The 10 Best MGMT Songs

Brad Elterman

The 10 Best MGMT Songs

Brad Elterman

In retrospect, the fates of indie rock’s Class Of 2008 panned out much stranger than anticipated. At or around the final turn of the 2000s, three bands made the indie-to-major crossover in highly visible fashion: MGMT, Passion Pit, and Chairlift, all coincidentally signed to the same huge hub of Columbia. Following the wispy and gently weird electronic pop of their buzzy Kanine debut Does You Inspire You, Chairlift built an increasing amount of acclaim with their two Columbia releases, Something and Moth in 2012 and 2016 respectively — then, they broke up, with Patrick Wimberly becoming something of an in-demand producer across the pop and indie spectrum while frontwoman Caroline Polachek would metamorphosize into one of the must cultishly beloved alternative pop stars of our current decade so far.

After several very successful albums and a highly visible struggle with mental health issues, Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos — whose project’s first three releases, from 2008’s breakout Chunk Of Change EP to the adventurous and emotionally devastating Gossamer from 2013, inspired countless imitators while remaining singular in its purely emotive streaks amongst plenty of too-cool peers — largely retreated from the public spotlight, occasionally re-emerging for one-off live performances when he sees fit to. But if Chairlift and Passion Pit’s trajectories were a little strange and a little expected when it comes to indie-to-major success stories, the path that MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser took is as rarely-trodden (especially when compared to the extreme predictability of current-day indie rock) as it gets.

Formed in extreme earnest while the pair were attending Wesleyan in the mid-2000s, MGMT seemingly came out of nowhere with their Columbia debut Oracular Spectacular in 2008 after the record received a low-key digital release in the fall of 2007. It was a wooly and wild record that also contained three of the most high-powered and ubiquitous singles in the realm of 2000s indie rock, and the swaying synths and rubbery beats of “Kids,” “Electric Feel,” and “Time To Pretend” still reverberate in the strangest of places today — from Travis Kelce’s old tweets to Saltburn’s nude-sunbathing montage. At the time of release, these songs were inescapable for a certain variant of millennial, suggesting the potential for MGMT to become the biggest mainstream indie rock crossover since the Strokes hit the scene seven years previous.

Something else happened instead: MGMT got weirder. And weirder. And weirder. 2010’s heavily anticipated Congratulations ditched all pop pretense in favor of spiky, melodically slippery prog-pop and sidelong multi-suite discursions, while 2013’s self-titled effort was suffused with spacey paranoia, even its most accessible tunes miles away from the type of music that made MGMT famous. “At this point in our careers, we can’t write a pop song,” VanWyngarden told me in a Pitchfork cover story chronicling MGMT’s own fraught genesis, and even as he and Goldwasser proved that sentiment wrong with the starry-eyed and apocalyptic Little Dark Age in 2018, it’s since become crystal clear that MGMT were simply not made for the indie-pop times that they incidentally and very accidentally brought forth.

Of course, the fact that MGMT have (not unlike cosmic kin Animal Collective) marched to the beat of their own drum regardless of their own success is not a bad thing. Indeed, it’s actually made for one of the most fascinating career trajectories in the last 20 years of indie rock, as Goldwasser and VanWyngarden have journeyed far out in terms of their sonic style —encompassing dusky and freaked-out folk-rock, prog’s knotty and self-mythologizing sense of indulgence, the brittle glow of early electronic music, and the weirdo charms of lo-fi garage pop— with lyrical sentiments that are hilarious, horrifying, and sometimes both all at once. They’ve worked with left-of-center musical thinkers like former Spacemen 3 member Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember, ex-Royal Trux mouthpiece Jennifer Herrema, New Zealand freak-pop aesthete Connan Mockasin, and the aforementioned superproducer-in-the-making Wimberly; Panda Bear, Bradford Cox, and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter all count themselves as admirers of MGMT’s fascinating catalog so far.

At this point, MGMT have become something of a “heads only” concern — your favorite musician’s favorite band, maybe — which is a funny thing to say for an act still frequently namechecked as the musical representation of late-2000s hipsterdom, and aughts nostalgia as a whole. But with every successive record, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have increasingly cemented a reputation as two people from whom to expect the unexpected; if you’re into hearing stuff that’s a little challenging and unlike what most of their supposed peers are doing, they are making it in no short supply.

