Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun—known to the planet as twenty one pilots—have built their reputation on a twisted DNA helix of pop music and relentless existential inspection. The results are not always pop-tastic and not always hopelessly opaque. It’s the emotional and sonic hairpin turns the band take their fans through that make their output consistently compelling.
So here’s the dialogue we’re running: We scaled down to selections from five albums. Tracks from Regional At Best that were rerecorded on their major-label debut Vessel are not here. Neither are remixes or those versions of Trench tracks with latitude/longitude numbers at the end of them. And neither are songs from the Mutemath collaborative project TOPxMM or the Record Store Day seven-inch. If we missed something, we’re sure you will call us out on it. So without further adieu:
65. “Fall Away”
Found near the top of the self-titled debut album, this features Joseph’s most annoying vocal ever. The way he says the track title sounds like he’s in need of a Heimlich maneuver. Probably a huge influence on Lauren Sanderson.
On this Blurryface track, Joseph examines his faith, expressing his perceived failures of himself but pleads with a higher power not to forget about him. Here the message is more poignant than the song itself, coming off as merely indicative of trends in 21st century hip-hop with little sonic inversion.
Joseph has a great voice, which is why he doesn’t need a vocoder…
62. “Glowing Eyes”
A premature take on growing old (and possibly death). Not as great as “Stressed Out.”
Positively glad that they didn’t mar Vessel with this one. Joseph sounds like he came in third in the local Killers karaoke contest every Thursday in Columbus.
60. “Before You Start Your Day”
There’s many interpretations about this quiet ballad from the first album, ranging from being a love song, an affirmation or someone being shown into the gates of heaven.
59. “Not Today”
In which our dynamic duo channel their inner Beatles circa “All You Need Is Love.”
58. “Message Man”
It can be said that artists have a responsibility to their audiences, but exactly how far? Here, Joseph questions artists who might give their audiences too much credit for understanding their intentions. This writer wishes he had an uncle wise enough to share sentiments such as “Remember the mornin’ is when night is dead.”
TOP delivering My Chemical Romance’s saddest song in a somber electronic style does justice to the original. Joseph makes it even more haunting with the arbitrary repetition of lyrics (“lips are chapped and faded”).
56. “House Of Gold”
This song is crucial to the band’s creative resilience because it’s more Grand Ole Opry than wild dance party. The boys’ dip into an Americana vibe that made industry wags think they had the next Mumford & Sons on their hands. The video is 200 kinds of amazing, though, like they had to undercut its whimsy with something shocking.
The mysterious minimal electronics heighten the otherworldly Dema universe that’s crucial to the mythology created behind Trench. Here, Dun’s drumming is both propulsive and groove-centered, giving the atmosphere a sense of majesty while illustrating the covert energy of the Bandito resistance movement.
Given the mutual love the city of Columbus and TOP have for each other, it’s weird to hear Joseph sing “Where we’re from/Our hometown is in the dark.” Pro tip: Play the instrumental version to a Depeche Mode fan of a certain age and they’ll perk up.
53. “Air Catcher”
There’s more than a hint of Queen in this fear-of-love song from the first album. But the real question is how Joseph has a way of equating love with not-so-fuzzy feelings. Points off for vocoder use.
52. “Pet Cheetah”
The herky-jerky programming is pretty sterling, but Joseph’s rapping about wild animals named Jason Statham feels misplaced. Peel the vocals off it and let some emo-rap zygote with metallic hair have a go at it.
This might be the most happiest song in TOP’s songbook, and there’s still an ominous message. He’s trying to relax and feel confident about his accomplishments, but then his mind travels on who or what he’d die for and what’s really important in life. When Joseph sings “I’ve been thinking too much/Help me,” it’s like he’s confessing that he can never fully “shut off.”
50. “Taxi Cab”
Another deep cut from the first album. This one has Joseph riding in a hearse, not driving it (geddit?). Plenty of symbolism to be shared between religious creeds or people who appreciate the literature those belief systems inspire.
49. “Isle Of Flightless Birds”
This Halloween, if you’re having a steampunk karaoke night, you might want to invite Emilie Autumn over to watch her flex her way around this song from the first TOP album.
48. “March To The Sea”
This track from the first album is a bit overwrought (“Walk right off into the sea//And then we fall asleep”), but the musical backing feels positively uplifting. It’s that successful psych-eval dichotomy that made TOP alluring to so many.
In a little over four minutes, the duo successfully mix ’70s lounge jazz (with horn sections and electric piano) and disco-era Bee Gees falsettos with 21st century depression. The moral: Being caught in a holding pattern in life (not dead, but not really feeling alive) is not an aspiration.
46. “Friend, Please”
This feels like Joseph’s attempt at singing a hymn, but then it turns into an ’80s Broadway number when the synth parts roll in. Makes you wonder if there were Styx albums in the Joseph house during Tyler’s formative years…
45. “Kitchen Sink”
A fan favorite from Regional At Best, “Kitchen Sink” hits all of the angst buttons with one big fist. The lush choruses gives way to some great flow from Joseph and his brother Zack, summarizing that the space in your head only gets weirder to navigate as you get older.
