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Rock Bottom: Death Cab for Cutie

Every musician hits a bum note once in awhile. Sometimes they hit a whole album full of them. Those unlovable efforts are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.  Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the All Music Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon (for the fan perspective). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll declare the worst. I may not agree with the choice, in which case I'll offer an alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) compilations (greatest hits, b-sides, remixes),  2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into different genres (i.e. classical).

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Death Cab for Cutie currently have nine studio albums. When I tabulated the scores, two tied for an eight-and-a-half rating (see their Rock Solid entry for details on which two), the next six tied at eight stars, and the final one sat alone with seven stars. Rarely is it so straightforward and uncomplicated. The Photo Album, released in 2001, is DCFC's clear Rock Bottom. 

Curiously, though not surprisingly given their track record, All Music Guide paired a low rating with a glowing review. Critic Jack Rabid wrote: "Gibbard's words screen intriguing mini-films of the mind, stoked by corresponding daydreamy music. An exquisite liaison of the British penchant for ringing, knelling, subconscious guitars and direct/grittier American drive, the band is tight, evocative, and inventive. Bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Michael Schorr lock in creative rhythmic bases, while Gibbard and Chris Walla's guitar work gives the band climactic, cinematic coloring shades."

Interesting start for a band's supposed worst album. Let's hear what fans who reviewed the record on Amazon had to say. One word came up repeatedly, and that's "boring." "Jeff Flynn" wrote, "The songs here just get boring. They just aren't as finely crafted and don't force me to get cought [sic] up in them. They aren't terrible, but I have to force myself to listen to it."

"dark twain" claimed, "This album is the worst DCFC album, why......... Ill tell you why its boring, its repetitive, its way to mellow..." And "Johnny Z. Gonzalez" said, "This album was most certianly [sic] less than spectacular, boring, repetative [sic], melancholy, there were only two tracks that I cared to hear more than once, and those were nothing too special. Even girls I let listen to it didn't like it, and with this genre of music if that's true then there's no reason to waste your time or money on it."

Last year, DCFC singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard participated in Noisey's Rank Your Records feature. He placed The Photo Album second-to-last, just above 2011's Codes and Keys. He said,
"There’s an old cliché, but people say it because it’s true: You have your whole life to write your first record, you write the second record which was songs from the first record and new stuff you wrote, and then the difficult third. It’s difficult because you have no songs and less time to write them. There were, like, three songs on We Have the Facts that could have been on Something About Airplanes. So between those two records I really only had to write, like, six songs. But The Photo Album, there are some songs on this record that are still to this day our fan-favorites and our best songs. “A Movie Script Ending” will always be one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done."

The Onion AV Club's Randall Colburn responded to Gibbard's rankings, specifically singling out his disagreement with The Photo Album's low ranking. "[Gibbbard] seems not to have factored in how many teenagers used to make out to those albums into his rankings," Colburn wrote. "If so, then The Photo Album would rank just behind Transatlanticism, which is rightly ranked at number one."

I should also note that Death Cab album-ranking articles on Diffuser and Stereogum placed The Photo Album at #3 and #2. 

So it seems that the critics need some time to work this out among themselves. Meanwhile, I can't argue strongly against placing The Photo Album at the bottom of the pile. It's not a record I've spent a ton of time with, and even the "hits" aren't songs I especially care about. I'll admit fully to not really connecting strongly with any of the band's first three albums, largely because I became a fan with their fourth (Transatlanticism) and my appreciation has only grown from there.


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