Top 10 Modest Mouse songs

Mandatory disclaimer: these are simply my favorites.  I make no claim about the objective list of their ‘best’ songs.  I can only tell you what I like.  Regular readers will not be surprised to see their work from the 90s represented a lot more than the stuff since.  I lost my heart to Lonesome Crowded West, and while the stuff since then is plenty good, I will always go back to my true love…

10. Night on the Sun (Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks)

Isaac’s voice is in fine form – for all the lispiness the guy really could sing back in the day. Particularly on the “hopelessly hopeless, I hope so…for you” bit. But this song makes the list for the guitar work. It builds up languidly, but insistently. But then you get the instrumental section starting at about 3 minutes where it rings like the bells of God.

9. Doin’ the Cockroach (Lonesome Crowded West)

God this song is messy.  The guitar starts out woozy and Isaac is at his mumbly/angry best.  And then there are those drums, like cannon-fire. And the pace picks up and things start to catch on fire. But this song makes my top 10 almost entirely for the guitar in the bit that starts around 2:30. I’ve often thought of Modest Mouse in this period as playing a guitar like a serrated blade, and this is just about the perfect example.

8. Neverending Math Equation (Building Nothing Out of Something)

There’s something beautiful and terrible about the notion of life being structured by the cold inhumanity of equations, the animal necessity of survival being built into our very nature, the way this overwhelms the pretense of free will and individual decision.  The cold loneliness.  And yet, this is simultaneous with the bare animality of existence – the crude bodily reality that “the plants and the animals eat each other.”

7. Cowboy Dan (Lonesome Crowded West)

This is Modest Mouse at their most desolate.  The slow-burning frustration, the anger, the deep sense of loss.  He didn’t move to the city, the city moved to him.  So he goes to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky, says “God if I have to die, you will have to die.”  The crashing cymbals, the piercing guitar note.  And yet, there’s the interlude…where we’re just standing in the tall grass “thinking nothing.”  It’s not a resolution, or even really an escape.  But it is a moment of temporary solitude.  There’s no meaning in it, but that’s kind of the point.  In response to the aching, sullen, slow catastrophe of the modern world, thinking nothing at all is the only possible response.

6. Broke (Building Nothing Out of Something)

It opens with 30 seconds of just the guitar, dour yet engaging. When Isaac’s voice enters, it is eerie and achingly sad.  It tells the tale of self-recrimination and a life slowly unraveling.  It’s a slow descent, spiraling downward until about two minutes in, when the pace picks up and moves faster, faster, faster, until it’s one glorious mess. The drums are flailing about, the guitar is dancing, the lyrics trip over themselves trying to fit into the little bit of time and space provided for them until it all melds together into a series of riffs that hit you like gunfire. And then, WHAM, it’s over. I can’t deal with rollercoasters, mostly because I’m terrified of heights, but this song sort of makes me understand the appeal. The slow climb, the little bit of panic in the back of your mind, and then the rush.

5. So Much Beauty in Dirt (Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks)

One minute and twenty-four seconds long, and it’s exactly the right length. It’s about those moments, gone before you know it, but perfect in themselves. The refrain “so much beauty it could make you cry” is repeated a number of times, emphasizing that life is perfect in all its imperfections. The randomness, the pain, the mistakes, and the stupidity, all of these things are intermixed with the beauty, the wonder, the silliness, and the joy.

Frankly, I find this song to be far more optimistic, and encouraging, than much more explicitly hopeful songs. Perfect moments are perfect only because we all know they must end. Similarly, we all know that suffering is a part of life, but what makes it acceptable is the realization that it is transitory, ephemeral. When we let pain wash over us, it cannot last – the pure moments burst forth no matter the circumstances, if we let them. It is only when we fixate on the pain that it haunts us.

