May 6 2010 6:51pm

From here I can touch the sun: A science/spec mix experiment

Science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction manifests itself through song in a lot of different ways. Witness the awesome power of the filk or goth genres, the folk/pop sci-fi noodlings of Jonathan Coulton, instructional albums from the likes of They Might Be Giants, or the fandom outreaches that result in Wizard Rock, Time Lord Rock, and, oh my god of course this exists, Twilight Rock.

Around these more direct artists exists a host of musicians who love good stories with bad robots (to use a general example) but prefer to let that excitement suffuse their material without referencing it so immediately. They invoke sci-fi/fantasy in order to evoke it, letting it creep in around the edges of their songs, lending their music an often haunting quality.

Violinist, noted whistler, and indie rock classicist Andrew Bird would feature heavily in this kind of mix. At least once an album, he assembles a song that calls forth a speculative tableau and makes it personal. On one record he offers “Imitosis,” in which a frustrated scientist sees playground bullies and the ultimate loneliness of the human condition in his petri dish. On another album “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” frames him and his significant other as Enigma-style codebreakers who can no longer communicate with each other. “Tables and Chairs,” a particularly rousing closer on yet another album, paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic world in which we can all finally relax, for there are tables and chairs, pony rides, and dancing bears. And that’s not all, oh no, there will be snacks.

Some of you may remember the velvety-voiced musician Poe from her two releases in the late 1990s, the second of which is a companion album of sorts to her brother Mark Z. Danielewski’s wildly fractured novel House of Leaves. “5 1/2 Minute Hallway” would almost certainly qualify for this mix, being a very literal song about a hallway that is constantly changing its length. In the song the situation unnerves Poe tremendously, for if something as mundane as a hallway can’t go right, then nothing in her life can.

There are many, many others that belong on a mix like this. The Dresden Dolls and/or Amanda Palmer evoke the genre heavily, and cello-rock outfit Rasputina often seem borne straight from a steampunk alt-universe. In a harsher sense, The Pixies (well, Frank Black) used to kerrang on and on about UFOs and dystopian rockers like The Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice continue to circle around to the subject of time travel and moon colony bloodbaths every so often. We’re just scratching the surface here.

What we’d be absolutely remiss in ignoring, though, is this gorgeous ballad about the Columbia Shuttle disaster by indie rockers The Long Winters. “The Commander Thinks Aloud” (below) captures the majesty of space travel in a gloriously chaotic sense, leaving you with a taste of the wonder that actual astronauts must feel when they leave the atmosphere of their home planet. The song turns tragic, as it must, but there’s beauty in that as well. Sometimes your heart is supposed to fall to pieces.

Your turn! What songs or artists would you include in a sci-fi/fantasy/speculative-evoking mix of this type?

Chris Greenland is really into free snacks and will accept an apocalypse if that’s what it takes to get them.

René Walling
2. cybernetic_nomad
Progressive Rock had it's share of SF and Fantasy inspired songs

Rush - 2112, Red Barchetta, Cygnus X1, By-Tor and the Snow Dog, the Twilight Zone (about the TV show) and many more.

Uriah Heep - The Wizard, The Magician's Birthday, Paradise/The Spell, Traveller in Time, again, many more

Magum - On a Storyteller's Night

Yes - Starship Trooper, Machine-Messiah

Pink Floyd - Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
Greg L Johnson
3. Greg L Johnson
A few from my ipod:

The Only Ones: "Another Girl, Another Planet"

David Bowie: "Life On Mars" and many others

Husker Du: "Books About UFO's"

The Flaming Lips: 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots"

Lou Reed" "Satellite of Love"

Keith LeBlanc: "Major Malfunction"

XTC: "That's Really Super, Supergirl"

Fatboy Slim: "Weapon Of Choice"

OMD: "Enola Gay"

NRBQ: "Rocket Number 9"

The Mekons: "Club Mekon"

Bill Riley and the Little Green Men: "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll"

The Bongos: "Barbarella"

Brian Eno: "Here He Comes"

The Jams: "Doctorin' The Tardis"

The Jesus and Mary Chain: "Between Planets"
Greg L Johnson
4. Rob T.
Two very different pop groups (using "pop" in the most general sense) whose bodies of work have strong sf-nal undercurrents are Parliament/Funkadelic, whose albums Mothership Connection and Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome could have been nominated for dramatic presentation Hugos (the latter even has a plot of sorts), and the B-52's, whose sf leanings have come to the fore in songs ranging from "Planet Claire" to "Is That You, Mo-Dean?" (but whose most sustained sf statement may well be their reunion album Funplex).

