Music

Ranking The Wildly Divergent And Always Excellent Albums Of Modest Mouse


Modest Mouse emerged more than two decades ago from Issaquah, Washington, the place where Seattle’s creeping suburbs crash up against the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and — at least at the time — the demilitarized zone between rural Washington and the Emerald City’s bedroom communities.

Frontman Isaac Brock embraced the straddle, coming off in the early days as a bit of Cosmopolitan White Trash thinker. The band’s early EPs and albums sound like the work of a trailer park philosopher watching the urbanites invade from a dusty window with a six-pack of Rainier and compendium of Nietzsche.

Since he detailed the struggles of sprawl and space alike on albums like 1996’s This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West, almost everything about the band has changed, save Brock’s trademark bark and penchant for lines that sound profound even after you write them down.

Moving from tales of angry cowboys and feral dogs to songs about urban isolation and climate change — and leaving behind the wheezy cacophony of their early records for slick production and the shimmering guitar of Johnny Marr — lost them one generation of fans while giving them access to a much larger crop of new ones. That’s why if you ask seven music fans to name their favorite of Modest Mouse’s seven studio albums, you’ll likely get seven different answers.

As such, trying to create a definitive ranking of Modest Mouse’s work is a bit ineffectual. But given that Brock is a scholar in that sort of futility — the sort of man who stands astride the road to the newest subdivision and yells “Stop!” — we think he’d appreciate our efforts either way.

7. Strangers To Ourselves

Maybe it’s actually the band’s worst effort, maybe it’s just a matter of time and relative space to digest the work, but Strangers To Ourselves was the closest that our staff could come to a consensus pick. That it was for last place is a bit of a bummer considering that “Lampshades On Fire” and “Coyotes” are worthy of any career-spanning mix a fan might make.–Alex Galbraith

6. Sad Sappy Sucker

Released less than a year after The Moon And Antarctica put Modest Mouse on the mainstream map, the long-lost debut album Sad Sappy Sucker reminded listeners that the band also has a lighthearted side to them. Recorded in the mid-1990s, the songs offer all the same wry, introspective observations that they’re known for, but also a certain wide-eyed whimsy. While that underlying humor never outright disappeared from their sound, the jangly, rough-around-the-edges production allows for an endearing window into a past most fans didn’t know existed.–Christian Long

5. We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank

I don’t think there’s a more divisive entry in the entire Modest Mouse canon than the group’s fifth studio album. People tend to either love it, or decry it as the moment when Modest Mouse went off the rails in a vain attempt to chase the success of their monster single “Float On.” Count me in the former camp. Actually, I think We Were Dead Before Before The Ship Even Sank is the band’s best album, which probably places me into an even smaller minority.

I appreciate ambition, and totally fell in love with how Isaac Brock and company went for it on this one. As a devoted Smiths fans, I also really enjoyed the shiny pop sensibilities that guitarist Johnny Marr brought to the table. Though it felt like I had the chorus to “Dashboard” stuck in my head for months when this album dropped 10 years ago — 10 years ago! — the standout for me remains the eight-and-a-half minute epic “Spitting Venom” near the end of the record.

The song starts off so simply, just an acoustic guitar and Brock’s voice. From there it builds and builds until exploding into a monstrous wall of sound, only to simmer back down again into a mournful, horn-filled elegy. It’s a miracle of arrangement and one of the most thrilling compositions that the band ever recorded.–Corbin Reiff

4. This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About

There’s this habit we get into with debut albums where we always measure it on a curve relative to anything else a band does. Like the first few weeks of a relationship, we tend to romanticize them, and then anything else that happens after, even if it’s “better” or “different” or “exactly the same” gets treated a bit unfairly. It wasn’t like the first time we heard this or that, that discovery of turning over a song and exploring it until you knew every inch of it.

Then again, what’s wrong with that? Part of the joy of listening to music -– a good part, mind you -– is that rush of hearing something new. Some albums give us that every time we put them on. Others fail to capture that moment ever again. While I am a Modest Mouse devotee, nothing they’ve put out has ever done what This Is A Long Drive… did for me.

It has always felt new in the best and worst moments of my life. When I felt like I couldn’t get off the couch, “Talking Sh*t About A Pretty Sunset” was on, over and over. When I was running, always running, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I just needed anything to keep the sickness from taking over, there was “Dramamine.” In the good and the bad, regardless of how I felt about home, “Ohio” said something, even if the translation was different.

It’s not as accessible as other albums, and it’s not as Modest Mouse as other Modest Mouse outputs, but it’s *my* Modest Mouse album, and it always will be. There’s always a chance it just might be yours too, for the first time or many times over.–Martin Rickman

3. Good News For People Who Love Bad News

Late last year when I moved back to the west coast after five years living in New York, this was the album I embraced. Good News For People Who Love Bad News is one of those records that forces you to grapple with all the pain in your own life, and muster up the courage to count it all as joy. This is a heady concept for a band that most people still dismiss as just “indie rock” or otherwise marginalized, but this was the Modest Mouse record that proved this band had a lasting legacy that would be remembered. “Float On” will remain one of the greatest songs to come out of the 2000s, and “Ocean Breathes Salty” isn’t far behind. Isaac Brock found a way to make even the worst situations in life seem bearable, and buoyed a whole generation of struggling teenagers, adults, and fans of all ages along with him. This is an album for people who are most suspicious of life when things are going well, and needed someone else to help them articulate those fears. Once you say it, it loses power. Then, you’re free to keep floating.–Caitlin White

2. The Lonesome Crowded West

All Modest Mouse albums — even the lesser-loved later ones — are excellent driving records. The band imbues everything that they do with a sense of zoning out between outposts and getting zen via some road-stripe meditation.

And I happened to stumble upon The Lonesome Crowded West at perfect time to receive Brock and Co.’s rambling vibes. I bought the album shortly after I got my first car and digested it as I putted through North Florida’s sun-baked sprawl. Watching the rich conservatives of Jacksonville creep down to my one-time weird and artsy beachside hometown — colonizing the northern reaches of the county one golf course and Panera Bread at a time — I couldn’t help but feel for the titular ranch hand of “Cowboy Dan” who didn’t move to the city but watched helplessly as it came to him, as persistent and undeterrable as death.

The creep eventually swallowed home whole, making the “bleeding onto the big streets” and desperate yelps of “Convenient Parking” all the more real. And because of this unshakeable connection, The Lonesome Crowded West remains not only my favorite Modest Mouse album ever, but my favorite album full stop.–Alex Galbraith

1. The Moon & Antarctica

The Moon & Antarctica dropped around the time I started to travel. It was one of those records that a siren told me I should listen to in some hazy hostel filled with the stench of bleach, stale beer, cigarette stubs and that morning’s burnt toast. It was sold to me an essential album for a wandering traveler. So, I went out to a music store and bought the CD the next day.

A few days later, I was on a train from Dublin to Belfast and popped the CD into my Walkman. The rattling sounds of the wonky guitars and off-beat percussion matched the rattling trains and rumbling buses. I was always moving and jostling and songs like “Dark Center Of The Universe” and “Gravity Rides Everything” jostled with me. “Perfect Skies” rolled over me as I walked on stark and cold beaches and lulled the day away in pubs. Even tracks like “Paper Thin Walls” felt like they had movement in their bones. At the time, it worked for me.

To this day, I only listen to the album when I’m on the road and maybe that was the loose concept the band was going for — just a road, you, and some far-off destination you can rattle your way to.–Zachary Johnston

×