The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 10. – Death Cab For Cutie

I first heard of Death Cab For Cutie sometime in 2003, sometime before the infamous Seth Cohen Starter Pack episode of the OC.   One of my friends in my poetry class next to me, who knew that I liked music, asked me if I heard of them.  “No,” I told her, thinking that Death Cab For Cutie was such an odd name for a a band.  She told me to listen to them, which I did, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.  I wasn’t too into the sensitive rock that they excel in at the time.  I was too into the “angry young man years” of Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan to really give Death Cab much of a chance.

For a while, I kind of forgot about them.  Then somewhere along the line, tons of people I know started talking about them.  This was probably due to their inclusion on episodes of The OC.  I had heard of The OC, but it wasn’t on my radar.  “Why would a band want to sell out and include themselves on a TV show?”, I wondered.  My thought was that they were obviously a bunch of sell-outs.  This thought is of course, not really well constructed.

Back to Dylan and Costello for a moment.  Both of these artists, represent an aura of non-compromise.  They do what they want, consequences by damned. Costello, famously playing “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live when the producers told him not to.  Dylan, of course, for going electric when he was the hero of folk-music.  Sure they sold records, and have a wide audience, but “selling out” wasn’t something they would do.  I for one, held onto this very idea for a long time.  (Ironically, around this time Bob Dylan was appearing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, but I deemed it too weird, and surreal to be considered “selling out”.  Really, I just didn’t want to admit that even my hero could do something like that.)

But for bands in the early 2000s, the music business was different.  The record companies were fledging, and there had to be a new way for artists to get exposed.  While it may seem commonplace today, for artists songs to be used on Glee, in 2003 having your songs on shows like The OC was uncharted territory.  Especially for respectable bands, but Death Cab along with Bright Eyes seized the moment, and it worked.  Suddenly people started talking about Death Cab all the time.  Their sensitive, melodic  songwriting, and Ben Gibbard‘s soft voice ushered in a new wave of indie-rock, where it was okay to emotional without being angry.  Death Cab represented a true alternative to radio rock which seemed to be dominated by big, dumb rock songs.  They also weren’t “cool” like The Strokes, or guitar-heavy like The White Stripes.  Death Cab was more interested in writing songs and telling stories that people could relate to.

When you think of “indie rock”, it’s hard not to think of Death-Cab.  Earlier incarnations of indie rock mostly included punk, hard-core, riot girl, and weird experimental post-punk bands. But Death Cab represented a new era of “indie rock”, and almost every indie band that came out after (or around the same time) – from Modest Mouse to Vampire Weekend – owe them a huge debt.  Let’s also not forget Death Cab also became a band that teenage girls, and women in college could relate to, something which rock radio seemed to be lacking.

When Death Cab signed to Atlantic in 2004, it was a major move.  True, Modest Mouse was among the first of the “new indie” bands to sign to a major in 2000, but when Death Cab signed people were left wondering if they would alter their sound for the masses.  But like R.E.M., two decades earlier who had also put out several albums on an indie label before signing to a major label, Death Cab put out Plans in 2005 , an album that didn’t compromise their sound, but built upon the foundation they already had as evident on such songs as “Crooked Teeth“, and “Souls Meets Body”.

Even though they’ve never really had a “hit”, Death Cab For Cutie remains extremely popular in part because the world came to them.  Perhaps in their own way, maybe they are a bit like Dylan and Costello.

Edit: Here’s the full list of The Ten Most Important Artists

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93 Comments

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93 responses to “The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 10. – Death Cab For Cutie

  1. Lily

    I absolutely started listening to Death Cab around the first season of the OC, and you’re right–I think it was the first time a tv show took a cool band and just managed to make them more known and not less cool. The only thing I’d contend, or adjust really, is that all the songs were ‘sensitive’ or ’emotional without being angry’ when a lot of them are just plain mean–Ben Gibbard has that strange ability to be incredibly sweet-sounding while saying the meanest things, especially to women (see “Tiny Vessels” or “The Sound of Settling” or “Someday You Will Be Loved).
    If this also includes his work with The Postal Service, I am interested to see which 9 you think are more important…

    • It’s funny to look back at the OC, with its soundtrack some 5-6 years later. It’s become such common place for artists to use their songs on shows, etc. You’re probably right about about the mean lyrics, come to think of it “Cath” is pretty bitter, but there’s a certain likability that Gibbard has that kind of softens the blow. As far as The Postal Service goes, I’ve only listened to them in passing, so I can’t comment too much on them, but I liked what I heard.

      Also, I’ve taken the advice that you and Kevin suggested and am going to try to lean towards more text heavy posts as much as I can.

