The Soft Bulletin proved the turning-point for the acid-pop Oklahomans. Before it, they were known for a disorienting alt. rock style which sat somewhere between punk and psych. They’d performed with Texan noise-rock nutcases The Butthole Surfers where cymbals were set alight and scary projections employed to unsettle audiences. They also toyed with self-imposed sleep- and food-deprivation, and conducted bizarre audio experiments in parking lots. Indeed, their album prior to The Soft Bulletin was a 4CD set, 1997’s Zaireeka, its discs meant to be played simultaneously on multiple, separate stereo systems.
A number of factors contributed to the band’s change in direction. Ronald Jones, the guitarist known for his blistering use of ambience-warping effects pedals and thick washes of feedback, had quit the band (never to be heard from again). His departure led to a much greater role for multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd who had originally joined as drummer. Events in the members’ personal lives had further impact. Drozd was addicted to heroin. Frontman Wayne Coyne’s father lost his battle with cancer. Bassist Michael Ivins was caught in a near-fatal car accident. Furthermore, Drozd nearly had to have an arm amputated after being bitten by a poisonous spider… or so he said. The truth was an abscess caused from injecting drugs with a dirty needle.
These unfortunate occurrences compelled the Lips to dial down the irony, cease foolin’ around, and write with greater sincerity and thoughtfulness to explore themes including illness, death, and moral duty. Sonically, the hole left by Jones was filled
by a fresh fascination with multi-tracking and the embracing of Pro Tools. Dense Pet Sounds-like orchestrations were created by layering on synthesised string sounds, while R&B super-producer Peter Mokran was enlisted to mix a handful of tracks. “I was more a reducer than a producer,” Mokran would later confess, on account of the band having such an abundance of ideas.
The recipe spelled mainstream acceptance for the most unlikely and eccentric of American acts, one that has refused to rest on their laurels. Projects since have included covering classic albums like Dark Side Of The Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s in their entirety, filming an avant-garde Christmas movie set on Mars, and collaborating on a truly bug-eyed project with ex-Disney starlet Miley Cyrus. But this was the one that made them an unlikely mega-attraction and festival favourites, to the extent that, by their next album, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Flaming Lips were arguably the biggest cult/underground band on the planet. JRM
Runners-up: Moby Play, Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs, Eminem The Slim Shady LP, Beck Midnite Vultures, Bonnie “Prince” Billy I See A Darkness, Shack HMS Fable, Super Furry Animals Guerilla.