Ah, Death Cab For Cutie! They’re pretty far removed from their cultural relevance now, especially as it’s been ten years since The O.C. finished. Nonetheless, Lewis and I remain fans and here we rank them in order of best to worst. The list below is chronological; numbers denote their position on our lists.
1. Something About Airplanes 
Something About Airplanes, the band’s debut studio album hit the ground running with generally positive reception across the board. The record itself has this lo-fi quality that aids the band in producing a raw, almost live feel to the tracks. The whole thing feels incredibly humble and accessible, and despite not being as rock-y as some of the later releases there are still a number of great tracks on this.
There’s a confidence to the song writing and a meticulousness to the structure of the tracks that although only just appears on this record, really shines through later on in Death Cab’s studio career. I think what makes this record so good as well is the emotive way the songs come across, whether it be slow building of ‘Bend to Squares’ or the upbeat nature of ‘Pictures In an Exhibition’ or the slow yet determined progression of ‘Line of Best Fit’. It’s engaging, melancholy and an impressive beginning to an excellent discography.
Humble, quiet, moody beginnings for the Pacific North-Western outfit with a collection of songs here one reviewer described as a terrible version of The Beatles. Allegedly lead singer Ben Gibbard was complimented but I think it’s unfair. This album is Death Cab at their most emo, with opener ‘Bend to Squares’ setting the depressing tone for a lot of what is to follow (funnily enough Gibbard stated recently he has no idea what the song is actually about). Gibbard hints at a wider truth of the record, that a lot of the lyrics are abstract and nonsensical, but interesting to read into nonetheless. It’s a lo-fi affair but the melodies at the heart of each track carry the album from start to finish. ‘Your Bruise’ really stands the test of time and closing track ‘Line of Best Fit’ is the band at their emotive best.
2. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes 
This is Death Cab’s only concept album, telling the tale of a relationship that dissolved as quickly as it began, with a rushed romantic engagement in a guest room following a wedding. Time passes, our narrator rearranges his partner’s furniture in the middle of the night, begins following her around and discovers she’s cheating on him, and then continues to keep tabs on her after they break up, swelling with jealousy as she meets someone new and gets engaged. The bullet points here seem to portray a creepy stalker, but actually the presentation is quite sad and tender on the album.
This is not one of Death Cab’s more immediate albums and it takes some time to seep into your consciousness. However, once it’s engrained itself it’s an endlessly rewarding listen. The production is second to none, crafting a homemade sound that lives and breathes. It sounds like it was recorded in the small apartment described in ‘The Employment Pages’, so the timbre of the drums, the softness of the vocals, the gentle fuzz of mildly distorted guitars all feel exceptionally real. It’s quiet, nocturnal, very heartfelt and contains a good chunk of Death Cab’s most enduring songs.
We Have the Facts… is Death Cab’s second release and first concept album. When I was first exposed to this excellent record I was told, ‘Really listen to the lyrics, it’s basically a story of a relationship’. The whole thing essentially narrates a relationships life-cycle, with the instrumentation accompanying and raising Ben’s emotive vocals. What’s interesting about this record is that aside from 2 tracks (‘The Employment Pages’ and ‘Company Calls Epilogue’) the drums were performed by Ben which really highlights his ear for melody. Although there’s an element of fuzz still on this record, reverb is turned up and other instrumentation is utilised to create cleaner cut songs.
There’s a sense of refinement to this record and maturity that the polished production lends to. The fuzz of Something About Airplanes has been brushed away slightly and although the band still utilise that accessibility the record is much more enjoyable to listen to and pick apart. It’s such a great record and definitely one of Death Cab’s best – however, the quartet that produced Death Cab’s best was yet to be established.
3. The Photo Album 
It’s energetic, fun, observational and an all-round great record. 3 singles were released on the back of it – one of which, ‘A Movie Script Ending’, appeared on the popular TV series The O.C.. The band feels comfortable on this record, though one integral piece of the puzzle still remained missing. Michael Shorr features on the drums for this, and he does a stellar job, the jittery urgency of his beats and rolls are very reminiscent of Joe Easley (The Dismemberment Plan). That being said, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of album would’ve been produced with Jason McGerr stationed behind the kit.
