Death Cab for Cutie Albums Ranked Best to Worst

Updated on May 2, 2019
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Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award-nominated author based out of Juneau, Alaska.

Classic Death Cab for Cutie lineup. From left: bassist Nick Harmer, vocals/guitar/keys Ben Gibbard, vocals/guitar/keys Chris Walla and drummer Jason McGerr.
Classic Death Cab for Cutie lineup. From left: bassist Nick Harmer, vocals/guitar/keys Ben Gibbard, vocals/guitar/keys Chris Walla and drummer Jason McGerr. | Source

Death Cab for Cutie are unlikely music superstars. Hailing from Bellingham, Washington, they moved to Seattle, where they built a small, but committed following. Eventually, they moved to Los Angeles, where they became poster boys for indie rock stardom. That said, "poster boy," is a loose term. The band looks a little rough around the edges. They're all a little chubby, they're all awkward dancers, and they all share a self-deprecating sense of humor. They may not be your GQ band, but that makes them all the more endearing.

Benjamin Gibbard has been the constant member of the group and, as the primary songwriter and lyricist, he has a knack for wordplay, vivid storytelling, and the undeniable pop hook. As a songwriter, he is second to none.

After nine full-length albums, a half-dozen EPs, several compilations, and several movie soundtrack contributions Death Cab has left behind a musical legacy that will ensure that they will always be remembered. And, although they are approaching their mid-forties, they are still young enough to build on an already strong career.

Not all of their work is perfect, but they've never released a bad record. While some are masterpieces and some are forgettable, they all have undeniable hooks and pitch perfect songwriting. Below, I've ranked the albums and EPs from best to worst. Let me know what you think of my list in the comment section below.

I've always been someone who's so destination-focused that I've had difficulties with the journey, in general, during my life. What ultra-marathons have taught me is to be present in the journey. Since I've started the practice in my life, ultra-running, to me, has been like a spiritual practice. Some may roll their eyes, but it is like a religion of sorts."

— Ben Gibbard (on aging and continuing to create music)
Source

1. Transatlanticism

Release Year: 2003

Production Company: Barsuk Records

This is Death Cab's undisputed masterpiece. Once again produced by Chris Walla, this is the second concept album by Death Cab. The album follows the theme of long distance love. Alternative Press declared that Transatlanticism is "Death Cab's slowest and most mature recording [with] hidden bits of magic [that] reveal themselves brilliantly." The lyrics and music bridge the gap between the earlier, rawer style and the more polished pop sound that would be on their next album (and major label debut) Plans. "Title and Registration," "The Sound of settling," and "We looked like Giants" highlight this brilliant album. It's hard to imagine Death Cab topping this album.

There's no blame for how our love did slowly fade

And now that it's gone, it's like it wasn't there at all

And here I rest where disappointment and regret collide

Lying awake at night

— Death Cab for Cutie, "Title and Registration"
Source

2. We have the facts and we're voting yes.

Release Year: 2000

Production Company: Barsuk Records

"Facts," as it's often called by fans, begins a remarkable streak of nearly flawless albums by Death Cab for Cutie. It was also their first concept album. Once again produced by Chris Walla, this album tells the tale of a the deteriorating relationship of a hip Seattle couple. There's something about this record that just warrants repeat listens. "Title Track" is melancholic and beautiful. "405" is brilliantly structured. "Company Calls" is up tempo and fun. And, finally, the long and introspective closing track "Scientist Studies," will make anyone emotional. I used to listen to this album on repeat. It hasn't aged as well as some of their other projects (which might be why it's not my favorite), but it's pretty damn good.

That second record, especially, for years and years, has been my favorite... As I try to figure out what it is about that record that I react to so strongly–we started recording it like twelve years ago–dissecting all those elements and trying to reverse-engineer what happened, I've learned so much about what I value about songwriting and about performances."

— Chris Walla (on recording "Facts")
Source

3. The Photo Album

Release Year: 2001

Production Company: Barsuk Records

Another album produced by Chris Walla, The Photo Album is (as the name would suggest) a collection of vignettes covering life, love, and loss. It's catchy and heartfelt, simple, yet complex and layered. With songs like "A Movie Script Ending," "Styrofoam Plates," "Blacking out the friction," and "We Laugh Indoors," the highlight tracks are among the best in Death Cab's career. I have two complaints about this album. Firstly, it's too short (under thirty-nine minutes long). Secondly, it's a little choppy. I love the album, but I often find myself unable to listen to it in one sitting. At times, it feels incongruous and the weaker tracks really drag the album down. This album isn't as good as The Photo Album or Transatlanticism, but it's still an amazing album.

