20 best shins songs

The Shins released their fourth album today, Port of Morrow—their first in five years—led by brilliant songwriter/musician/auteur James Mercer and supported by a 2.0 version of the band. Even with a new lineup, the album has everything we love about The Shins on it. The songs are gorgeous, with enough pop sensibility to sing along to and the right touch of indie appeal to keep music snobs happy.

To celebrate The Shins’ latest opus, we gathered our picks for the 20 Best Shins Songs in their discography. From the song that Natalie Portman insisted would “change your life” in Garden State, to a B-side off one of their early 7 inch record releases, to their awesome Squeeze cover, we considered them all. Find out the stories and meanings behind their most celebrated records (via quotes by James Mercer), what song off Port of Morrow cracked our Top 5, and of course, the melancholy masterpiece we crowned #1.

By Daniel Isenberg

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20. “Caring Is Creepy” (2001)


Album: Oh, Inverted World
Label: Sub Pop

The other song featured on the Garden State soundtrack which helped catapult The Shins beyond the indie stratosphere. It’s their garage band, lo-fi beginnings- a sound that’s heavily highlighted on their first LP (see our other faves “Know Your Onion” and “Girl On The Wing”).

When asked if he really thought caring was creepy in a 2007 interview with AV Club, Mercer spilled the beans on the concept behind the song, saying, “When I came up with that idea for the title, I was talking about how in my circle of friends- you drink and you hang out and you talk and you make jokes and you do all that stuff, but as soon as you start talking about anything real, something that actually moves you or anything like that, it’s just fucking awkward. That used to grump me out, so ‘Caring Is Creepy’ is where that came from. The song itself is about a love of mine at the time that went south—it’s fitting in that way.”

We feel you on this one, James.


19. “Phantom Limb” (2007)


Album: Wincing the Night Away
Label: Sub Pop

This tale of lesbian lovers was recently described in an interview with former MTV VJ Kennedy, where Mercer said the idea behind the song was, as he put it, “This angst filled love affair.” He continued, “Wouldn’t it suck to be in this situation in a small town or something and have this really wonderful thing, and have it being shit on?” It was the first single off Wincing The Night Away, and a glimpse of Mercer’s maturation as a songwriter and producer between their second and third albums.


18. “The Gloating Sun” (2001)


Album: “When I Goose-Step” 7 inch
Label: Omnibus

“Tap on your cap, there’s a whispering breeze in town.” This B-side gem clocks in at a little over a minute and a half. It’s got pretty harmonies and a soft acoustic backdrop that matches perfectly with the laid-back lyrics. Short, but sweet.


17. “Simple Song” (2012)


Album: Port of Morrow
Label: Aural Apothecary/Columbia

The Shins marked their return this past January with “Simple Song,” the first single off Port of Morrow. It was steadily praised by critics and fans alike, and rightfully so. It has an uplifting spirit to it, and it’s the type of record that sounds great on the radio.

Mercer recalled how he came up with the song in an interview with The Dinner Party, saying, “I was sitting on the living room floor with my wife on the couch, and I was doing this thing that was kind of a march. And that was enjoyable to play. Then I started humming the melody, and pretty soon after the words started coming. This usually doesn’t happen for me. But this particular song, [I wrote] the first two verses almost as quickly as I was playing them. They just came out.”

He dug deeper in an interview with Mother Jones, breaking down a lyric from the chorus which reads, “I know that things can really get rough/ when you go it alone,” saying, “I’m talking about people who are avoiding intimacy in relationships and stuff like that. I mean, honestly, humans are social creatures that really crave intimacy, and I think that the friends I have who are trying to somehow go it alone are suffering for it.”

Simply put, it’s nice to have The Shins back.


16. “Girl Sailor” (2007)


Album: Wincing the Night Away
Label: Sub Pop

During a Moonshine Festival acoustic set in 2004 that was recorded and passed around the Internet, Mercer played an early version of “Girl Sailor,” a song he told The Austin Chronicle “is loosely based on a relationship with a girl, but there’s a lot of elaboration and fiction to it as well. He went on to say, “Musically, it was a song based on a hook, which sounds like Motown to me. It sounds like some old Sixties R&B, back when R&B was super melodic and poppy. Then it just sort of goes from there. It’s very English in a lot of ways.”

