Having formed in 2009 and put out two self-released albums, it wasn’t until 2012, when the band signed to Fueled By Ramen, that Twenty One Pilots managed to achieved breakthrough success. Originally consisting of lead vocalist (and lyricist) Tyler Joseph, Nick Thomas and Chris Salih, the latter two left the band within one month of each other in 2011 and were replaced by Josh Dun, creating the band’s current two-piece lineup.
The band’s label debut Vessel (2013) was a moderate success, but it wasn’t until its follow-up Blurryface (2015) that the band achieved international acclaim, selling almost three times as many records as their previous album did, achieving two Billboard Hot 100 top five singles, and even bagging the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award at the 2017 Grammy’s.
It has always been hard to put Twenty One Pilots into a box as they straddle innumerable genres, from rock to pop, rap and electronic. What makes “TOP” particularly interesting is that while they undeniably fit into the rock music pantheon, you will almost never hear a guitar in their music. This has allowed the band to create a genuinely unique sound, which – along with Tyler Joseph’s deep and melodious voice – is instantly recognizable.
Over the years Twenty One Pilots have built a huge fan base, referred to as the Skeleton Clique, and, given the success of Blurryface, the future is undeniably bright for the Ohio-born duo.
# 10 – Car Radio
Whilst the vast majority of rock songs build towards a huge and memorable chorus, this experimental cut from Vessel subverts these expectations entirely. Instead of a catchy hook that forms the heart of the song, the chorus on Car Radio can only barely be described as such; the instrumental stays exactly the same and could easily be mistaken as being part of the verse were it not for the fact that it recurs throughout the song.
That isn’t to say the song doesn’t build up to anything, though, it’s just that the chorus plays a minimal role in this progression. The track features a slow piano riff with a very stripped back drum beat, slowly building up as new elements, such as some more upbeat drums and soaring strings, are added to the mix. This eventually reaches its crescendo as Joseph’s vocals become increasingly urgent and a bubbly yet somehow somber synth riffs begins, culminating in a repetitive screamo-inspired bridge.
The song – on the surface – is about Joseph’s car having its radio stolen, but this is pretty obviously a metaphor for him feeling that something is missing from his life. This is further underlined by the frustration increasingly evident in his voice as the song goes on, as well as by the song’s introspective instrumental.
Much of Twenty One Pilot’s music is sonically experimental, but Car Radio takes this one step further by playing with expectations about song structure. Car Radio is definitely a thought-provoking part of the band’s discography.
# 9 – Polarize
If Rihanna and Panic! at the Disco were ever to collaborate on a track it would likely sound somewhat similar to Blurryface’s Polarize, a song which features dancehall and reggae influences, with dub verses sat happily next to a huge pop punk chorus.
Given its influences, it’s no surprise that this is a dangerously catchy track, with the chorus, in particular, being a massive earworm. The verses feature a double time drum beat with a fizzy and electric synth riff, which, in other songs, might be a major hook, but here is relegated to being a background element. It is brave choices like this which are key to TOP’s unique sound, earning them their reputation as contemporary musical wild cards.
Much of Blurryface concerns itself with the titular character, who Joseph has said represents his insecurities. This is key to Polarize, which seems to discuss Joseph sorting the polarizing elements of his personality into two distinct and opposing groups, hoping to destroy all the negative parts of his character. It is unclear in this song whether or not he manages to achieve this, but the track’s outro, which ends on a maundy church-organ style keyboard, is hardly a hopeful note. Twenty One Pilots have a real knack for writing catchy and relatable songs, and Polarize perfectly illustrates this.
# 8 – Trees
Trees (taken from Vessel) begins with a very subtle keyboard riff and a chiptune inspired crunched up drum beat. Joseph has said the song is about the search for truth, and this pure, joyous instrumental (marred only by the crunch-beat – showing how life is never perfect) perfectly ties into this theme.
The synth chords of the song do sound slightly dated (though to be fair, it was one of the earliest tracks written for the album), but this somehow works to its advantage. A lot of the band’s work is about pining for a simpler time, so this works surprisingly well. The catchy audience participation elements of the post-chorus really draw the listener in, creating a euphoric and celebratory atmosphere which is perfectly in line with the song’s intent.
Josh Dunn really deserves a shout out for his epic drumming on this track, which – along with some edited trap-style beats – helps the song build to a rolling crescendo, with military-style drums sign posting the way to the song’s triumphant conclusion. Although parts of the song don’t quite hold up to contemporary standards, the sheer party atmosphere of the track makes it an album cut that should not be missed.