  2. They peaked with Transatlanticism.

  3. I absolutely love and I mean love Death Cab, yes from one fan to another we all know that it makes no sense to call them Death Cab for Cutie each time you speak of them. I’ll be listening to music and my sister will make a Death Cab request, and we will both go back 2003 and be completely in love all over again. I didn’t realize that I have loved them for so long. ” “What Sarah said” is one of my friends favorite song, and of course I introduced her to them so I always think of her when I hear that song. I saw them in Berkeley and still have this bracelet I bought in Berkeley, it’s my Death Cab bracelet. What a wonderful, sweet, amazing band!

  4. Also, I keep waiting for someday, but I have yet to be loved by anything besides music. ❤

  5. Putting Death Cab on right now! Great post. I never watched the OC, but I think I caught on to the band around that time. Those shows often feature great bands. The ones on the WB and the CW.

  6. Transatlanticism continues to be one of my favorite albums, it’s intense with emotion, the songwriting is incredible. I’ve always considered Ben a really great writer, and I love what you two discussed about the mean lyrics while he sounds sweet. “Styrofoam Plates” and “We Laugh Indoors” have some of my favorite harsh lyrics. 🙂

  7. I love Death Cab! I’ve been listening to them since 2003 as well. What’s your favorite Death Cab song? Album?

  8. “Death Cab was more interested in writing songs and telling stories that people could relate to.” Agreed. My all time Death Cab favourite is Crooked Teeth.

  9. I love Death Cab. Great post!

  10. Very interesting post. Of course I went and had a look at the complete list – it takes a brave man to admit to such an eclectic list that includes Britney. Good for you! And congrats on being Freshly Pressed. I’ll be back for updates – check out little known Heather Peace in the UK!!

  11. Hi! I enjoyed your post, but don’t agree that Modest Mouse owes Death Cab a “huge debt” when they’ve been doing their own thing and quite popular within the indie world since the mid-90s.

    • I agree that Modest Mouse have been doing their own thing…but Death Cab being on the OC kind of opened doors for indie bands to get noticed. I’m not so sure that MM would have gotten a “hit” with “Float On” and mainstream attention in “indie rock” hadn’t had the buzz around it that it did in 03-04.

  12. Don’t you think the Postal Service has been more influential than Death Cab?

    • Somebody else asked me about that…and I could be wrong, but I’m not sure if many people (this might be different a few years ago) know of them without their association to Death Cab.

      • I guess Plans went platinum, whereas Give Up is only gold. But I know which album I hear more often.

        I’d wager, though, that Ben Gibbard is best known for his marriage.

  13. Whereas I do like Death Cab… I think their problem is (at least with the new material) that they sound like any other indie band on the radio…somewhat “generic” for lack of a better word… “You Are A Tourist” is pleasant and catchy enough… but lacks any sort of edge to me… very nice write-up though ;o)

    • I agree – Death Cab started sounding much like any other indie band that came along. But I think there’s always that period of stagnation and homogeneity while music as a whole starts moving towards something else.

    • Thanks for the kind words….”Plans” I think might be the most generic of their albums…I actually haven’t heard “You Are A Tourist”. It should be an interesting album. I didn’t care for the song they did for the Twilight soundtrack though.

  14. The WB was actually using it’s pile of artists in it’s TV shows long, long before The OC showed up to the scene – like mid- to late-ninties. Think back to Dawson’s Creek, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the time, you didn’t notice how many great artists were worked into the shows, but they were definitely there. And these were artists that were considered indi right up until they managed to sign with Warner Records.

  15. You’re probably right about about the mean lyrics, come to think of it “Cath” is pretty bitter, but there’s a certain likability that Gibbard has that kind of softens the blow.

  16. If by “most important” you mean “inspired years of wimpy-voiced, bespectacled, whiny pseudo-indie rock,” then you’re right. I look forward to seeing who else made your list.

    BTW, congrats on getting Freshly Pressed.

    • Thanks for the reply. “Inspired years of wimpy-voiced, bespectacled whiny pseudo-indie rock” is a bit of a simplification, but yes that is the genre that Death Cab (as much as I like them) excelled in creating – which whether you like it or not has been pretty dominant in the last decade.

  17. I agree w/ Ms. Mixtape that Death Cab makes catchy music. The group has received ample play time to the extent that they seem over played & frankly just boring. It’s amazing to me to see the tags on your page & find Van Morrison, John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Death Cab for Cutie? Come on.

    • Regarding your comments about tags with Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and John Lennon…those artists are actually closer to my own personal tastes and I have written about them quite extensively, actually. That’s actually one of the reasons why I started the list….so I’m not always stuck writing about artists who have been written about over and over. What’s your favorite Costello album…I’m always kind of torn between “Imperial Bedroom” and “Get Happy!!”