It finally ended up on Wincing The Night Away as one of those album songs that becomes a beloved “deep cut” in a band’s catalog. It doesn’t make sense to release it as a single, or to film a video for it. It’s better off being slept-on, so the true fans can harness it for themselves.


15. “Sphangnum Esplanade” (2002)


Album: Know Your Onion! EP
Label: Sub Pop

This wistful, falsetto tango, released on the Know Your Onion! EP, was described by Mercer in an interview with Mother Jones as “one of the early things that really got popular for us.” Sphangnum, a type of moss found in wet and boggy areas, is actually a pretty proper metaphor for the nature of this song, though it’s most likely just literally describing the “mossy trail” he’s walking along in the first stanza. Or maybe it’s a code word for weed! I guess like the song says, “There are things we never will define.”


14. “September” (2012)


Album: Port of Morrow
Label: Aural Apothecary/Columbia

As the flip side to “Simple Song,” “September” gave Shins fans a glimpse at the mellower side of Port of Morrow.

When asked about the new album, and songs that were most meaningful to him on it, Mercer named this, explaining that it was written about his wife. He was quoted on TwentyFourBit saying, “The trouble I got in was that I told [my wife], ‘This is going to be your song.’ So I knew the lyrics had to be right on. I wanted it to be a diamond — and I feel like the work paid off.” Sure did.


13. “Spilt Needles / Spilt Needles (Alternate Version)” (2007)


Album: Wincing the Night Away
Label: Sub Pop

The album version of “Spilt Needles” is actually a remix of sorts to what was originally a B-side to “Phantom Limb.” But Mercer, who stretched his production palette on Wincing The Night Away, decided that the “really fast new wave” version of “Spilt Needles” needed some re-working. As he told Pitchfork in an interview before the album was released in early January, 2007, “It felt kitschy to me. So I changed the drumbeat, and created the one that’s on the record.” We prefer the album version, but both are worthy of inclusion on this list, so we’ll score it a tie.


12. “Saint Simon” (2004)


Album: Chutes Too Narrow
Label: Sub Pop

The beauty of this song is best described by it’s video director Dennis Fitzgerald, who desperately wanted to feature the black and orange monarch butterflies that migrate each winter from the U.S. and Canada to camp out in the mountains of Central Mexico in something, but needed the right song to do so. A decade after first coming up with the concept, he heard “Saint Simon,” and knew it was the perfect match.

Fitzgerald explained, “Both capture the experience of somebody showing you something beautiful for the first time. And that can be anything—the first time somebody loves you, or the first time someone shows you something in nature that forever changes you.”

It’s the longest and most epic song on Chutes Too Narrow, with Beatles and Beach Boys influences fluttering throughout. And, of course, that’s a good thing.


11. “Goodbye Girl” (2010)


Album: N/A
Label: N/A

The Shins re-did British band Squeeze’s “Goodbye Girl” as part of Levi’s Pioneer Sessions a couple years ago. Mercer chose to cover this record for the series saying, “There’s something about it I really connected with. It sounds like something I wish I had written. The sounds of those guys’ voices is really attractive to me. It’s a cool set of harmonies and vocal melodies.” Superbly done.

 

10. “The Past And Pending” (2001)


Album: Oh, Inverted World
Label: Sub Pop

This somber song was chosen to be played during Heath Ledger’s funeral in 2008. In fact, Mercer himself was invited to perform it live at the service. The experience, as described in a recent interview with Spin, shifted his outlook on life and motivated him to start trying new things, such as working with Danger Mouse on the Broken Bells project.

He recalled the memorial, saying, “Heath was a really nice guy and a charismatic person. He influenced the people around him and was so engaged with them and had such deep relationships. He was the opposite of me. I felt like I was a ghost when I left. The outpouring of emotion for him was so moving. It scared me and it changed me.”

Ironically, in the song’s opening stanza, Mercer references change, singing, “As someone sets light to the first fire of autumn/ we settle down to cut ourselves apart.” Tragically beautiful.