# 7 – Migraine
Given the song’s title, you might expect Migraine to be a dark and painful song, but – musically, at least – it couldn’t be further from this. Originally taken from the band’s Three Songs EP, the song was later released as part of Vessel.
Essentially the song is a celebration of life, and how no matter what you go through, you live to fight another day. The song’s titular migraine is a metaphor for the song itself; it is about feeling that something is wrong, but, at the same time, acknowledging that this is something experienced by almost everyone at some point in their lives; you’re never alone and you will get through it.
Although the song begins with some creepy vocoder effects, these soon make way for an upbeat piano and synth-led instrumental, which has a real 90’s summer-pop edge. Given that both members of the band are children of the 90’s, it’s no surprise to feel these influences on the track, and, similarly, the rap verses are unmistakably 90’s inspired.
During a 2013 album commentary, Joseph described the song as his greatest lyrical achievement, and he is right to be proud of it. The lyrics are slickly delivered and seem effortless, full of clever half-rhymes which only a genuinely talented vocalist would be able to produce. The irresistible delivery of the lyrics works perfectly with the song’s drum beat, while the pleasant and enjoyable instrumental perfectly compliment the song’s dark but ultimately celebratory atmosphere. Given its promotion from EP to album, the band are clearly very fond of this track, and it’s not hard to see why.
# 6 – We Don’t Believe What’s On TV
This track follows Polarize on Blurryface, and it suggests that despite the somber end of the previous song, things have indeed got better for Joseph. This is reflected not just in the songs instrumental, but also in the lyrics, which see him finding a new zest for life and deciding that there is, after all, hope for the future.
The song begins with a stirring drumbeat, which is shortly followed by some fun ukulele chords and a deliciously funky bass riff. These elements are pretty consistent throughout the song, and help to create a happy and light atmosphere, something which is a huge contrast with the brooding, dark and moody tracks which have made up the majority of the album up to this point. Indeed, this sounds more like an Ed Sheeran festival classic rather than a Twenty One Pilots song, but this only serves to make the track stand out.
The aforementioned festival atmosphere is heightened by the sunny and exuberant sing along outro which, especially during a hot summer day, is almost impossible not to be swept up by; the joyful music almost forces you into dancing in a feverish and uncontrolled way. This lighthearted romp of a track is the perfect antidote to the emotive story the album has taken the listener on up to this point and, in showing their versatility, the band have crafted a truly gorgeous track.
# 5 –Heavydirtysoul
The first track on Blurryface, Heavydirtysoul’s introduction is reminiscent of the early work of Linkin Park, with distorted audio effects and a frenetic nu-metal drum beat. It’s not long until Joseph’s rap vocals begin, and they are truly something to behold. The speed and clarity at which he delivers the lyrics are genuinely breathtaking, and perhaps the most accomplished verse (certainly from a white rapper) since the heights Eminem reached on Rap God. These nu-metal elements are present during the verses’ instrumental as well, which features an industrial-style bass drone.
The song’s chorus couldn’t be further away from its dark opening, with Tyler switching to his singing voice, showing the listener his sweet and melodious tones. The chorus is full of religious imagery, which is not surprising given the song’s title and Joseph’s Christian upbringing. Indeed, there’s something almost gospel-like about the song’s chorus, with its simple piano riff, repeated hook, and the clapping drum beat which briefly appears during one of the later choruses.
As the song goes on, the industrial and heavier rock elements start to creep into the chorus, perhaps displaying the blurring of the conflicting elements of Joseph’s personality which, as mentioned, form a big part of the album’s storyline. Heavydirtysoul is the perfect way to introduce the listener to the concept behind Blurryface, and, even more than that, is a truly exceptional blend of hip-hop, industrial and funk rock.
# 4 – Ride
From Rihanna to Drake and Justin Bieber, Tropical House – a mix of dancehall, house, and reggae fusion – is very much the sound of the moment, and Ride, the fifth single from Blurryface, sees Twenty One Pilots produce their own unique take on this trendy genre.
While most Tropical House tracks are about partying and hedonism, it should come as no surprise that TOP have gone somewhere a little more cerebral on Ride, which is about the journey of life, and how it’s important to make the most of the happy moments you have, because life is hard. Given the songs merry reggae/electro pop sound you could be mistaken for thinking that this song is a happy one, but there’s a real darkness – and sadness – which lurks beneath the surface here. This juxtaposition between the bouncy poppy instrumental and the serious lyrics works really well and is a clever way to infuse the charts with some thought provoking content.
