Modest Mouse have always been a polarizing band, in more ways than one. Some people love them, others think they suck. Even among people who love Modest Mouse, their discography is constantly debated and dissected, as people discuss why they like or dislike “Float On”, or even why they think everything released after Good News For People Who Love Bad News is trash. Frontman Issac Brock himself is a polarizing figure, known for drinking and getting himself into trouble, yet beloved by so many for his songwriting.
Even Modest Mouse concerts are polarizing. The first time I saw Modest Mouse it was March 2015 at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. They blew it out of the park. The second time was at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2017, opening for Brand New. Modest Mouse was not very good that night at all, though they did play “Night On The Sun”, which was cool. They are just a very hit or miss band across the board, but we’re all for it. Extra Chill is firmly in the pro Modest Mouse camp.
That being said, their most recent album, Strangers to Ourselves, dropped in 2015 and it is easily their worst album. It’s now been 5 years since that album and they released three new singles in 2019, none of which were very impressive. Now I’m not saying Modest Mouse is falling off by any means, but I’m certainly implying that they might be headed in that direction.
Modest Mouse has been around since the mid-90s and they’ve hit a wide range of sounds since then, from punk to psych to acoustic and pop, and experimentation of all varieties in between. The music is cerebral and exploratory, and Issac’s lyrics depict a deranged reality that is somehow relatable to our menial everyday existence. Pour yourself an Orange Julius, because we’re about to dive into the best Modest Mouse songs.
P.S. – I’m not putting “Float On” on this list because everybody and their mother already knows that song and it would be redundant to include it. Choosing the 20 best Modest Mouse songs is hard enough as it stands.
20. “Polar Opposites” (The Lonesome Crowded West, 1997)
I write this from quarantine in my house during the great COVID-19 shutdown of 2020, and “Polar Opposites” by has never meant more to me than it does in this very moment. Try this on for size when you’ve got nothing to do but sit around and think, or should I say drink away the part of the day that you cannot sleep away?
19. “The Stars Are Projectors” (The Moon & Antarctica, 2000)
Modest Mouse takes us for a trip in between space and some shitty gas station in Oklahoma for the entirety of The Moon & Antarctica, and but “The Stars Are Projectors” is the longest, most experimental track on the album. Clocking in at eight minutes, this song unfolds a universe of intricacies and plays out like a voyage through a deranged imagination, that may or may not be your own.
18. “Shit Luck” (The Lonesome Crowded West, 1997)
“Shit Luck” is the hardest Modest Mouse song. Here the band sprints headfirst into punk rock territory, yet they do so with their signature off-center lean (even for punk). Modest Mouse often uses elements of punk in their music, but “Shit Luck” is one of their only songs that fully embraces that aspect of their sound. We can appreciate this song for what it is while at the same time being glad that the band didn’t go in this direction with more of their songs. There are plenty of punk bands out there. There’s only one Modest Mouse.
17. “Heart Cooks Brain” (The Lonesome Crowded West, 1997)
With “Heart Cooks Brain”, Issac Brock depicts the fog of depression and heartbreak, and the anxiety that stems from that combination. “My brain’s the burger and my heart’s the coal,” he sings, meaning naturally that the pain in his heart is frying his brain. He might be self-medicating, but either way his lost in some self-induced dystopia with no discernible way to overcome or escape. If you’ve ever felt that way, you might find yourself relating to this song.
16. “Broke” (Building Something Out of Nothing, 2000)
“Broke” is a song about low self-worth, both as a cause ans as a result of your life falling apart around you. It has somber tone to it and like many of the best Modest Mouse songs, at best it promotes personal growth and reflection, and at worst it may provoke some uncomfortable thoughts.
15. “The World At Large” (Good News For People Who Love Bad News, 2004)
“The World At Large” is a serene, meditative song, with lyrics that feel lost, or at least unsure of themselves, as if they’re trying to grow but don’t know where to begin. It’s a simple song, really, and some would cringe at the “ba ba ba ba…” stuff that they utilize here, but when this song hits you in the right mood it can really get you thinking.
14. “Missed The Boat” (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, 2007)
So, you spent a few weeks thinking about this party, picking out your outfit, and mentally preparing yourself to make a good impression. When the day comes, you’re late, and by the time you actually arrive the party’s already been over for a long time. That’s where Modest Mouse takes us with “Missed The Boat”. The lyrics themselves are sad, but the overall tone of the song is actually one of happiness. You no longer have anything to prepare for or stress about. You did it, you’ve truly missed the boat!
13. “Ocean Breathes Salty” (Good News For People Who Love Bad News, 2004)
One of the most beloved and popular Modest Mouse songs is “Ocean Breathes Salty”. It was the second single from Good News For People Who Love Bad News, and was upbeat and catchy enough to hit the mainstream airwaves, while still remaining true to the sonic variety that Modest Mouse had built their reputation on, and thus able to please fans of their earlier, more obscure material.
12. “Gravity Rides Everything” (The Moon & Antarctica, 2000)
“Gravity Rides Everything” is an exploratory song in which Issac sings with a curious tone that examines life with awareness of a greater force that exists all around us. Yes, this force is gravity in plain terms, but in more abstract terms, the force is the weight of personal burdens, and the intentions that the universe has for itself. There’s that classic Modest Mouse nihilism that suggests that no matter what you do, everything will happen and “fall into place”, as if by the force of gravity, regardless of what you personally contribute.
