There comes a time in every band’s existence when they must submit to the inevitable and unleash a greatest hits album upon the world. These compilations are the one-stop shop, first and last resort of the lazy fan, an exercise in career cherry-picking. That time has come for Oklahoma’s favorite freakazoids, The Flaming Lips. Thirty-five years into their career, the Miley Cyrus-lovin’, hamster ball-spinnin’ Oklahoma psych-rockers have finally dropped a career-spanning compilation.
Clocking in at 52 tracks in length and titled Greatest Hits, Volume 1 (promising/threatening more of these in the future), this 2018 comp is a delightful mess. It features all the big songs you’d expect it to (“Do You Realize??,” “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Race for the Prize”), omits a few stone-cold classics (No “Rainin’ Babies”?!) and covers every period of the band’s evolution from flyover state acid casualties to Brian Wilson acolytes to Burning Man Dad-Rockers.
Part of the problem of trying to sum up the Flaming Lips in one record is the vast, wide-ranging sprawl of their work. They’re a group that pride themselves on left turns and barreling full-steam into weird artistic cul-de-sacs. How many bands would follow up appearing on Beverly Hills, 90210 by hosting elaborate “parking lot concerts” and releasing a record that has to be played by four sound systems at the same time? How many bands of their stature, after finding a second commercial wind with the release of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, would say “fuck it” to all that newfound cultural/commercial capital and put out a handful of challenging, moody albums (Embyronic, The Terror, and Oczy Mlody) that found them circling back to their noisy, Butthole Surfers-esque origins? And how many respected indie rock veterans would become such unabashed (and thirsty) Miley Cyrus stans? Moreso than any other group today, The Flaming Lips have made aging (dis)gracefully an art form.
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Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 draws a line from the band’s early years to their most recent work. For all their talent at sounding wigged-out and gleefully unhinged, the Lips’ knack at writing compelling pop songs was present from the get-go. It’s on early period records like In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Clouds Taste Metallic that the Lips achieve the best of both worlds: making music that’s both chaotic and catchy. The title of an early comp collecting these older recordings sums the vibe up perfectly: Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid.
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Over time, with the aid of longtime producer Dave Fridmann, the band moved away from their noisier roots to explore orchestral pop and lush Pet Sounds-esque productions. In an interesting case of parallel development, the Lips old ex-guitarist Jonathan Donahue would push his band Mercury Rev in a similar direction around the same time. Both groups turned their backs on their acid-drenched guitar rock to get their Smile on with the Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs.
After incorporating the symphonic swell of groups like Love, The Zombies, and The Beach Boys into their psych-rock toolkit, The Flaming Lips made their big pop move with Yoshimi. “Do You Realize??” (perhaps the most existential, melancholy “pretty” song to become a hit in the 2000s) turned the band into a household name. Coyne, with his white suits, frizzy gray hair, and love of performing inside bubbles, became a recognizable figure. They even released their own goofy cult movie, Christmas on Mars.
One of the things that Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 gets right and makes it a fitting introduction to the band’s history is how it cleanly lays out this circular evolution from noisy rock to stately pop and back again. Listening to this dense compilation, one wonders where the Lips can go from here. When you spend most of your life making nothing but left turns, where can you go when you find that you’ve pivoted back to where you started?
The Flaming Lips. 7 p.m. Saturday, October 6, at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 1826 West McDowell Road; azstatefair.com. Free with Arizona State Fair admission; reserved seating is $40 to $60 via etix.