The album hosts one of Ben’s most lyrically scathing songs in ‘Styrofoam Plates’, which personally I feel is the best song on the record. The production on it very much continues in the same sort of vein that featured on We Have The Facts…, there’s a polished feel and a meticulous sense in the mixing. It’s a great album (I don’t think any Death Cab fan will disagree and I know one that will demand a full explanation as to why I rank this fourth) but despite its favourable reception and great track listing I feel the band yet to full hone in on their potential.
This album ushers in a new production sheen the band hadn’t quite hit yet, and the ultra-clean tones and textures of the instruments suit the flowery yet frank words in the lyrics and imagery that Gibbard employs. I enjoy the simplicity of the opener, ‘Steadier Footing’, the abstraction of ‘We Laugh Indoors’, and the windswept waltz of ‘Coney Island’. Equally, the band reaches new indie-pop heights with catchy numbers like ‘A Movie Script Ending’ and ‘Why You’d Want to Live Here’. A personal favourite of mine from the band’s whole discography is ‘I Was a Kaleidoscope’, which tells the tale of a long wintry walk ending up in a relationship break-up.
4. Transatlanticism 
This album is yet another leap up in terms of the quality of the band’s production. However, this didn’t necessitate that the band water down their sound; in fact, tracks like ‘Lightness’, ‘Death of an Interior Decorator’, and ‘Tiny Vessels’ are some of the band’s more experimental and weirdest tracks. It crafts atmosphere as well as We Have the Facts… did, but the settings aren’t just confined to decaying tenement buildings. You’re either caught in the downpour of ‘Transatlanticism’, in the party rooms of ‘The New Year’ or relaxing with your feet on a car dashboard in ‘Passenger Seat’. Gibbard continues to be sweet, nerdy and empathetic with his story telling, but it’s the advancement of their indie rock sound that makes this record special.
The first album to feature Jason McGerr on drums, this for me is Death Cab’s best record. It’s their second concept album, revolving around the theme of long distance love and it carries an incredible mix. The tracks flow on from one another in a beautiful way and the passionate vocals alongside the well-constructed and meticulously layered instrumentation give us a collection of beautifully crafted songs. The fact that a few of the tracks feature on The O.C. definitely assisted in garnering the level of popularity and exposure that otherwise the band and this album may not have received.
The tracks on the album are all relatable, regardless of whether you’ve been in a long distance relationship or not. There’s something on this record for everyone, whether it’s the sobering ‘Lightness’, the venting of ‘Expo ‘86’, the slickness and light-hearted nature of ‘The Sound of Settling’ or the brutally honest admission ‘Tiny Vessels’. There’s a clever balance throughout the record, and the way music accompanies and flows depending on Ben’s vocals/ lyrics highlights the closeness of this group and their collective ear for melody. I doubt the Indie Rock scene at the time would’ve been as good without this album on it.
5. Plans 
Plans is and forever will be my favourite Death Cab album which made it incredibly difficult to be unbiased and put Trans ahead. It’s the first album of theirs to be released on Atlantic Records and I think that in terms of musicianship and theme it’s their best work. Whereas Trans balances the light and dark of relationships, Plans sits and stews in the darkness and melancholy. All the tracks are constructed meticulously and the usually vibrant vocals of Ben Gibbard sound tired and retrospective.
The production on this is very similar to Trans though the mix differs only in a sense that it feels deeper. Listening through ‘Summer Skin’, ‘Someday You Will Be Loved’ or ‘Brothers on a Hotel Bed’ you feel like you’ve jumped into a river of sadness with guitars, keys and heart felt vocals lulling around you with the steady rhythm of the bass and drums the only anchor. It may not be their best record but it’s definitely one any Death Cab fan should get behind because it stands on its own feet alongside Trans as it’s dark and twisted sister album.
