Since their formation in 1998, Death Cab for Cutie has released ten studio albums – let’s review them all. (Canva image by Daniel Zacher)
Since their formation in 1998, Death Cab for Cutie has released ten studio albums – let’s review them all.

Canva image by Daniel Zacher

Death Cab for Cutie: every album ranked

January 12, 2023

For over twenty years, Death Cab for Cutie has been a staple band of the indie rock scene. Led by vocalist Ben Gibbard, the band has released an extensive discography, including ten studio albums and four EPs. Since emerging from the Bellingham, Washington grunge scene in 1998, Death Cab for Cutie has managed to evolve their sound from lo-fi “emo” to refined, sweet, sweet indie rock. 

Let’s take a look back at all their releases.

I ranked every Death Cab for Cutie album.

#10 – Codes and Keys (2011)

This one is a given. Ask any Death Cab for Cutie fan, and they’ll say that Codes and Keys is their worst album.

Codes and Keys saw the band take a hard left in the direction of their sound compared to their previous album, Narrow Stairs. The iconic guitar tones that had become the symbol of Death Cab were traded for muddled electronic effects and unflattering piano chords that struggle to find a memorable place in the Death Cab discography. The only song from Codes that is remotely notable is “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” a cute love song that features the most guitar on the album. That’s probably why it’s the only notable one.

Codes and Keys was the first album that Ben Gibbard (vocals, guitar) wrote after being married to actress Zooey Deschanel. At the time, Gibbard had also recently quit drinking and began marathon running. It’s easy to say that Ben was doing pretty good at the time. Lyrically speaking, the album seems to be pretty reflective of Ben’s state of mind. Besides “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” the album features quite a few love songs (“Unobstructed Views” and “Monday Morning”) that can be enjoyable for certain audiences. Most of the other songs on the album are about hope, happiness, and conquering fear, which are all lyrical themes that had not been explored as deeply in previous albums. 

Codes and Keys was written at a good time in Gibbard’s life. Call it the band’s “happy record.”

Although the album is definitely listenable as a stand-alone, it is by far the weakest Death Cab album compared to their other releases, and the band failed to further develop the Codes and Keys sound in future records. 

It’s a failed experiment, I guess. 

Best Song: Stay Young, Go Dancing

Worst Song: Codes and Keys


#9 – Thank You for Today (2018)

Let me just start by saying that this was the album was the first that introduced me to Death Cab. Eighth grade me found it on the iTunes store, thinking it was a Christian album, and I decided to just play the first song. I immediately fell in love with their sound. For the next year, I would not shut up about Death Cab for Cutie. Ask any of my friends, I’m serious.

In hindsight, this album is kind of garbage. 

Thank You for Today was the first ever Death Cab album to not feature any musical contributions from their long-time guitarist and producer, Chris Walla. Walla had been with the band since it formed as a full group in 1997, and his absence on Thank You was definitely felt, sonically at least. It was obvious that Death Cab was trying to move away from the sound that Chris had produced in their previous records; Walla was replaced with two additional band members – Dave Depper (guitar) and Zac Rae (piano). Despite these new additions, Thank You feels like too sharp of a stylistic switch that definitely turned off some old-school Death Cab for Cutie listeners. The album’s first track, “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” is arguably one of the worst opening songs on a Death Cab album. However, Thank You does have some memorable tracks, such as “When We Drive” and “60 & Punk.”

For a group that had just lost a long-time band member, this album is decent.

In the grand scheme, it’s pretty forgettable. 

Best Song: When We Drive

Worst Song: Your Hurricane

#8 – Narrow Stairs (2008)

The breakthrough success of 2005’s Plans left Death Cab in an interesting spot. All eyes were on the band, and I guess they wanted to change things up with their release of Narrow Stairs.

During production, guitarist and producer Chris Walla described the record as “polarizing” and “abrasive.” He said they had drawn influence from the “heavy, slow-metal” band Brainiac. 

Well, Walla did not lie. The opening track of Narrow Stairs, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” is much more explosive than the timid album opener of Plans, “Marching Bands of Manhattan.” The garbled guitar distortion, heavy-hitting drumming from Jason McGerr, and gradual crescendo to the climax of the song is jarring to listen to. It’s then followed by an eight minute song, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a song about a stalker who is desperately trying to win a girl. The song shines a spotlight on the band’s bassist, Nick Harmer, who plays the same repetitive bassline for nearly the entire song. It’s an eerily dark track both musically and lyrically.

Contrastingly, the opening two tracks are followed by two very Death Cab-esque songs, including “No Sunlight” and “Cath…,” which maintain all their rock roots. However, after four very enjoyable songs, Narrow Stairs takes a nosedive in terms of listenability. Besides “Grapevine Fires,” this album is pretty unexciting. The rest of the songs are either boring, unoriginal, or just bad. 

Honestly, Narrow Stairs is just a very dark record. “Talking Bird” and “The Ice is Getting Thinner” are both hauntingly slow and contain a surprising amount of grizzly undertones. It’s depressing to listen to.

