The 20 greatest twenty one pilots songs – ranked
When Ohioan vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Joseph and local drummer Josh Dun first came together in 2011, they had no idea how much of an impact they’d have on modern music. Sure, Tyler’s band twenty one pilots had been on the go since 2009 – with Nick Thomas and Chris Salih rounding out an originally three-headed line-up – but it was the chemistry between this enduring duo that would see them topple genre boundaries, capture the mood of a generation and ascend to the top of the music industry mountain.
Prolific songwriters, too, it can be difficult to know where to begin with the Columbus heroes’ ever-expanding songbook. On one hand, you could do worse than sticking to the cutting edge with latest single Level Of Concern, but on the other, you could check our run-down of their 20 greatest tracks right here…
20. Migraine (Vessel, 2013)
‘Am I the only one I know waging my wars behind my face and above my throat?’ Infectiously upbeat yet instantly relatable in its description of the everyday internal struggle, Migraine is the perfect place to start any conversation on twenty one pilots’ greatness. Switch off and let this wash over you; it’s a straightforward masterclass in modern pop. Make the effort to really dig in and you’ll be rewarded with the sort of open-wound honesty – and far more substantial discourse – that earns musical revolutionaries like these fans for life.
19. Chlorine (Trench, 2018)
One of TØP’s most dramatic compositions is also one of their cleverest. Unpacking a multi-layered metaphor, they compare the catharsis of their music to cleansing chemical chlorine, but also acknowledge that the element is so harsh it will do harm to human beings. Meanwhile, an initially sunny beat subsides into more abyssal atmospherics. The accompanying video sees them expand their ideas even more imaginatively, with the duo cast as pool cleaners meeting a furry creature called Ned: a further allegory for the creativity writhing within.
18. Addict With A Pen (Twenty One Pilots, 2009)
From a time long before they’d conquered the mainstream, this standout cut from 2009’s self-titled debut sees the original collective battling the emptiness inside and reaching out to a higher power. ‘Hello,’ pleads Tyler with confessional frankness, ‘we haven’t talked in some time / I know I haven’t been the best of sons, I’ve been travelling the desert of my mind…’ Unfolding a gentle piano and drums composition, while wrangling overtly Christian themes (‘Father… wash me with your water’) that would seem overbearing in lesser hands, the song eventually shows itself as a powerful plea to have faith in the darkest hours – regardless of listeners’ belief-systems.
17. House Of Gold (Vessel, 2013)
Originally cropping up as a bonus track on 2011’s sophomore LP Regional At Best, House Of Gold was one of several tracks to be rounded out and re-released on 2013’s major label debut Vessel on Fueled By Ramen. A folky, ukulele-led tribute to Tyler’s mother, it showcases their mastery of a far more traditional form of Americana as lyrics toy with the most poignant of questions: ‘She asked me, ‘Son, when I grow old, will you buy me a house of gold? / And when your father turns to stone, will you take care of me?’ A heartfelt statement of mother-son love.
16. My Blood (Trench, 2018)
Rarely has a band felt as well-equipped to discuss the nature of brotherhood and loyalty as twenty one pilots, and rarely have they dealt with those matters as openly as on this atmospheric highlight from Trench. ‘Surrounded and up against a wall / I’ll shred ’em all and go with you,’ Tyler sings as elements of funk, disco and R&B are innovatively deployed with sounds ranging from deep bass to stretching falsetto. The heartbreaking, high-concept Tim Mattia music video is one of their most resoundingly emotional moments, too.
15. Heavydirtysoul (Blurryface, 2015)
‘This is not rap, this is not hip-hop,’ Tyler contends on a track that spectacularly walks the line between fearfulness and ferocity, ‘just another attempt to make the voices stop.’ Featuring one of the vocalist’s most assured performances, to the contrary, Heavydirtysoul is a masterclass in both, with heaps of classic pop grandeur and that titular soul loaded on for good measure. Andrew Donoho’s accompanying music video – featuring Tyler in the passenger seat of an out-of-control car that’s playing chicken with Josh’s flaming drum kit – is yet another unforgettable stand-out.