Ultimately this album is a bit of a mixed bag. ‘Marching Bands of Manhattan’ is properly anthemic but a bit too syrupy, which rings equally true for tracks like ‘Your Heart is an Empty Room’. The record flourishes with the deeper cuts, like the bass and piano driven ‘Summer Skin’ which reeks of the decaying, empty play parks of late summer. ‘Brothers on a Hotel Bed’ is a pleasant midnight shuffle, and ‘What Sarah Said’ is a heart wrenching track describing watching someone die in a hospital. It’s consistent and there are notable highlights but overall it’s slightly hit and miss.
6. Narrow Stairs 
A nice, clean, organic sounding Death Cab production. They did more live takes on this album and stretched their song lengths out a lot more than before, which in the band’s mind is extremely boundary pushing experimentation. There are plenty of good tracks on this album that now are live show regulars as well as being some of the band’s most mature and poignant sentiments, but there are also a few tracks that have been written off into the anonymous annals of music history. There are also times when their new production technique worked against them and the sound becomes hollow and empty.
It seems a little unfair to rank Narrow Stairs at 6th, but given the albums that came before it shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise. It has a great track list (except for ‘Talking Bird’ which no matter how hard I try I just can’t get on board with) and there’s almost a swagger to Death Cab on this. There’s an attitude to the rhythm section, with McGerr and Harmer producing some great beats and riffs; ‘Grapevine Fires’ and ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ respectively.
It doesn’t dip below the standard that Death Cab have set for themselves, and I can totally see how some fans would rate this as their favourite album but there’s just something about it that doesn’t feel the same as the records before it.
7. Codes and Keys 
Codes and Keys is arguably the worst of the Death Cab Discography, reppin’ only one memorable track, ‘You Are a Tourist’. The theme of the album is still very much about love and relationship, however, whereas before Death Cab were happy to swim in the dark swampy lake of melancholy, with this record there’s a happiness to it and lighter tones.
After spending some time writing about the darker side to love, it should’ve been refreshing to hear the new spin from Death Cab but with this it’s just disappointing. The record dips below the bar set before by the better records Death Cab produced previously. It’s forgettable and unfortunately not very good despite having that signature death cab sound.
This is quite a happy-go-lucky offering from the band that is for the most part a bright and positive experience. Maybe that’s why this album is so low down on my list, because lead singer Ben Gibbard is usually at his best when he’s writing sombre and melancholic songs. He was a newly married man when the album was written and that coy sweetness is evidenced all across the tracklist. I continue to enjoy songs like ‘Keys and Codes’ and ‘You Are a Tourist’ but equally a lot of it is forgettable, though passingly enjoyable at the time of listening.
8. Kintsugi 
Oh dear. Not the band’s finest hour. It’s a shame because I don’t like it when bands are generally pigeonholed with the view that they get worse with age, but Kintsugi is sadly evidence to support that attitude. This is one of the most middle-of-the-road albums I have ever heard. There is nothing remotely offensive, ear-catching or notable about the whole album; a thoroughly non-descript affair. There are a couple of moments, like the acoustic-led ‘You’ve Haunted Me All My Life’, that stand out but otherwise it’s a completely skippable experience.
Kintsugi when it first came out fell somewhat flat to me, and to be honest it was a bit of a toss-up between this and Codes and Keys because that’s not great either. After giving Kintsugi another listen through I can kind of forgive it. This is a record that holds songs not of a young man but someone with maturity patience.
This album very much is Ben’s way of dealing with his break up with Zooey Deschanel and because of this we’re able to see flashes of the Death Cab of old through tracks like ‘Little Wanderer’ and ‘You’ve Haunted Me All My Life’ but the rest of the album is pretty forgettable.
So there we have it! For the most part Lewis and I agree with the general order of best to worst; he just likes Plans more than I do. What do you think? Still listening to these guys? What’s YOUR order? Let us know by leaving a comment.