These perfect moments can happen anywhere. I find them often in music, but it can be as simple as breathing a deep breath of clean, fresh air. It can be saying goodbye to a friend. It can be a tear shed for someone that you’ve hurt. It can even be a moment of pain or sadness. What makes these moments perfect is not that they are “good” but rather that they are beautiful. And beauty is a perilous thing, as Sam Gamgee would be happy to tell us:

‘The Lady of Lórien! Galadriel!’ cried Sam. `You should see her indeed you should, sir. I am only a hobbit, and gardening’s my job at home, sir, if you understand me, and I’m not much good at poetry — not at making it: a bit of a comic rhyme, perhaps. now and again, you know, but not real poetry — so I can’t tell you what I mean. It ought to be sung. You’d have to get Strider, Aragorn that is, or old Mr. Bilbo, for that. But I wish I could make a song about her. Beautiful she is, sir! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far-off as a snow-mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that’s a lot o’ nonsense, and all wide of my mark.’

‘Then she must be lovely indeed,’ said Faramir. ‘Perilously fair.’

‘I don’t know about perilous,’ said Sam. ‘It strikes me that folk takes their peril with them into Lórien, and finds it there because they’ve brought it. But perhaps you could call her perilous, because she’s so strong in herself. You, you could dash yourself to pieces on her, like a ship on a rock; or drownd yourself, like a hobbit in a river. But neither rock nor river would be to blame.’

4. Third Planet (The Moon and Antarctica)

“Everything that keeps us together is falling apart.” In seven words, the zeitgeist of an era is summed up, setting the stage for a record that will delve deeply into our sense of isolation. It taps into the inescapable feeling that, even as the world grows smaller, the things which helped us feel close to one another are fracturing.

3. Float On (Good News For People Who Love Bad News)

This song marks a turning point.  Before this, the defining feature of the band seemed to be the overwhelming force of loneliness that comes from living within an incomprehensible universe.  It wasn’t ever quite phrased in these terms, but I would suggest they were primarily concerned with the lightness of existence, the way even the most durable things are perpetually at risk of fading away into nothing.  So here, we find them looking at this all in a new way.  If we are nothing but leaves on the wind, if life moves on a plan beyond our comprehension, maybe there’s something to be said for simply floating along with it.

I’m sad to say that the band finding a bit of peace led to them producing music that matters a whole lot less to me.  Nothing after “Float On” has ever hit me with nearly the force of Lonesome Crowded West.  But here, just as they are starting to make the turn, they hit one of their single finest notes.

2. Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine (Lonesome Crowded West)

Writing about this song feels impossible.  It’s so huge and violent and beautiful and far beyond the scope of articulation.  It’s a force of nature.  It’s the end of the world.  It’s…something more.

Unlike some guitar bands who do their damage with noise, Modest Mouse are something else. Not that they can’t get loud. But at their most devastating, the thing that truly takes you apart is the loneliness, the isolation, the spaces in between the notes. There’s an artful looseness to it – it kept you from ever identifying a center.

And it was never better expressed than on this song.  There’s the piece around 3:00 (Take ‘em all for the long ride…) which follows close on the heels of the ‘chorus’ which feels to me like it comes via a sort of jangly saunter.  Or the absolute apocalypse at 5:18, when the entire world gets torn down around you.  And bizarrely, this is immediately preceded by a quiet moment that feels like the aftermath of some great destruction.  It’s somehow perfect: the eruption is in some way caused by its own effects.

Hidden somewhere in this is true understanding. I know you better than you know yourself they seem to say. You in all your madness and confusion. This is not a comforting feeling but it is right.

