An Essential Guide to Death Cab for Cutie

An Essential Guide to Death Cab for Cutie
"Whatever album somebody's entry point to this particular band was, it's going to most likely define the sound that they want us to have," Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard told Exclaim! in 2011, so it wouldn't be surprising if their new album, Kintsugi (due March 31 via Atlantic), ends up being some fans' favourite record. Longtime Death Cab for Cutie fans, meanwhile, will likely remain steadfast in their devotion to the first Death Cab for Cutie record they loved; they have their personal favourite, and time won't change that.

Death Cab's refusal to stagnate and adhere to the cerebral, sensitive indie rock sound they established early in their career following their 2003 breakthrough Transatlanticism — due, in large part, to the band's designation as indie nerd Seth Cohen's favourite band on teen soap The O.C., as well as rave reviews and a subsequent signing to a major label — has lost them a few fans along the way, but they've garnered legions of new devotees with each release. Indeed, their past three albums — 2005's Plans, 2008's Narrow Stairs and 2011's Codes and Keys — have all landed in the top five of the Billboard 200.

Picking Death Cab's three best records depends largely, as Gibbard notes, on your entry point to Death Cab for Cutie. If it was their 2001 album The Photo Album that won you over, it's unlikely that you prefer their more recent work; if you found them with Narrow Stairs, you probably like their last few records more than their first few. The band have gone through three stages of evolution that fans tend to favour; we'll call them the Indie Label Period (1997 to 2002), their Transitional Period (2003 to 2005) and their Major Label Period (2006 to present).
Thus, we've set aside our biases in order to pick the most significant album from each of three periods in the band's discography, which we'll delineate in Exclaim!'s Essential Guide to Death Cab for Cutie, below.

Indie Label Period (1997 to 2002):

Death Cab's Indie Label period begins in 1997, when they released a demo cassette titled You Can Play These Songs With Chords for Elsinor Records, and lasts roughly until 2002, after the band had released Something About Airplanes (1998), We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000) and The Photo Album (2001) for Barsuk Records. These records are characterized by nimble, cleanly picked guitar lines, a focus on melody over rhythm and Ben Gibbard's plaintive tenor head voice, which gave their indie rock sound an emo tinge. Lyrically, Gibbard's self-deprecating and often sarcastic musings about life in one's 20s were hung on nuanced observations and descriptions of minutiae like champagne in a paper cup, lipstick on a cigarette filter and the lead of a pencil on a manuscript.

Essential Album: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000)

After establishing a slightly grunge-inflected, lo-fi sound on You Can Play These Songs With Chords and their official debut, Something About Airplanes, the band made a huge leap forward on We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, turning the sounds into something all Death Cab's own. Lyrically, Gibbard refined the clumsy metaphors of his previous work into sharper, more poignant observations, and the guitar interplay here is some of Death Cab's finest; as they'd age, their playing would swap the jittery urgency and intricacy of "Lowell, MA," "405" and "Company Calls" for something a little more settled and mature.
This is also the album on which they'd use quiet/loud dynamics most effectively: the moment the bass and extra guitar slide into "Title Track," the drums exploding on "Scientist Studies" at the 50-second mark and the towering crescendos of "No Joy in Mudville" are all transcendent moments that made We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes special.

What to Avoid:
Death Cab's 1997 cassette demo, You Can Play These Songs with Chords, is charming and fascinating, but pales in comparison to what they'd achieve once they refined some of the better songs for Something About Airplanes, and would be a difficult entry point for any new fan.
Further Listening:
The Photo Album is easily as good as Facts, as sprightly guitar lines, more incisive lyrics and the addition of piano on "Information Travels Faster" and studio filters on "Coney Island" added dimensions to the band's early signature sound.
Elsewhere, the band's Forbidden Love EP features some of Death Cab's most beloved songs, including "Photobooth" and "Technicolor Girls," while The Stability EP offers gems like "20th Century Towers" and the 12-minute title track, which they would shorten and re-record for 2005's Plans. To go even deeper, seek out their Sub Pop Singles Club seven-inch, Underwater!
Click to Page 2 below for Death Cab for Cutie's Transitional Period (2003 to 2005).