James Mercer of the Shins

The Shins were one of the preeminent pop acts of the ’00s, often mentioned as flirting with becoming their decade’s version of R.E.M. or Pavement. Frontman James Mercer began the writing of the band’s 2001 classic Oh, Inverted World in earnest as far back as 1997 — while his primary band was still Albuquerque, NM’s Flake Music — although the album wouldn’t be released until catching the ears of both Modest Mouse frontman (and former Sub Pop A&R man) Isaac Brock and Sub Pop head honcho Jonathan Poneman in 2001. Mercer relocated to Portland, OR following the Shins’ subsequent signing to Sub Pop, with the band’s classic lineup consisting of Jesse Sandoval on drums, Marty Crandall on keyboards, and Dave Hernandez on bass (who was temporarily replaced by Neal Langford until rejoining in 2003).

Shortly after the release of their 2003 sophomore album, Chutes Too Narrow, the band gained a foothold in pop culture via the Zach Braff-directed film Garden State, when Natalie Portman’s character proclaimed that the Shins “would change your life,” before the Inverted World track “New Slang” was played over a particularly maudlin scene in the film. The band had already attained a fairly strong following preceding that shout-out, as the success of Chutes was nearly commensurate with their superb debut. But after that, their profile ballooned, which put an enormous strain on Mercer, who’d had the mantle of life-changer thrust upon him.

A protracted delay occurred between Chutes Too Narrow and 2007′s Wincing The Night Away, due in part to that strain. By backing away momentarily, though, he may have done a service to his craft. Instead of over-thinking the Shins’ third album — as many bands are wont to do when following break-out successes — the songs on Wincing were left with room to breathe. While they may have lacked the visceral punch that imbued the band’s earlier works, the tracks on Wincing were nonetheless melodically stunning, epicurean crafts.

Mercer jettisoned his entire band prior to the recording of 2012′s Port Of Morrow, claiming he had “production ideas that basically required some other people.” And while it wasn’t akin to R.E.M. losing Bill Berry — as Mercer had always been essentially the band’s sole songwriter — one couldn’t help but feel that a certain innate chemistry had been sacrificed. Nonetheless, Port Of Morrow is a damn impressive album (it made our list of 2012′s best), their first released outside Sub Pop, on Mercer’s Aural Apothecary Label. It proves that whomever he surrounds himself with, Mercer is one of his generation’s preeminent songwriters. But even with heavy-hitters enlisted, including Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer, Ron Lewis from the Fruit Bats, and Janet Weiss, Morrow feels like something of a transitional album for the band, although you still can’t help but to be dazzled by the grandiose arena-ready cadences of “Simple Song.”

So while we’re waiting to see what the next phase of Mercer’s career will look like, it’s a fine time to explore the Shins’ existing catalog, and pull out the 10 very best tracks. Of course, there are many more than 10 that deserve to be mentioned. Share your favorites in the comments.

10. “Sphagnum Esplanade” (from “New Slang” 7″, 2001)

B-sides, when they were highly sought after pre-digital inundation deluge, were often tossed off junkshop detritus, deemed unworthy of inclusion on a proper album. However, “Sphanghum Esplenade” is an eerie, portentous flipside to its classic A-side. The track flat-out dazzles with swampy yet eminently melodic pulsations, closing with Mercer’s quixotic couplet of, “You’re not expected to know why it’s such a short time / And there are things we never will define.”

9. “Simple Song” (from Port Of Morrow, 2012)

As epic as the Shins have sounded to date, “Simple Song” has a title that belies its bombastic nature — locomotive drums and a sinewy guitar figure give way to a minor key shift in a deceptively clever accoutrement. For perhaps the first time, the instrumentation trumps the lyricism in a Shins track, thanks to its sheer production acumen, which is something of a mixed bag. If the rest of Port Of Morrrow had been this memorable, it would’ve been in the conversation of the Shins’ best album.

8. “Fighting In A Sack” (from Chutes Too Narrow, 2003)

A rollicking number that provides a necessary frenetic yin to the docile yang of the song that precedes it, “Saint Simon,” Mercer’s breathless vocals convey a lucid dream with a certain degree of levity, drifting effortlessly into Neutral Milk Hotel territory. Yet this is sheer vintage Shins, all glistening melodies and opaque lyrics.

7. “Girl Inform Me” (from Oh, Inverted World, 2001)

Sun-bleached pop at its most blinding, choose a ’60s touchstone (the Kinks, the Left Banke) with a gorgeously Byrds-ian bridge, “Girl Inform Me” is one of the more deceptively simple numbers on the band’s debut. What’s so charming about it is just how out of time it sounds — it could’ve been recorded in any era, and its bubblegum lyrics (“Girl inform me/ All my senses warn me/ Your clever eyes could easily disguise some backwards purpose”) render it beguilingly irresistible.