Whenever I come back, the air on Railroad is making the same sounds,

And the shop fronts on Holly are dirty words (asterisks in for the vowels)

We peered through the windows, new bottoms on barstools but the people remain the same.

— Death Cab for Cutie, "A Movie Script Ending"
Source

4. Narrow Stairs

Release Year: 2008

Production Company: Atlantic Records

Whereas the production on Plans was somewhat heavy-handed, Chris Walla chose a more hands-off approach for this record. This resulted in a more raw, pure, and dark sounding record. Written after nearly two solid years of touring, Walla wanted a record that "Sounded like four guys playing on stage" and, in that sense, the record is a resounding success. The album has some gems, including the epic "I will Possess Your Heart," "Cath," "Your New Twin Sized Bed," and "Grapevine Fires." Musically, it falls between the earlier indie pop sound of Transatlanticism and the more streamlined, straightforward rock that has begun to define their post Walla career. Narrow Stairs was their last great record (start to finish), until Thank you for Today. It's an essential album in their catalog.

That record is kind of a fulcrum in my life. So much of the negativity in my life got funneled into it. I realized after that I didn't want to go any darker. I wanted it to be the bottom for this band and my own emotional spectrum in terms of writing. I had no grandiose plans to turn my life around."

— Ben Gibbard on "Narrow Stairs"
Source

5. Open Door EP

Release Year: 2009

Production Company: Atlantic Records

This is Death Cab's best EP. The four original songs on this EP are among the strongest material Death Cab put out between 2000 and 2010. The album includes the insatiably catchy "Little Bribes." The songwriting is mature and fully realized. These songs could easily fit on any of their prior five full-length albums. The "Talking Bird" demo is interesting, though, ultimately, it is a throwaway track.

The Eiffel tower built to smaller scale

The freshest oxygen I'd ever inhale

I tapped a bottle against a safety rail, killing time

And you were like a walking compliment

— Death Cab for Cutie, "Little Bribes"
Source

6. Thank You for Today

Release Year: 2018

Production Company: Atlantic Records

While this record still lacks some of the urgency of their earlier releases, it does show Gibbard growing comfortable without Walla as a songwriting sidekick and producer (this album was also produced by Rick Costey). The record marks the first release for Death Cab since Gibbard turned forty. The album explores themes of reflection, uncertainty, and regret. It has more hits ("Your Hurricane", "When we Drive", "Northern Lights", "Near/Far") than misses ("Gold Rush", "Summer Years") and shows a band that is optimistic about the future and has no signs of slowing down. Album closer "60 & Punk" is a top five song in the Death Cab catalog. As a fan, this record shows that we have a lot to look forward to from the band.

The curtain falls to applause and the band plays you off, the band plays you off

He's a superhero growing bored with no one to save anymore

The curtain falls to applause and the band plays you off, the band plays you off

He's a superhero growing bored with no one to save anymore

— Death Cab for Cutie, "60 and Punk"
Source

7. Forbidden Love EP

Release Year: 2000

Production Company: Barsuk Records

This little, five song EP was released between We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes and The Photo Album, and it bridges the gap perfectly. The three original songs on here are all strong, but "Photo Booth" is a classic. The acoustic version of "405" and the alternate version of "Company Calls (Epilogue)" (the originals both appear on Facts) are excellent renditions of already excellent songs. This debut EP is hard to beat.

And as the summer's ending,

The cool air will put your hard heart away.

You were so condescending

And this is all that's left

— Death Cab for Cutie, "Photobooth"
Source

8. Plans

Release Year: 2005

Production Company: Atlantic Records

Once again produced by Chris Walla, Plans marks Death Cab's major label debut and, while all three of the singles from this album managed to chart, the album shows hints of a band struggling through mid-career malaise. This would become more prevalent on the succeeding albums. The highlight tracks are strong. These include "Marching Bands of Manhattan," "What Sarah Said," "Brothers on a Hotel Bed," and "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." In fact, these tracks mark some of the strongest in the Death Cab catalog. That said, tracks like "Soul Meets Body" and ”Different Names for the Same thing" lack some of the charm and urgency of earlier releases. The song writing is still strong, but some of that gets lost in the production, which is, at times, heavy-handed. It's a good, but not a great record.