1. Trailer Trash (Lonesome Crowded West)

My favorite Modest Mouse song, and the inspiration for the name of this blog. It’s about a life that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, when you have to wonder if maybe the reason things haven’t turned out quite right is your own damn fault, not because of anything out there. I don’t find it to be a hopeless song. Lines like “Taking heartache with hard work / Goddamn I am such a jerk / I can’t do anything” suggest a deep-seated weariness, a fear that life will never be anything more than it is in this moment. And a bit of self-loathing. He sees himself and is disgusted with his inability to change.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I like to believe that it’s a warning more than a prophecy. The song contains one extended verse which bleeds into something of a chorus, and is then repeated. Over this, the pace slows and while Isaac initially sounds emotional, maybe even a little tortured, by the end, he is just speaking the lyrics over a drum beat, and the guitars have almost disappeared. You can almost feel the burden of life pressing down. Then, however, the prettiness and weariness of the first half explode into the chaos of the second half. The drums go crazy, and the guitar riff dances around.

There are no lyrics, just the commotion of the music. All weariness is forgotten, and if you’re not quite sure where things are going, you do know that it is exciting. I like to think that’s sort of how life works. Frustration, fear of stagnation, and discontentment can be shattered. It’s a back-and-forth thing, but there’s still some reason to hope that you can learn from your mistakes and be a better person. I’d like to believe that.

Honorable mentions:
11. Polar Opposites (Lonesome Crowded West)
12. Spitting Venom (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank)
13. Other People’s Lives (Building Nothing Out of Something)
14. Bankrupt on Selling (Lonesome Crowded West)
15. The World at Large (Good News For People Who Love Bad News)

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13 Responses to Top 10 Modest Mouse songs

  1. Kade says:

    Dramamine! But I have never really been sure why I love that song.

  2. olneyce says:

    It was just outside the honorable mentions. Great song.

  3. mmFan says:

    There are so many great songs in their catalog. I completely agree with the top 4, and in that order. Here are a few other gems in no particular order:
    – breakthrough – one of the most under-rated MM songs
    – bury me with it – angry song with great lyrics “hummingbirds who’ve lost the plot..” great stuff
    – the stars are projectors – possibly the most haunting song on the most haunting album.
    – black cadillacs – short but sweet. possibly my favorite on the good news album.
    – parting of the sensory – along with spitting venom, the other best song on the album

  4. Rage says:

    I disagree with the interpretation of Float On. The phrase “Float On” is a euphemism for death; as in float on to heaven (not that Isaac believes in heaven/religion but he liks religious imagery in his songs). Basically, the old phrase, “Life sucks, then you die”. I backed my car into a cop car but who cares, it won’t matter when I’m dead. The song is ironic because its sang upbeat and yet about death. I find this interpretation much more Modest Mouse-esque.

    As for number 1… Awesome! Trailer Trash is such an underrated song and is my favorite as well. But you should point out in the lyrics that in the first verse he says, “I know that I miss you”. The second verse is identical except he says, “I guess that I miss you”. He changed one word and changed the entire meaning of the line and sets the meaning of the entire song. Also I always thought the beat of the first half sounds like a clock ticking. The music itself often tells the story as much as the lyrics (see “The Whale Song”)

  5. The beautiful thing about these passionate replies is that we all love a band as truly great as Modest Mouse. There are countless bands who would struggle to hold up a single song against anything M.M. have written….random masterpieces, Blame it on the Tetons, Paper Thin Walls and Beach Side Property.

  6. Nikki says:

    Great list! Trailer Trash is my favorite Modest Mouse song as well, and I also lost my heart to Lonesome Crowded West. I even did a project in college redesigning the CD artwork. While it’s ultimately impossible for me to make a list of under 30 of my favorite MM songs, I would definitely add these songs to the list:
    -Classy Plastic Lumber
    -Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset
    -Breakthrough
    -Shit Luck
    -Lounge (Closing Time)

  7. Crisco Disco says:

    Excellent list. I guess I would add in Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice. I am truly believe that Isaac Brock is the greatest lyricist of all time. As for Float On and all of Good News for that matter. It is known that they made that album after he sobered up. If you listen to that album as a whole it is clear that he is describing the progression of addiction. I’m not saying each song doesn’t have individual or dual meanings but as a whole it goes from expierimenting, euphoric, the absolute need, the self hatred, the understanding, the surrender, and the reflection of the use of drugs and addiction. It truly is a masterpiece and in my opinion their most under appreciated album.

