The Flaming Lips may be one of the few mainstream crossover acts whose latter-day material is actually even crazier than their early work. Over the course of their 30-plus year career as a psychedelic-pop mainstay, the Lips have maintained an inspiring ethos of consistently challenging themselves to never stay in one place for too long. In the field of psychedelic rock, phaser-pedal effects and guitar solos are so often used as shorthands for mind-expanding, reality-altering music. So it’s refreshing that Wayne Coyne and friends have found so many ways to work within that Technicolor playing field while constantly pushing its boundaries and reconfiguring the rulebook.
At the outset of their career, The Flaming Lips wore their Oklahoma roots with pride, fusing a joyous cowpunk silliness with their LSD-fried noise rock freakouts. But it didn’t take long for major labels to see them as potential beneficiaries of the early ’90s alt-rock boom, and once the Lips signed to Warner Bros., they took to their expanded studio capabilities with glee. Albums like Transmissions From The Satellite Heart—which spawned the surprise hit single “She Don’t Use Jelly”—and Clouds Taste Metallic bear the same garagey feel as their earliest work, but with a newfound sense of instrumental chaos, as fuzzed-out bass guitars and crashing drums led the way for Coyne’s childlike tales of animals and Christmas. But the band took things to the next level with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, an orchestral, Brian Wilson-style studio masterpiece that left the rock-band format behind for a layered collection of sonic experiments and celebratory declarations of life.
As the Lips pushed into the ‘00s, they continued to work within this studio-sculpted realm on records like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots before completely throwing that approach out the window with the loose, jammy 2009 LP, Embryonic. A dark, unsettling collection of minimal, rhythmic, but heavy songs, Embryonic shot a jolt of energy into the band’s seemingly complete major-label success, paving the way for even more radical visions from the group. Since that album, the Lips have continued to evolve, experimenting with longer, more improvisational songs (some lasting as long as 24 hours!), and exploring the moodier side of their sound with instrumental-leaning albums like The Terror and Oczy Mldoy.
Where The Flaming Lips will go from here is anyone’s guess. For most bands, scoring a beloved ‘90s hit and signing to a major label is excuse enough to call it a day and spend the rest of your life playing reunion tours. But The Flaming Lips are too restless for that, too bursting with imagination and cosmic sounds—a rock band as experimental as they are pop. Their sound is a difficult beast to summarize, but with this mix we’ve attempted to illustrate what a colorful, slowly unfolding path the band has taken over the years. Strap in, and keep your eyes to the stars.