Incubus' 11 Greatest Songs: Critic's Picks
Including "Wish You Were Here," “Anna-Molly," "Stellar" and more.
It’s not hard to see why Incubus has amassed such a huge fanbase: They have the guilelessness of a jam band, the dynamic intensity of millennial metal and the beatific ear for hip-hop, R&B, jazz and various electronic formats from the pre-Ableton era. Oh, and they've got a Björk worshipper up front who never completes a show with a shirt on and never has to.
There was a five-second window when it looked like other Faith No More-esque acts were gonna take over the world, but now it’s pretty clear that Incubus is -- as they’d say -- an anna-molly (see below) among platinum rockers of the last 20 years. Hyperactive, portentous, even legitimately innovative at times, these are their greatest hits:
11. “Sick Sad Little World” (from A Crow Left of the Murder…, 2004)
Fans disappointed by “Megalomaniac,” the least nuanced Bush diatribe to hit hard-rock radio in 2004 (“You’re no Jesus/ Yeah, you’re no f---ing Elvis”) were probably starting to realize these oddballs were turning into regular-balls, but there’s no way a weirdo title like A Crow Left of the Murder… wasn’t gonna have an off-kilter jam or three. Its centerpiece “Sick Sad Little World” was a six-minute minor prog epic that compressed their artsy bass moves and time-signature somersaults into something any '80s kid could process: A Police song! Brandon Boyd’s against-the-beat yelping and the unmistakably “Message in a Bottle”-derived riff here gave Incubus’ nü-metal a welcome jolt of Sting.
10. “Anna-Molly” (from Light Grenades, 2008)
Thanks to its unforgettable hook, “Anna-Molly” might be the quintessential Incubus single. With its easy riff imbued with double-time intensity, warmly harmonized chorus sung with all the earnest anxiety that the goofy title pun on “anomaly” deserves, it’s weird to think this wasn’t a bigger hit.
9. “Adolescents” (from If Not Now, When, 2011)
Incubus are ostensibly a singles band and, when they hit the mark, they embody everything that could be making arena-rock fresher. The first single from 2011’s If Not Now, When got an extraterrestrial chord progression and seasick rhythm on the radio. With upside-down harmonies, Brandon Boyd always manages to find a note or two to surprise you in his virtuosic vocal runs. Given how stiff the strictures of mainstream airplay have become, it’s to their credit that they left a meandering section on there. Take that, iHeartRadio.
8. “Wish You Were Here” (from Morning View, 2001)
Being an Incubus fan is a near-constant battle between trying to decide if you want them easy or difficult, as you ultimately applaud them for doing things most bands don’t -- including perhaps unflattering vocal choices. Brandon Boyd attacks an otherwise conventional rock song like Ani DiFranco jazzing around her own unfathomable strum patterns. And on the huge hit “Wish You Were Here” he brokers a successful truce between easy and difficult, riding the crashing wave of the simplest chorus he’ll ever write (“I wish you were here / I wish you were here”) and pulling the notes like they’re taffy, contorting them into something impossible for any mere mortal to karaoke justifiably. And yet for all this labor and flexing, it’s completely at peace with itself -- note those placid verses and whirring turntable effects. How often does that balance crystallize into a thundering rock song?
7. “Glass” (from S.C.I.E.N.C.E., 1997)
Incubus’ S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was such a kaleidoscopic palette of thrilling sounds to have whirled into one blender that it really tempts one to wonder how large a role DJ Lyfe -- who never appeared on another record by the band (and apparently threatened his longtime replacement Chris Kilmore one more than one occasion) -- played in the group. “Glass,” one of its many would-be singles that wasn’t, is a perfect example: just try and identify any of the sounds in the verse that aren’t bass or drums. A synth? Some kind of treated sample? Ultra-filtered guitar? Of course, the chorus blasts in with the familiar, ear-filling crunch of guitar as Brandon Boyd’s hook wanders a tightrope between odd and pop.
6. “Aqueous Transmission” (from Morning View, 2001)
Incubus has that rarest of gifts in a radio-rock band: their pretensions are their strengths. So this wondrous new age piece, accompanied by Japanese orchestra, flute, a trip-hop drum loop and a Chinese lute called a pipa leaves you wanting more of similar out-there bliss.
5. “Here in My Room” (from A Crow Left of the Murder…, 2004)
The highlight of A Crow Left of the Murder… shows Incubus' strength for ballads, with a piano ballad at that. At the pace of “Karma Police,” Brandon Boyd sings a creeping, minor-key ode to another standby: sex. “Love is a verb here in my room,” he harmonizes with himself. The last time he was this explicitly carnal he was comparing the act to anti-gravity.
4. “Echo” (from Morning View, 2001)
It’s no coincidence that Steve Vai mentored guitarist Mike Einziger on Morning View’s two best tracks, as both are built around noticeably Asian motif not found anywhere else in the Incubus axeman’s oeuvre. While “Aqueous Transmission” is the real departure, the deep cut "Echo" attempts to bring traditional Chinese scales into Incubus’ traditional guitar-romance and succeeds. The song bridges the gap between the overt attempted exotica of “Transmission” and the warm bends of “Stellar” into something sweeter and earthier than the many attempted love ballads on Make Yourself, over an intensely brushed drum pattern that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Dismemberment Plan’s Change from the same year.
3. “A Certain Shade of Green” (from S.C.I.E.N.C.E., 1997)
Incubus' 1997 major-label debut S.C.I.E.N.C.E. had little need for negative space -- which it rudely filled with slap-bass and alien effects that could neither be ID’d as guitarist or DJ -- and it’s when the band was arguably at its shambling best. Early single “A Certain Shade of Green” perfectly encapsulated Incubus when they were still novel, with blasts of guitar crunch paired with what-is-going-on-behind-here funk chaos in the verses that would’ve made Thundercat proud and a downward-rollercoaster of a descending riff in the lurching chorus.
2. “Stellar” (from Make Yourself, 1999)
Make Yourself is probably Incubus’ most beloved record, where many longtime fans were introduced and it had a string of big hits. On it, “Stellar” (covered splendidly by Jamila Woods last year) splits the difference between complexity (Mike Eizinger’s mind-bending verse riff, unlike anything else on the radio before or since, except maybe a Timbaland production) and simplicity (Boyd’s lovelorn space metaphors still working for him after “Anti-Gravity Love Song”). “How do you do it / Make me feel like I do” is bashful and cute, just like the up-and-coming sex symbol was supposed to be.
1. “New Skin” (from S.C.I.E.N.C.E., 1997)
Almost anything from S.C.I.E.N.C.E. could’ve been on this list: the bizarre talk-disco of “Vitamin,” the anti-fundamentalist punk of “Favorite Things,” the bachelor-pad lounge of “Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song)” that came complete with yacht-rock sax solo. It expanded the bounds of what alternative rock could be, what rap-metal could be and what Incubus could become. But as a young band of excitables tapping into both the aggressive and calm things they loved, the synthesis of funk and crunch, the bounce and the slam, the earthly and the intergalactic, they were maybe never captured more fully than on the first single, “New Skin.”
Brandon Boyd frantically juggles his rapping, yelping and screaming like they’re hot knives and beats a djembe to boot. Mike Einziger alternates between a chunky salsa riff and a typically impossible-to-describe pinball maneuver in the verses. DJ Lyfe cuts up some kind of instructional record sample in an honorable attempt to get a DJ Shadow move on rock radio. Now-former bassist Dirk Lance hopscotches around his instrument like an octopus. And drummer José Pasillas ropes this “chaotic catastrophe” into one furious stomp. All this ruckus and the song’s about the formation of a scab.