The Flaming Lips: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (Warner Brothers)

When I was a teenager, I made “greatest hits” cassettes for friends of mine in order to introduce them to a band or artist they might not have known. Admittedly, my method for generating the track list was this: the biggest hit or hits, with one or two arbitrary album cuts, following in chronological order.  That technique lacked nuance, but it got the job done without having to exert much effort; if it made the receiver a fan, then why bother arguing about results? Suffice to say, I got that same feeling after picking up the recent greatest hits collection from the Flaming Lips,  a three CD collection offering two discs of chronological material from their Warner Brothers releases, along with a third disc of b-sides, demos, and other rare material.

Admittedly, a greatest hits collection for a band you already love isn’t really meant for you; they are designed to appeal to the new and the curious listener. Wayne Coyne and his merry pranksters from Oklahoma have had a curious yet very prolific major-label career, and so after 25 years perhaps a collection like this is necessary. But the truth of the matter is the flaming lips have existed on the periphery of the music world, and though they haven’t really had” hits” per se, they have had moments of skirting with popularity and more mainstream success. Furthermore, with the passage of time their albums became cohesive artistic statements, where cherry picking serves those records and the listener a disservice. Still, this greatest hits set does one good thing  and that is highlighting how they morphed from the noisy weirdos into masterful craftsmen  and sonic visionaries.

But the suits at Warner Brothers are not stupid, so they wisely included a third disc of rarities and b-sides for the more devoted listener, and it is the only reason this particular listener picked up the set. Thankfully, they’ve done a superb job at collecting hard to find and rare material from the last 25 years. For the most part, they focus on the bands softer rock era, and bonus album never gets dull.  Some of the material is haunting, such as the tender piano ballad version of their mid-aughties  hit, “The Yeah Yeah song.” It isn’t the kind of number you would expect to be as tender as it is, but it is genuinely beautiful, with Coyne tenderly hitting all of the right emotional buttons. A handful of b-sides from the soft bulletin era extend that album’s beauty and delicacy while retaining the playful weird side of the earlier material. Covers of two songs now considered standards close out the set: a playful but sincere Reading of the Wizard of Oz’s “if I Only Had a Brain” is a lot of fun and faithful to the original, while their take on” Silent Night” is simply breathtakingly beautiful. If anything, the third disc left me wanting more juicy Flaming Lips rarities.

This year marks the 35thanniversary of the band, and they are revisiting their back catalog this year, with ha box set of their pre-major-label albums coming later this month. The rarities on the bonus disc of this collection make a good case for reissuing expanded editions of some of the band’s best material. If you’re familiar with the band, you might want to give this a hard pass, but the bonus material makes up for the other two discs. And it’s not like those other two disks are bad, mind you; it’s just material you probably already know by heart, as those albums offer some of the finest and most beautiful music you will ever hear.

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