain its fair share of spaced-out passages and high doses of psyche strangeness, like the nine-minute plus “One Millionth Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning.” But the album is their most unfussed-with effort as a rock band, and unfortunately, for that reason, it is one of their least compelling albums. But every hero needs a place of origin on their journey, and even someone as dialed into the cosmos as Coyne needs a humble beginning to look back on.
19. Hear It Is (1986)
Hear It Is, indeed! The debut album from The Flaming Lips. With a mix of Syd Barrett’s grotesque pop and proto-grunge bands from the SST roster like The Meat Puppets and Screaming Trees, Coyne and his ragtag crew didn’t really provide much cohesion in their sound on their debut. While they sure make a demented racket on rippers like “Unplugged” and the admirably meandering “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin,” Coyne’s personality as a songwriter isn’t really allowed to flourish here in the way that it ultimately would when he learned to follow his freaky muse as far as it could go. It only gets weirder from here on out, and that’s a good thing.
18. Where the Viaduct Looms (2021) (with Nell Smith)
On paper, you would think that The Flaming Lips and Australia’s favorite gothic poet Nick Cave would have next to nothing in common. But a similar darkness is present in both Cave’s prose and Coyne and Drozd’s musical sensibilities. With last year’s partnership between The Lips and unknown 14-year-old singer/songwriter Nell Smith Where The Viaduct Looms, the collective do a surprisingly satisfying tribute to some of Cave’s most well-known tunes. Smith’s vocals are given a similar synthetic treatment to what Coyne has been using on recent Lips releases, adding a new thrilling element to Cave’s soul-baring words. With a youthful perspective, songs like “Weeping Song,” “Into Your Arms” and “O Children” sound like ageless calls from the beyond. The Lips treat these songs with respect, only adding slight spaced-out tricks to Cave’s piano ballads. Most people go through their Nick Cave phases in early adulthood. But with the Lips’ help, Nell Smith has an amazing head start.
17. Oczy Mlody (2017)
If there was ever a time in the Flaming Lips’ career where they began to lose their fans a little bit, it was around the release of 2017’s Oczy Mlody. After contributing to the majority of Miley Cyrus’ LSD-soaked left turn Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, the band returned with their first official full-length since 2013’s The Terror. While the group were able to pull themselves out of the depressed depths of that album this time around, it’s clear that they were not ready to return to any sort of typical rock conventions yet. The sound of Oczy Mlody is their most fully indebted to early primitive drum machine techno, modern hip-hop and electronic music. Even though this influence works wonderfully with the band’s weirdo art-pop on the album’s standout “There Should Be Unicorns,” there is an uncomfortable sense of menace left over from The Terror that they would not be able to shake until their next release.
16. The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends (2012)
The period after the release of Embryonic was certainly strange for The Flaming Lips, and that’s saying a lot. Instead of committing to a new album right away, they decided to drift out into the unknown with a series of collaborative EPs with some of the biggest names in music, like Bon Iver, Tame Impala and Yoko Ono. These EPs became sought-after items amongst fans. But when they were finally compiled and released as the LP The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends in 2012, it was clear that these one-off sonic concoctions were more intriguing than they were necessary additions to the catalog. While it’s a thrill to hear the likes of Kesha and Biz Markie joining forces on one track (“You Must Be Upgraded”), and then Nick Cave flaunting his horny lothario from hell persona over The Lips’ sci-fi gospel on another (“You, man? Human???”), the whole project comes off feeling understandably scattershot. The most memorable of all of the tracks is the cover of the Roberta Flack classic “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” with Erykah Badu, which sounds like Sunn O)))’s interpretation of a neo-soul record. While moments of this project are fun and head-scratching, Heady Fwends will always be remembered more for the concept rather than the material.
15. Deap Lips (2020) (with Deap Vally)
This project may not be a production with marquee billing as “The Flaming Lips”—rather, this collaboration between Coyne, Drozd and L.A. duo Deap Vally is a whole new creative venture altogether. Billed as Deap Lips, the low-stakes partnership over-delivers with a batch of fun tunes that never overindulge in the Lips’ excessive side, letting Deap Vally’s Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards’ voices take center stage while Wayne and Steven fiddle with knobs in the background. While not essential to the Lips’ discography, the warm and trance-like “Wandering Witches” is a reminder of why The Flaming Lips remain one of the great “headphones bands” into their fourth decade of making music.