14. Tear In My Heart (Blurryface, 2015)
An unabashed love song, Tear In My Heart finds Tyler on giddily romantic form as he writes a Valentine for his wife Jenna. Built from sunshine and fluttering heartbeats, shining instrumentation holds aloft lyrics that are in turn revealingly poetic (‘Sometimes you gotta bleed to know that you’re alive and have a soul / But it takes someone to come around to show you how she’s the tear in my heart’), wholly relatable (‘You fell asleep in my car, I drove the whole time / But that’s okay I’ll just avoid the holes so you sleep fine’) and beguilingly cheesy-as-hell (‘My taste in music is your face’). All the while, you know the love is real.
13. Truce (Vessel, 2013)
Vessel’s closing track unfolds as a fond farewell – or fragile lullaby – with Tyler alone on piano ruminating on the rise of a new day, and perhaps the finite and cyclical nature of life itself. As stripped back as twenty one pilots have ever been, the somewhat fragmented lyrics are allowed to shine like crystalline shards of emotion, focusing at points on intimate apprehensions (‘I will fear the nights again’) but ultimately settling on the impossible wonder of our fleeting moments in the sun (‘Take pride in what is sure to die…’). Staggeringly beautiful.
12. Goner (Blurryface, 2015)
By comparison, Blurryface’s closer is a far, far darker affair. Opening on a piano-led downbeat, it finds Tyler on desolate, defeated form, declaring ‘I’m a goner’ and pleading for someone to ‘catch my breath’. A rising drumbeat hints at some sort of explosive breakthrough, but the eventual crescendo feels less like salvation than the final topple over the edge. Bracing stuff.
11. Guns For Hands (Vessel, 2013)
Cast a passing glance at Guns For Hands and you’ll see a shimmering rave-rock banger: the sort of song that’ll come on the radio as shafts of sunlight pour through car windows on those long summer road trips. The lyrics deal fearlessly with the idea of teenage suicide, however, and dare to suggest an escape through community and musical catharsis as Tyler spits hard: ‘The solution is, I see a whole room of these mutant kids fused at the wrist / I simply tell them they should shoot at this / Simply suggest my chest and this confused music / It’s obviously best for them to turn their guns to a fist.’
10. Ride (Blurryface, 2015)
Ostensibly the most upbeat track in the twenty one pilots back-catalogue, Ride was tasked with following mega-hit Stressed Out as the fifth single from 2015’s Blurryface. Wearing its rich reggae influence on its (short) sleeve, luxuriating in a deep well of Caribbean-kissed riffage and shimmering synth-work, it introduced newcomers to another infectious facet of their sound. Tyler’s lyrics (‘I’ve been thinking too much, help me…’) can’t help but inject a hint of darkness, of course.
9. Lane Boy (Blurryface, 2015)
Another Blurryface track that toys with rude boy reggae, Lane Boy pips Ride by dent of its richer lyrical treatment. Cruising on that breezy instrumentation, we get wave after wave of attitude as Tyler unloads on music industry narrow-mindedness (‘They say ‘stay in your lane, boy…’ / But we go where we want to…’) before showcasing the mercurial best of the TØP sound with a barrage of tongue-twisting staccato rap and explosions of EDM/dubstep colour. A song to overtake to.
8. Jumpsuit (Trench, 2018)
An introduction to the dystopian Trench universe devised by the band for their eponymous fifth LP, Jumpsuit is a four-minute monolith (contrasting evocatively with the 145 seconds of its counterpart Levitate) built around a gargantuan bassline that could’ve been nicked from Muse at their stadium-rocking best. Undulating through passages of malevolent ambience to a throat-ripping climax before tumbling back again, it proved these lads were capable of thinking far larger than the suburban everyday they’d explored thus far.