      • the first few were excellent: radio, radio; blame it on Cain; watching the detectives. I suppose these are “angry young man” songs, as you so aptly described them. Maybe the anger in Costello et al. makes the sensitivity more obvious rather than disguising it.

        I’m not necessarily certain about what Indie rock is. I listen to WTMD in MD and sometimes it’s great listening, and sometimes there are clearly agenda/play list songs that become tiresome. DCFC get played a lot & it’s almost always the same songs.

        I’ve enjoyed the post. Thanks for an interesting, thought-provoking piece.

      • It’s definitely hard to describe indie-rock, because a lot of bands that aren’t indie anymore (Death Cab especially) get labeled that because they once were, and aren’t “corporate mainstream rock” as I like to call in the likes of what you hear on a station like DC101. WTMD is a great station. I’m from Baltimore, so I know exactly what you’re talking about with their playlists and songs.

  18. Alive aLwaYs

    I had listened to “Death Cab for Cutie” for the first time in some movie trailer that I don’t remember. The song was “Transatlanticism” from the same named album. I love the album as well. One other song “Title and registration” is also to my liking. Other than the album I have not heard them much.

  19. I agree with everything you said here. I LOVE Death Cab and honestly feel like they’ve changed my perspective on life. I’m seeing them on tour in July…!

  20. Joseph

    Whether Death Cab is passe, wonderful, or both, I wonder how many of you have ever heard their namesake tune, by the Bonzo Dog (Doodah/dada) Band. (Often called the musical Monty Pythons.)

    The tune is a great send up. So I was shocked with Amanda Wild of (now) KEXP in Seattle first announced their name on the air, after a jaunty, early tune.

    What do you think that tune, “Death Cab for Cutie” says about the band who took its name?

  21. Jenn Zuniga

    Thank you so much for your post, you are quite insightful! This gives me hope as a sensitive myself 😉 woo! (hugs) enjoy your day, you totally made mine! btw, I think if DeathCab had a best song it would certainly be “Passenger Seat!” love that song! namaste! loved your post! ~Jenn

  22. Thanks for bring the attention to Death Cab! Love ’em

    Blessings,

    Ava
    xox

  23. I couldn’t agree more with most of your list! Love music, and some of the major groups for me over the past 10 years included Death Cab, White Stripes, and Modest Mouse. Some other faves are Bob Schneider (live for sure), Ben Harper, and Ray LaMontagne…little more chill than the others.

  24. I actually heard Ben Gibbard for the first time when I was a hip-hop DJ and a friend of mine thought I would really enjoy the Phil Collins cover of “Against All Odds”. From there on I knew I had found a new band to love. Shortly after I made the leap to Transatlanticism, which is still one of my favorite albums. It always amazes me how some music/bands slowly find their way into the collective conscious and endure.

  25. I’m frankly shocked to see such huge comments about a band that I assumed had little artistic merit. I listened to a CD of theirs loaned to me by a friend and was unimpressed, but maybe I need to give them a second chance.

  26. jordancristine

    oh man! i love death cab. great post 🙂

  27. +1 disagreement for Modest Mouse owing Death Cab anything. Not only did they play before them but were hugely influential much before them if not commercially successful. I imagine that more bands would site Mouse as an influence than Death Cab due to their longevity and variety.

  28. I like DCFC. Death Cab, however, did not usher in this particular brand of ‘indie rock’ that you’re talking about. Just look to Built to Spill, Elliott Smith, or Jeff Buckley, to name a few precursors to Death Cab’s sound.

    Whether or not Death Cab is one of the most important artists of the last decade is up for debate. In my opinion it is impossible to gauge how important any artist of the last decade is, because we don’t have the advantage of hindsight. Just look to Herman Melville, for instance. I mean, some people say it’s impossible to perceive our own generation.

    Anywho, gotta run.

    Nice post.

  29. Must’ve been a crap decade for music then

  30. Thanks for bring the attention to Death Cab! Love ‘em

  31. shellytalks

    I used to really like Deathcab, “TV Trays” is still on my list of favorite songs. I just feel like every album after Transatlanticism sounds the same. It’s not necessarily bad…just predictable.

  32. dreamxingdong

    They peaked with Transatlanticism.

  33. Amazing write-up. DCfC have been my favourite band for many, many years.

  34. Death Cab is great, but I would argue that Ben Gibbard is the most important part of a move towards uncompromising music in the 2000’s. With him fronting both Death Cab and Postal Service, his willingness to write music that he likes rather than bend to corporate whims makes him incredibly important.