The album charted at #1 on the Billboard 200, which is the highest any of their albums have ever reached. 

Despite the commercial success, like Thank You For Today, this album is still pretty forgettable. 

Best Song: Cath…

Worst Song: Pity and Fear

#7 – Kintsugi (2015)

As overlooked as this album seems to be, Kintsugi is probably one of the most important releases the band has ever made. 

Compared to the unwavering happiness that filled the sound of Codes and Keys, 2015’s Kintsugi reveals a different side of Ben Gibbard at his most emotionally vulnerable point. 

During the time between Codes and Keys and Kintusgi, two major events happened that greatly affected the band – Zooey Deschanel divorced Ben Gibbard, and Chris Walla, the band’s longtime guitarist, announced that he was leaving for good. 

Lyrically, this album is blemished with heartbreak. Nearly every song is blatantly about Ben’s ex-wife, and as depressing as it is, it can also be pretty tough to listen to. The album’s opener, “No Room In Frame” is probably one of the greatest opening tracks of any Death Cab record with some of the most poignant lyrics that Gibbard has ever put out: “And I guess it’s not a failure we could help / And we’ll both go on to get lonely with someone else.”

Sonically, the album’s sound is even more convoluted than Gibbard’s lyrics. Being that the departed Chris Walla was also the band’s producer, most of the tracks on Kintsugi sound nothing like any material the band had released before. While Walla did make some contributions to the album, the band still had to find a new direction to go in, and this record sees them dip their toes into the water of the unknown. 

Regardless of any personal and musical obstacles that were surmounted for this record to be made, Kintsugi doesn’t have much to brag about. It’s an important release for the band, but for the average listener, this album is unimpressively average. 

Best Song: No Room in Frame

Worst Song: El Dorado

#6 – Asphalt Meadows (2022)

After a slew of pretty underwhelming albums, Asphalt Meadows definitely brought back some old Death Cab listeners that had stopped following the band. 

Compared to Thank You for Today, Ben Gibbard and company sound much more musically comfortable on this record. It’s a healthy blend between the old Death Cab sound and their new sound. Asphalt Meadows has a lot more explosive, dynamic highs (“I Don’t Know How I Survive” and “Roman Candles”) compared to their previous releases. Regardless, Asphalt is probably one of the most upbeat records the band ever released, and it’s a breath of fresh air. “Floxgove Through the Clearcut” is the first Death Cab “spoken word” song with Gibbard poetically declaring the lyrics instead of singing them. Asphalt even has some of the best slow, stripped back songs that the band has released in a very long time (“Rand McNally” and “Wheat Like Waves”). 

In this record, you can tell that Death Cab is finally getting used to their new sound and band members.

However, I can’t bring myself to rank it higher. It sits comfortably in the #6 spot, outclassing some of their recent releases but bested by some of their older albums.

Best Song: Wheat Likes Waves

Worst Song: I’ll Never Give Up on You

 

#5 – Something About Airplanes (1998)

We’ve now reached the point in this review where the rest of the albums that will be discussed are all really good. No matter the rating, no matter the “worst song,” these albums are all pretty solid from here on out. 

Something About Airplanes is definitely a hidden gem in the Death Cab discography. 

For being the band’s debut studio album, Something About Airplanes is an impressively complete display of musical talent. With reverb-drenched guitar licks from Chris Walla, distortion-ridden vocals from Gibbard, and powerful percussion from drummer Nathan Good, Death Cab for Cutie sounded already comfortable with their musical style when this record was released. The dreary slowcore sound and winding guitar melody of “Sleep Spent” that is nearly immediately followed by the infectiously dynamic drumbeat and fuzzy guitar riff of “Amputations” is a clear example of this album’s musical variety. 

It’s the most 90s and grungy that Death Cab ever sounded, and it is really fun to listen to.

Best Song: Amputations

Worst Song: The Face That Launched 1000 *****

#4 – We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000)

As much as I really enjoy Something About Airplanes, Death Cab’s sophomore album, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, is essentially a cleaner, more mature version of their debut.

The album’s opening song, “Title Track,” begins by sounding like another song that could have been on Something About Airplanes. However, after just a minute, it seamlessly transitions from lo-fi slacker rock to a much more refined sound, essentially summing up how this album compares to Something About Airplanes. 

We Have the Facts just sounds better. 

The guitar riffs lost their reverb, Gibbard’s vocals turned from distorted cries into fragile croons, and the band’s new percussionist, Michael Schorr, pulled back on the drumming while still keeping it effective. 

Sonically, it is a much more depressing record than Something About Airplanes. “Little Fury Bugs” contains some pitifully dark lyrics: “As the hope that you’ll never return in a while / But you’re always on time, so.” The inexplicable tenderness of “The Employment Pages,” accompanied by Gibbard’s lulling vocals, sounds like the band is trying not to wake their parents sleeping in the next room. The quiet glockenspiel chimes on “No Joy in Mudville” are gradually extinguished by the addition of more instruments until the entire band is playing at full volume before quickly going back to their ‘don’t wake the parents’ sound. It’s all very interesting to listen to.