9. “Gone For Good” (2004)


Album: Chutes Too Narrow
Label: Sub Pop

This song is most accurately summed up in the line, “I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love.” Mercer broke that line down for The A.V. Club, saying, “I think I was just going through a period where I had this girlfriend who, whether it’s true or not, I felt that she was attracted to me for the wrong reasons. I was just having issues with this girl, and the thing that I really wanted from her was this pure, sort of regular love. And she was this person who had been through all kinds of shit emotionally, and I felt like she liked me because of the band and stuff.

“Then it put me in this state where I just kept thinking about the nature of attraction and of love, and just how basically unfair it is; just how much it relies on the physical side. And that’s such an important part of it, and it’s something that I love about it, but in that situation, I just felt like it was artificial or something.”

The grumblings of dealing with a groupie turned girlfriend. Ughh. But Mercer was able to flip it into a country-tinged, barn-burner of a song. Kudos.


8. “Kissing The Lipless” (2004)


Album: Chutes Too Narrow
Label: Sub Pop

Has there ever been a more perfect intro to an indie album? Probably not. First, the dogs’ barking, on rhythm. Then, the calming opening. “Called to see/ if your back was still aligned.” Just when you think this is some sort of sappy ballad, the power chord kicks in with Mercer’s falsetto screams! If there’s one song that we’d use to introduce someone properly to this band, it would be this. It’s got all their attributes and styles rolled into one joint.

When asked about the meaning behind it, Mercer tells Nerve, “It’s about losing friends and ending relationships. I have moments when I get this feeling that friendships just sort of have this lifespan or this sell-by date.” Well James, you gained a whole bunch of new friends, and probably some stalkers too, with this one. Great song.


7. “Red Rabbits” (2007)


Album: Wincing the Night Away
Label: Sub Pop

James Mercer is truly poetic with his lyrics, in that many times his words are strung together very carefully, yet we as the listener may not know the exact meaning of them. But really we don’t care, because they sound amazing, and we actually enjoy scratching our head to try and figure them out. Sometimes, straightforward doesn’t mean better, it’s just easier to comprehend. The dreamy, slow jam “Red Rabbits” is mind-bogglingly good, yet we have no clue what lines like, “Into the crucible to be rendered an emulsion” mean. Fuck it, though.

Mercer was asked by the Austin Chronicle about his writing style and preference for ambiguity in his lyrics, and he responded saying, “I start out, often, really just stream-of-consciousness and just laying down ideas. I sometimes feel uncomfortable when things are too linear and too straightforward. I don’t know why exactly, but I enjoy when things are a bit oblique. So I do work hard on the lyrics. It’s not my favorite part of the process, though. I do try and make sure that there’s something engaging about the lyrics and that they don’t distract.”

One person commented on a song lyrics site filled with puzzled commenters, saying “Red Rabbits” may have “communist undertones.” A bit of a stretch? Not sure. Regardless, it’s a wonderful, bell-driven ballad, and we find no fault in its lyrical obscurity.


6. “Young Pilgrims” (2004)


Album: Chutes Too Narrow
Label: Sub Pop

Before a recent performance for KINK.FM in his home town of Portland, Mercer noted that “Young Pilgrims” is “my manager’s favorite song.” I’m sure his manager and many Shins fans will agree. How many times have we all tried to hit that high note in “rhino barking spa-rroooow” unsuccessfully? Yes, Mercer’s got quite a vocal range.

The Chutes Too Narrow LP title comes from a lyric in this song, but one of the more memorable lines from the hook goes, “I learned fast how to keep my head up/ ’cause I know I’ve got this side to me/ that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot/ and fly this whole mess into the sea.” Nerve questioned him about this line, wondering if he was self-destructive, and he responded, “A part of me is, just like everybody. Anybody who’s gotten shit-faced and puked has a self-destructive side.” True dat.


5. “When I Goose-Step” (2001)


Album: ”When I Goose-Step” 7 inch
Label: Omnibus

There’s an overproduced, wacker version of this song that appears on the Wicker Park soundtrack. Please do not confuse the two. This version, from one of the early singles released by The Shins (it does not appear on any of their full length albums), is one of their greatest ever. In fact, the rather reputable Paste Magazine declared it the #1 Shins Song of All Time (So Far) when they compiled their own Top 10 list last year.