    Great post. Kudos on being FP’ed.

  35. Pingback: The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 10. – Death Cab For Cutie (via Leading Us Absurd) « Memento Mori

  36. mysoulforsale

    Yes… love them. Great post! Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  37. Not to be a nitpicker, but I assume you meant “riot grrl” as one of the aforementioned scenes.

    I’m wondering here though, if Death Cab gets so much acclaim for making indie music accessible to the mainstream, where does El-P fit into the list?

  38. Can’t argue with the fact that DCFC was a great band, until…their latest album.

    It was the 1st I ever downloaded off the net (And paid for) after deciding that CDs were dead. Wish I never had. The latest album is bland and boring. Heck, the whole bloody Twilight thing should have been a warning.

    The only thing possibly duller is Arcade Fire’s new “Album of the Year”. Thanks Grammy – WTF?????

  39. Nice one… Thanks for sharing.

  40. Pingback: The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 10. – Death Cab For Cutie (via Leading Us Absurd) | RantBabble

  41. Builder of Coalitions. Loved your comment but maybe it’s too harsh. Anyway, if that’s how you truly feel.

  42. and I really don’t know the names of them

  43. dawsr

    It depends on your your musical taste of course, but you might like CatPeople; in Spain (where I am right now) this English-singing Spanish group is one of the biggest hits lately.

    Follow this link to one of their songs:

    Cheers!

  44. ladorable

    definitely agree… I heart Modest Mouse forever and also The Shins… appropriatee blog tittle…. Ten Most Important Indie Artists of the Last Decade?

  45. acevibram

    thanks for you post. I am a chinese boy, my english is just so so, althought there are many words I cannot understand, but I think it is easy than our chinese english test.i can not understand all of your post, so i do not leave some comment about your post, am so sorry.

  46. Rhi

    I adore Death Cab! Transatlantacism… the album and more specifically the song is an absolute favourite of mine. So many feelings and memories tied up in the melody. Beautiful 🙂 x

  47. Interesting point about DCFC having driven a whole ’emotional without being angry’ thing. There are few who do it as authentically. I’m inclined to give Ryan Adams some credit here, particularly in regard to 2001’s Heartbreaker. But then I credit him with most things. Including the wheel and sliced bread.

    Great piece, though…

    • I love Ryan Adams…same with Wilco. They’re actually far better artists than some of the people I put on here, but it was hard for me to put them on the list, as they have a very niche audience.

  48. I love Death Cab for Cutie. I can not even remember when I found them, It must of been such a long time ago. When I was all young and confused about my sexuality, singing along to “I will follow you into the dark”. And now I have someone to follow into the dark and the song still pulls on my heart strings.
    I’m sorry I am into the sensitive rock stuff, what can I say I’m a woman.

    I’m not really enjoying their Narrow Stairs album is that just me? I just don’t really connect with any of those song. However, it could just be that I do this thing where I love bands first original albums and the I dislike any of the other after.
    Loved this post.
    Jessie.

    • Thanks for the reply. I like “Narrow Stairs”. “No Sunlight” remains one of my favorites of theirs. It’s great to see that people connect with them. I agree with you that older albums by artists tend to be better (there are of course exceptions to the rule.) But I think it’s because when bands start out they have so many things to say and experiences they want to put down. When you become a little bigger, it’s harder to live up expectations and I also think it’s because some tend to be less hungry when they’re already made it.

  49. I’m surprised that no one seems to remember that “Death-Cab for Cutie” was originally a song by the “Bonzo Dog Band”- and in fact, was the song the Bonzos were performing in “The Magical Mystery Tour” the Beatles movie-in the sequence when the Beatles were in the strip club watching the show. Yes, that band on the stage was the Bonzo Dog Band, and that was the number they performed- and it was hilarious! It came from their album “Gorilla” and is available on YouTube.
    Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9y4vLrHsm4

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  51. I think DCFC is over hyped and made it mainly because they were featured on the OC. The particular brand of indie rock made popular by them was in force prior to them but just much less within radar.

  52. Preface: I like Death Cab a lot.
    Most of the groundwork for their success came before they signed to a major. The only reason any one signs to a major these days anyway is either because they lack the smarts to make it on their own or because they’ve grown too big for the indie channels and need a larger distribution network (read: worldwide). I think that signing to a major label was a somewhat necessary step for them to continue growth. Was it a “major move”? Hardly. The odds of them being able to make it on their own (self-release, promotion, distribution) having already had the publishing luck of making it into the most important television show of the early 2000’s were very high. The label move was not entirely necessary.

