Death Cab For Cutie

This is the Sound of Seattling…

If memory serves, I first heard Death Cab For Cutie around 2000. Though I’d heard their name before, and due to said name, mentally written them off as just another one of the annoying crop of second wave emo bands that were EVERYWHERE in indiedom at that time, I nevertheless stumbled upon a REALAUDIO file of one of their live shows. I don’t think I listened long – it didn’t GRAB me – BUT it did leave an impression on me, enough to leave a marker in my mind. (I believe it was a bit of “Title Track” performed live…)

A few years later, I heard “The New Year” on a CMJ sampler (this one), one of several pretty great cuts on that CD, and thought “kinda cool tune”, but that was as far as it went. Of course, shortly thereafter, they started to become something of a pop culture phenomenon, getting mentioned a few times on The OC, and I recognized the guy’s voice on a CD-R of cutesy electronic songs my buddy gave me to check out.

Still, whatevs.

In 2005, however, I moved to northwest Washington state, roughly an hour from Seattle, and suddenly – Death Cab started to make a lot of sense. This was of course right when the band’s major label debut, Plans, was released, and I slowly but surely gained a new found appreciation for the band, culminating in their December 2006 end of tour homecoming show at Key Arena (https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/death-cab-for-cutie/2006/keyarena-seattle-wa-23cad47b.html). That was an amazing show, and it was something else to behold so many thousands of people rocking out to what a few years back had been just another indie band like the many I’d seen in small clubs as a kid.

And I was starting to realize that Death Cab wrote really fascinating songs with a great sense of mood. My fascination never took off like a rocket, but it did develop at a reasonable pace over the ensuing years. While Plans, in my view, is their last great album, they’ve done some good stuff since, and there was plenty to go back to from before Plans (including that bleepy-bloopy electronic project Death Cab’s frontman sang for). Indeed, this is a band that has at least 3 classic LPs under their belt, and a whole bunch of other songs that stand strong on their own.

But the truth is – Death Cab is capable of utterly unique musical magic. Witness “The Employment Pages” or “405” or even “Different Names For The Same Thing” – the emotional resonance of these songs is keen, subtle, agony-and-ecstasy fine and to the point, immediately recognizable and totally original. 

On that note, let’s dive in to their discography…

ALBUMS

Death Cab For Cutie Something About Airplanes album cover

Something About Airplanes

Release Year: 1998
My Rating: B-


Solid moody tuneful post-punk debut, even reminds me of some of The Cure's early stuff at times. Nothing hits like their future classics, but it's enjoyable in its own right.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Bend To Squares", "President of What?"

Death Cab For Cutie We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes album cover

We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes

Release Year: 2000
My Rating: A+


A magical record, a total masterpiece. Much of it is just this beautiful, dreamy, hypnosis, and Gibbards vox / lyrics weave seemlessly to make it somehow engulfing and engaging. I'm going to gush if I go on.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Title Track", "The Employment Pages", "405", "Company Calls", "Scientist Studies"

Death Cab For Cutie The Photo Album album cover

The Photo Album

Release Year: 2001
My Rating: B+


Not bad, not great, MERELY PRETTY DARNGARN GOOD. Aside from 2 tracks, this isn't loaded with classics like FACTS or TRANSATLANTICISM. And, hey! It's tough to be the cutie between the two prettiest girls in the room. But like other "lesser" records, it has room to grow on ya.

HIGHLIGHTS: "A Movie Script Ending", "We Laugh Indoors", "Information Travels Faster", "Debate Exposes Doubt"

Death Cab For Cutie Transatlanticism album cover

Transaltanticism

Release Year: 2003
My Rating: A+


A perfect classic? Well, it's so great that any flaws that it has simply drown in this ocean of greatness. I remember not caring about this when it came out, but at this point, reality doesn't seem possible without it. It may be the perfect epitome of sad bastard music, but it's a sadness that's so damn beautiful you can't help but lose yourself in it.

HIGHLIGHTS: "The New Year", "Title and Registration", "The Sound of Settling", "Tiny Vessels", "Transatlanticism", "Passenger Seat"

Death Cab For Cutie Plans album cover

Plans

Release Year: 2005
My Rating: A


May be just a BIT over-produced, but if Transatlanticism had never happened and this alone did, it would be the band's biggest record, for sure. A classic in its own right, and a special record for me. So evocative of memory and nostalgia, WOW.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Marching Bands of Manhattan", "Soul Meets Body", "Summer Skin", "Different Names For The Same Thing", "I Will Follow You Into The Dark", "Your Heart Is An Empty Room", "Crooked Teeth", "What Sarah Said"

Death Cab For Cutie Narrow Stairs album cover

Narrow Stairs

Release Year: 2008
My Rating: C+


Despite containing two of Death Cab's best tracks, this album is, for me, the point at which Death Cab lost the plot. Maybe it's just much too direct? I don't know, but it lacks that mood, that atmosphere, that overcast, mystical magic that made their first decade of records so special.

