December 13, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Early autumn was a doozy around here. So last month L2T took a little break. What’d we do, you ask? Well, we drove the King’s Road — that’s right, the historic via that Swedish kings and Russian czars trekked along, back and forth — from Turku in southwestern Finland to St. Petersburg. (Thanks for asking, by the way. Very sweet of you.) We also tacked on Moscow for a couple of days, and drove 14 hours straight only to miss our ferry from Estonia. (We ended up ditching the car and, get this, helicoptering to the airport to catch our plane!) But that is neither here nor there. What is: Having covered hundreds of miles (over there they call them ”kilometers.” Cute, no?), we had ample time to listen to a lot of really good records from this year (and a little too much Radio Sputnik). And, as we were being stopped by Russian police for making an illegal U-turn, thinking just how darn thankful we are for them. And that the Cold War is over.

Good News for People Who Love Bad News (EPIC)

Three days ago, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock was on stage at New York City’s lavish Radio City Music Hall, working up a sweat and musing out loud to the crowd, ”This place seems a little fancy for us, but it’s real nice.” Tomorrow, Brock will be at NBC’s Studio 8H, performing two songs on Saturday Night Live. But today the unshaven 29-year-old is looking the unassuming and somewhat shlubby musician he is. Slumped into the banquette of a hotel bar, he pulls off his brown wool cap to reveal supremely matted hair, and reflects on the recent milestones in his career. ”It’s nice, I guess,” he says with, well, modesty. ”We’re excited, but we’re also half suspicious that the Ashlee Simpson thing has forced them to have to pick actual rock bands to get some credibility. That might be the only reason we’re on.”

Knee-jerk cynicism is to Brock as syrupy sincerity is to Celine Dion, but the guy could cut himself a little slack: Modest Mouse’s rise from Pacific Northwest indie-rock road warriors to top 20 radio and MTV mainstays is the biggest, most surprising, most deserved rock & roll success story of the year. And yes, Brock is just as shocked as you that Mouse’s fourth studio full-length, Good News for People Who Love Bad News — led by the turn-lemons-into-lemonade sing-along ”Float On” — has already sold over a million copies Stateside. ”I pretty much figured that after we did this record, which [Epic, the band’s label] were contractually obligated to release, we were gone,” says Brock, now perched on the corner of his hotel bed, alternating between cigarettes and sips of a Greyhound. ”I thought to myself, ‘If they drop us, it’s their own damn fault, because they don’t know what to do with us.’ And it didn’t work out that way.”

Which is great for the band and its fans, though such a happy ending seemed unlikely in 2002. When the four members (singer-guitarist Brock, guitarist Dann Gallucci, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green) holed up in a rented house in Portland, Ore., to record Good News, the tension quickly built. Their last CD, 2000’s The Moon & Antarctica, had sold an underwhelming 65,000 copies in its first year, and Brock had just released a solo album in 2002 as Ugly Casanova. They had also hired two producers. ”Not a good idea,” Brock admits. The situation quickly went sour. ”Sanity, you know, comes and goes,” he says. ”And it completely went for a while with one member of the band. Actually, two members. The second was me. Mine was self-induced; his was clinical.”

American Idiot (Reprise)

<p Idiot isn’t eliciting Who comparisons just because it’s a ”rock opera.” Having survived into its second decade, this Left Coast punk band’s seventh album offers a storyline as affecting as Quadrophenia‘s and a passel of ”I Can’t Explain”-quality riffs. And they’re talkin’ ’bout our generation!

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