Their latest record, Loss Of Life (out this Friday), is quite possibly MGMT’s biggest left turn in a career full of them. Across its ten songs, the duo embraces a classic-rock aesthetic that has only been hinted at here and there throughout their discography — but with an alien, uneasy touch that only these two could possibly conjure, with a doomy and pessimistic lyrical outlook offsetting the wide-eyed pastoral psychedelia that runs through it. Newcomers and longtime fans might be surprised by this latest twist, so we’ve put together a very unscientific ranking of the best MGMT songs so far that doubles as an instructive journey through this band’s fantastically fascinating catalog.


"Brian Eno" (from Congratulations, 2010)

MGMT haven’t been shy when it comes to naming the artists they’re influenced by, citing acts like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Rush when it comes to who they look up to. So there are a couple of hat-tips to their musical heroes on Congratulations, including the Television Personalities-citing psychedelic twang of “Song For Dan Treacy” and, even more obviously, “Brian Eno.” The latter, in pure MGMT fashion, sounds nothing like what Brian Eno’s ever been up to, taking shape as a strummy junk-pop gewgaw with the stickiest chorus you’ll find on Congratulations as VanWyngarden and Goldwasser slyly lament, “We’re always one step behind him.” Eno is, naturally, a fan of the song: “I appreciate the way they managed to make the song both fond and tongue in cheek at the same time,” he told Mojo back in 2010.


"Your Life Is A Lie" (from MGMT, 2013)

Despite the hipster-hippie tags that MGMT were affixed with post-Oracular, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser’s preferred flavor of psychedelia has often skewed mystic and suspicious —questioning reality as one sees it, even (especially) if it means confronting the nightmarish uncertainty of what lies behind the doors of perception. In that vein, MGMT single “Your Life Is A Lie” is a full-throated explication of that ethos, regaled by peals of escalating guitar squall and junkyard percussion that at times is reminiscent of the scuzz-pop that former collaborator Herrema has so often become known for. (The accompanying music video is appropriately and excellently absurd as well.)


"Pieces Of What" (from Oracular Spectacular, 2007)

The aforementioned “three perfect songs” reputation of Oracular Spectacular has often overshadowed the obvious fact that there are several (seven, to be specific) other songs on the record as well. This is a shame for various reasons, not least that much of Oracular Spectacular is essentially table-setting — raw materials, even — for the various directions that MGMT would head down in later years. I’ve long held a soft spot for the gentle and spooky sweep of “Of Moons, Birds, And Monsters,” but ultimately it’s that song’s sequential predecessor “Pieces Of What” that stands as most prescient on the band’s future moves, with VanWyngarden’s acid-fried and Avey Tare-esque vocals rubbing raw against a strummy campfire motif.


"It's Working" (from Congratulations, 2010)

If anything comes close to capturing Congratulations’ holographic surfing-cat cover art, it’s the album’s opening track itself — a song that opens with a bassline that immediately recalls the glories of Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters before the whole thing launches itself straight into the sky. “Brian Eno” might be Congratulations’ closest thing to a pure pop tune, but “It’s Working” combines the of Montreal-iness of Oracular Spectacular’s headier fare with the proggier direction that its follow-up represented. It’s almost like a portal out of what MGMT once were and into a deeper, darker, and more complex future — if that’s, like, not too heady for you, man.


"A Good Sadness" (from MGMT, 2013)

The back half of MGMT is some of the darkest and most introspective music the duo has ever made, a fully submerged slab of aqueous electronic rock broken up by the MGMT equivalent of a sea shanty (“Too Many Girls In The Sea” TikTok trend when?). It’s arguably the most difficult stuff VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have put forth studio output-wise, but “A Good Sadness” stands out for its invitingly iridescent flicker. The spiraling-synth motif that runs through this escalating and gorgeous nightmare is a little reminiscent of disbanded Brooklyn aesthetes Bear In Heaven, but the way it’s placed within the song’s three-dimensional arrangement — no doubt owed in part to longtime production collaborator Dave Fridmann’s input — is truly singular to MGMT’s own wild-eyed perspective on all things sonic.


"Me And Michael" (from Little Dark Age, 2018)

Quite possibly the most moony-eyed song MGMT have ever written, “Me And Michael” stands as the most explicitly catchy song on Little Dark Age, which (pending further absorption of Loss Of Life’s devastating excellence) might also be the band’s best album to date. LDA was heralded by many as a return to form, largely because VanWyngarden and Goldwasser leaned harder into the synth-pop side of things across the record; but, this is MGMT, so the results are still plenty weird and chewy. Nonetheless, “Me And Michael” almost smacks you in the face with immediacy, its opening synth melody sounding ripped straight out of a John Hughes film. Again, if MGMT were previously convinced that they’d never be able to write a pop song again, “Me And Michael” stands as proof that their knack for it has all but disappeared.