HIGHLIGHTS: "I Will Possess Your Heart", "Grapevine Fires"

Death Cab For Cutie Codes And Keys album cover

Codes And Keys

Release Year: 2011
My Rating: B


It's the experimental moments on this record that are the best - the rest sounds like big label modern pop-rock made for radio. Yuck. The middle section is pretty solid tho - I'm here for the off-kilter, mysterious Death Cab rather than the up-front singer-songwriter Death Cab, which honestly, might be better as a BG solo project. The big deal thing was they just couldn't figure out whether this was OK Computer or Be Here Now.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Home Is A Fire", "Doors Unlocked and Open", "Unobstructed Views", "Monday Morning"

Death Cab For Cutie Kintsugi album cover

Kintsugi

Release Year: 2015
My Rating: C+


Bands need to evolve, but for me, this is the second album of Death Cab evolving AWAY from the very ethos and aesthetic that made them so great in the first place. And the re-invention is bland, over-produced, radio rock. Just kinda boring.

HIGHLIGHTS: "No Room In Frame", "Ghosts of Beverly Drive"

Death Cab For Cutie Thank You For Today album cover

Thank You For Today

Release Year: 2018
My Rating: B+


At this point, I just miss that old Death Cab sound - that enchanting sleepyheaded vibe that their earlier material exudes. But did they hide a great album of Radioheaded exploration behind a totally boring album title? It's not perfect ("Gold Rush" is a total snorer), but otherwise there's some great stuff here.

HIGHLIGHTS: "I Dreamt We Spoke Again", "Summer Years", "Your Hurricane", "When We Drive", "Near/Far"

Death Cab For Cutie Asphalt Meadows album cover

Asphalt Meadows

Release Year: 2022
My Rating: A-


Is this a renaissance for Death Cab? Perhaps. There's no going back to the glorious indie days for sure, but this seems to synthesize all of their variant explorations since PLANS into their most solid LP since 2005. I dig it!

HIGHLIGHTS: "I Don't Know How To Survive", "Roman Candles", "Rand McNally", "Foxglove Through The Clearcut", "Pepper", "Fragments From The Decade"

OTHER RELEASES

You Can Play These Songs With Chords [compilation]

Release Year: 2002
My Rating: B


Early odds and sods collection featuring Gibbard's original demo from 1997. I like some of the early versions better than the later versions on SAA, the production is lighter and bouncier. "Army Corps of Architects" is a GEM.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Army Corps of Architects", "Wait", "Pictures In An Exhibition"

Death Cab For Cutie Forbidden Love EP album cover

Forbidden Love EP

Release Year: 2000

One classic, one solid, a great acoustic version, and then 2 filler tracks. But "Photobooth" is worth the price of admission alone.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Photobooth", "Song for Kelly Huckaby"

Death Cab For Cutie The Stability EP album cover

The Stability EP

Release Year: 2000

I could do with more Death Cab the jam band. I've always been more drawn to THAT SOUND than the songs anyway.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Stability"

Death Cab For Cutie The Open Door EP album cover

The Open Door EP

Release Year: 2009

Solid EP of outtakes from the Narrow Stairs era. The first two are great rarity tracks - too bad everything's so readily available at this point, otherwise they might be the sort of hidden gems the true fans used to trade around.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Little Bribes", "A Diamond and a Tether"

Death Cab For Cutie The Blue EP album cover

The Blue EP

Release Year: 2019

More like OUT OF THE BLUE, AMIRITE??? This is an extremely solid late era Death Cab EP, and to be honest, I'm surprised it sounds as vital as it does. While there are no Top 10 quality tracks here for me, it sounds like bona fide Death Cab, and I'm pleasantly surprised to be able to say that after just about having given up on them.

HIGHLIGHTS: "To The Ground", "Kids in '99"

  • “Meet Me On The Equinox”: Death Cab + teenage vampires in the PacNorWest. Of course it works.

MISCELLANEOUS / RELATED

  • The Postal Service: I’ll get around to a write-up of this at some point I’m sure.
  • All-Time-Quarterback
  • Various Ben Gibbard Solo
  • Various Ben Gibbard Collab
  • Chris Walla

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BOKY RATINGS GUIDE

Here’s my totally scientific method for grading albums. I’m sure you’ll find it revolutionary:

  • A+: CLASSIC album – I revere this bad boy.
  • A: GREAT album – a repeat listener from start to finish.
  • B: GOOD album – I’ll probably listen again at some point.
  • C: MEH album – not awful, but I have no desire to listen again.
  • D: BAD album – not sure why anyone would listen to this.
  • F: TRULY AWFUL album – monumentally bad and offense against music.

Gradations between letters (A-/B+/B-/C+) simply indicate it’s somwhere between the two letters.