14. Atlas Eets Christmas (2006) (as Imagene Peise)
Released around the same time as At War with the Mystics, this set of instrumental Christmas standards released under the name “Imagene Peise” is a true low-key treasure in the Lips’ catalog that is deserving of a listen when the season calls for it. Led by Drozd’s fantastic piano playing, with Middle Eastern drone instruments and an omnipresent vinyl crackle, the album sounds like a lost holiday-themed psychedelic jazz classic waiting to be found in the bargain bins. If the warm, Vince Guaraldi-inspired tone of the record didn’t already reel you in, hearing Coyne lend his soft warbly voice to the heartwarming original title track is worth the listen alone. The sentiment of this record would carry into Coyne’s first feature film— 2008’s low-budget Sci-fi Christmas on Mars—but Atlas Eets Christmas is the sound of Linus from Peanuts beaming his “true meaning of Christmas” speech back down to Earth from aboard a lonely space station, lost in orbit.
13. Telepathic Surgery (1989)
If you’ve noticed a trend with this list, It’s that it took some time for Coyne to really figure out where he wanted to go with The Flaming Lips. While their third album Telepathic Surgery isn’t necessarily a great album, it’s admirable to see Coyne choosing to move past the conventions of their first two albums to some truly bizarre territory. Songs like the demented, fuzzy garage of “Right Now” and the tuneful cowpunk stomp of “Fryin’ Up” are suitable rockers, but the 23-minute noise jam and sound collage “Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory” is where things start to become unglued in a fascinating way.
12. In a Priest Driven Ambulance (1990)
After three albums that established The Lips’ early punks on acid sound, 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance began to hint at a more solidified sound that they would perfect on their next two albums. While Coyne hadn’t become as confident a vocalist yet, songs like “Shine on Sweet Jesus” and the fuzzed-out “Mountain Side” can hold their own with the more tuneful Gen X alternative-rock heavy hitters of the day. Best of all is the six-minute country ramble of “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain” that sounds like Guy Clark fronting the Meat Puppets. Coyne paints a twisted portrait of how the constant threat of gun violence in America can make us feel hopeless. Whether it’s the day John Lennon was slain or the day “they shot a hole in the Jesus egg,” we can all point to an infamous gun death on the day we were born.
11. At War with the Mystics (2006)
After Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots finally gave the Lips the spotlight they deserved as one of alternative rock’s most consistently innovative bands, the pressure was on to deliver a worthy follow-up. That album made them into festival must-sees, with their outsized and transportive stage shows. The desire to deliver an album that would line up with this image of the band bleeds through their follow-up, At War With The Mystics. While there are bright high points like the opener “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and the pummeling arena-rock of “The W.A.N.D.,” this is the first time Coyne and the gang seemed to be making music specifically for an audience. While this record has been maligned by diehard fans, there are underrated songs here, including the infectious “The Sound of Failure” and the mesmerizing psyche blasts of “Pompeii am Gotterdammerung.” It was the first sign of cracks in the spacesuit after a nearly unparalleled run of inventiveness and creativity.
10. King’s Mouth: Music and Songs (2019)
The Flaming Lips’ 2019 album King’s Mouth: Music and Songs was not only a welcome return to the beat-driven orchestral pop that colored their classic albums of the beginning of the millennium, but it was also their first concept record since Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. The album comes on the heels of a children’s book and interactive art installation written and designed by Coyne. The album’s story revolves around a giant king who sacrifices his life to save the people of his town from an oncoming avalanche. After he dies, his head gets removed and immortalized as a statue in remembrance. The story unspools throughout the album, with Mick Jones of the Clash giving readings, propelling the narrative until its conclusion. If there is an album that King’s Mouth recalls the most sonically out of their large catalog, it’s Yoshimi. Artificial electronic strings swell above warbly synthetic bass and fat bottom drums as Coyne’s sweet but wounded vocals lead the way. Coming 10 years after their last opus Embryonic, King’s Mouth proved The Lips were still able to focus on creating captivating and transportive albums.