It’s hard not to rank it the same, but since it’s one of their earliest releases, we felt guilty giving it the crown. I mean, what band wants to hear that their best song was recorded before they even released their first album? That said, melodically and lyrically, this is Mercer at his finest.


4. “Bait And Switch” (2012)


Album: Port of Morrow
Label: Aural Apothecary/Columbia

The most knowledgeable of Shins fans will recognize this as “Double Bubble,” the original title of this cut. Mercer’s been performing this with his new band of brothers (and one sister) since 2009 when clip of it went viral on the blog circuit. We took it as a good sign of what was to come.

To follow up the release of “Simple Song” and “September,” The Shins put out a proper video clip of “Bait and Switch,” live from some sort of Portland sound cabin. From the moment the beat drops in, it’s apparent that this is not the average groove we’ve become familiar with over the years from The Shins. It feels so fresh that we want to just get up and dance.

Yes, we’re going out on a limb by including a newbie in the Top 5, but that’s how this cut makes us react, early. But trust that Port Of Morrow has some other instant classics on it too that weren’t previously released. Even Mercer was quoted in the New York Times saying about Port Of Morrow, “I think this is the best record I’ve ever made.” We’re already feeling guilty for not including songs like “The Rifle’s Spiral,” “No Way Down,” and the closing title track somewhere on our list of 20. But our gut instinct tells us that “Bait And Switch” is most worthy of notable distinction. It’s too ill.


3. “New Slang” (2001)


Album: Oh, Inverted World
Label: Sub Pop

It’s safe to say that a lot of people were first introduced to The Shins by Natalie Portman’s headphones. Gotta give credit where credit is due. Even Mercer admits Garden State gave them their official start, telling WFUV’s Alisa Ali, “It’s a special song. It was the beginning of everything for this new life that started about ten years ago.”

He also says, in response to being questioned about how he doesn’t get bored of “New Slang” after having to play it so much, “It’s surprisingly complex chord-wise and rhythmically, the way the chords are arranged. So it [keeps you on your toes].” He also adds, basically, “I like it.” We like it too. A lot.


2. “Australia” (2007)


Album: Wincing the Night Away
Label: Sub Pop

If there was ever a song The Shins made that would make Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airbreak into his famous “white guy” dance moves, it would be this. But don’t write it off because of that. It’s actually a fabulous song, with layers of complexity in it’s melodies and lyrics. It quickly became one of the more well-known tunes in their catalog after it was released as the second single off Wincing, making for major sing-a-long moments at their live shows.

During his acoustic radio rounds to promote Port of Morrow, Mercer showcased an acoustic version of “Australia” on WFUV in New York. Bare boned and stripped down, it becomes even clearer that this is one of The Shin’s greatest compositions ever.


1. “Pink Bullets” (2004)


Album: Chutes Too Narrow
Label: Sub Pop

“Pink Bullets” pinpoints the sentimental mood of nostalgia in an impossibly perfect way. Mercer commented on this notion with Nerve, and one of the song’s lyrics, “I don’t look back much as a rule,” saying, “I’m not a nostalgic person. Nostalgia makes me depressed. I don’t have a photo album. But in my songs I do tend to look back a lot. There was a time when I was smoking a lot of pot, a time when nostalgia just seemed constant. Like the temporal part of my brain wasn’t working. I was feeling nostalgia about stuff that happened a week before. It was just bizarre.”

Not sure if Mercer was smoking weed or not while writing “Pink Bullets,” but regardless, this is The Holy Grail of break-up songs. It’s riddled with magnificent quotables, like, “When our kite lines first crossed, we tied them into knots/to finally fly apart, we had to cut them off.” Also, “Since then it’s been a book you read in reverse, so you understand less as the pages turn/or a movies so crass, and awkwardly cast/ that even I could be the star.” And finally, “But your memory is here and I’d like it to stay/warm light on a winter’s day.” Fall back, Adele.