Ranked: The Shins
Feb 05, 2014
Welcome to Ranked, our recurring series in which one of our writers takes an artist's catalogue and ranks all of their official studio albums from most essential to least essential. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Scott Dransfield ranks The Shins.
It seems impossible to write about The Shins without starting with a mention of the band's first big exposure: Natalie Portman's famous name-dropping of them in Zach Braff's film Garden State, and the inclusion of two of their songs on the film's trendsetting indie soundtrack. This is because in the beginning, The Shins, in the sound of their music, recording quality, and odd, whimsical lyrics, perfectly exuded the kind of quirkiness that movie needed. Subsequently, they were seized by a young generation and a music press hungry for an outfit that married an old-school '60s feel to lyrics that reflected the silly and scattered thoughts of kids with short attention spans. It's hard to look back over the 13 years since that first album was released and not see the influence of The Shins written all over indie music.
Featuring one of indie rock's most down-to-earth and likeable frontmen, James Mercer, The Shins established themselves early on as melodic powerhouses, and over the span of their career provided a constant output of quality. With the success of third album Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop's best first-week-charting album), the band had a promising future, only to be dissolved by Mercer and replaced with new members for a 2012 reunion. Now in 2014, with Mercer once again focusing on side project Broken Bells, it remains to be seen whether The Shins will continue, but at least they've left behind a legacy.
Ranking The Shins' discography is simultaneously easy and difficult: easy, because it's only four full-length albums long; and difficult, because all four albums are so near-perfect (yes, even 2012's divisive Port of Morrow) that it's tempting to just say they all tie for number one and call it quits. This list, however, will attempt to perform said ranking. Take it with a grain of salt.
Chutes Too Narrow
The Shins’ second album, Chutes Too Narrow, kicks off with an irresistible sense of fun: six quick handclaps and a “Woo!” that sound like they were recorded on a laptop microphone. The acoustic strum that follows misleads the listener into thinking this will sound like the last album: a mostly quiet, low-key collection of two-minute guitar-pop songs. And while that’s sort of true in some places (“Mine’s Not a High Horse”), Mercer proves with Chutes Too Narrow that he’s capable of both more silliness (“Kissing the Lipless”) and more sincerity (“Pink Bullets”) than before. As with the other three records, it’s impossible to resist the charms of Mercer’s voice and melodic sense, but it’s on this album that they are most perfected. It’s the balance of quirky lo-fi and expansive wonder that really seals the deal, making you feel like the chutes are actually just narrow enough.
Wincing the Night Away
The concept of the tricky third album (an artist looking to “grow,” “mature,” or “evolve”) certainly held sway with The Shins. Mercer had trouble writing and recording the songs, due in part to his struggles with insomnia (hence the title). The result, though, sees Mercer completely refining his pop sensibilities and finding more creative ways to utilize them. The band’s sound is again expanded, this time including more keyboards: opener “Sleeping Lessons” starts with a subdued arpeggio before building to an exciting climax; the instrumental motif of “Red Rabbits” sounds like big drops of water falling on various xylophones and vibraphones. Wincing is also The Shins’ most stylistically diverse album, including slow, heavy beats (“Sea Legs”) and vocal samples and sound effects throughout. It’s Mercer’s unique and addictive melodies, though, that come through strongest. It’s impossible to resist an album that contains “Australia”—perhaps one of the best indie-pop songs of all time.
Port of Morrow
I know many Shins fans who were let down by their most recent album. To some extent, I don’t blame them—for all intents and purposes, this is a new band—but if you look at it as yet another step along Mercer’s natural progression as a songwriter, Port of Morrow makes total sense. Once again, the big melodies are front and center here, propelled by Mercer’s most confident vocals yet. Lyrically, this might also be his most focused album, highlighting not just a series of amusing scattered thoughts, but perfectly coherent and imaginable stories. I dare any listener to put on “It’s Only Life” or “40 Mark Strasse” and not get swept into the bittersweet poignancy expressed in the music and words. The album may contain an unfortunate lack of the charming lo-fi guitar work so prevalent in the first two releases, but then again, it’s nice to see Mercer reviving The Shins and channeling their qualities into an extremely tight, catchy pop album.
Oh, Inverted World
I almost feel like I need to go into hiding now to escape the wrath of Shins purists. Oh, Inverted World is one of the most beloved debuts of the last couple decades, and understandably so. There’s a refreshing simplicity to these songs that felt new to the world back in 2001. With strange subjects and titles like “Know Your Onion!”, “The Celibate Life,” and “Your Algebra,” The Shins ensured a novel and fun listening experience that made you feel not only relaxed, but not alone in your weirdness. And with Natalie Portman’s above-mentioned promise that “New Slang” (still probably The Shins’ best song) would change your life, I swear, Oh, Inverted World was ushered into the pantheon of underground classics. It’s just a shame that, especially from a perspective of the later releases, a run-through of the record feels so slight and unsubstantial.