Another one from the self-titled debut, this song has the added heft of the rhythm section from bassist Nick Thomas and drummer Chris Salih in grand display as Joseph tells the sad story of a man craving death. Sample lyric: “Nothing kills a man faster than his own head.” Wonder what this would sound like covered by Amanda Palmer…
43. “Be Concerned”
Columbus MC Jocef pops in to sing a verse with Joseph on this track. Given its significant pop-crossover potential, it’s curious why “Be Concerned” didn’t get the remake/remodel treatment on Vessel.
The closing song on Vessel is an exercise in melancholy, madness and humanity. Joseph contemplates life, imparting the wisdom that we should strive to lead lives with meaning while raising each other up in the process. He’s certainly afraid of some corners of his mind, but he’s going to offer you solace and affirmation instead.
41. “Implicit Demand For Proof”
If the song that opens the first album had some bells on it, you could ice skate to it. Johnny Weir unavailable for comment.
40. “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV”
Dun’s shuffling beat and Joseph’s indictment of what popular culture does to us—from consumer goods to digital living overkill—makes for commentary that’s both whimsical and on point. Literary fans will get the reference to O. Henry’s short story The Gift Of The Magi, and rock historians will learn how true love trumps the Who’s “My Generation.” And if you don’t know those references, thank Dun and Joseph for making you curious.
39. “Johnny Boy”
Another Broadway-bound number from the first album about a man who seemingly has a perfectly normal life but has no desire to thrive. Amazing how many people we know like that, but nobody writes a song about them…
38. “Fake You Out”
More trademark rave-pop goodness pondering how difficult it is for people who are troubled to speak their truth. The rapping is mercurial, the intention is urgent and the hook is stuck in your head for days.
Another lighthearted electro-pop track that finds our heroes willing to get their asses beat down for the respective loves of their lives.
There are many concepts to unpack here, with the metaphor of chlorine being used as a disinfectant but not necessarily conducive to human consumption. The arc of the song begins as a fizzy, breezy pop number, but at the halfway point, it takes a turn for the arcane with the great air of finality.
35. “Oh Ms Believer”
Is it just this writer, or does this one feel like a slow-motion, orchestrated version of “Forest”? Still, who wouldn’t want a love song written for them by T-Jo?
The sadness in Joseph’s audio letter to his deceased grandfather is undercut by mentioning the minutiae of making a record (“You were here when I wrote this/But the masters and mixes will take too long to finish to show you“) and the hopes that he’ll “have lunch with you again.” It’s a wonderful final goodbye that’s more smiles than sobbing.
From the Suicide Squad soundtrack, our heroes do a deep dive into the psyches of bona fide villains. You know how Radiohead made that really cool guitar crunch before each line going into the chorus of “Creep”? TOP do the same kind of thing here, but it’s scarier because it sounds like a pump-action shotgun being loaded.
32. “Guns For Hands”
Another rave-tastic blast from Vessel with that bouncing reggae vibe the duo would explore in greater detail on Blurryface. When being surrounded is uncomfortable, but you’re dancing anyway.
31. “The Hype”
After the success of Blurryface and Vessel, TOP were at the crossroads of playing the modern music industry game (read: constant social media updates and churning out singles). This song feels like Joseph was not only checking himself, but realizing that he needed the time away from the machine to see the creation of Trench to its finest conclusion.
As a result of the success of Vessel, Joseph and Dun were out on the road constantly. The lines “Wanted to be a better brother, better son” are based on Joseph’s frustration and sadness for not being there when family members needed him. It’s delivered with a not-quite-reggaeton beat, hammering the sentiment home. Guilt as motivation for art is a powerful thing.
Read more: 10 songs you forgot you know every word to
29. “Neon Gravestones”
One of the more controversial songs from Trench has Joseph examining the dynamics of suicide in a way that at first seems brusque or insensitive. By the song’s end, he advocates for new ways to address the problem for future generations to appeal to. A brave statement in a troubling time.
From a synthesizer intro that could’ve been lifted off a Mindless Self Indulgence LP to the chorus ending with a vibe similar to My Chemical Romance’s “Famous Last Words,” the final track on Regional At Best is an exclamation point to the higher-profiled adventures Joseph and Dun would embark on.
Another Vessel track that seemingly mines the ’70s and the ’00s simultaneously for the ears of all generations. Seriously: If there’s a Muppet Show reunion, you could see the cast singing this. Or maybe this writer needs more coffee…
The song that triumphantly ends TOP shows is as celebratory as a high school pep rally, your favorite sports team winning a championship and the last time you were kissed really hard. All at once.
25. “A Car, A Torch, A Death”
Hey super-fans: Do you think this is the beginning of Joseph’s flaming-car symbolism we’re seeing on the Bandito tour and the “Jumpsuit” video?
Joseph’s ode to a really special girl didn’t make the cut for the major-league status of Vessel. But the frantic sequencer parts and Joseph’s patently unhinged screaming is truly something for new listeners to behold.
