Founded in Washington in the early 1990’s, Modest Mouse established itself as a band that helped define the sound of the Pacific Northwest indie rock scene. Their music is filled with quirky, discordant and unstable rock elements that are now key elements in identifying their sound. Thematically, Modest Mouse has also been able to capture effects of living in the Pacific Northwest (a land of perpetual rain and more darkness than light) such as painful self-awareness and constant anxiety.
Still, it takes a strong crew of artists to turn that kind of despondency into art. Modest Mouse has certainly done that over the course of its 22 years and six studio albums. Here, we take a look at 10 of the band’s best songs.
10. “Paper Thin Walls”
One of the band’s (relatively) upbeat tunes, The Moon and Antarctica’s “Paper Thin Walls” is about singer/songwriter Isaac Brock’s paranoia. It’s a perfect example of Modest Mouse being able to highlight unhinged, if simple, lyrics with subdued musicality.
Also known as “Sleepwalkin’: Building Nothing out of Something” and “Sleepwalking (Couples Only Dance Prom Night)” on the band’s 1996 EP Interstate 8 (as well as the 2000 rarities compilation Building Nothing Out of Something), this song’s greatness comes from the atmosphere it creates for the listener. Its dreamy, surreal melody perfectly compliments Brock’s half-whispering, half-singing vocals. Stylistically, it differs from typical Modest Mouse tracks, which makes it such a refreshing cut.
The song captures that feeling of being lost in your pain, but in a way that simultaneously beautiful and ominous. It’s dark and brooding, surpassing the limit of your typical sad song. Brock evokes that gasping-for-air feeling as he sings, “Traveling, swallowing Dramamine / Feeling spaced, breathing out Listerine.”
7. “Missed the Boat”
“Missed the Boat” seems like a coming-of-age song for Modest Mouse. The song uses layers of backing vocals and guitar work to create a certain sound evocative of 2007 when We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank was released. Plus, The Shins’ James Mercer contributed backup vocals, which just makes it even more definitive.
6. “3rd Planet”
“3rd Planet” is easily one of Modest Mouse’s best and most popular songs, and rightfully so. It’s the opening track on The Moon and Antarctica and what an opener it is. Brock kicks off the record by announcing, “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart.” The simple chord progression performed an acoustic guitar sets the tone for an entire album of ups and downs filled with a cocktail of different emotions.
5. “The World at Large”
Good News for People Who Love Bad News, released in 2004, was Modest Mouse’s breakthrough album into the mainstream. Opening track “The World at Large” (or at least, the first proper song after the separate nine-second “Horn Intro”), explores the eternal, yet highly subjective search for home. It’s a song about leaving behind things you thought you loved in order to figure yourself out.
4. “Float On”
This is easily the most popular Modest Mouse song. It is the band’s most radio-friendly and universally loved. It’s a snappy indie staple in which Brock sings “Even when things end up a bit too heavy/ we’ll all float on, okay,” drawing out the “ayyy” at the end. Even though “Float On” was outlandish compared to typical Modest Mouse songs at the time of its release in 2004, its irresistible charm has rendered it not only Modest Mouse’s signature song, but in an essential soundtrack to, and song about, growing up.
3. “King Rat”
This cut from Modest Mouse’s 2009 EP No One’s First, and You’re Next is consummately Modest Mouse, while simultaneously being nothing like the Modest Mouse everyone knew and loved. ALthough theatrical and over-the-top, “King Rat” holds true to its melodic, discordant and just-plain weird characteristics, which are absolutely Modest Mouse-esque.
2. “Trailer Trash”
There’s a heaviness to “Trailer Trash” unlike what’s found in most of the rest of Modest Mouse’s catalogue. This track off The Lonesome Crowded West features Brock singing about his childhood in an emotional and vulnerable state. By the time the triumphant guitar solo peters into the song’s outro, listeners are left with the feeling of inherent loneliness and isolation instilled by the lyrics and exacerbated by the music.
1. “Ocean Breathes Salty”
The best Modest Mouse song has to come from Good News For People Who Love Bad News, the album that rocketed the band into the stratosphere of popular music. Released as the subsequent single to “Float On,” “Ocean Breathes Salty” could have gotten lost in its predecessor’s radio roll-out and omnipotence. Instead, “Ocean Breathes Salty” proved to be the song that best captured Modest Mouse’s quirkiness with an accessibility that allowed new listeners to delve into the entirety of Good News and the band’s previous works.