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