6. “Kissing The Lipless” (from Chutes Too Narrow, 2003)

Pure infectious frivolity on the surfaces, as is one of the band’s trademarks, reveals itself to be “the gray remains of a friendship scarred” once you’ve perused the lyrics. It’s often said that eskimos can identify 50 types of snow, and Mercer can identify at least 100 ways love comes to an end, and this number finds him at his most astute as he ruminates, “You tested your metal of doe’s skin and petals while kissing the lipless who bleed all the sweetness away,” at the track’s plaintive denouement.

5. “Know Your Onion!,” (from Oh, Inverted World, 2001)

Capturing a sense of suburban ennui as well as any Big Star number, the sprightly melody of “Know Yur Onion!” belies its cloistered sense of dread, knowing that redemption lies far, far away. As Mercer contemptuously spews the opening line “Shut out, pimpled and angry/ I quietly tied all my guts into knots,” over a curdled guitar line, he eventually finds solace in the minutiae of having “lucked out found my favorite records lying in wait at the Birmingham mall,” only to concede that his “body caves to his whims and suddenly struggles to take flight … three thousand miles northeast.”

4. “Turn On Me” (from Wincing the Night Away, 2007)

A plaintive number with a tasteful dollop of reverb, “Turn On Me” is a high point on an album replete with low-key, ruminative numbers, more subdued yet no less brilliant than the band’s prior two efforts. Its lyrics are dour, expounding upon a relationship far past its expiration date, culminating with a goose bump-inducing middle eight, before Mercer concedes, “The worst part is over, so get back on that horse and ride,” keenly aware that the cycle’s unlikely to cease anytime soon.

3. “Caring Is Creepy” (from Oh, Inverted World, 2001)

A surging, eerily melodic, and utterly brilliant opening salvo for a brilliant debut album, “Caring Is Creepy” captures just how terrifying it can be to actually love someone. Mercer veils his feelings in equivocations (“It’s a luscious mix of words and tricks that let us bet when you know we should fold”) before coming clean with the pronouncement with the naked, quavering reveal, “This is way beyond my remote concern of being condescending.”

2. “Saint Simon” (from Chutes Too Narrow, 2003)

A pretty slice of melodic grandeur from Chutes Too Narrow, “Saint Simon” has a metronomic cadence that suggests a certain level of catatonia from sheer emotional exhaustion. Mercer sounds bereft as he intones, “I’ll try hard not to pretend/ allow myself no mock defense as I step into the night,” as the song’s lockstep groove gives way to a woozily vertiginous orchestral sway.

1. “New Slang” (from Oh, Inverted World, 2001)

Before “New Slang” was etched in pop culture iconography after its appearance in 2004′s Garden State, it was merely the standout track on one of the finest pure pop records to be released in years. Lyrically enigmatic like early R.E.M., it finds Mercer in a poignant mindset, waxing downcast as he pines, “Turn me back into the pet I was when we met/ I was happier then/ I had no mindset.” When the track was initially released as a single, there was a video for the song directed by Lance Bangs, with the band posed in shots referencing classic albums including Slint’s Spiderland, the Replacements’ Let It Be, the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dimes, and Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, suggesting that, in the divine fire they were playing with at the time, they’d somehow always stood in posterity amongst these epochal giants, like Jack Torrence in the final shot at the Overlook Hotel of The Shining.

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Comments (79)
  1. without “gone for good” and “no way down” I can’t give credibility to this list

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  3. Phantom Limbs is one of my favorite pop songs of the past 10 years. Oh, and also Young Pilgrims, please.

  4. I could not possibly argue with New Slang as #1.

  5. Young Pilgrims absolutely needed to be in there…

  6. New Slang might possibly my favourite song OF ALL TIME. It has the same captivating effect on me, no matter how many times I hear it.

  7. do Okkervil River next?

    • YES. This is off topic, but once you mentioned it I had to make a list of my own.

      10. Red
      9. Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas
      8. Okkervil River Song
      7. Song of Our So-Called Friend
      6. Our Life is Not a Movie Or Maybe
      5. For Real
      4. John Allyn Smith Sails
      3. Westfall
      2. No Key, No Plan
      1. War Criminal Rises and Speaks

      Never mind. Too hard. It also needs to have Lost Coastlines, Unless it Kicks, Black, Blue Tulip, Yellow, We Need a Myth, The Latest Toughs, A Girl In Port, Hanging From a Hit…. But War Criminal is definitely #1 in my opinion. That song just fucking cuts to the core of the human condition and makes me cry so good.

