The 15 Greatest Science Fiction-Based Pop/Rock Songs

By Sean T. Collins in Daily Lists, Miscellaneous
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 7:57 am
As subject matter for rock, pop, and hip-hop songs, speculative fiction ranks way below falling in love, falling out of love, getting laid, not getting laid, war and what it's good for, and the amount of money made by Jay-Z and/or Joe Walsh. But sci-fi has become a startlingly strong musical subgenre over the past 40-plus years, influencing everything from the rise of electronic music to the robotic dance moves of '80s b-boys to Roger Dean's album art for Yes to approximately 60 percent of the Flaming Lips' recorded output. Some artists dabble, some (like the makers of the Top 5 songs below) practically make a career out of it, but the combined allure and menace of technology, worlds beyond our own, and the unknowable future have produced an array of memorable songs, many of which can stand against classics of the genre in any other medium.

Below you'll find 15 all-time-great entrants into pop music's science fiction tradition, from virtually every corner of the rock landscape. Some are silly, some are sinister, some poetic, some prophetic. The only rules we followed in rounding them up and ranking them were 1) no songs from soundtracks, since we've got that pretty much covered, and 2) one song per artist, or we'd be here (on the edge of) forever. Grab your headphones and boldly go!

[Ed's note: Last week, a PR guy emailed about David Bowie's new "A Reality Tour" live album. Me, being a huge Bowie freak, told him I'd do/say/pimp anything just to get in good with Bowie's PR people. He asked me to mention the CD -- which includes Bowie staples from his entire career, recorded during his 2003-04 tour -- and suggested I do this during some kind of "Greatest Sci-Fi Rock Songs" list. Well, selling out aside, this was a great idea for a TR list, and I asked music meister and fellow Bowie lover Sean Collins [seriously, check out his Bowie sketchbook] to handle it. So here it is, and by the way, go check out the album -- it's two CDs of Bowie hits for only $13, and it's more or less a greatest sci-fi songs of Bowie album. And Mr. Bowie, I love you! Xoxoxo --Rob]

15) Sheb Wooley - "Purple People Eater"
The most misunderstood pop-song protagonist this side of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Purple People Eater is a perfect example of how Earthlings rush to judgment about our extraterrestrial neighbors. If you listen to the lyrics, you'll notice this one-eyed one-horned flying xenomorph is not a purple-colored eater of people, but an eater of purple-colored people. Phew -- we're in the clear! In all seriousness, this 1958 chart-topper represents the fusion of two cultural trends in '50s America: The novelty song -- see also "Witch Doctor" and "The Chipmunk Song" from that same year - -and the bug-eyed monster space-invader science-fiction craze. (I'd say nothing this knowingly silly could get on the radio today, but have you heard Young Money's "Bedrock"?) Chances are you first heard it courtesy of a record played to you by your parents; it's how I and generations' worth of other kids learned that songs didn't just have to be about everyday things, they could be about totally awesome stuff like monsters and aliens. It's a lesson a lot of musicians took to heart.

14) Pink Floyd - "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"
The title of this darkly psychedelic 1968 opus by the Pink Floyd (they still used the "the" occasionally back then, kinda like Batman in the '90s) contains the key for unlocking its whole message. It's not called "Flying to the Heart of the Sun" or any other such soaring, heroic-sounding phrase. No, the voyager in question is issuing instructions to his fellow travelers to set a course, flip a switch, push a button, sit back, and take the ride. Once the controls are set, you're heading to your destination whether you like it or not. It's a perfect metaphor for what befalls you once you take that hit of acid, which the Floyd did with some frequency: You have no control over whether you're about to go on a good trip or a bad one. You control only on whether you set out on that voyage in the first place. And while the nature-worship lyrics, apparently swiped from a book of ancient Chinese poetry, mostly promise a positive experience, the subdued drone of the guitar, keyboard, and timpani drum suggests otherwise. For good reason, perhaps: By the time "Set the Controls" was being recorded, initial Floyd frontman Syd Barrett was phasing out of the band in no small part because of his over-frequent psychedelic experimentation, marking this composition by emerging bandleader Roger Waters (the only song all five members of Pink Floyd played on) as as much of a self-reflexive cautionary tale as Kurt Cobain's repeated promise "I don't have a gun" in "Come as You Are" would be years later. Pretty much all of prog rock's subsequent explorers of the dark fantastic, from King Crimson to Rush all the way up to Tool, had their controls set by this song.