9. Zaireeka (1997)
The Flaming Lips’ “boombox experiment” album Zaireeka was the moment they were fully liberated from the alt-rock trappings of their previous records and able to let their true freak flags fly. With the departure of their lead guitarist Ronald Jones, remaining members Coyne, Drozd and Ivins were free to find a pathway forward without relying on Big Muff pedals and standard pop song structures. Recorded to and designed to be played on four different stereos at the same time to reach the album’s desired effect, Zaireeka was also the first time The Lips would approach a recording as an art concept, rather than simply a record. Its cult success would not only inspire the “Disney animated film soundtrack on acid” direction that would define their next phase, but would also embolden them to indulge in innovative projects such as the DIY sci-fi film Christmas on Mars, or their famed 24 Hour Song Skull EP consisting of one day-long song. There are a few songs on Zaireeka that are worth singling out, such as the heavenly “Riding To Work in The Year 2025,” but the whole experience is what makes the experiment such a defining part of The Lips’ legendary status as America’s torch-bearing heirs of psychedelic rock.
8. Hit to Death in the Future Head (1992)
After settling into a winning formula with In a Priest Driven Ambulance, The Lips returned two years later with their most fully realized effort up to that point with Hit To Death In The Future Head. In the past, the group found ways to experiment in harsh noise and psychedelics, but never quite got the hang of stewing these ingredients along with Coyne’s effortless knack for pop hooks. Opener “Talkin’ ‘Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever)” and the epic “Halloween on the Barbary Coast” were both hints on the band’s sunny, psychedelic spin on fuzzed-out alternative rock they would later perfect on Clouds Taste Metallic.
7. The Terror (2013)
Coming four years after the epic, all-consuming Embryonic and after a detour into some fun one-off collaborations, The Terror was The Flaming Lips’ most subdued effort to date. Missing the brain-splitting boombast of their previous work, the album takes a much more somber and ethereal approach, as many of the tracks float in synth-heavy, shapeless orchestrations. With Coyne’s fragile, high voice sounding more steely and frozen than triumphant and playful, the album sounds like if Neil Young had embraced the panicked electronics of Suicide on his album Trans, rather than Kraftwerk and Devo. Partially inspired by Coyne’s separation from his longtime partner and Drozd’s ongoing battle against substance abuse, the album packs a walloping wave of sorrow from a band who are normally associated with peaking serotonin levels. The Terror answers the question of what would it look like if the most optimistic guy person in the room finally snapped.
6. American Head (2020)
2020’s American Head is an unexpected masterwork by a group that many did not see coming. While imagery of the group in their future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit will include the confetti-strewn celebrations of their live show, and will describe The Lips as a life-affirming, hallucinogen-fueled party band, Coyne’s main focus as a writer has always been the delicate line between life and death. Not since The Soft Bulletin has Coyne taken such a hard look at his own mortality and the moments that shaped who he is today. Touching on fatherhood, the history of drugs and crime in his family, and an often-told story about being held up at gunpoint while working at an Oklahoma City Long John Silvers, Coyne delivers his most poignant commentary on those who drift into orbit, rather than progress through the American dream. Like the downtrodden “You n Me Sellin’ Weed,” American Head is full of heartbreaking songs about everyday people compromising their hearts just to survive. It’s the closest the band could come to being compared to John Prine, but maybe that influence has been there all along. Opener “Will You Return / When You Come Down” and “Flowers of Neptune 6” brim with the sprawling technicolor exuberance of the band’s peak run in the ‘90s, and make the case for American Head as being the best thing they’ve released since that time.
5. Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (1993)
Even though it took them five albums to stumble upon a hit with the alternative-rock classic “She Don’t Use Jelly,” that single from The Flaming Lips’ sixth record Transmissions From The Satellite Heart wasn’t a fluke gold nugget on a record surrounded by the band’s typical art-punk shenanigans. It was more of an announcement of arrival for Coyne’s sun-soaked vision, and where he could take the project going forward. Transmissions was also the first record that featured guitarist Ronald Jones and, most notably, Drozd on drums. Drozd would remain Coyne’s main musical collaborator, but his heavy Bonham beat and equally warped music sense on this album only hinted on what they would achieve further down the road. The album is their first all-killer set of tunes that manages to align their priorities on pop songcraft first, with punk and avant-garde experimentation at a close second. The fuzzy blasts on the anti-corporate rock radio anthem opener “Turn It On” obscure the song from its ’70s AM radio pop sensibilities. The album’s best moment is “Be My Head,” whose singalong chorus is the audio equivalent of running through an open field, chemically aided, on a sunny day. Transmissions From the Satellite Heart is the first classic album the band would release, and their first in a historic artistic peak that wouldn’t end for almost two decades.
4. Embryonic (2009)
If The Flaming Lips continued to gain flower crown-donning, festival-going fans with their sunny victory lap At War With The Mystics, their 2009 follow-up Embryonic was the reminder of how easily the band could throw you off your axis if they tried. The 71-minute psyche opus owes more to German experimentalists CAN or Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd than it does The Beach Boys, as it mutates in darkness into a terrifying suite of songs that is powerful at levels the band had never attempted before. After minutes of eerie synths and a bassline that sounds like it’s being tracked on a moon rover kicking up dust, when the drums finally explode on the album’s centerpiece “The Ego’s Last Stand,” it could cause the unprepared a bad trip worthy of a visit to the chill-out tent for oranges and cigarettes. The band gets downright Sabbath-y on “Worm Mountain.” begging the question: What if The Lips made a doom-metal album? Elsewhere, the paranoid pulse of “Silver Trembling Hands” somehow splits the difference between Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrops” and the plastic soul of Todd Rundgren. Often forgotten due to its close proximity to their commercial peak in the early ‘00s, Embryonic kicked off a period that found The Flaming Lips finding inspiration in unexplored territories. While this era was never as fruitful as fans would’ve hoped after Embryonic, it was never boring, either. There are moments on this record that are potent enough to scar you for life, yet make you excited to experience flashbacks further down the line.
3. Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
In the opening lines of the song “Bad Days,’’ off The Flaming Lips masterwork Clouds Taste Metallic, Coyne seems to be taking on the role of a positive and supportive friend. He commiserates with you and reassures you that even though you may be “stuck where you are,” if you hold tight to your dreams, maybe they could somehow influence your reality. “All your bad days will end,” he goes on to proclaim in the chorus. But it’s the second verse where he begins to push his influence towards evil:
You hate your boss at your job,
But in your dreams you can blow his head off
In your dreams show no mercy
If Transmissions From The Satellite Heart was the band finally nailing their mixture of Beach Boys hooks and Dinosaur Jr. distortion, Clouds Taste Metallic can be viewed as the moment when Coyne came into his own as a lyricist. Songs like “Christmas At The Zoo,” which deals with how insignificant our traditions are in the larger context of life on Earth, showed Coyne could shrink massive concepts into the confines of a three-minute pop song. That’s not to say the album isn’t a step forward musically for the band. With Drozd firmly in the fold, the expansive orchestrations on the record are bursting at the seams with dense layers of guitars, colossal drums and occasional church bells. Sadly, this is the last record that guitarist Jones would be a part of, but he certainly left his mark on guitar epics like “Placebo” and “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” which sound as triumphant as peak Built To Spill. With the success of “She Don’t Use Jelly” on Transmissions, the audience for the band was bigger than ever before. Although there were no smash singles of that magnitude on Clouds Taste Metallic, The Flaming Lips established that their path to glory moving forward would be letting the freaks come to them.
2. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
On paper, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots seemed like it would be a joyful reprieve from the emotional blood-letting of The Soft Bulletin. If you had only heard the album’s Powerpuff Girls-evoking title track, you’d be right in thinking that. But as you let the album consume you with its bass-heavy meld of both contemporary and ‘60s pop, as well as a small dose of Japanese ambient music, you begin to understand that Coyne wasn’t done battling the darkness. In fact, he was ready to dig deeper into how the fickle wirings of the human heart and our fragile egos continuously spell our downfall. The idea that the album is a concept record was dispelled by Coyne shortly after its release, but Yoshimi does play out like a series of vignettes, following intergalactic characters looking for love and purpose in a cruel and unforgiving universe. “One More Robot / Sympathy 3000-21” tells the story of a robot longing to know if its master loves it back for the work it does. The gorgeous, trip-hop-influenced folk of “In The Morning of the Magicians” tells the story of someone waking up in a trance, forgetting what it is to love and hate. When he begins to wonder why knowing is important, he asks himself, “Is to ‘love’ just to waste, and how can it matter?”