Despite this album’s share of slow songs, it also has some upbeat ones that are very enjoyable, including “Lowell, MA” and “Company Calls.” 

Overall, this is a great record. Anyone who is interested in a unique spin on the early 2000s indie scene should definitely give this album a try.

Best Song: No Joy in Mudville

Worst Song: 405

#3 – Plans (2005)

Coming off of the massively successful and career-defining album that was Transatlanticism (2003), Death Cab for Cutie had a lot to live up to. 

Well, 2005’s Plans solidified that the success of Transatlanticism was not a fluke. If the band was not already in the mainstream, this album only catapulted them further into the spotlight. The album peaked at 4 on the Billboard 200, went platinum, and earned the band multiple Grammy nominations. The song “I Will Follow You into the Dark” became the band’s most popular single and is their most streamed song on Spotify.

Overall, this album deserved the attention that it got. Tracks like “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” are perfect for radio play, and other ones like “Marching Band of Manhattan” and “Your Heart is an Empty Room” have a heart-warming amount of optimism in them. 

The album’s final three tracks are easily some of the most emotional 15 minutes that the band ever put on a record. The piano and drum-heavy song of “What Sarah Said,” which is about watching a loved one die, is one of few Death Cab songs that tackles such a morbid topic so openly: “That love is watching someone die / So who’s gonna watch you die?” The reflective melancholy of “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” and “Stable Song” are both some of the greatest closing tracks on a Death Cab album. 

Despite this album having some weak points, Plans is filled with career-defining songs for the band, and it’s a very important release for any listener looking to get into Death Cab for Cutie.

Best Song: Your Heart is an Empty Room

Worst Song: Summer Skin

#2 – The Photo Album (2001)

Putting The Photo Album so high on this list feels like a risk, but I feel that this album does not get enough credit. 

Compared to the timidness of We Have the Facts (2000), The Photo Album takes a surprisingly large leap in musical sound. The twinkly and spinning guitar of “A Movie Script Ending,” followed by the commanding drumbeat and atmospheric acoustics of “We Laugh Indoors” are two strikingly different songs. Gibbard’s ode to Los Angeles, “Why You’d Want to Live Here” is an upbeat, overdramatic, excuse-ridden request to try to not get a significant other to move away: “You can’t swim in a town this shallow / you will most assuredly drown tomorrow.”

As if the band did not already use enough crescendos, the bitter and eventually vociferous escapade of “Styrofoam Plates” is filled with spitefulness towards a deceased family member at their funeral: “You’re a disgrace to the concept of family / You can deck out a lie in a suit but I won’t buy it.” 

Nearly every song on this album is perfect. They all sound sonically different while still maintaining the band’s uniqueness. 

An outstanding record overall.

Best Song: A Movie Script Ending

Worst Song: Information Travels Faster


#1 – Transatlanticism (2003)

At this point, it’s clear that the first seven years of Death Cab’s musical tenure were the golden days. However, the peak of these golden days came with the release of Transatlanticism in 2003. 

Coming off of Ben Gibbard’s unprecedented success with The Postal Service (another indie rock group) and their album Give Up (2003), Death Cab for Cutie had found renewed attention. Whatever overcame the band in 2003 to produce such an unforgettable record has failed to be replicated since. Transatlanticism is the band’s magnum opus.

In general, Transatlanticism is a very moving record. It is one of the more emotional Death Cab records, but the heartbreak that riddles the lyrics in Transatlanticism is less obvious and easier to swallow than it is in albums like Kintsugi. 

The album’s title track is a seven minute “confession” to a lover who has been emotionally distanced from the narrator, and the Atlantic Ocean is used as a metaphor to show how far the two have grown apart. For four minutes, Gibbard repeats the words “I need you so much closer” as more instruments come in, the drums get louder, and the guitar strums get heavier. It all culminates in the final minute of the song as a beautiful harmony of voices repeat the words “so come on.” 

The song “Title and Registration” tackles the sadness and regret of heartbreak while simultaneously calling a car’s glove box a misnomer: “I was searching for some legal document / When I stumbled upon pictures I tried to forget.”

The delicate vocals and gentle instrumentals of both “Passenger Seat” and “A Lack of Color” also add a shade of hopefulness to this album, as if Death Cab was saying that things do get better.

Simply put, Transatlanticism is without a doubt Death Cab for Cutie’s greatest record. There is not a more cohesive album, both emotionally and musically, released by the band. It is by far their most complete musical effort.

Best Song: Transatlanticism

About the Contributor
Photo of Daniel Zacher
Daniel Zacher, Journalist

Grade: Senior

Hobbies: Playing tennis, spending time with friends, listening to music

Best Restaurant: Papa John's Pizza

Marvel or DC: Marvel

Favorite...

The LeSabre • Copyright 2023 • FLEX WordPress Theme by SNOLog in