Columbus, Ohio, duo twenty one pilots are proof that bands can still break big the honest, old-fashioned way. Building a following for their singular brand of hip-hop, pop, electronica and emo confessionals through tireless touring, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun became nationally known after signing to Fueled By Ramen in 2012. Twenty one pilots have undoubtedly refined their sound, but the brainy quirks that first endeared them to fans remain intact on their brand-new fourth release, Blurryface. Here are their 10 best songs.
10. “Addict With A Pen” (Twenty One Pilots, 2009)
This track from twenty one pilots’ self-titled 2009 debut is the best representation of what initially drew fans to the band. A conversation with God that includes frank admissions of failure and spiritual desolation, the piano-driven “Addict With A Pen” is slow, spare and nakedly honest.
9. “Tear In My Heart” (Blurryface, 2015)
By contrast, “Tear In My Heart” shows the current, more playful face of twenty one pilots: a tongue-in-cheek (“My heart is my armor/she’s the tear in my heart/she’s a carver”) and uplifting love song harnessed to an equally buoyant chorus.
8. “Migraine” (Vessel, 2013)
Rapping isn’t Joseph’s only lyrical vehicle, but this track––which appeared on the band’s third album—is one of the finest examples of his endearingly gawky mic style. One of several songs in the Pilots’ oeuvre about his struggle with depression (“Sometimes to stay alive/You gotta kill your mind”), “Migraine” reinforces its “hopeful undertone” with a vocoderized hook.
7. “Heavydirtysoul” (Blurryface, 2015)
The first track on the band’s 2015 release Blurryface successfully encapsulates all the elements fans have come to expect. There are the Eminem-inspired rap verses (this time with a self-referential dig: “This is not rap, this is not hip-hop”), a dramatic, piano-led pre-chorus that demands “Can you save my heavy, dirty soul?” and then an anthemic tagline for good measure. Powered by Dun’s drumming––and a groove reminiscent of the Prodigy’s mid-‘90s heyday––“Heavydirtysoul” is guaranteed to have crowds pogoing from Bunbury to Bonnaroo.
6. “Holding On To You” (Vessel, 2013)
The next four songs were all wisely reclaimed from the band’s 2011 sophomore release, Regional At Best, getting a new coat of polish from Katy Perry/Adele producer Greg Wells on Vessel. Another successful hip-pop hybrid, “Holding On To You” offers a different Joseph take on battling depression––this time with a more overtly spiritual subtext––and became the duo’s first national hit.
5. “Trees” (Vessel, 2013)
While twenty one pilots’ lyrics are a constant source of discussion, “Trees” offers one of the band’s most enigmatic statements. Whether the tableaux Joseph sketches of “standing silent in the trees” is meant to be literal, theological or a shout-out to fans, the pulsing synth arpeggiations provide the real, urgent message.
4. “Guns For Hands” (Vessel, 2013)
“Guns For Hands” became the group’s first single after signing to Fueled By Ramen, and with its straight-ahead, synth-poppy groove, it’s easy to imagine why. This track is the opposite of “Trees,” however; it’s not the music but Joseph’s metaphors that offer the hook: a plea to those contemplating self-harm to turn their “guns for hands” to some other pursuit.
3. “Car Radio” (Vessel, 2013)
“There is no distraction to mask what is real,” Joseph offers during this deceptively simple story of a stolen car radio. The last two roof-raising minutes bring on a storm of chanting in concert, but the point has already been cleverly made: One of the scariest things of all can be facing life without such adrenaline-raising distractions. The primal scream near the end is just confirmation.
2. “The Judge” (Blurryface, 2015)
“I don’t know if this song is a surrender or a revel/I don’t know if this song is about me or the devil,” confesses Joseph on the standout track from Blurryface. What it is is the best pure pop song the band has come up with yet, taking the simple ukulele folk of Vessel’s “House Of Gold” and sculpting it into summer singalong nirvana.
1.“Ode To Sleep” (Vessel, 2013)
If one single track best incorporates all the elements that have made twenty one pilots beloved, “Ode To Sleep”––another reclamation from Regional At Best––would be it. A manic, tempo-shifting mashup of hip-hop swagger and indie-rock doubt, with a heart-stopping pop chorus designed to drive demons away, it’s everything you need to know about Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun in five fantastically-dense minutes.