Ride was a huge hit for the band, and its success coincided with that of Heathens (see below) meaning that Twenty One Pilots became the third rock act ever to have two simultaneous top five songs in the Billboard Hot 100, something which only The Beatles and Elvis Presley had previously achieved. Whilst only time will tell if Twenty One Pilots are able to create a legacy comparable to these utterly iconic artists, if they continue making through provoking bangers such as this, it doesn’t seem completely out of the question.
# 3 – Lane Boy
This is one of few tracks on Blurryface which doesn’t follow the concept album’s story. Instead, Lane Boy gives Joseph the chance to break character and discuss his thoughts on the state of the music industry. He does not hold back.
Given that Twenty One Pilots are a band which borrow from a number of different genres, it’s no surprise to hear that record execs – who famously like to pigeon hole and label artists – do not particularly approve of the duo’s extensive musical references and inspirations. Joseph displays his cynical knowledge of the industry, discussing the tug of war between the need for him to express himself artistically while also making revenue-generating smash hits, even going as far as to admit that he knows some tracks on the album purposely pander to the mainstream.
It makes sense that a song such as this would explore many different genres, and, indeed, Lane Boy features a huge hook-based pop chorus, hectic rapped verses, a jungle/industrial style bridge complete with gritty trance elements and a dreamy drum and bass-inspired outro. With all this wrapped around a rock/reggae core at the heart of the song, this bizarre and brilliant track is the perfect way for the band to acknowledge – and turn their back on – the expectations of the industry.
# 2 – Heathens
This curious song was written for the soundtrack of the ill-fated DC Comics movie Suicide Squad, but unlike the reviews of that film, the reception to Heathens was immensely positive, with the track reaching top ten across the globe.
This is a very moody and atmospheric track, full of pitch-shifted vocal effects, ominous synths, and dark piano riffs. But perhaps the most unusual (and genius) element of the song is a recurring sample of a frog’s ribbit, which is used almost as a form of percussion. This odd addition somehow manages to elevate the track to the next level, perfectly illustrating the beautiful madness at the heart of the Twenty One Pilots project.
As ever, the lyrics of the song are open to interpretation, but they have been read as being a warning to existing and “day one” members of the Skeleton Clique to be welcoming to, rather than disdainful of, the band’s growing fan base. Internet fandom can be fraught at the best of times, but the zeal of the Skeleton Clique is famously impressive. Though it’s unknown whether this was the intent behind the lyrics, this reading works particularly well, with the frog sample suggesting a murky and dark swamp; the perfect metaphor for the dark side of internet fandom.
Despite its downtempo nature, this electronic rap rock song really goes off, and if it’s any indication of the kind of sound we can expect post-Blurryface, then the future of Twenty One Pilots will be very exciting indeed.
# 1 – Stressed Out
There’s really no other song which could possibly top this list, as – despite it coming from the band’s fourth album – it was undoubtedly their breakthrough hit. The track was a monumental success, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100, getting nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy (and winning a performance award) and even becoming the tenth best-selling single of 2016 in the world.
Perhaps the song’s success is down to its relatable nature, with lyrics that discuss the immense pressures of being an adult as well as a nostalgic yearning for the ease and joys of childhood. The song’s instrumental is also a relatively simple affair, with the track being pretty much a straight up rap rock song, with wavy sci-fi synths and some syncopated drums.
Stressed Out also marks the album’s first true appearance of Joseph’s alter-ego “Blurryface,” with the song being almost like a duet between the two aspects of his personality. Cleverly, Joseph sings in a different register when embodying Blurryface, with his voice being notably higher – sounding almost as if it’s a different person altogether – during the song’s intriguing pre-chorus.
With a catchy and funky drum beat, and opportunities for audience participation, it’s no surprise that Stressed Out has become a highlight of the band’s live shows, and – as we now know – was the perfect way for the band to achieve international attention and acclaim.
In a music industry dominated by disparate genres like EDM and R&B, there was very much a gap in the market for a band like Twenty One Pilots. They embody the cool of rap, the experimentation of electronic, and the catchy incessant hooks of rock and pop. It is impossible to label the band as a certain genre, but to try to do so would be a failure to understand their brilliance; Twenty One Pilots are essential, undefinable and utterly unmissable.