I updated this on 2 December 2021. My attitude on some placements shifted a bit and I wanted this to reflect that.
Death Cab for Cutie’s Albums, from Worst to Best Updated
This is a type of post I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I’m thinking of doing it as a series, and I wanted to test the waters with what I know best. I’m not going to do Pavement, because the list would be very close to backwards chronological order, so I decided on Death Cab for Cutie. They were my first favorite band, so I know their catalog really well, and it means a lot to me. So, without further ado, my ranking of Death Cab’s albums, from worst to best.1
A lot of fans were disappointed with Codes and Keys, but for me this was where they really fell off. The only song I find worthwhile is “No Room in Frame”, and even that one’s far from their best. It isn’t awful the way a lot of bands’ fall-from-grace albums, but it’s definitely not great either.
8. Thank You for Today
This one is definitely better than Kintsugi, but it honestly isn’t very memorable.
7. Codes and Keys
Codes and Keys is usually considered to be DCFC’s first bad album, but I honestly think it’s decent. “You Are A Tourist” in particular is one of my favorites of theirs, and “Home is a Fire” hisand the title track are both worth listening to. There are definitely some mediocre numbers, though (“Underneath the Sycamore” is the sort of song that needs a driving energy that it’s just lacking), and a few (“Monday Morning”, “Portable Television”) feel more like experiments than serious songs, kind of like mid-tier cuts off the Beatles’ White Album—“Martha My Dear,” “The Adventures of Bungalow Bill,” etc. Overall, though, it’s far better than Kintsugi.
6. Something About Airplanes
This is where it gets hard to pick the order. SAA is a good album without any qualms, but it’s a debut, and when you compare it to the rest of their catalog, it feels like onhort te. The overall aesthetic recalls their Pacific Northwest peers like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, but they take the sound in a direction that draws on a strange variety of influences, ranging from slowcore bands like Bedhead on some songs (“Sleep Spent”, “Line of Best Fit”) to the Smiths (“Champagne from a Paper Cup” recalls some of their more desperate songs). There’s some other oddball elements, such as the use of an old-sounding keyboard on “President of What?” and some cello featured throughout, most notably on “Bend to Squares.” It’s also their only studio album to include a cover, in this case “The Face That Launched 1000 Shits.” You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a DCFC original, though, since it was originally recorded by a really obscure band called Revolutionary Hydra fronted by one of Ben Gibbard’s friends, and he was even there during the song’s writing process.
5. Narrow Stairs
Narrow Stairs is the second album DCFC released on Atlantic, and in some ways it feels like the band were aware of that when making the album, and sought to prove they weren’t just sell-outs. Their previous album (and major label debut), Plans, was a polished work with altogether pleasant songs and clean production. With this album the band sought to move away from that, so they made their darkest and grittiest album yet, and their most experimental since, well, their debut: “I Will Possess Your Heart”, the album’s first single, runs at 8 minutes, with a lengthy intro, and is told from the perspective of an infatuated stalker. We also get “Grapevine Fires,” an account of the California wildfires of 2007, and “Cath…”, the story of a woman marrying a man she doesn’t love just to avoid becoming an old maid. (A fan theory connects it to an earlier song, “Death of an Interior Decorator”, which is about a wedding gone wrong.) Weirdly, though, it’s also far from emo—they’d brushed with emo during their early days, but on Narrow Stairs, Death Cab were working towards something else, like if U2 decided to make songs for small venues.
Plans was their major label debut, and it shows. The band had been ready for a major for a few years by 2005, so the most notable difference between Transatlanticism and Plans isn’t in the songs themselves, but in the fact that it’s polished as hell. Rather than just recording a normal Death Cab album with better production, though, they took advantage of the higher budget and made some songs that would’ve been completely different if they’d come out of Barsuk—“Your Heart is an Empty Room,” for instance, features overlays of chiming guitars that add atmosphere without feeling cheesy. The album is also home to what may be their most famous song, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” which oddly enough is a solo recording of just Gibbard with a guitar.
3. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes
We Have the Facts occupies a strange place in DCFC’s body of work. It wasn’t a commercial success, and it doesn’t quite sound like would would come later or what they’d done before. Yet it remains a fan favorite, and for good reason. It coheres thematically, focusing on (what else) troubled relationship (or perhaps one specific troubled relationship). It’s early Death Cab at its peak, retaining the clear Pacific Northwest sound while incorporating influences (namely Saddle Creek-style emo) that feel less awkward than those on Something About Airplanes.
2. The Photo Album
This was the album that broke them into the mainstream, when “A Movie Script Ending” was featured on The OC, which they would then forever be associated with. It’s very much a transition album, finding them moving from their earlier, very Pacific Northwest sound, to their later, more mainstream work.
I initially had this placed way lower because of its transitional status, but I revisited it recently for its 20th anniversary and realized it’s probably my favorite Death Cab album. Transatlanticism has it beat on ambition and assuredness, but The Photo Album finds the band in a good spot, right in the middle of their sonic evolution. Admittedly, it has some weaker tracks (“Styrofoam Plates” feels a little out of place for some reason to me), and I’ll admit it’s not objectively their best—that’s coming—but it’s my personal favorite.
This is probably the first or second on most fans’ lists, and rightfully so: it’s here that the band showed pretty much everything they had to offer. Not one of the songs is a miss, ranging from the dirge-to-anthem epic of a title track to the almost-jaunty, “This Charming Man”-mode-Smiths-as-American-indie pop sound of “The Sound of Settling.” It’s honestly hard to do justice with just words, so just go and listen to it.
I haven’t included the officially released demo/compilation You Can Play These Songs With Chords, but that’s basically just early versions of what would become Something About Airplanes with a few rarities. I also didn’t include any EPs or B-sides, but if you’re interested in exploring those I’d recommend the Forbidden Love and Open Door EPs. ↩