      • Damn son! Not a bad list. I’m missing another radio song, love to a monster, black sheep boy #4 and some others but yeah, this band can have a top 50.

  8. i know it might seem essential to include half the songs from inverted, but using four or more songs from the obviously classic record is starting to seriously undermine these lists. wincing has a couple you’re glaringly overlooking: australia, phantom limb, spilt needles

    and no young pilgrims? bleh

  9. Man… another tough list. Not enough from the greatly underrated Wincing the Night Away, in my opinion. I knew it would be a long shot, but I was hoping to see A Comet Appears make the cut. Then again, nearly every track on Chutes is a gem, so that could be a top 10 in itself.

    Also, regardless of how you feel about Garden State, New Slang is in fact the best Shins song.

  10. ” like Jack Torrence in the final shot at the Overlook Hotel of The Shining.”

    more like THE SHINNING

  11. this is crummy list….

    10) Sleeping Lessons
    9) Past and the Pending
    8) Young Pilgrims
    7) Red Rabbits
    6) When I Goose-Step
    5) Gone For Good
    4) A Comet Appears
    3) New Slang
    2) Australia
    1) Girl Sailor

    yeah

  12. Phantom Limb is very good and the name made me remember Phantom Planet which made me put California back on my mp3 player.

  13. These are all great tracks, but I don’t think I would have come up with a list like this even if I had to make 50 different versions of it. Young Pilgrims? Australia? So many more.

    Mainly though, and I know it’s not the most traditional Shins song, but Sleeping Lessons is to me the greatest Shins song, and honestly one of the greatest songs ever written. The slow build up to the bombastic yet perfectly bottled explosion, combined with classic Mercer lyrics, gives it the perfect dreamlike feel. On top of that, the dark, bubbly melody that seems to float the intro is one of my favorite sounds in all of music.

    I would go on and talk endlessly about how genius the production is and how I want this song to soundtrack all of my dreams, but I think I’ve gushed enough.

    Mercer/Bejar for Prez 2016

    • came here to say exactly this. new slang might be a good song, and the one that put the shins on the map, but to my ears it’s far from their best. sleeping lessons #1, all the way. you absolutely nailed it in that middle paragraph there so i don’t even need to explain why.

      relatedly, you might enjoy this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-mUb5x0tj4

      • That’s a good take, thanks for posting. I kinda wished they kept the sad-bastard guitar going through the entire song.

        You really can’t beat when James Mercer goes into the upper reaches of his vocal range, which is one reason I like this song so much.

  14. I’m definitely in agreement with your top two, but like many above me, I have to speak of the greatness of Chutes Too Narrow and Wincing the Night Away. I would at least have included “Young Pilgrims,” “Australia,” “Red Rabbits,” and “Girl Sailor.”

  15. “Red Rabbits” is, for me, the Shins’ best song.

  16. I was never a huge Shins fan, but the songs I like which are missing are Those To Come, Sleeping Lessons, Spilt Needles, and A Comet Appears. Nice to see Saint Simon at #2 though.

  17. Simple Song was far from the best song on Port of Morrow. Rifle’s Spiral was ten times better, and this list is too lite on Chutes too Narrow. Please review and resubmit this list with corrections.

  18. I’m pretty partial to “So Says I” in particular but definitely feel as though I like all the songs on this list a lot, nonetheless.

  19. Test your mettle. Not test your metal.

  20. Pink Bullets.

  21. Gone for Good.

  22. The only song from Wincing to make this list isn’t one I particularly care for. It is a decent song, but there are so many more amazing songs on that album.

  23. Chutes Too Narrow was actually released in 2003. It’ll be ten years old on October 21, which is coincidentally the day I’m scheduled to get my hip replaced.

  24. I’m probably the wrong person to make a fuss on here, as I’ve never been a HUGE Shins fan. Having said that, Wincing the Night Away is without a doubt my favorite of their’s, and maybe the only album I fully enjoy front to back. That in itself seperates me from the average Shins fan, I’m aware.

    Anyway, NEEDS MORE WINCING! Sleeping Lessons, Australia, Sea Legs, Phantom Limb…any of those could knock a couple of the songs included off I would think. Also, a shout out to You’ll Soon Discover from the Spongebob movie soundtrack. That was the first Shins song that truly kicked me in the junk.