If there were one song we could send out into space to entice intelligent life to come fix humanity’s problems, it would be “Do You Realize?” On The Flaming Lips’ most well-known song, Coyne and Drozd finally achieved the benchmark of “God Only Knows,” crafting a pop marvel that affirms both the power of love and the insignificance of existence within its three-and-a-half-minute run time. With briskly strummed acoustic guitars, pounded timpanis and a heavenly gospel choir, the song rolls the end credits on any resistance to life’s conclusion. Coyne reminds you that “everyone you know someday will die,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the short, fleeting time you have together. Swallowing that sweetened pill transitions beautifully into the next song, “All We Have Is Now,” which tells the tale of a man being teleported back from the future to warn us about an apocalyptic event that we cannot prevent. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was a legacy-defining moment in The Flaming Lips’ career. The torch burned brighter for them as they built off the experimental wall of sound they created with Zaireeka and their work with Dave Fridmann on The Soft Bulletin. The tours around Yoshimi would rightfully make them household names, as the album earned them more commercial success than ever before. As we plan for the album to turn 20 years old this summer, it will still be looked on by many as their crowning achievement. But the massive success of that album would not exist without the one that came before it.
1. The Soft Bulletin (1999)
There’s a moment in the The Soft Bulletin track “The Gash” where Wayne Coyne delivers what could be taken as his mission statement as a songwriter and observer of humanity’s place in the universe. While the tune conjures the feeling of one of Pastor T.L. Barrett & The Youth For Christ Choir’s songs of praise if they had been drinking dosed punch, the multilayered chorus subsides as Coyne asks a timid question from the congregation. “Will the fight for our sanity be the flight of our lives?” he asks, knowing full well that he might not like the answer he receives.
The overall effect of The Flaming Lips’ 1999 magnum opus The Soft Bulletin can feel more like an eventful walk within the halls of the human psyche than engaging with an actual album. It was the first release the band created as the trio of Coyne, Drozd and longtime bassist Michael Ivans. Without the guitar muscle of Jones tethering the band to any of the louder, more guitar-centric bands in the 120 Minutes crowd, Drozd was able to step out from behind the drum kit and firmly take his place as the band’s resident genius musical arranger. His unique approach to layered orchestral pop, using dime-store Disney soundtrack instrumentation mixed with Coyne’s most tuneful and insightful batch of songs, set The Soft Bulletin as the pair’s gold standard for what they could achieve in their artistic partnership. With its bombastic drums and broken, symphony-sampled keyboard line, the anthemic opener “Race For The Prize” sets the album’s tone, proving that their efforts to go off the deep end with their Zaireeka boombox experiments only put the band’s pop ambitions in widescreen format. The album’s palette is all at once joyful, sorrowful and anxious, as Coyne was inspired to write the majority of the material after the passing of his father. This monumental moment in his life led him to not only look at life’s bigger picture, but also to zoom in on its pixels, examining this sorrow in the heartbreaking “Waiting for a Superman.” He goes further on “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” the album’s final show-stopping moment before the instrumental “Sleeping on the Roof” closes out the album. In “Disintegrate” Coyne comes to the conclusion, after exploring all of life’s pain and uncertainty, that love in our lives is too valuable to live without, and that death is necessary in order to value a life. This is the balance beam that Coyne would tiptoe going forward as a lyricist, slowly teetering towards the void while keeping a positive attitude for those following closely behind him.
Even as they continue to make great records late into their career, The Soft Bulletin will always be the album that The Flaming Lips will have to answer to. It’s a once-in-a-generation record that is not only their best, but also one of the enduring classics in all of alternative rock.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Listen to a Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips performance from the Paste archives below.