Other rock songs I like with sf scenarios include Jefferson Airplane's "Crown of Creation" (whose lyric was lifted almost whole from John Wyndham's The Chrysalids a.k.a. Re-Birth), Steely Dan's "King of the World" (after the world ends), Talking Heads' "Nothing but Flowers" (not the end of the world but of civilized life, much to the consternation of the ex-urbanite singer) and Radiohead's "Subterranean Homesick Alien" (speaks for itself).
Bridget McGovern
5. BMcGovern
Excellent post--and thorough! I can think of plenty of individual songs (I love when a post sends me running to my iTunes :) -but I feel like you've managed to cover most of the major niche bands who seem to fit here...I keep wanting to suggest Nick Cave (though he's more dark gothic) on one hand and *maybe* The Flaming Lips on the other, but I'm not totally sold on including either. As always, I tend to overthink my any case, I'm suddenly inspired to mash-up some Coulton against John Darnielle in new and inspiring ways, so thanks for that...
David Levinson
8. DemetriosX
The Alan Parsons Project had a lot of works inspired by SF/F: Tales of Mystery and Imagination is directly inspired by Poe, while I, Robot is more loosely sf-inspired. Lots of Mike Oldfield feels very SF/F, as well.
Chris Greenland
9. greenland
@Rob T. The B-52s! I can't believe I skipped them. (Also you're so right about the P-Funk record but I have such a blind spot when it comes to funk.) You're just as right about "Funplex". Even the intro beats of that album sound sci-fi.

@BMcGovern. I would definitely include The Flaming Lips, or at least the "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" album that Greg L Johnson references above. I'd be tempted to include Sufjan Stevens, too, but...I dunno...seems like he has yet to make his defining sci-fi pop statement, although "The Man of Metropolis" is a pretty triumphant, shivery song.
Leigh Butler
10. leighdb
"Particle Man", by They Might Be Giants

"Bloodletting", by Concrete Blonde

Then there's a lot of stuff that I like that isn't explicitly SFnal in content, but evokes the sense of it in my mind.

A lot of Peter Gabriel feels very SFnal to me, for instance. "Red Rain" is a good example. Or you could use the songs he did for the Myst video game series.

"Losing My Religion", by REM

"Barefoot", by k.d. lang (when she does the wolf howl it gives me chills every time)

"A Stroke of Luck", by Garbage

And other stuff I can't think of right now!
Rob Munnelly
11. RobMRobM
@10. I see you Leigh. Re-read post's a coming, no doubt. Anyway, TMBG has several other songs too. I like Four of Two from the children-oriented No CD where a guy is waiting for his date near an outdoor clock, takes a nap, and

At once I awoke to a futuristic world
There were flying cars and gigantic metal bugs
I'd grown a beard; it was long and white
But I knew that the girl would be coming very soon
For though everything had changed, there was still that clock
And it still said four of two
Allison Lockwood Hansen
12. Talisyn
Excellent post Chris. There are some amazing examples of SF inspired songs listed here by you all. It was listening to bands like Yes & Rush that got me into reading SF when I was a kid. I'm not in a signed band, or anything like that, but I did write a song called Mendoza based on the character from Kage Baker's Company series. I started writing it when I first learned Kage was ill. Bittersweet in that I wasn't able to finish the recording in time to send it to her before she passed away in January. If you, or any of you, would like to hear it you can click on my avatar / music website link.
Greg L Johnson
13. RDavid
Jefferson Starship: Blows Against the Empire
Greg L Johnson
14. barbara/kitten
Jimmy Webb: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (I prefer the Judy Collins version)
Greg L Johnson
15. Stormfield
Josh Ritter's song "The Temptation of Adam" is a love story about a man and a woman who are the sole caretakers of a nuclear missile silo; it reminds me of a Golden Age sci-fi story.
Greg L Johnson
16. Treadstone71
Blue Oyster Cult: Black Blade, Sole Survivor, Godzilla, Nosferatu, the Imaginos album

