Is there a success story in rock as unlikely as the one owned by the Flaming Lips? The Oklahoma-based outfit began as a noisy, low-fi, psychedelic experiment in weirdness, and rather than soften up their sound, they made the mainstream come to them. Though they scored their big breakthrough with the freaky single “She Don’t Use Jelly” and had perhaps their biggest crossover success with “Do You Realize??” (from 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), the group’s best work remains 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, which was released on this date in 1999.
Though “She Don’t Use Jelly” (and Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, the album from which the song came) made the Lips famous for a hot minute, they spent most of the rest of the ’90s going back to their roots (1995’s loud, static-filled Clouds Taste Metallic) and experimenting with different formats and communal exercises (1997’s Zaireeka, an album spread across four discs designed to be played simultaneously).
But The Soft Bulletin was something different. Frontman Wayne Coyne had always had a knack for melody, but The Soft Bulletin is loaded with sweet, lush hooks crooned in Coyne’s particular tenor. And the band surrounded Coyne’s voice with a gorgeous blend of rock guitars, thick strings, electronic noises and absolutely laser-sharp drumming care of Steven Drozd. It’s an album full of the Lips’ unique blend of melancholy and joy — something they would perfect on later albums but feels fresh and raw on The Soft Bulletin.
Back in 2006, I was invited on stage to dance with the Flaming Lips while they performed at Lollapalooza. It was 90 degrees and I was dressed in a sweaty, disgusting Santa Claus costume, but as soon as the first song kicked in and we all locked into an incredible, euphoric groove, everything else faded away. That first song? “Race for the Prize,” which also kicks off The Soft Bulletin and remains one of the finest moments in rock of the past 25 years.