The top six They Might Be Giants songs for rocking (not learning)

They Might Be Giants

Englert Theatre – June 2 at 7:00 p.m.
$25 in advance, $27.50 on day of show (14+)

With a career spanning three decades and 16 studio albums, They Might Be Giants’ (TMBG) songs have crept into countless television shows including The Daily Show, Dexter’s Laboratory and Malcom in the Middle, aided largely by their penchant for insightful lyrics and unconventional song structure. Even if you’ve never heard of TMBG, you’ve almost certainly heard their music, or perhaps heard your children singing their educational classics like Particle Man and Istanbul.

Let’s talk instead about TMBG’s songs that rock for rock’s sake, and not just because they cram in an absurd amount of trivia and wit. I’m talking about songs you can put on in mixed company without trepidation. TMBG has those too!

In light of their upcoming show in Iowa City and in celebration of their recently released album Nanobots, check out these top six (not five) TMBG songs for rocking (not learning). Forget all that periodic table and geography nonsense TMBG has been singing about for the last few decades. These are songs for real, serious people about real, serious topics. Metaphorical birdhouses, etc.

6. Climbing the Walls

The Else (2007)

“Climbing the Walls” is an inspirational song about a disenfranchised worker who is tired of climbing wall after wall just to get ahead in life. This person then takes the next logical step, which is to quit his or her old job and get a new one literally climbing walls.

This might be a metaphor for something. Following your dreams? Following your dreams, probably. The trick is to mold your dream into something that is incredibly sardonic, yet somehow fulfilling.

5. Ana Ng

Lincoln (1988)

We all know of “Ana Ng” because it played during the pilot episode of Nickelodeon‘s Clarissa Explains It All, correct? Great, just so we’re all on the same page.

Ng is a Vietnamese name, and the song “Ana Ng” is meant to be about an individual on the exact opposite side of the earth. Incidentally, TMBG’s John Flansburgh admits that if Ana is indeed fro Vietnam, then “Ana Ng” would have been written by someone in Peru rather than the United States, but we’ll let that slide. Regardless, the song’s staccato melody and punchy chorus makes for a great pop song.

4. Black Ops

Nanobots (2013)

Sung from the perspective of a drone operator undergoing a bit of cognitive dissonance, “Black Ops” is a rather political song, but it’s not at all preachy. In fact, it’s purposefully glib, though there’s a wry sense of irony that comes with the flippant lyrics about drones activity and shadowy government operations.

Singer John Flansburgh’s innocuous voice is almost eerie given the subject matter, but the song isn’t grim so much as thoughtful, and the melody alone will have you tapping your foot.

3. Birdhouse in Your Soul

Flood (1990)

They Might Be Giants released their third album Flood in 1990 after signing with Elektra Records. The album would eventually earn TMBG their first (and only) platinum record thanks in large part to the popularity of “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” which is a song about, well, a bunch of things really. Blue canaries and light switches are of particular importance, allegedly. Regardless, this is an incredibly catchy song. Disturbingly catchy.

As an aside, the music video features many of the props that–at the time–were used heavily throughout TMBG’s live performances.

2. Till My Head Falls Off

Factory Showroom (1996)

The paralyzing fear of arbitrary decapitation is something we can all relate to, but TMBG take things a step further by singing about a different kind of dismemberment. The metaphorical kind that results from outright stubbornness.

“Till My Head Falls Off” also features celebrated punk rock/new wave bassist Graham Maby.

1. Don’t Let’s Start

They Might Be Giants (1986)

This could be seen as a bit of a cop out. “Don’t Let’s Start,” was one of the most popular tracks on TMBG’s self-titled debut album, which quickly became a college radio hit in the late ’80s.

The real kicker came in 1987, when the music video for “Don’t Let’s Start” became a hit on MTV, exposing TMBG to a far broader audience and–at least in hindsight–laying the foundation for a quarter century of fan fervor. It also happens to be an excellent song in and of itself.

Alright, that does it. Tickets for this June 2 show are available for $25 in advance and $27.50 on the day of the show. More information can be found on the Englert’s event page. Attendees must be at least 14 years old.