13) Chairlift - "Planet Health"
This one may be a bit off the beaten path for most folks, but give the song's video a spin and stick with me here. Fronted by singer Caroline Polachek, Chairlift are best known for "Bruises," one of those whimsical little indie ditties that graced an iPod nano commercial. But I much prefer the sex-drenched dystopia they conjure up here. The world of "Planet Health" is like a middle-school filmstrip mash-up: Combine the sex-ed videos they showed you in health class with the vintage PBS sci-fi short films your cool English teacher screened with the lights down and there you have it. In places with names like the Garden of Puberty, the State of Being Well, the Desert of Vitamins, and a literal Food Pyramid, a newcomer to the planet explores a militantly healthy hedonism among its beautiful, fit, diverse young population. "Our intercourse was well-protected," Polachek (who directed the orgiastic video above) sings -- "We made love with each other's eyes." She's feeling great tonight, she repeats in the chorus, until she learns of the fate of Planet Health's sick and elderly: They're ejected into space. It's a Twilight Zone/Ray Bradbury fable in the form of an homage to the exotic, wealthy-sounding pop of '80s outfits like Roxy Music and Prefab Sprout. And the song's so convincingly sensual that even though you know better by the end, Planet Health still sounds like a place you wouldn't mind visiting.

12) The Edgar Winter Group - "Frankenstein"
Using an instrumental is cheating, you say? Bullroar, sez I. In its four minutes and forty-four seconds -- frequently ballooned out to twice that length or more when performed live--multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter unleashes a blast of pure Famous Monsters of Filmland joy in musical form. The song pays homage to Mary Shelley's creation and Boris Karloff's immortal role with a monstrous joint guitar-and-synth stomp, and features Winter killing it on guitar, keys, sax, and percussion. Karloff's flattop and platform boots are equaled in their outlandishness by Winter's own appearance: A shock of white hair, glittery glam-rock togs, and a synthesizer strapped around his neck. Wordless? Yes, but it says as much about the raw fun of sci-fi's monster-run-amok template as any essay could.

11) Dr. Octagon - "Blue Flowers"
There's really nothing I can say to explain the concept behind Dr. Octagonecologyst--the 1996 collaboration between MC and actual former mental patient Kool Keith, future Gorillaz and Handsome Boy Modeling School superproducer the Automator, frequent Keith kollaborator KutMasta Kurt, and turntablist extraordinaire DJ Qbert--that could do it any better than Wikipedia: "Dr. Octagonecologyst introduces the character of Dr. Octagon, an extraterrestrial time traveling gynecologist and surgeon." Alllllrighty then. Spaced-out SF-tinged pscyhedelic pornographic horrorcore hip-hop weird enough to make the Wu-Tang Clan come across like Will Smith, Dr. Octagon launched its assault on the ears of listeners hungry for a hip-hop underground with the single "Blue Flowers." With an eerie, repeating string sample that sonically connects the song to the trip-hop then flowing out of the U.K. in great torrents, it's a Burroughsian barrage of threatening verbal snippets, suggesting images of medical experimentation and doomsday devices. "I'm from the Church of the Operating Room," the good Doctor proclaims, before dropping complex rhymes about cybernetic microscopes, supersonic waves, and patients with blood pouring down their mouths. Part Dr. Frankenstein, part Dr. Frank-N-Furter, part Professor Brian O'Blivion, Dr. Octagon is one of music's most memorable science-fiction characters, and one of the most rewarding explorations of the genre that the frequently SF-obsessed world of hip-hop has produced.

10) Elton John - "Rocket Man"
I'll be honest: This would probably rank higher if I weren't such a Bowie acolyte. I'm not alone in thinking that Elton John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin's tale of a lonely space traveler who misses his wife is a bit, shall we say, indebted to good ol' Major Tom and "Space Oddity." (The two songs even shared the same producer, Gus Dudgeon.) But reluctant though I am to admit it, "Rocket Man" is a major rock achievement all on its own. Opening quietly, with an insistent vocal melody from John that hints at big things to come, it hits that "and I think it's gonna be a long time" lyric hard and repeatedly -- a one-line encapsulation of the daunting vision of his future that this hardworking family man has while "burning out his fuse up there alone." Works from Makoto Yukimura's Planetes to David Bowie's son Duncan Jones's Moon would take a similar blue-collar approach to subverting the popular image of space travel. The song's cult-culture afterlife is legendary, thanks to Star Trek's William Shatner and his inimitably insane performance of it at a '70s sci-fi award show. It may have taken a long, long time, but thanks to shoutouts from the likes of The Family Guy and Beck's video for "Where It's At," Shatner's version is almost as much of a standard as Sir Elton's. (Okay, I did say "almost.")

9) Styx - "Mr. Roboto"
Stadium-rock bands had been creating elaborate concept albums about the sort of sinister science-fiction scenarios bored highschoolers imagine themselves a part of every time they get yelled at in study hall for over a decade by the time Styx got around to it. (To be fair, they'd dabbled in the genre with the hit "Come Sail Away.") Kilroy Was Here was no The Wall -- hell, it was no Tarkus. But what Dennis DeYoung lacks in taste or talent, he makes up for in obliviously camp lyrics and vocals (and hairstyle). That's what elevated the signature track of his hostile-takeover reimagining of this workaday AOR band as dystopian freedom fighters from beyond schlock into a period pop classic. With high-pitched backing vocals that sound a bit like Queen and an undeniable vocoder hook that can sit comfortably alongside Afrika Bambaataa or Roger Troutman, "Mr. Roboto" springboards off America's growing fascination with technology in general and Japan's ability to produce it specifically to land the phrase "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto" in our cultural vernacular for good.
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