    • On a side note, if I may wax nostalgiac just a tad, some friends and I had the pleasure of hanging with the band for an hour or so before their show here in SLC during their Wincing tour. We had a lovely chat about all sorts of things, including Boy Meets World and other 90′s tv shows. The opening band (whose name escapes me at the moment) had their van break down and weren’t going to make it, so they jokingly asked if any of us wanted to open for them? Unfortunately, we couldn’t play any instruments.

      Then we chilled to their soundcheck, and had us a good show. Extremely nice fellas from my experience.

    • *They’ll Soon Discover (sorry)

  25. the Rifle’s Spiral is apparently underrated. Best song on Port of Morrow fo sho.

  26. There is so much wrong with this list I don’t know where to begin. Oh wait, yes I do: PHANTOM LIMB!

  27. Austrailia good

  28. I’m getting slightly annoyed at lists that cling to a band’s first album as being the best they ever did. Yes, Oh Inverted World is good but honestly Chutes Too Narrow and Wincing match it. Only one song off Wincing is a crime to “Sleeping Lessons” and “Australia,” among others.

    And the only acceptable b-side is “When I Goose Step”

  29. One song from Wincing the Night Away? But that’s my favourite Shins album.

  30. Just here to say I think Port Of Morrow is really underrated.

  31. I like Girl on the Wing, that was the first Shins song i ever heard

  32. Where’s Pink Bullet )=?

  33. This is very nit-picky, but “Chutes Too Narrow” came out in October of 2003. I just remember being so excited my senior year of high school fall of 2003 to find “Chutes Too Narrow” among the $9.99 black Friday Circuit City sale. And soon became obsessed.

  34. New Slang is not only my favorite Shins song, but my favorite song in general. I know it’s not the coolest thing to say, but there’s something about that song that really crawled under the skin of a 14 year old who felt trapped in the midwest. Plus, it’s gorgeous to listen to, of course.

  35. Sleeping Lessons always makes me want to spin away dancing! One of my all time fav songs. Sea Legs from Wincing should also make the list.

  36. Am I the only one who loves “Sea Legs”???

  37. girl inform me> new slang

  38. only 10?! don’t know how I could ever get it down to just 10 :)

  39. I think “Pink Bullets” has to be on there.

  40. A Comet Appears, One of my all time favourite songs.

  41. just before I looked at the draft that said $5953, I didn’t believe …that…my mom in-law woz like really receiving money in their spare time at their laptop.. there moms best frend had bean doing this for only about twelve months and resantly took care of the morgage on their apartment and got a great Ford. we looked here,….. Day34.com

  42. Gone for Good is a straight up classic. Sleeping Lessons, Australia, Phantom Limb, Split Needles, Girls Sailor and A Comet Appears are all some of my favourite Shins’ songs. Do I like Wincing The Night Away a bit too much??

  43. After reading this list I searched the page for the term “Phantom Limb”, found 7 results in the comments and now I’m good.

  44. Was pretty shocked not to see Gone For Good and Phantom Limb. Both are up there with New Slang for me.

  45. unpopular opinion put… any love for 40 Mark Strasse?

    also Australia is in my top 3 songs of all time for sure.

    • I always like Australia because to me it sounds like The Shins doing a Tom Jones tune, and even just the thought of that is super cool.

    • I don’t think it’s an unpopular opinion, just an uncommon one. Port of Morrow, I think, is still too young for people to consider anything on it valid enough for these lists.

      I’ll bite, though: “40 Mark Strasse” is a fantastic song and exciting and new for The Shins in its storytelling and emotional pull. I think a lot of the songs on Port of Morrow were like that.

  46. That is absolutely correct.

  47. Simple Song sucks. Much like the rest of the album it stems from.

  48. Éamonn Shannon  |   Posted on Jul 26th, 2013 0

    It’s tough to argue any song on this list, but Sleeping Lessons needs to be on there somewhere. One of my favorite songs, period.
    also Red Rabbits, Sea Legs, Young Pilgrims, Phantom Limb.
    James Mercer is a damn genius.

  49. I thought Mercer hit his creative peak with Wincing the Night Away. Sleeping Lessons, Australia, Phantom Limb and Red Rabbits are among my favorite Shins song.

    There is one Shins song I hold above all others, though, the exception “One by One All Day’ from Oh, Inverted World. And it’s a shame it’s not on the list since people generally agree Oh, Inverted World is a great album and that’s the song that name drops the album title, so it’s gotta be the best track. And it is.

  50. Am i the only one that just loves “The celibate life”? As in song-wise.

    And ‘A comet apears’?

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