I don't think there's necessarily a story, but there's definitely a theme here. One of my favorite kinds of dark jokes is, 'How do you make God laugh? You make a plan.' Nobody ever makes a plan that they're gonna go out and get hit by a car. A plan almost always has a happy ending. Essentially, every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time. I really like the idea of a plan not being seen as having definite outcomes, but more like little wishes.

— Benjamin Gibbard (on writing "Plans")
Source

9. Something About Airplanes

Release Year: 1998

Production Company: Barsuk Records

As far as debut albums go, Something About Airplanes isn’t bad. It hints at what is to come. Released in August of 1998 and produced by guitarist Chris Walla, the album has some gems, including “President of What?,” “Your Bruise,” and “That Face That Launched 1,000 Shits.” It’s a solid, if raw, pop record. It's definitely more mature than many other albums written by twenty-one-year-olds. The same themes of longing and loss that are found on other Death Cab for Cutie releases are present here. Gibbard's songwriting and wordplay are front and center. There are some ear worms on this record that make it worth repeat listens. While it’s not considered a top tier Death Cab release, it is an important part of the Death Cab catalog and a great introduction to the band.

We sounded really good back then. At first, I thought he was just being the cheerleader here. I couldn’t imagine us sounding as good as we did 10 years ago. Not to toot our own horn, but if you put that thing on, we actually sound pretty good.

— Ben Gibbard (referring to Chris Walla speaking about "Something About Airplanes")
Source

Kintsugi is a type of Japanese art involving fixing broken pottery. It is also a philosophy of treating breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

10. Kintsugi

Release Year: 2015

Production Company: Atlantic Records

I was fully prepared to place this album at number 12, but, upon another listen, it's actually much more memorable than it's predecessor, Codes and Keys. This album has many firsts for Death Cab: It's the first one without Chris Walla as producer (Rick Costey produced instead) or as a member of the band. It's also the first album Death Cab wrote after Ben Gibbard's divorce from Zooey Deschanel. The themes of loss and grief are thick throughout this record, and Gibbard lays bare his soul on many tracks including "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive," "Little Wanderer," "You've Haunted Me All My Life," and "Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)." At times, the songwriting is lacking and generic (likely a symptom of Walla not being there to help along the process) and it is entirely over-produced, but it has enough highlights to not be a complete throwaway.

You've haunted me all my life

Through endless days and countless nights

There was a storm when I was just a kid

Stripped the last code of innocence

— Death Cab for Cutie, "You've Haunted Me All My Life"
Source

11. Codes & Keys

Release Year: 2011

Production Company: Atlantic Records

Produced by Chris Walla, Code and Keys, is significant for a couple reasons. First, it marks the final album with Chris Walla as a member of the band and as producer. It is also the least guitar-centric album in the Death Cab catalog. Some of the songs, like ”Underneath the Sycamore" and "St. Peter's Cathedral" are some of the best in the Death Cab catalog. But, the problem with album (as with Plans) is that it never really gets going. The great songs are sandwiched between some average and so-so ones. Lyrically, it's fairly optimistic (it was written right after Benjamin Gibbard married Zooey Deschanel). It seems to lack some of the desperation and heart of previous releases. It's okay. But, ultimately, it's forgettable.

Lying in a field of glass

Underneath the overpass

Mangled in the shards of a mental frame

Woken from a dream by my own name

Well I was such a wretched man

Searching everywhere for a homeland

Now we are under the same sun

Feel it through the leaves, let it heal us

— Death Cab for Cutie, "Underneath the Sycamore"

12. Stability E.P.

Release Year: 2002

Production Company: Barsuk Records

This brief, three song EP is a continuation of The Photo Album, right down to the artwork. It's not a bad little album, but it also never really gets going. The three songs on here are all very mellow and down tempo. The Bjork cover, "All is full of love,” is the highlight here. In general, these songs would have been better if they were included on The Photo Album or Transatlanticism. While they are excellent tracks, the EP doesn't stand up to repeat listens like their other albums or EPs.

Time for the final bout

Rows of deserted houses

All our stable mates are highway bound

Give us our measly sum

— Death Cab for Cutie, "Stability"

Comments? Suggestions? Criticisms?

What do you think of this list? Do you agree, disagree? Are you indifferent? Did you like this article? Would you like to see more artist's albums ranked? I'd love to see who you think I should rank next in the comment section below!

Death Cab for Cutie Albums

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    © 2019 Justin W Price

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