twenty one pilots: Every album ranked from ‘worst’ to best
Before latest album Scaled And Icy, Tyler Joseph pondered in July 2020 that there were “two very different records” that twenty one pilots could write and release next. In truth, if you’ve been following the Columbus, Ohio duo – completed by drummer extraordinaire Josh Dun – closely enough, you’ll know that this wasn’t quite right: there were plenty more options than that.
Across six albums and bound only by his grandiose imagination, Tyler has tackled an impressive number of styles (rock, hip-hop, indie, R&B, reggae, electro, pop, dance… you name it) and melded them all together to create a sound that no band have ever come close to emulating. When you throw in sprawling, conceptual storylines that fans still find new meaning in many years later? With twenty one pilots, the possibilities are endless.
Though he once sang, ‘This is not rap / This is not hip-hop / Just another attempt to make the voices stop’ on genre-smashing single Heavydirtysoul, we’re nevertheless going to dig through this rap, hip-hop and everything in-between to figure out what is the best twenty one pilots album ever. Not an easy task…
6. twenty one pilots (2009)
Urgh, it feels incredibly harsh having to put twenty one pilots’ self-titled debut right at the back of this list. But that’s how these things work, right? Anyway, despite being written and recorded in a real DIY manner between Tyler and then-members Nick Thomas and Chris Salih, the quality of the songwriting here is already superb. Undoubtedly the album’s best attribute is Tyler’s lyrics, his brutal honesty still striking a chord to this day. ‘I’m dying and trying / But believe me I’m fine / But I’m lying / I’m so very far from fine,’ he laments on Fall Away, before later addressing just how important music can be to his mental health on gorgeous piano ballad Taxi Cab: ‘A mortal writing piece of song will help me carry on…’ These aren’t chart-topping bangers, sure, but the impact of these songs cannot be understated.
5. Regional At Best (2011)
Okay… this is kind of a weird one. Put simply: If you’ve never listened to twenty one pilots’ second full-length, you’ve likely already heard half the songs on it anyway, as they were later re-recorded for the band’s Fueled By Ramen debut Vessel (which we’ll get to). Now discontinued, Regional At Best isn’t widely available anymore, meaning that you’ll have to resort to YouTube to hear the likes of Slowtown, Anathema and Clear. But whether you fancy digging into these more rare gems, or simply fancy checking out ‘demo’ versions of some Vessel favourites, there are layers upon layers of experimental genius to uncover on album number two. How about a proper re-release, please, guys?
4. Scaled And Icy (2021)
It feels like the context in which it was released is an important part of the discussion when it comes to Scaled And Icy. Yes, it’s an excellent record in its own right, but for fans – and the band as well – it was also a welcome breath of fresh air well over a year into the coronavirus pandemic. Tyler stressed at the time of release that twenty one pilots wanted to avoid creating any kind of ‘lockdown album’, but explained that the opposite basically happened: “I didn’t think that a dismal record was appropriate; the idea of escaping that was more appealing to me,” he revealed. “The reason why it feels almost disconnected from the reality in which the record was created is intentional. It’s gonna feel a little lighter because of that.” ‘Light’, however, isn’t a word you’d always apply to Scaled And Icy’s subject matter. ‘Lost my job, my wife and child,’ Tyler sings on deceptive opener Good Day, while he darkly reflects on the loss of a friend’s child on closer Redecorate (‘I don’t want to leave like this…’). Musically, though, SAI is an absolute blast: from the rocking Never Take It to the intoxicating disco pop of Shy Away and Saturday. Plus, they’ve even got their own dragon now!
3. Trench (2018)
Have we knocked some points off twenty one pilots here for disappearing for an entire year and being super-cryptic with everyone while Tyler built the world of Trench behind the scenes? Maybe. In all seriousness, though, the levels that the pair went to on their stunning fifth record are simply jaw-dropping. Even if you thought you had the album completely nailed, you, er, probably don’t. Away from Dema, the Banditos, the bishops and everything else, though, the music on Trench is just as spell-binding as ever. From Jumpsuit’s explosive bassline, to the infectious sing-alongs of The Hype and Chlorine, the “ballsy” (Tyler’s words) production of Pet Cheetah, the impossible-to-keep-up-with rapping on Levitate, and the powerful simplicity of Neon Gravestones, this is an album that offers up something new every time. And that’s no mean feat, given just how much we’ve listened to it…
2. Blurryface (2015)
If, for whatever silly reason, you didn’t think much of Blurryface, just take in these remarkable statistics: not only did it became the first record in the digital era to have every single song receive at least a Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, it also remained in the Billboard Top 200 Album chart for Four. Whole. Years. That’s right: it literally never left. And it’s easy to see – or hear – why. Yet again giving millions of listeners an endlessly compelling dissection of mental health, Tyler opened up in a fascinating way here, using the character of Blurryface to dive headfirst into his own brain. Such relatable themes were accompanied by touching ukulele sing-alongs (The Judge), wonderfully uplifting pop (Tear In My Heart) and electropop-infused rock anthems (Lane Boy) – but don’t let the music fool you: ‘Listen, I know / This one’s a contradiction because of how happy it sounds / But the lyrics are so down…’ Tyler admits on Not Today – a twenty one pilots speciality.
1. Vessel (2013)
The fact that Vessel begins with the five-minute rollercoaster ride that is Ode To Sleep tells you exactly what you need to know here: this is an album that throws absolutely everything into the mix, and yet somehow miraculously fuses it all together to form something truly extraordinary. Tyler himself called the opener “weird” and “a song structure boot camp” – and while it is undeniably those things, it also shrewdly sets the tone for what follows. Of course, while plenty of the record’s best songs (Holding On To You, Car Radio, Guns For Hands, Trees) did appear on Regional At Best, the production this time around is that bit sleeker, and there’s a cohesive flow between twenty one pilots’ typically unexpected musical twists and turns that makes Vessel… well, pretty damn faultless, to be honest. Better yet is just how poignant these songs are, with dark metaphors helping listeners not only understand what’s going on in their own minds, but also find a vital source of comfort in them. And then there’s that crucial line in closing song Truce: ‘Stay alive, stay alive for me.’ It’s no wonder that twenty one pilots have gone on to have one of the most fiercely dedicated, passionate fanbases on the planet.
Read this next:
Tyler Joseph performed an absolutely beautiful one-two of Heathens and Trees during twenty one pilots’ incredible Livestream Experience earlier this year – watch it now.
Hear State Champs’ absolutely wicked cover of Fall Out Boy’s Take This To Your Grave track.