  8. olneyce says:

    I love Styrofoam Boots, and can’t really argue with it making the top 10 on a list. But doesn’t quite crack mine. Probably around #25 for me.

    Good point on Good News… It’s never going to sound as good to me as the three ones that came before it, but it’s sneakily very deep and complex. I’m still finding new things to love there.

  9. dsb says:

    They have so many great songs and their cryptic, emotion laden, existentialist lyrics resonate with me and a lot of other people.

    Night on the sun is one of my top 3 favorites too. Definitely Modest Mouse at their weirdest and most beautiful.

    I’m also a big fan of “a different city” great sonics and also great lyrics. Whole sections of that song are nothing but mutes and harmonics and it really showcases Isaac’s unique approach to playing guitar.

    My favorite song by them is “life like weeds.” The music if full of deep haunting ambient textures and the lyrics are equally deep and brilliant:

    “all this talking all the time and the air fills up, up, up until there’s nothing left to breath”

    “we know that our hearts are just made of strings to be pulled”

    “in the places you go, you’ll see the place where you’re from
    in the faces you meet, you’ll see the place where you’ll die
    on the day that you die, you’ll see the people you’ve met
    in the faces you see, you’ll see just who you’ve been”

    Very evocative stuff that just instantly connects and summons up feelings of isolation, being overwhelmed, and coming to terms with death. Lots of existentialist stuff in there. Are we defined by our interactions with others and our relationships? Are we defined by our beliefs? Are we just one possible version of ourselves and we’re the way we are because of the influence of our surroundings and the people in our lives? How do you encapsulate a persons life?

    You should give The Moon and Antarctica a few more listens, I think it was both their musical peak and lyrical peak. Night on the sun is actually a song that didn’t make the cut for M&A. In fact that whole EP “everywhere and his nasty parlor tricks” are songs from the M&A sessions that didn’t make the album. If you like their sound on that EP you’ll find a lot more on M&A to like than “3rd planet” which is near the bottom of my list.

    Hardcore fans should check out the rough diamond “baby’s clean conscience” from their early days. Very low-fi, but in a way it just ads the imagery of the song, which is also about death and existentialism.

    -dsb

  10. Casey says:

    Everything everyone has said thus far from top to bottom is correct. I’m happy to see this, modest mouse has gotten me as well as I’m sure a lot of you through some tough times….<3 you all

  11. Brandon says:

    Great list.

    My (rough) top 10 would be:
    1. Interstate 8
    2. 3rd Planet
    3. Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset
    4. Trailer Trash
    5. Grey Ice Water
    6. Cowboy Dan
    7. Custom Concern
    8. Perfect Disguise
    9. Baby Blue Sedan
    10. Little Motel

  12. Isaiah towers says:

    Don’t forget “Workin’ On Leavin’ The Livin’” that song is so powerful yet the same lines are playing over and over again. But it’s played off so emotionally and again powerfully. Though Isaac is an atheist I feel this song can be both religious and metaphoracal. Though this song is about wanting to leave existance and go wherever life brings you, this song makes me feel good and happy. It’s a comforting song that’s strong and can be thought of in many ways. I like to listen to it at night and when I’m alone.
    Also.
    The stars are projectors.
    Little motel.
    Float on.
    King rat.
    History sticks to your feet.
    Bury me with it.
    Tiny cities made of ashes. And etc.,.

  13. adam says:

    I love your top 3. I’d flip one and two, but never felt so passionate about a song in my entire life. Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine is absolutely perfect. I’ve never listen to an album cover to cover so often as Lonesome Crowded West…simply amazing. I would like to add an honorable mention to “Whenever I Breathe Out, You Breathe In”. That song really struck a chord with me as well…obviously among many others. Issac is a lyrical genius and got me though some tough times.

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