"Nothing To Declare" (from Loss Of Life, 2024)

As I gestured towards before, time (a few months of absorbing it fully, at the least) will truly tell whether Loss Of Life tops the highs of Little Dark Age — and the fact that I feel the need to say as much is indicative of the record’s strengths. It more or less picks up where LDA left off, apocalyptic and windswept like radiation fallout, but with an eerie and sad breeziness, the kind of beautiful music that nonetheless makes you feel like something more ominous is right around the bend. The lovely single “Nothing To Declare” might be the best example of this vibe currently available to the leak-averse public; I’m also partial to the wry getting-older-isms of “Bubblegum Dog,” but when it comes to this gorgeous gem of a song it’s all about how it ends, a slow fade that, as with so much of MGMT’s best work, makes you feel like something is slipping away in front of you just as you’re beginning to grasp its shape.


"Little Dark Age" (from Little Dark Age, 2018)

First off — can you believe that this has more Spotify streams than “Time To Pretend”? (Over 598m, to be precise, compared to the 378m+ that “Time To Pretend” has currently racked up.) Much of this is undoubtedly recency bias; as SPIN detailed back in 2022, “Little Dark Age” became something of a TikTok hit post-lockdown, eventually being featured in over 5.5 million (!) videos on the platform. Ultimately, I believe that the allure of “Little Dark Age” has less to do with its melodic appeal (although, to be clear, it is an earworm in its own right) and more with what it represents: A deeply paranoiac and conspiratorial point of view rightly regarding the authorities in society as untrustworthy and worth hiding from at all costs. It’s a point of view that’s a far cry from the assumed image placed upon MGMT in the Oracular days, and even if it was there in the music all along (and, if you were listening closely enough, it really was), “Little Dark Age” is a moment in which their outlook is crystal clear and, within the lush and inviting package it’s wrapped up in, absolutely unmistakable.


"Hand It Over" (from Little Dark Age, 2018)

As a record, Little Dark Age maintains plenty of distance from the zonked environs of Congratulations — but that doesn’t mean they don’t bear a structural similarity or two. Just as Congratulations ended its own fits of mania with a spacey and cooled-out ballad, LDA concludes itself with this slice of radiance, perhaps one of the most nakedly beautiful songs MGMT have put to tape to date. It also might be one of the most lucidly delivered protest songs of all time, as VanWyngarden sounds like a duck gliding on a lake while espousing a belief that would become commonplace just a few years after LDA’s release: Everything is fucked, and perhaps it all needs to be destroyed, too. “It’s the same old trick, they played their hand/ Now there’s one thing to left to do,” he coos, before the song becomes awash in final-curtain closing sounds that recall Lana Del Rey’s era-defining “The Greatest” from a year later — a warning about what we’re becoming, as well as an exposed-negative snapshot of what we once thought we all were.


"Time To Pretend" (from Oracular Spectacular, 2007)

If you’re surprised, you shouldn’t be. “Time To Pretend” is the kind of song every band dreams about writing — an era-defining cultural smash so perfectly indelible that it cements you as instantly legendary, one of the absolute greats, even if (unlike MGMT, of course) you spend the rest of your career eating shit on the pavement. It’s the millennial “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in so many ways: Suffused with humor and sarcasm, constantly being misunderstood for how angry it is or isn’t, responsible for so much terrible music from also-ran artists that followed it, something that you’ll hear for the rest of your life and think “Yeah, that really is the stuff.” Let’s use this space to drive home one particular point I’ve touched on throughout this piece, and that is that MGMT are fucking hilarious — knowingly so, in fact. So the generational time capsule of “Time To Pretend” — a swirling monolith of a pop song bemoaning the supposed millennial dream of being younger, doing what you love, and avoiding the drudgery of growing up and watching everything around you degrade and die — stands as their biggest and most cosmic joke, a brilliant song made by two geniuses who will probably die perpetually frustrated by all the stupid things it’s come to represent. And as far as things people have strove to outlive, they got a pretty sweet deal in the end.

Stream our selections as a playlist:

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