11. “Cowboy Dan” (The Lonesome Crowded West, 1997)
Well, “Cowboy Dan”‘s a major player in the Modest Mouse discography. It starts with a revolving guitar that serves to draw us into the psychedelic wasteland as we learn about Cowboy Dan and his decrepit lifestyle. After we get to know Dan a bit, the band brings it down, and Brock proceeds to put us all on the same level, suggesting we’re all no better than Cowboy Dan. It’s an aggressive song that gets right into the truckstop nihilism that was a running theme through the first two Modest Mouse albums.
10. “Little Motel” (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, 2007)
Synth droplets rain down before Johnny Marr, formerly of the Smiths, kicks in with his gentle, yet intricate role on lead guitar. Marr had joined the band in 2006, prior to the release of We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, and “Little Motel” in particular really has him dancing — or moreso sliding — around. The lyrics have a reflective, sentimental lean to them, and they carry a quiet vengeance in regards to the end of a relationship. This is one for the late night think tank.
9. “Night On The Sun” (Night on the Sun, 2000)
“Night On The Sun” is a long, dark song that starts slow and drives toward an extended jam. The lyrics are cryptic, referencing a hopeless existence, but singing about things that don’t really make sense. “Freeze your blood and then stab it into me,” Brock sings. The real shining lyric, though, that sums up all the confusion and ambiguity of “Night On The Sun”, comes in the culmination of the song: “There’s one thing to know about this Earth / We’re put here to make more dirt; and that’s okay”. Nobody belongs anywhere, nobody exists on purpose, everybody’s going to die. Let’s go watch TV.
8. “Blame It On The Tetons” (Good News For People Who Love Bad News, 2004)
One aspect of Good News For People Who Love Bad News that helped it achieve the attention that it did was the production value. The entire album is crispy and clean, for the most part, which is something that Modest Mouse had never truly done before this. “Blame It On The Tetons” is one of the most laid-back Modest Mouse songs in their entire discography, and it’s a prime example of the beautiful production on Good News. It might seem like a quiet song, but watch what happens when you play it on a nice system. This bass drum booms like it would on a pop song.
7. “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” (The Lonesome Crowded West, 1997)
Opening The Lonesome Crowded West, which is widely considered to be one of the foundational albums of modern indie rock, is “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”. It’s one of the heavier tracks on the album, yet it’s interlaced with subdued moments of melodic reprieve. “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” is all-encompassing in terms of what Modest Mouse will explore on The Lonesome Crowded West. It’s a badass rock ‘n’ roll song with something slightly off-kilter about it, and it’s proven itself to be one of their most definitive songs over the years.
6. “Dramamine” (This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, 1996)
Opening up the first Modest Mouse album, 1996’s This Is A Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, is the swirling bass line of “Dramamine”. It draws you into the strange world that is their debut album, and implies that you might want to take some Dramamine yourself before you really get into the record. This song is about as essentially Modest Mouse as you can get, and its long been a staple for fans as well as one of the gateway tracks for those who are progressing into the catalog past “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty”.
5. “3rd Planet” (The Moon & Antarctica, 2000)
The opener to Modest Mouse’s 2000 masterpiece, The Moon & Antarctica, “3rd Planet” is an abstract song that again serves to cast the Modest Mouse spell on you and bring you into the world of the album. The lyrics ponder nature and existence and the self, in a way that avoids concrete grounding in reality. It feels like both the end of something and a new beginning, or at least the start of a strung-out daydream where you end up right back where you started.
P.S. – The version of “3rd Planet” on the 2004 Modest Mouse live album Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again is prime listening.
4. “Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset” (This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, 1996)
One thing that Modest Mouse does exceptionally well is the buildup. They have many songs that start out quiet and detached and that layer themselves and gain gusto as they go. “Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset” does this, except the whole thing is done gently, with a warm, yet cynical emotional buildup that leads you to a place of serenity. The last two minutes of instrumental peace with violin and jangly guitars feels like one big exhale. The song is great for moments when you need to zone out and get some clarity, and exceptionally good on weekend mornings when you wake up slow and have time to process the day ahead of you.
3. “Custom Concern” (This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, 1996)
Modest Mouse truly does have a song for every mood. “Custom Concern” is the song for when it’s the asscrack of dawn and you’re pulling out of your driveway while trying to defrost your windows so you can make the light on the corner and not be late to work for the third time this week. Not that you personally care if you’re late to work, but it’s starting to piss your boss off. You feel kind of foggy as you pull on the interstate, sipping your too-hot coffee that burns your tongue with every gulp, but you need it or else you’d fall asleep at the wheel. That’s “Custom Concern”.
2. “Trailer Trash” (The Lonesome Crowded West, 1997)
The simplistic beauty of “Trailer Trash” comes from every aspect of the song. There is hardly a better garage rock song ever written. On other places in the Modest Mouse discography, they tend to get very intricate or experimental, but not with “Trailer Trash”. It’s an emotional beat that’s delivered straightforward, and perhaps the best part is Issac’s vocal delivery and lyrics. The lyrics are about a troubled childhood, littered with poor self esteem and a poor family background, but wanting better. The whole song is wrapped around the idea of the emotions associated with knowing that you can do better, but feeling confined by the circumstances surrounding you. And the best thing you can do, as is true no matter what you’re dealing with, is to just rock the feck out.
1. “Edit the Sad Parts” (Interstate 8, 1996)
“Edit the Sad Parts” is a longtime fan favorite, but it’s only been played live twice in the band’s entire existence. It’s a long, drawn-out guitar jam with lyrics that lament on loneliness and loss. The guitar snowballs the emotion as the song gains intensity and Brock serenades us with drunken heartbreak. If only you could edit the sad parts from your own memories, the song seems to say, then, perhaps, life wouldn’t feel so hopeless. “Edit the Sad Parts” is the best Modest Mouse song because it’s an early and raw version of what the band would later do, and it’s done with young, hungry, and tormented eyes.