They seem to have at least one such song on every album.
Greg L Johnson
17. wolfram7
There is a small body of work by a short-lived Canadian band named Endensa. The songs that I have gleaned from the web ("Voyage to Ganymede", "Trajectory", "Thief Chase") seem to be part of a full-on SFnal concept album. The musicality is impressive for a group that never "made it."
Greg L Johnson
18. walkert
Muse - Map Of The Problematique. From their SF-inspired "Black Holes & Revelations" album.

The soundtrack to one of the greatest Eve Online videos of all time, Outbreak Redux

Watch in 720p, with the volume up...
David Drage
19. ironmammoth
Roger Taylor (of Queen) produced 2 albums in the eighties, "Fun in Space" and "Strange Frontiers".

Most of "Fun in Space" is SF related (including the pulp magazine style cover), and at least the title track of "Strange Frontiers" is SF influenced.

The Atomic Swindler album "Coming Out Electric" is pure sci-fi rock, with big Bowie influences.

The Buggles "Age of Plastic"

Gary Numan and Tubeway Army various Sci-fi tracks over the years.

The Human League album "Reproduction" and of course the album Dare features a song about Judge Dredd called "I am the Law".

The Sisters of Mercy track "Black Planet"

Hazel O'Conner's album "Eighth Day"
Greg L Johnson
20. akomins
Hawkwind! They use SFnal themes for most of their work, and depending on what you are reading, there are different albums and tracks which fit well.

(Utopia must be my favorite dystopian theme music ever. Infinity is good for solitary space exploration stuff.)

Other goodies: Jeff Wayne's musical War of the Worlds (Thunder Child is still a great track, and works well if you imagine a spaceship rather than an ironclad.)

More goodies: Vangelis for Albedo 0.39, misc Tangerine Dream tracks.
John Ottinger III
21. graspingforthewind
Find lots more recommendations here:
Todd Hauskins
22. goofusmcnoofus
The most Sci Fi musician in the history of histories has to be Sun Ra. It's not only his music, but his whole life is Sci Fi.
Steven E. McDonald
23. StevenEMcDonald
Ah, I feel I must hurl myself into this, yes, considering how I cross-pollinate at times....

DemtriosX -- Mike Oldfield's music has indeed shot right into the SFnal, as with THE MILLENNIUM BELL (particularly "Tubular World"), SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH (which connects to Arthur C. Clarke), and TR3S LUNAS.

More so than "Set The Controls" for Pink Floyd, there's "Astronomy Domine," which I think does a fine job of projecting the vast, weird, scary sides of space, especially in the live version on UMMAGUMMA. Later work of course focused more on the interior world, although Roger Waters pulled out of the flight through insanity long enough at the end to come up with "Two Suns In The Sunset" on THE FINAL CUT -- Waters going to the same well that gave us WHERE THE WIND BLOWS, in regards to the possibility of nuclear holocaust.

There'd be quite a lot of Van Der Graaf Generator peppered throughout such a mix -- real science references in "Whatever Would Robert Have Said?" and catastrophe in "After The Flood", not to mention "Pioneers Over c" on HE TO HE WHO AM THE ONLY ONE. "Orthenthian Street" from the first VDGG album, THE AEROSOL GREY MACHINE (title song being a comical ditty about nerve gas) inspired my most intense short story ever, although it's not actually SFnal. There's also "Lemmings" on PAWN HEARTS, "Still Life" (about immortality) and "(Childlike Faith In) Childhood's End" on STILL LIFE, and "The Sleepwalkers" on GODBLUFF. The skiffy got a little less overt after that. Bandleader Peter Hammill's solo work also includes a fair bit of Sfnal and related stuff, as well as rather horror-oriented religious elements; he later produced an adaptation of Poe's "the Fall Of The House Of Usher" with Andy Bell of Erasure and various others involved.

John Cooper Clarke's "Suspended Sentence" would have to be on there as well, as that's a satirical piece about a dystopian society where the law & order impulse goes out of control (in other words, predicting Arizona, but I digress....) Possibly even "I Married A Monster From Outer Space" and "The Day My pad Went Mad."

