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.
Listen to our Spotify playlist here.