7. Leave The City (Trench, 2018)
Another immensely powerful album closer. On one hand, Leave The City finds TØP’s poetic melancholia as clearly focused as its ever been; a few more years’ maturity bringing deeper understanding but little relief. ‘I’m tired of tending to this fire,’ Tyler sings, lucidly painting a picture of ‘embers barely showing, proof of life in the shadows…’ On the other, it’s a showcase of their expanding musical nous, with layered production delivering a more rounded, cinematic sound that transports the listener not just into the shady recesses of the mind, but also one last time into Trench’s cruel, barren universe.
6. Heathens (Suicide Squad: The Album, 2016)
Sorry Harley Quinn, but this deliciously insidious single was the best thing to come out of 2016’s otherwise almost-entirely abortive Suicide Squad adaptation. Powered by that swaggering rhythm, exploring the shady outsider mindset of the movie’s gallery of antiheroes and sounding largely unlike anything else they’d done, Heathens wasn’t to every TØP fan’s taste. Its sheer atmospheric power – and role in winning over legions of new fans – can’t be denied, though. That’s not even mentioning the guitar crunch that sounds like a pump-action shotgun, which is just too cool.
5. Holding On To You (Vessel, 2013)
Another Regional At Best relic buffed up to high shine on Vessel, Holding On To You sees every ounce of the boys’ early influence and unfettered creativity poured into four-and-a-half minutes of feeling. Bending the machinery of mainstream pop (upbeat rhythms, scattergun rap, euphoric choruses) to their own, far more introspective ends, this was a warning shot from modern rock revolutionaries ready to crumble traditional genre boundaries and capture the mood of a new generation. ‘Lean with it. Rock with it. When we gonna stop with it?’
4. Neon Gravestones (Trench, 2018)
Empathy and anger mix into an incredibly potent cocktail on Trench’s true standout track. ‘I could give up, and boost up my reputation,’ sings Tyler, putting himself in the shoes of a suicidal youth, speaking with the kind of frankness from which so many artists shy away. ‘I could go out with a bang / They would know my name / They would host and post a celebration.’ Acknowledging that too many see taking their own lives not only as a way out, but as the method with which they’ll leave their mark on an uncaring world, the song understandably stoked controversy. As heat cooled from the conversation, however, the validity of his point hit home with awesome power.
3. Stressed Out (Blurryface, 2015)
Dropping in 2015 but not truly taking off until the following year, it took a little while for TØP’s breakout tune to really catch on – but when it did, it spread like wildfire. A pop culture changing of the guard fading the disenfranchisement of Generation X into the (justified) neuroses of their millennial successors, deceptively simple lyrics (‘I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink / But now I’m insecure and I care what people think…’) and that earworm beat captured the zeitgeist with real authority. A song that feels judderingly relevant but also destined to live forever.
2. Trees (Vessel, 2013)
Trees is TØP’s set closer of choice with good reason. A triumphant, fists-in-the-air war-cry, its pounding build finds the kind of breathless climax guaranteed to send fans spiralling into the night on a high. Sparse, relatively abstract lyrics (‘I can feel your breath / I can feel my death’) make for a compelling sing-along, but this is ultimately one of the few twenty one pilots tracks that’s more about how it feels than what it says. And what feels!
1. Car Radio (Vessel, 2013)
The song that first put twenty one pilots on the map remains their most telling, compelling composition. A downbeat blend of alt.pop and hip-hop segues onto Tyler’s unforgettable introductory rhyme: a complex, existential metaphor that draws parallels between the (real life) experience of having his car radio stolen and the deeper realisation that music can distract from issues into which the mind is compelled to delve. ‘I ponder of something terrifying,’ he reckons, ‘’cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind’ before coming to the simple conclusion: ‘I liked it better when my car had sound.’ Building up layers of EDM for another cathartic, euphoric pay-off, it departs with a tantalising duality: drawn, like so much of its authors’ music, between arms-aloft escapism and the inevitable pull of the darkness beneath.
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