Large chunks of the Moody Blues' output.

Brian Eno's NERVE NET.

Half of the music ever recorded by Bill Nelson (you can start with GOLDEN MELODIES OF TOMORROW), which has a tendency to be all Popular Mechanics Retrofuture, with assorted songs about trains with fins, fun with rockets, and how ELECTRICITY MADE US ANGELS.

I'd have to somehow work Philip Glass' EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH in there, with Peter Schickele's "Einstein On The Fritz" alongside.

Selected chunks of Magma. Amon Duul II's TANZ DER LEMMINGE and possibly others. Hawkwind, of course, possibly with a bit of dueling black word stuff with Blue Oyster Cult, and we'd have to include Michael Moorcock's Deep Fix for at least "Dodgem Dude", and toss in a couple of entries from Mick Farren (in the form of The Deviants.)

Steering on to the grim side of things, well, let's see, The Cramps, The Rezillos, Siouxie & The Banshees, The Flametrick Subs, Groovy Ghoulies, Vampire Beach Babes (you can't leave out "The Surfing Swamp Monster From Planet Xon" can you?), Space Cossacks, Stan Ridgway, Red Elvises for at least "Rocket Man", Abney Park (steampunk and goth together!), and of course our lad Gary Numan, who's been doing skiffy music since he was in leather nappies. Also, don't forget Man...Or Astro-Man? who are all about the science and the science fiction in their loud & fast & twangy. On the dafter side there's MC Hawking.

(next rock)
Steven E. McDonald
24. StevenEMcDonald
...abbreviated, alas.

The prog lot are also constantly on with this stuff, although I think Porcupine Tree have pretty much avoided it outside of their videos. Well, there is "Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It's Recycled" and possibly "Stars Die." Greek prog/psych outfit Aphrodite's Child (which gave us Vangelis and Demis Roussos) were all about the end of the world scenarios, from the biblical (666) to the more general (THE END OF THE WORLD), Ayreon are all about the grandeur of...something, Bong/Mother Gong/Daevid Allen, Steve Hillage, (Dave) Greenslade, Emerson, Lake & Palmer got really freaky-skiffy, especially when they hit BRAIN SALAD SURGERY (although they'd been doing it before then), which connects through lyricist Peter Sinfield to King Crimson, which goes sideways -> Van Der Graaf and sideways to David Sylvian who links to Ryuichi Sakamoto who links back via Yellow Magic Orchestra Bill Nelson who can take us back to Gary Numan....

Let us not forget Muse. As, alas, I just did!

The Flower Kings (damn near everything), Spock's Beard (particularly snow), Legendary Pink Dots, the more obscure Quill (1969-1970 or so) who sounded like a post-impact blend of Steppenwolf, Zappa, the output of New Worlds, and William Burroughs. Ramases, who released SPACE HYMNS, were weird and a little freaky. Natural Snow Buildings, earlier XTC (dementedly so when they did their Dukes Of Stratosphear thing), Spiritualized, In the Nursery, and over in the folky kind of corner we have Boiled In Lead (SONGS FROM THE GYPSY especially, but they have longstanding connections with MinnSF) and of course Steven Brust himself.

And to refer back to the David Bowie corner, "Life On Mars" isn't really SFnal, but a lot of his other work is -- "Space Oddity," obviously (and it amuses me that it has sequels in both Bowie's own "Ashes To Ashes" and Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)"), but also "The Cygnet Committee," "The Bewlay Brothers," big chunks of THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD, HUNKY DORY, ZIGGY STARDUST ("Five Years" is an end of the world song, just for starters), ALADDIN SANE, while DIAMOND DOGS is 1984 run through a blender (it began as a musical adaptation of 1984) and turned into a post-holocaust dystopian rock cycle. He's regularly revisited skiffy themes.

I don't think I'll get started on the electronic crowd. Yet. Or the Men With Crunchy Voices (Leonard Cohen and Tom waits, amongst others.)
Rachel Hyland
25. RachelHyland
A list, apropos of this topic, from Geek Speak Magazine:

Top 13 Genre-Themed Songs, by Kate Nagy.

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