Possibly the most underrated breakup song of the last 10 years is on Regional At Best. “Why don’t you torture someone else’s sleep” might the best sentiment for anyone who doesn’t want to be a lover or a friend—just a ghost.
It’s loping, bouncy and a feel-good track to play at top volume in the car. Then you look at the lyric sheet and you’ll consider calling TOP’s record label daily just to check in on Joseph.
Show this writer a band who can get a sold-out arena to sing along to a line such as “We’re broken, we’re broken, we’re broken people,” and I’ll show you a band you need to put a death grip onto and never let go.
20. “The Pantaloon”
The legend goes that on a dare while making the first album—maybe from his father—Joseph decided to write the most depressing song he could with the nicest, sweetest, happiest melody. All thumbs up.
The closing track from Blurryface starts out desolate and somber before Joseph screams and the whole song switches into a harrowing battle zone. A polarizing study in dynamics to keep close to your heart.
Anxious and frightened, yet trippy and badassed, the duo’s blend of fearful and fierce here is stellar. We’re just glad Joseph can take limousines and not the crappy Uber driving him in this video.
17. “Nico And The Niners”
It begins like a breezy pop song, but then you hear lines such as “Save your razor blades, not yet,” and you reevaluate everything. In these troubling political times, the line “We’ll win, but not everyone will get out” feels prescient and chilling. And if you’re not feeling that, wait until something happens to someone you care about.
16. “Fairly Local”
A slightly more subtle middle-finger salute to the music industry and a sense of pride (hometown, self) makes this track from Blurryface essential. And let’s not forget to represent the order of the FPE!
15. “Addict With A Pen”
Another classic song from the first record that should be put back in their set forever.
More pop-tastic existentialism from Joseph from Regional At Best. Death-metal bands take note: Do you have a more troubled worldview toward humanity than “Hands held higher/We’ll be on fire/Singing songs that nobody wrote”? Contact management for co-writing opportunities.
13. “My Blood”
A song extolling the virtues of sibling loyalty with a nice groove. If you don’t reach for a box of Kleenex during this video, man, you’re so doing it wrong…
12. “The Judge”
This classic from Blurryface is totally awesome for one great reason: Dun makes it swing from revival meeting to teenage dance party. Totally groovy.
11. “Cut My Lip”
The slow-mo electro-reggae track is one of the most unusual and memorable tracks on Trench. Intoxicating (a term not commonly used to describe TOP) on all fronts. Message to Joseph: If you want to do a 12-piece big-band lineup, rearrange this one first…
10. “Leave The City”
The most heartbreaking song they’ve ever written. Here Joseph questions everything in his world from his personal belief system to the seeming futility of life. But he swears that when the time comes, he’s determined to report back from beyond. This song is why this writer believes him.
9. “Tear In My Heart”
A Ben Folds-ian romp that’s Joseph’s valentine to his wife, Jenna. The video is perfect as well, from the Inception-styled slow-motion destruction to Mrs. Joseph cleaning her husband’s clock. This would’ve been No. 1 here, but you’ll have to wait for a special AP editors installment of APTV’s Ruined Music to learn why.
8. “Ode To Sleep”
The opening track on Vessel has something for everybody, especially if your tastes lean toward weird electronics, pop hooks and rapid-fire rapping. When this was described to this writer all these years ago as “rocktronica,” he couldn’t stop his eyes from rolling. Now he can’t stop listening.
Serious J Dilla, Massive Attack and UNKLE vibes on these 145 seconds from Trench. Play this between some obscure European techno sides and the snobs listening will drop their jaws.
After a year of radio silence, Joseph and Dun came out with the opening track from Trench. Powered by a menacing, driving bassline, dropping a melancholy verse with moody ambient atmosphere and then back into the air-raid siren psychosis? Take both knees, people.
5. “Stressed Out”
Gen X boredom gives way to exasperated millennial neurosis on this diamond from Blurryface. Points for the band getting the label to pay them for hanging out with their families.
4. “The Run And Go”
This hooky tune could have been a hit single from 1974, with the prominent piano and “dit-doo” scat vocal giving the whole thing a bouncy feel. The whole reference about killing a man is still classic Joseph, regardless if the intention conveyed is figurative or literal.
3. “Car Radio”
The existential monkey on Joseph’s back digs its claws into his psyche while the rave-tastic instrumental section offers more rescue to your troubled soul than a MedVac helicopter.
2. “Lane Boy”
The most attitude-laden track in the TOP songbook. Joseph’s scathing indictment of music business practices and conviction of his personal maverick spirit are powered by his hard staccato rapping style, chattering programming and full-on EDM/dubstep urgency.
1. “Holding On To You”
This is the answer to the eternal question: What do twenty one pilots sound like? Everything about the band’s character, musical methodology, pop sensibility and raison d’etre are fully realized on this song. The perfect gateway drug with all the elements of where they’ve been and where they will escape from for parts unknown.