  53. I loved DCFC back in the day but felt that they stopped being “Important” after “The Photo Album”. Their songs had a raw energy and craft that was largely absent after their 3rd album. Aside from “Cath” they seem to focus more on the emotive side and I found them less interesting to listen to. I understand that later fans of the band find their first 2 records to be “too raw” or “too noisy” but I felt that it was their best writing……Eh its just one mans opinion.

  54. I love Death Cab – I can play their music repeatedly and not tire of it – Brothers in a Hotel Bed – What Sarah Said – Summer Skin – Grapevine Fires… Their lyrics simple yet loaded.
    I was disappointed when I saw them live – perhaps they were tired, it was near the end of their tour, but they lacked charisma and personality, kept to their well rehearsed act and spoke very little to their screaming fans.
    Still, can close my eyes and lose myself in their music, a lifelong fan for sure.

  55. Great blog, they truly are a massively underrated band. Take a look at my blog discussing the problem with modern music through the eyes of a fifteen year old boy.

    http://danielrhysowen.wordpress.com/

  56. Great post! My favourite is Narrow Stairs. A great album I just can’t let go. I tend to listen to it from time to time; and every single time I’m amazed by the songs and the lyrics.

  57. Stephenie

    I must admit that I, as well, discoverd Death Cab through The OC and Seth Cohen’s music taste. Now it’s one of my favourite bands. 🙂 Nice post

  58. I totally appreciate your sense of music, but more importantly your sense of writing…stylistically, you remind me a lot of myself…great post, on to read some more…check mine out I could use the support 😉 I’m on a whole movie binge and I feel it’s similar to what you’re doing…

  59. more bands like death cab need to exist in this day and age. for some reason, todays teenagers settle for music that can be made by a chimpanzee. Music has played a huge part in the past’s culture and creativity. It seems as if all creativeness is going down the drain and manufactured uncreative noise is taking over the music industry. Though there is still some creative artists still out there, they are found in the underground scene, rather than being on MTV, which has no connection with music these days. Music is a huge part of the countries culture and cannot be dumbed down

    • I agree with you. As far as creativity going down the drain, I think it has to do with the industry’s unwillingness to let artists grow as songwriters. Too often you hear a story about how a band had an album made and they had to re-do it. Then when it comes time to put out an album, the artist will say that they didn’t like it, but behind the scenes the industry probably told them to re-do it, as it probably wasn’t commercial enough. There are a few exceptions of course.

      On one hand though, I do think it’s kind of cool that (some) teenagers do like Death Cab and Vampire Weekend.

  60. I think DCFC is over hyped and made it mainly because they were featured on the OC. The particular brand of indie rock made popular by them was in force prior to them but just much less within radar.

  61. I must say Modest Mouse is my favorite on this list, but perhaps it’s because I discovered them before the others via Ugly Cassanova.

  62. lifereconnected

    Very interesting post. Of course I went and had a look at the complete list – it takes a brave man to admit to such an eclectic list that includes Britney. Good for you! And congrats on being Freshly Pressed. I’ll be back for updates – check out little known Heather Peace in the UK!!

  63. Nice work with the list, and especially the DCFC post. I definitely agree with the fact that they created a certain sound and vibe that rippled through the indie scene. Even the spin-off THE POSTAL SERVICE felt fresh and interesting (although clearly overplayed).
    I was afraid when the latter band showed up that Gibbard would become the Phil Collins of the 2000’s; his voice being omnipresent in indie-pop. Thankfully that didn’t happen (and no offense to Phil, he’s superhuman in my opinion), and DEATH CAB just continued to release great music that somehow stayed relatively under the top pop tier, yet was drawing people in like flies to a light.
    You can certainly find other bands of their ilk that made huge waves around the same time, and you pointed out a few already, but noone had more impact than these guys and still have stayed so relevant in mainstream music as WELL as indie circles.
    Looking forward to reading more posts now that I’m fully on the blogging world!

  64. If I were to give someone a mix tape 3 years ago, it probably would have been a compilation of my favorite Death Cab songs. Now, I don’t listen to them nearly as much, but I can always go back and appreciate their music which was the soundtrack to my life for a while there. Can’t wait to see them at in July, bring on the nostalgia!

  65. definitely agree… I heart Modest Mouse forever and also The Shins… appropriatee blog tittle…. Ten Most Important Indie Artists of the Last Decade?

  66. Putting Death Cab on right now! Great post. I never watched the OC, but I think I caught on to the band around that time. Those shows often feature great bands. The ones on the WB and the CW.

  67. soom271

    I got they’re “Narrow Stairs” album and thought it sounded pretty good and I they’re new “Codes and Keys” album sounds great now I want that too!

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