Mogwai have been finding new ways to weave exquisite (predominantly) instrumental tapestries for over a quarter of a century now, with their trailblazing debut album Mogwai Young Team emerging in October 1997.
Their epic, sweeping tracks and experiments in extreme dynamic shifts built on the legacy of Slint and Tortoise, and inadvertently helped define the sound of post-rock, even if they dislike being associated with the genre. With time, the Glasgow band's music grew more ambitious and diverse, spanning the electronic-enhanced introspection of Rock Action and Rave Tapes to the more traditional song-structures of Mr. Beast and Happy Songs for Happy People.
Offering conclusive proof that good things come to those who wait, Stuart Braithwaite's band scored their first ever UK number one album with last year's As the Love Continues, but such plaudits, while welcome, have never been the goal of this idiosyncratic, creative and proudly independent unit.
10. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011)
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will isn’t a bad record - Mogwai aren’t capable of making one - but it is disjointed. The New Order-aping electronic beats of Mexican Grand Prix and the grinding noise sludge of Rano Pano never quite coalesce together to form one cohesive piece, or approach the majesty of the beautifully serene Death Rays or the forlorn melancholy of Letters to the Metro.
Both the artwork and motorik ideas employed recall Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, but the collection lacks heart, something the electronic music pioneers were able to side-step by sheer will. But that this set constitutes Mogwai's worst material is a glowing testament to the sheer quality of their expansive discography.
9. The Hawk is Howling (2008)
Despite Mogwai’s reputation as an instrumental band, it wasn’t until their sixth album that they released a long-player entirely devoid of the human voice. According to bandleader Stuart Braithwaite, much of the material on THIH was written for a film soundtrack that never materialised, making the album a hybrid between a regular Mogwai album and one of their OST excursions (Les Revenants, Kin and Atomic to name just three).
With hindsight, it’s tempting to see The Hawk is Howling as a transitional Mogwai album, from the giddy, sudden explosions of noise that littered their early work into the dynamic swelling and waning of their latter material. Tracks like The Sun Smells Too Loud and Kings Meadow saw the band further explore the integration of electronics into their sound, early experiments which would later pay dividends on 2014’s Rave Tapes.
8. Come On Die Young (1999)
In their early years, Mogwai garnered a reputation as one of the loudest bands on the planet, so for their second album, the Scots turned the tables, producing a record of mainly quiet, introspective material that grew to a cacophonous climax across the course of the album.
Introduced by a sample of Iggy Pop talking punk rock on a 1977 US TV show, Come On Die Young showed a band full of confidence, already aware that they didn’t want to get pigeon-holed for simply playing music to lose your hearing to. Even Stuart Braithwaite’s shy vocal on CODY is a baller move, a subconscious coax to the listener who leans in to catch every sibilant of this haunting and hushed vocal, while the 30-minute triple threat of Ex-Cowboy, Chocky and Christmas Steps unite to deliver a most spectacular conclusion.
7. Rave Tapes (2014)
Mogwai’s love of Kraftwerk shines on their eighth studio album as they push forth their electronic side like never before. This shift of emphasis reinvigorated the band after a couple of albums which had little sense of direction.
Here, the road (or should that be autobahn) was clear; massive analog synths, pulsating electronic throbs and danceable tunes recalling an era lit by neon. But even within this framework, Mogwai still utilise the element of surprise on the lilting and languid Replenish, set to a sample of a Christian talk show host decrying the evils of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.
6. As the Love Continues (2021)
The band’s first UK album chart-topper narrowly misses out on a spot in our top five. Ritchie Sacramento (a touching tribute to Frightened Rabbits frontman Scott Hutchinson) may well take the honour for ‘Best Mogwai Song With A Vocal’ and the grandeur of Midnight Flit shows a band not prepared to rest on their laurels, even 10 albums in.
As a fine culmination of Mogwai's career to date, As the Love Continues celebrates their storied past whilst marking out new territory for the future.
5. Every Country’s Sun (2017)
Mogwai’s ninth full-length album is at once familiar and distinct from their previous work, with loud, distorted masterworks such as Old Poisons co-existing with the muted, graceful likes of Brain Sweeties. This is Mogwai exploring sonic templates and boundaries in a more intricately advanced way than the quiet-loud dynamics that typified their earliest work.
The inviting, warm sonics of Coolverine are sublime, whilst Party in the Dark further pushes the band’s shoegaze credentials and accentuates the confidence that Stuart Braithwaite has only recently found in his all-too-rare vocals.
4. Rock Action (2001)
With multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns’ now a fully-fledged member of the band, Rock Action heralded the sound of a new Mogwai, one unafraid to bring in sine waves and robotic chants to expand the band’s palette.
Two of the eight compositions here, You Don’t Know Jesus and 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong, would remain staples in Mogwai’s sets for years to come, so strong were these advances into unknown territory. Elsewhere, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals lent his delectable Welsh tones to Dial: Revenge, an acoustic lament with sinister lyrics that took advantage of a quirk in the Welsh language.
With a running time of 38 minutes, Rock Action is Mogwai’s shortest album, and upon release, many complained that it was too slight. With hindsight, however, it may well be the biggest transition the band made from one album to the next.
3. Mr. Beast (2005)
Former Creation Records head honcho Alan McGee once described Mr. Beast as "probably the best art rock album I've been involved with since (My Bloody Valentine’s) Loveless."
"In fact," he continued, "it's possibly better than Loveless."
Mr. McGee is well for his mastery of the hyperbolic comment but in this case, he might be on the money. Friend of the Night is one of the most beautiful, serene pieces of music Mogwai have ever authored, whilst Glasgow Mega Snake is one of their most devastatingly apocalyptic. Mr. Beast’s eclecticism and more traditional song structures make it a good starting point for anyone who’s scared of that ‘post’ pre-fix.
2. Mogwai Young Team (1997)
The one that started it all, Young Team (as most refer to it) contains one of the band’s most enduring songs in the form of Mogwai Fear Satan, a 16-minute masterclass in tension and dynamics, described by Pitchfork as “by far the most accurate sonic representation of the big bang theory in the history of music.”
Live renditions of this and Like Herod gave Mogwai their fearsome reputation as one of the loudest rock bands around. But they were also one of the quietest, as the gentle Tracy or R U Still In 2 It, featuring Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat demonstrated. One of the most important debut albums of the 1990s, and one of the best.
1. Happy Songs for Happy People (2003)
With Happy Songs for Happy People Mogwai achieved a near-perfect distillation of their epic sound whilst remaining concise, magically squeezing their definitive work into just 42 minutes of music.
By now, Mogwai had perfected the art of expansive dynamics through broad instrumentation, skilfully shading in the aural space as opposed to simply stomping on a distortion pedal.
Taken individually, each track works beautifully but the album as a whole creates a masterpiece arc of release and tension. I Know What You Are But What Am I? is as haunting as its title, a fragile looping piano motif building over a tidal wave of electronic drums and percussion whilst Ratts of the Capital remains one of Mogwai’s most under-rated slow-build epics.
While lists such as this will always prove divisive, Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite has also singled out Happy Songs for Happy People as his band's crowning achievement, once telling Noisey that it’s his favourite "essentially because the music on it is good." Sometimes, that’s all the reason you need.