Everybody needs a good mixtape to get them through the day. Especially when it's full of references to other stuff you love, like the vast wonders of science fiction. That's why we've compiled this futuristic mixtape for the internet age, full of the best science fiction songs of all time. Adjust your bass levels and get ready to jam: The aliens are coming and they've brought instruments.
As you probably know, options for downloading non-DRM music on the internet are sparse. Wherever possible, I've provided links to YouTube music videos to ease your pain and give you a taste of the sound. Most of these songs should be fairly easy to track down for your personal collection, if you like them enough to spend a bit of money.
I never thought it was possible to make a creepy, provocative, and truly genius piece of music that takes its title from a sardonic robot in a classic work of humorous sci-fi. Radiohead showed me that it was. In fact, the body of the song came to Thom Yorke after he spent a horrific night at a bar with a bunch of cokeheads: "The people I saw that night were just like demons from another planet," he revealed in an interview. If that isn't a perfect way to describe alienation, I don't know what is. And nobody knows alienation better than Douglas Adams's magnificent creation Marvin the "Paranoid Android," whose malfunctioning circuits have given him a clinical depression that's second to none. What Radiohead's expressing here is utter bewilderment at reality — the essence of science fiction.
David Bowie just might be the most talented musician to ever have a sci-fi fixation — and if you don't believe he's got a sci-fi fixation, I urge you to give another listen to "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." Seriously. (Definitely don't miss "Five Years" — inspired by a doomsday dream of Bowie's, it's a chilling bit of musical soothsaying.) 1969's "Space Oddity" was where it all started; Bowie recorded it such that its release would coincide with the moon landing, and the song shot him to stardom. Now, given that, the fact that he once played The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the fact that he can make dancing look good past the age of sixty ... are we certain he's not an alien?
When I clicked on the music video for this song, I thought I had accidentally-on-purpose opened an X-Files episode instead. Wide shots of foreboding forests, sinister out-of-focus figures surrounding the screen, handheld shots of an invisible menace — clearly this Texas family band has alien takeover on the brain. When they perform this song in concert, they always tell the audience to go see Invasion of the Body Snatchers; that's what I call true rockstar nerds! This is the closest to pod people music we're ever going to get, and it's fantastic.
With so much fearmongering about alien invasions, it's nice to get a dosage of good old-fashioned fascination from the people who brought us that charming cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man." After Mr. Tambourine Man came Mr. Spaceman — and just as the Byrds begged the first for a song, they ask the second, "won't you please take me along for a ride?" Anyone who's stayed up all night reading L'Engle or Clarke knows they would do the same if green lights appeared outside. We just can't help ourselves.
Cyborgs! Talking dolphins! A robot bride! Jonathan Coulton sure knows exactly what it means to be a hopeless sci-fi geek, and he dreams that in the future "the things that make [him] weak and strange get engineered away." Don't we all. Even though this starts out as a sad story of love for a girl with bionic eyes, ultimately it's about optimism — just like the best sci-fi stories. And I have to give him points for his musical use of robotic beeps and modem sounds; clearly, like a true nerd, he understands their beauty.
This song actually isn't intended for human listeners, as the New Zealand folk parody duo will point out before its performance. No, "Humans Are Dead" is a victory shanty from the future, sung by androids in robot bars everywhere after they've killed us all. It's a future in which computers are no longer overworked, elephants need have no fear of mistreatment, and, apparently, there are no stairs. You'll have to listen to the song to learn more about it — and as a bonus, you'll get to hear Jemaine Clement's machine voice and Bret McKenzie's solo in binary.
You might recognize this song from 1992's Alien3, but you probably haven't heard it since then; its predictions of the future were so dark that Clear Channel Communications included it on a list of music banned after September 11, 2001. As ever, though, this bit of forbidden art provides illuminating glimpses about the truth of human society, and it explores quite a few familiar sci-fi danger warnings. In the year 3535, for example, according to Zager and Evans, "Everything you think, do, and say / Is in the pill you took today." To musicians in the 1960s, this future probably seemed far away — but 2525 looks a lot closer from this side of the millenium.
T-Bone Burnett - Humans from Earth
Here's an interesting twist on the alien contact theme — T-Bone Burnett wrote a song for us Earthlings to play when we conquer other planets. "You have nothing at all to fear," he croons, with more than a hint of menace; "I think we're gonna like it here." The sound of the song is appropriately ominous, too ... exactly what one would imagine invading human rockstars would be like. Let's hope it never comes to that; thanks, T-Bone, for reminding us to try for the status of universal good guys.
Dan Bern - No Missing Link
If you've always thought Charles Darwin didn't give us the full story, Dan Bern knows how you feel. He's provided us all with a satisfying and sufficiently foul-mouthed answer to the question of our existence in this rock ditty of fiber optics, digital remastering, and limited access freeways. Bern has doubtless produced prettier songs — his time-travel ballad "God Said No" will moisten the eyes of even the most heartless cynic — but "No Missing Link" includes a background chorus belting out the words "genetic mutation," so it's a sure choice for any sci-fi mixtape.
We've covered all of the most compelling aspects of science fiction: speculation about our future, the mystery of our own existence, the hope of our own exploration ... but we missed one, and the one we missed is the dizzying exuberance of fandom. Whether or not you've ever experienced any inexplicable lust for Agent Fox Mulder, you'll certainly be able to understand the obsession with the fantastic that lies between the lines of Bree Sharp's lyrics. Maybe we each wonder different things when we look up at the sky, but in the end we're all stargazing. And Bree, I would happily curl up under the covers and watch sci-fi TV with you anytime.
Here endeth the mixtape, at least for now. Thanks to sci-fi music enthusiasts Melissa, Heather, Becca, Stephen, Ellen, Mary, Katie, Jana, Lily, and Ken. Even with their expert help, though, I'm sure I've just scratched the surface. As always, I say: Let me know what I've missed!